An Unusual Ability Check System

This idea is an homage to some of the weirdness in the 3e Unearthed Arcana book, and a friendly wave to 5e D&D as well. There is probably some stuff from GURPs and WaRP in there too.

Instead of assigning ability scores, you assign a die to the various abilities, from 1d4 (not so great) to 1d12 (superhero).

One way of doing this is to start everybody out at 1d6 for everything (‘average’) and let them increase/decrease scores from there (in other words, let one ability fall to 1d4 to raise another to 1d8, etc.). You can also randomize the assigned dice with a d10 roll or something. I like to start folks out at 1d8 for two ‘main’ abilities and 1d6 for everything else, then up and down as you please. ANYWAY…

When making a check, roll your Ability Die (AD) + 2d6.

If in an ‘advantageous’ position (surprise, flanking, particular skill set, etc.) roll 3d6 + AD, drop the lowest.

If in a ‘disadvantageous’ position (being flanked, on slippery ground, drank too much) roll 3d6 + AD drop the highest UNLESS the highest is the AD, in which case you drop the next highest.

If you want to have weirdstupidfun, you can replace d20 rolls with the above system as well, and just use STR or DEX to hit based on weapon. 

A Glorious Mess

The 3rd ed. Unearthed Arcana is my favorite d20 product that I almost never use. While it probably doesn’t have many fond memories amongst the OSR, I consider it to be a prime example of the old school tendencies of 3rd edition. When 4e tried to do anything ‘old school’ it often came off horribly misguided (transforming the Crystal Caves into a lazy encounters sequence, for instance). But what d20 had going for it was modularity, the same kind that (I hope) will categorize the new edition. The designers of 3e often used the d20 system as an umbrella to cover many variant subsystems like the Book of Nine Swords, Magic of Incarnum, Psionics, and wildly different takes on races and classes. 

Unearthed Arcana was what the DMG of 3rd should have been: rather than just a list of rules that covered the ‘behind the scenes’ of combat and treasure and whatnot, you got an enormous number of variations on the given systems. Now, many of these sucked, but that’s besides the point. How about a Savage Bard or an Urban Ranger? Want to play an Earth Kobold? How about a Githyanki-blooded human? Want to throw out the classes and go Generic? Spell-Points? Variable attack modifiers? There were even rules for replacing d20 rolls with d6s! While many of these things didn’t work out, they were all about expanding your idea of what could be done with the game.

When confronting the issue of a fifth edition, the question at this point for D&Ders is, ‘What do we need from a new edition?’ What could we get from 5th edition that we couldn’t hack out of 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, Basic or Original? What could we produce aside from another unique variation on common themes, and why would we need that from a professional company rather than an independent one, or a single designer? I for one might be interested in a pure ‘Mearls D&D’ or ‘Monte Cook Basic’, but I don’t know why I would want to deal with corporate agendas alongside game creativity.

If D&D Next is going to have any real impact, it will not be mechanically. If they stick to modularity, multiple subsystems, the OGL, and variation there will be much for us to draw on. But the most important contribution will not be in the core engine. It will come from the attitude of the new edition. I have meditated much on James’ idea that D&D is a goulash. As Jeff says, you play Gandalf, I play Conan, we team up to fight Dracula. This is why I love Eberron and Dark Sun, both goulashes of more specific sets of influences. 4e didn’t suit me because it is about balance, tactical play and ‘heroes’, entirely existing in a self-referential ouroboros. If the new version of D&D will succeed, it will be because it allows for weirdness, variation, giant space hamsters and Victorian plane-hoppers. It will allow for laser guns and medusa escort services. It will rip off everything that comes in its path, and glory in it. It will become D&D by striving to be whatever it wants.

D&D Whichever

So I figured I better make mention of this whole 5e thing, you know, to keep the ratings up.

Like many, I got the playtest rules. I read through them and haven’t played a game yet. Some of the little details are interesting and some of the systems I like (advantages/disadvantages in particular). I had theorized before that Backgrounds/Themes might be far more suited to 4e than the existing skill system.  I think it’s cool that they included Caves of Chaos, though I feel that could just as much be a bone for old schoolers as a design statement. I don’t really want to talk about the fiddly bits, however.

Because this isn’t the finished product.

Mike Mearls repeatedly states that this is not what 5e will look like. This is just a taste, a tease, a little something to clue us into the design process and get our feedback. On the whole Mearls’ column hasn’t really done a lot for me, not because I am not interested in his take on things, but because I still don’t know what this game is going to look like next week, let alone next month.

But, as a friend pointed out to me, this edition isn’t about the rules. It’s about unifying the gamer fanbase. Now, I have issues with this idea that a new edition can do this. Many others have expressed this as well. Wizards could have ended the edition wars a long time ago, but they wanted to win them. That’s actually not as sinister as it sounds. They are a company. They have to make product, and seeking to make the best kind of product is not a bad goal, even if misguided in this case.

I felt that if Wizards wanted to end the edition wars, all they had to do was extend the OGL to cover all editions and release all pdfs. Also, they should follow Zak’s suggestion about the coffee table books. Done. After that, they could make whatever kind of D&D they wanted, because the support structure for the rest of us would be in place. Wizards supports your D&D, D&D 4e, and D&D Whatever.

But they are a company, and must put out product. Fair enough. I will say that it saddens me that I feel they are trying to get Pathfinder players back. I really like Pathfinder and the people making it, and for Wizards to now try to win back players of a game I felt they held in contempt seems wrong.

But none of us have anything to fear from D&D Next and whether it will destroy Pathfinder, Labyrinth Lord or whatever. Because real D&Ders will always take what they like, hack the shit out of it and use it. And hopefully, this new game will give us a lot of ideas to work with when creating the next iteration of D&D Ours.

From the Pages of Wizards' World

From the section detailing monsters:


Description: A nemesis is more a phenomenon of the universe than a being. A player may choose to fight his particular nemesis a maximum of once per level. When a player decides this, he will instantly be transported to an inter-dimensional arena. There he will find an exact duplicate of himself, including possessions. Then and there the two replicates will battle to the death. If the player defeats his nemesis, he will gain one point in the primary attribute of his choice. If he loses, the player loses a point in that attribute. Note that the GM should ask the player which attribute he is fighting for before the outcome is decided. Win or lose, the nemesis (and all of its possessions) disappears as soon as the death blow has landed. The player is transported back to his former location, and in that frame, no time passes. When the player returns to the former location, all wounds received in the battle with his nemesis will disappear.

Note: Each player has his own arena. Also, if a player passes a level without fighting his nemesis, he has missed his opportunity for that level.   


WaRP System Released on OGL!

The game Over the Edge has been converted to a 28-page OGL rulebook called the Wanton Role-Playing System. Huzzah!

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Over the Edge is one of those games that hipster RPers like me love to talk about as though we played it for hours and hours, each moment revealing new secrets of the depths of our inner Being like unfolding lyric poetry. Truth is, I’ve never played a game, not really. But the system is badass, and if you ever want to get a grip on what the whole ‘indie RPG’ community is all about, it’s a good place to start.

I think that we D&D players have a lot to learn from this little booklet. It might not have d20s and to-hit bonuses and classes and Vance, but it’s got speed, style and inventiveness as its core tenets. It revolves around the classic rule, ‘if you don’t know the outcome of an action, make up a number on a die and roll for it.’  

I hope that we get a chance to see a lot of stuff being produced for this system, just like the stuff the OSR is putting out now. In fact, if you want to try splicing some OtE goodness into your old-school game, check out this cool hack. It’s for Tunnels & Trolls, but we know how this goes. Splice it, dice it, hack it ‘til it works.

Randomized Armor

Way back in this post I debuted a new (I think, or new-ish) combat system. I have since decided that adding armor values to the defensive score is a bit too high (because I'm fickle). I've had a couple of variant ideas kicking around inside my head, so I thought it would be a good time to debut one of them.

When I was looking at Wizard's World one of the things I noticed is that armor actually absorbs hits rather than increasing the difficulty of being hit. This is an approach I first saw in Iron Heroes (which is a game I love and want to play more of). Another thing I saw in that game was that Barbarians had a random die roll for their damage reduction (like a 1d4 DR at first level). All this swirled around in my head until it occurred to me that randomized armor might be a good idea.

In this system, attacks are:

d20 + Combat Bonus (CB) + STR (or DEX)
d20 + CB + CON (or DEX).

I like this because CON now has another use besides HP bonuses. So if an attack hits, the attacker rolls damage and the defender rolls to see how much his armor absorbs. The values are (for generic armor):

Light Armor (Padded Cloth, Leather, Chain Shirt): 1d4
Medium Armor (Studded Leather, Chain Mail, Ring Mail): 1d6 (-1 to DEX)
Heavy Armor (Full Plate): 1d8 (-2 to DEX)

or something like that. This way not only does CON become more useful, but high-damage weapons like two-handed swords are guaranteed to do some damage. Also, rather than incite a bonus war over AC, this simply has characters run the gauntlet of randomness twice, once to hit and once to harm. There must always be a possibility of harm (we don't want armor to deflect hits just because of number discrepancies). As for shields, I would just allow shield bonuses to go to the defense roll as usual, and probably create categories for them as well:

Buckler: +1
Light Shield: +2
Heavy Shield: +3 (-1 DEX)

This does not accommodate Tower Shields, which I always considered finicky and deserving of special rules anyway. Otherwise we could just go total Old School and leave shields at +1 (which is fine by me).

Feel free to share your thoughts!

First Look Into Wizards' World

This game (as many of you already know) was bought and re-published by Dan Proctor, who got it from God-only-knows where. The first thought one has when looking at the thing is: why republish this, yet another variation on classic D&D? What makes it special?

You can play a Metamorphic Dwarf Assassin or a Demonic Halfling Jester. Half-Elves don’t get to be angsty. Instead of Paladins, you get White Knights (who save princesses from towers) and Black Knights (who lock princesses up in towers). You can be a Fighter, or you can be an Attacker, a Defender, or a Destroyer. Dragons only come in the gemstone variety, like Amethyst or Malachite. In fact, many of the monsters are made of crystal or are a very specific kind of demon. Wizards use spell points, and spells like Charm are more gradated. There are scores for ‘Secondary Attributes’ like Stealth and Alertness, derived from Primary Attributes. Armor absorbs damage. There are all kinds of finicky little percentages that improve your attacks and defenses with specific weapons (really just expanding Thief Skills into a more general percentile system). This gives  certain classes special bonuses and whatnot; it’s a little too finicky for me, but at 85 pages in total I won’t whine. There is a Potion of Voice Throwing. There are red-horned bulls who fire green bolts of energy. There are Frost Frogs that teleport. There are giants that talk like valley girls (no, really). Dark blue weasels communicate via telepathy in a British accent. There are rabbits that possess the weak-willed. The sample party characters are named Macbeth, Fortinbras, Alvin, Oedipus, and Primion. And the monster names, like Drakra, Garn, Jarg, Madradox, Placeron, Syke, and Xelnarr, all with illustrations (though the green saber-toothed gorilla, the Xexaxax, gets no such love).

In short, Wizards' World looks like D&D made a determined effort to look like the cover of a concept album by a Yes side-project. It reminds me of movies where the characters are playing D&D but nobody who wrote the movie knows what D&D is so they just made up some words based on the AD&D book covers. It feels greater than the sum of its rules-variants, and therefore dependant on those variations (rather than the alterations being merely cosmetic or clever). It accomplishes more in terms of being its own game in 85 pages than other games do in 300. The illustrations look like fun, as in the fun I want to have while playing this game. 

Others hopefully will cover the finicky bits, like the Secondary Attributes and +1% to hit with chosen weapon per character level. I won’t right now, though there are bits I like and bits I don’t. Others are better at that stuff, I think.

When I first looked at Wizards' World, my initial thoughts ran to the article on ‘Fantasy Heartbreakers’ by the infamous Ron Edwards. I feel like I (or someone) should say something about that article at length and how it pertains to the OSR. That will come later. Or maybe someone has, and y’all can link me to it.

Skill-Based Systems and the Blank Page

Wow. It has been a good long while since my last post. Been overwhelmed at work, but I have no intentions of letting my first blog go dead just yet. So here are some thoughts about skill-based RPGs.

First, I am working on a rules-light skill-based RPG. More news on that later.

I have recently begun studying Basic Role-playing. I first began to familiarize myself with the system after I started working on my own skill-based RPG. I am rather fascinated with the original 14-page version, and wish that more people were familiar with the Goblinoid Games version, GORE. I think GORE is pretty rocking and might try to come up with some stuff for it. The problem that I can see with a lot of older skill-based games I’ve seen is that they are pretty crunchy, and rather unnecessarily so for my taste. I like to think that the BRP ‘pamphlet’ should be an exception, but even that one seems overzealous in its detail at times. 

One of the other problems of simple rules-light skill based systems is that they give little implication of the particular game they want you to play with the presented rules. A generic system always feels, well, generic.

Without a kind of setting, we tend to face the blank page problem. The blank page problem is an idea that I discovered playing old-school games with people new to roleplaying. It goes like this: imagine you are sitting a bunch of folks down to draw. You hand them a blank page and a marker and ask them to draw whatever they like. Some people will immediately begin drawing something unique and unusual, others will stare at the page for a long time before finally drawing something rather simple and basic, like a dog or a tree or a house. This is not universally the case, but I find it to be true more often than not. However, if you give the artists a rule, a theme, or an object in particular to draw, their images will become quite a bit more original as each one finds a slightly more unique take on the familiar.

Roleplaying games function in much the same way. When one is presented with a class, a certain archetype of what one could be, there is a sort of basic idea there for one to play with and twist and doodle on and invert. When one is presented with a list of possibilities, the question often winds up getting bounced to the GM or the other players—‘What should I be?’ When players are given a context, a world with factions and nations and goals and obstacles, the world of the players’ concern suddenly becomes far more visible and real, and it is possible to shape oneself according to the circumstances. But that generally requires more investment from the player at the start, and some players are more suited for this than others.


Armor Values

I changed up the values for generic armor. They were a bit too high:

Light Armor: +1 AC
Medium Armor: +3 AC
Heavy Armor: +5 AC
Shield: +1 AC

With a base AC of 10, a dextrous S&W Fighter has an AC of 17 with heavy armor and a shield. Much better. If I wanted, I could include a DEX penalty of -1 for heavy armor (or something like that), which would bring the value down to 16.

New Combat System (I Think)

 Here’s a new system I used for combat today.

Rather than having one character roll to hit a static AC, I had both sides roll off—one to attack, one to defend.

The Base Attack Bonus is now called the Combat Bonus.

To attack, you roll d20 + Combat Bonus + Strength/Dexterity modifier + Weapon Bonus (if any).

To defend, you roll d20 + Combat Bonus + Armor Bonus + Dexterity modifier.

The player with the higher roll wins.

It will probably go smoother if you combine the numbers and create an Attack Bonus and a Defense Bonus.

For instance, Shawn the Neurobarbarian has a Combat Bonus of +2, a Strength modifier of +3, and a +1 sword. That gives him an Attack Bonus of +6.

(In my game, Strength could be used for Melee weapons and Dexterity could be used for Ranged or Light Weapons—see previous post to understand weapons and armor.)

He wears Heavy Armor (+7), a Dexterity modifier of +2, and adding his Combat Bonus gives him a Defense Bonus of +11.

This system benefits the defender, but I like that. The randomness prevents several things that I don’t like: first, there is no static AC that players can eventually guess. Also, it means that every missed attack is not just a brief statistical ‘whiff’, but an engaging moment at the table, with a lot of uncertainty.

If an enemy is flanked or otherwise distracted, they lose their Combat Bonus to defense—the Armor Bonus still applies, as does Dexterity.

From the playtest, it was a little clunky at first (we had a totally new player and the system was unfamiliar) but once they got the hang of it things seemed to run pretty smoothly (or smooth enough, given that it was a hyper-buggy Google+ connection).

Anyways, hope people find this useful. I thought it added a lot!

New Item: Wailing Flask

This small bottle does not appear to contain any sort of substance, but when unstoppered it produces a frightful, keening wail. This sound does not harm any listener, but will draw wandering monsters to it if left unstopped. The source of the wail is a weak ghost trapped within the bottle itself. If smashed, the enraged spirit will attack whoever is nearest due to its anguished confusion.

Fairy Tale Worldbuilding

Zak Sabbath says cool things. Here is a cool thing he said a while back about fairy tales.

I re-read that a little while back and it got me wondering—‘What sort of fairy tales do they tell on Varth? Or what sort of Fairy Tales should I tell about Varth?’

Try this. Sit down with a book of fairy tales and read an obscure one (or a book of sagas, or epic poetry, or whatever fits your style).

Then write down a few brief (very brief, fable-short) fairy tales about events in your world (or dungeon, or city…).

Begin with ‘Once upon a time…’ (or ‘Sing Muse!’ or ‘Hwaet!’) and don’t waste too much time on descriptions.

Then go online and pick out a few illustrations for your story (doesn’t have to be exact, just some artists who have the right idea).

(I’ll post one of mine later)

Anyways, see if things look a bit different afterwards.

Monster Rehabilitated: The Digester

Many feel this is one of the dumbest monsters ever, with good reason. All I think one really has to do to make them effective is shrink their size and increase their numbers.

Use the stats for a wild dog unless otherwise noted.
AC: 12
HD: 1d4
Number encountered: 5d4
Acid: Digesters can spit acid up to 15’ away (+3 to hit). They have no other attacks. The acid does 1d4 damage upon impact and 1d3 per round thereafter (for 1d6 rounds) unless doused with water (or some other solvent). They never appear to run out.

These two-legged beasties are shy and skittish at first, approaching adventurers warily. Once they have determined that a creature is edible, they surround it and begin spitting acid to pre-digest it. Once 1/3 to ½ their number is slain, they will retreat… but will follow at a distance, waiting for an opportune moment to strike again or feast on the remains of their former enemies. This is a good example of an 'attrition monster', one that is easy enough to dispatch at first but remains a thorn in your side (and forces you to use up resources like water, which may be a problem). 

If you want a sense of the effect these little critters ought to have, check out that scene at the beginning of Jurassic Park 2 (couldn’t find a clip) where the little girl is surrounded by the tiny dinosaurs, and then imagine all of them spitting little gobs of acid everywhere.

The Easiest Thief Class

Perhaps the defining feature of the Thief (Rogue/Ranger/Whip-Wielding Archaeologist) is not a particular skill set, but the sheer amount of luck these characters seem to have on tap. I present the Luck-Based Thief:

HD: d6
Armor: Light Armor (+3 AC) only
Weapons: Any Light One-Handed Melee, any Light Ranged
Starting Saving Throw: 13
XP per Level: Same as Cleric
Prime Attribute: Dexterity

Luck: A Thief gains a number of luck rerolls per day equal to ½ his level plus his DEX modifier. Any die roll may be rolled twice, taking the best result. The use of this ability may be declared shortly after the initial die roll. 

I originally envisioned this class as a Divine Thief, who would pray to the gods for an hour every day to receive his luck. It is easy to see how it could be modified to fit any number of archetypes.

I like this approach because it encourages the character to take risks, to rely on his luck and his wits, which is for me a much more satisfying play style for the Thief. Also, it means there is a possibility that his luck could run out in a tight spot, and one can see the sweat beading on a player’s forehead after the first four re-rolls have failed him in a life-or-death situation… 

4e Gamma World Weapons and Armor

Philotomy gives the best explanation for d6 weapon damage. Brendan at Untimately has his damage-by-HD system. I think most of us tend toward variable weapon damage. Here is a system I pulled from the latest edition of Gamma World (which is really Gamma World 7 or something):

Armor falls into three categories—Light, Heavy and Shield. Weapons fall into six: Heavy/Light, One-Handed/Two-Handed, Melee/Ranged. Each of the six categories has a standard damage value, but otherwise both weapons and armor can be ‘skinned’ however you like. Thus, a Heavy One-Handed Melee Weapon could be an axe, a piece of rebar or a board with a nail in it, and it would still do the same damage. This approach is a compromise to the age-old quandary about d6 vs. variable weapon damage, and even satisfies (pretty well) the Magic Number Seven test. And it came from a 4e game. I like it because it makes the issue of weapon proficiencies pretty simple without resorting to the (rather ambiguous to me) martial vs. simple weapons separation. Rogue-y characters use Light One-Handed Melee/Ranged Weapons, for instance. Give this system a look and see what it could do for you.

Here are the values:

Light Armor: +3 AC
(I would add) Medium Armor: +5 AC
Heavy Armor: +7 AC
Shield: +1 AC

Light One-Handed Melee: 1d8
Light Two-Handed Melee: 1d12

Heavy One-Handed Melee: 1d10
Heavy Two-Handed Melee: 2d8

Light One-Handed Ranged: 1d8
Light Two-Handed Ranged: 1d12

Heavy One-Handed Ranged: 1d10
Heavy Two-Handed Ranged: 2d8

Here are the weapon values one could use for Swords & Wizardry:

Light One-Handed Melee: 1d4 (Dagger, Club)
Light Two-Handed Melee: 1d8 (Spear, Staff)

Heavy One-Handed Melee: 1d10 (Hammer, Long Sword)
Heavy Two-Handed Melee: 2d8 (Claymore, Halberd)

Light One-Handed Ranged: 1d4 (Hand Crossbow, Darts)
Light Two-Handed Ranged: 1d6 (Short Bow, Long Bow)

Heavy One-Handed Ranged: 1d8 (Spear, Throwing Axe)
Heavy Two-Handed Ranged: 2d6 (Arbalest, Musket)

Weapon prices would be a bit tricky perhaps, but many people have pointed out that making people pay more money for less weapon damage (as some variable systems have you do) is a bit of a pain, despite the role-play applications. The only problem that I have with the system above is when a weapon like a short sword would need to get downgraded to a d4 or upgraded to a d10. I could create a separate category, but that’s too finicky. Also, spears and staves that can be wielded either way could be problematic. But I still like the system a lot, and will continue to mess with it. 

BTW, the latest edition of Gamma World is, I believe, the best product WotC has put out in the 4e era (despite the monstrous cost). An excellent review is here.

Ability Checks… Again

I use ability checks, more frequently (sometimes) than I think I should. The growing old-schooler in me wants to move towards abstraction; but the old World of Darkness and 3.5 player wants to hammer things out using dice aggregates. Right now, I’m using the tried-and-true system of d6-roll-under checks, but I’ve decided that I don’t like them for the following (mostly aesthetic) reasons:

1)  they use too many dice at once, and
2)  they involve too much addition.

Now, I hate it when players roll more than three or four dice at a time, and I prefer the larger numbers of dice to be rolled at the start rather than in the middle of gameplay. That's mostly a 'material simplicity' issue.

But there is another, more fundamental problem: we play on a very small table, and the little d6’s are always falling off and mixing with the other dice and causing a general ruckus due to their refusal to roll nice and polite. Also, my players take at least the better part of ten seconds to add up all the d6’s and compare to their scores, and while that isn’t an enormous problem in itself, I notice those little breaks in the action when people are just waiting for other people to finish counting so they can go ahead and do something. And all that time spent waiting adds up and puts a drain on the excitement. So I’m going to try something else.

There are about a dozen different styles of ability check out there, The one I originally used involved rolling under your ability score with a d20. Not bad, but it never quite jived with me. The 1-18 range is just a little awkward for percentile chances, and the success rate is just too high for people with, say, an 18 INT.

For a while I considered using a system where you subtract the d20 roll from the ability score: success would be measured by the size of the difference. A base difficulty would be something like 5. So you roll d20 and get 13, subtract from your relevant score (let’s say 18) and get 5… a success! Difficulties range from 5 to 15, so that a 15 difficulty on the same roll would require a roll of 3 or less. I liked the system because it went down instead of up (gives it a bit of old-school feel, to me) but I rejected it because of the same reason I don’t use Descending AC: subtraction always feels more complicated than addition. Even though my formula was simple, it was still a bit too much brainwork in the heat of the moment for me or my players.

So I’m going to try d10 ability checks. The system is simple—roll a d10 and add your relevant modifier. Difficulties are set from 1-10, or there is a roll off if a contest between two characters is involved. Contested rolls become the basis of combat maneuvers like wrestling, for instance. I kind of like that this system has such a wide range of possibilities with OD&D modifiers, since that makes it more abstract. What I don’t like is that now there is even less mechanical reliance on the scores themselves, which seems unfortunate for some reason. But we’ll give it a shot and see how it goes.

Since the post made a blah blah sound (all of my posts do), here’s a monster:

Disenchanter Wombat

Use the stats for a Giant Rat (and look up the Disenchanter while you’re at it).

The Disenchanter Wombat is cultivated especially in areas that fear the power of spellcasters. It is a large rodent covered with fine, multicolored fur and possessing a long, elephantish snout. It can be skittish, but quite friendly to magic users in general. When its snout touches a spellcaster, the spellcaster must roll a saving throw or lose one of its highest level spells that it had prepared that day. This process continues until the spellcaster has no other spells left. The creature can also devour magic items in the manner of the (supposed) related creature, the Disenchanter proper. Disenchanter Wombats are quite adept at sniffing out magic items, and are occasionally domesticated for this purpose. Too often have magical items been devoured when left alone in an environment with these little pests.

Of Material Simplicity

I don’t own any minis. My preferred method is to set a large wipe board down on a table and let players draw on it with me during battles. I use music and a computer in my game, but I’m feeling iffier and iffier about the tunes during play. I know that I want to get all my vital .pdfs in hardback so I won’t have to use the damned Mac. It distracts me from my players. I am a big fan of material simplicity in my games.

Mind you, I have nothing but admiration for the guys (and gals) with 50 large boxes of minis that they have been hand-painting since 1974. I dig it when other people can generate a huge mess on the table with all of their gear and maps and hand-drawn character sheets and whatnot. I tend to feel that a huge mess of stuff is somehow a mark of creativity, of involvement and vitality, especially when it’s a useful mess, a mess that gets added to and taken from and evolves—like a marketplace of the spirit, always trading with itself.

But not for me. My messes are never satisfying. And anything that I consider useless, I find messy. Right now I have my players rolling 3-5d6 ability checks for certain tasks. It’s a good system, and it works. But it means that my players have 5d6 sitting off to one side, waiting, and splattering all over the tiny table we game on when they are in use. So it feels like an encumbrance.

Is there a value in material simplicity? For me, the drive to reduce the ‘necessary materials’ for the game is a drive to find simple and elegant processes through which to enable a great many possibilities. As Rikyu, the great Japanese tea sage once said, ‘If you have one pot, and you can make tea in it, that will do quite well’. And there is that great line quoted elsewhere in the OSR about perfection being reached when there is nothing left to take away. But aside from my own instincts and inclinations, is there a value to simplicity in itself?

Not to be facile, but it often seems that the virtue of an approach is found in its appropriateness to a situation. The issue of method cannot be dealt with separately from the quality of the game that the method enabled. You would probably be wiser to ask, ‘What does my game need?’ rather than ‘Upon what principles shall my game be founded?’ I wouldn’t mention this except for the feeling I get that we can get too tied up on matters of theory and approach when instead we should focus on the experience, the game-in-play. The game is the point, and everything else is a tool, a technique. But as many have discovered, if you were to take away all but what you deemed most essential to the game, perhaps you would find that the game itself has grown larger in your mind as a result.

But 40 hand-painted minis on an enormous tabletop landscape is a thing to behold.

Untimate Quiz

Here are my answers for Brendan's quiz. At the moment I'm having a hard time distinguishing between what I want from my Swords & Wizardry game and what I want from my (still to come) homebrew experimental game. But these are the standard rules that I use for S&W, barring sudden flashes of DM insight.

Ability scores generation method? 4d6, arrange to taste.
How are death and dying handled? Dead at zero HP. But I have considered using a Death and Dismemberment Chart.
What about raising the dead? An expensive cash service at major temples or a powerful (and hard-to-find) magic item.
How are replacement PCs handled? Meh. Not much of a concern. When you lose a character, draw up a new one a find an appropriate moment to stumble in. I tend to like a West Marches-style approach, so there is always a possibility to meet new PCs in town.
Initiative: individual, group, or something else? Individual d6 + Dex.
Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work? Natural 20s do full damage. Critical fails open to my discretion of terrible.
Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet? I have considered giving a +1 to AC, but thus far haven’t really tried it.
Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly? Only on a critical fail.
Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything? Ha Ha No. Running away is always an acceptable strategy.
Level-draining monsters: yes or no? Yes at higher levels, but rare.
Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? Not immediately. I don’t much care for the ‘save-or-die’ dynamic.
How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked? Roughly. I do call encumbrance on people, but I don’t keep track of it in detail.
What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time? One at a time! I let PCs level up as they acquire experience. As for M-U and Cleric PCs, I let players make a random roll on the White Box spell lists to determine new spells every level (2 per level). Otherwise, spell scrolls and expensive magical research.
What do I get experience for? Monsters, treasure, and DM fiat based on player cleverness. In a wilderness adventure game, discovery also grants XP (a hidden temple, a major landmark, etc.).
How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination? I suck at traps. Description is my preferred method for discovery however.
Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work? Retainers are always available. Morale checks are based around contested CHA rolls when attempting to force retainers to act against their better instincts.
How do I identify magic items? Description and player intuition. Potions must be tasted, or the player must have some knowledge of alchemy (via Token Proficiencies).
Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions? Potions are available, but in general magic items are pretty hard to come by.
Can I create magic items? When and how? Upper levels. Not there yet in any of my games. I admire the ACKS method, though.
What about splitting the party? Always use the Battle Buddy System (BBS). Never go anywhere on your own. Stupidity and death are the inevitable result. If you must split up, always at least in twos. Never leave your battle buddy!

New Monster: The Piscapede

Use the stats for a shark from the 1e monster manual (or wherever).

These creatures resemble enormous eels with hundreds of centipede-like legs. They dwell in pools of stagnant water that it makes opaque via chemical secretions. The resulting water color is often quite vivid and unnatural. Two adult Piscapedes will dwell in a pond at least 15’ x 15’ with 2d4 legless young. The amphibious adults will crawl out of the water and attempt to bite an intruder. A successful bite attack forces the PC to roll a saving throw (vs. Poison); failure causes the PC to lose the capacity to breathe air and grow gills. The PC must then submerge his gills in water within (1d4+CON modifier) rounds or faint from lack of air and begin losing HP. Once underwater, the opacity of the fluid grants the young near-invisibility (-3 to hit). The venom will lose its effect in some 20 minutes, and a clever adventurer can extract the poison sacs of the adults to create a potion of water breathing. 

These creatures are most often found underground, and can be considered dangerous pests in some extensive sewer systems.  

Is Gaming In Danger?

I wrote a letter to a friend of mine recently which I have decided to excerpt (in a slightly altered form) below. Enjoy.

‘Just saw THAC0, and it was very entertaining. At some point, I encourage you to check out the Midnight movie I told you about (I think it’s still on instant play) as well as the film The Wild Hunt. I cannot say that the latter is a terribly insightful film (I think it has some pretty deep problems, in fact) but it is a very satisfying film as far as mood and visuals go. Very professional looking. I like that in THAC0 they are playing 1e D&D rather than some later variant. BTW, I’m DM’ing the next series of 4e Encounters down at Roll of the Die. I’m pretty excited, all things considered. You asked me a while ago whether I thought that the RPG hobby was in danger of falling by the wayside; your apt metaphor was the model train hobby. I’ll tell you what I really think—I think that we actually have it all backwards. Watching the THAC0 film has led me to believe that perhaps the era in which D&D (and all other RPGs) was in most danger is past.

‘…it seems that the hobby always attracts those who have a mincing, mediocre interest in the experience of the fantastic and an overwhelming interest in tactics and mechanical manipulation. I do not mean players like ----, who is a good and honest player as a Gamist, and perhaps more honest than many Narrativists and Simulationists I’ve played with. I mean that there are always plenty of people who are more willing to embrace gaming as a means to satisfy their egos than their sense of fun with a community. This is what 4e is designed for—how people who don’t know how to play the game can play with people like these. That is why folks like ---- consider it to be a tremendous success, since they are self-aware enough to recognize that there are those that suffer at their hands. But what the OSR really means in the long run, I believe, is that gaming is being taken back by people who embrace experiences rather than rules.

‘But I shall not limit this to the OSR. I feel the stirrings of this elsewhere, a renewed interest in what made other games worth playing in the era before the search for the Grand Unifying System that fractured and defeated us all. Microscope has been mentioned by many, as has Dread and some others. I think that, while the OSR has an expiration date, the spirit of the Revolution will triumph in the end. 3e gave fuel to the fire of people who made this hobby a niche interest—people who are uncomfortable outside of their niche. 4e turned its financial interest to n00bs, the unimaginative, and those who play MMORPGs (not that these things are consonant). In doing so, they alienated older players and presented a conundrum: why do we play the games we play? What do we want from them? Why not take up a system that is more ‘evolved’, more ‘accessible’, or just ‘new’? It was a paradox, actually, with no clear answer. If we wanted ‘balance’ or a ‘user-friendly’ system, this was it. But…we apparently didn’t. The truth was, 4e was not built for us. So we had to find ourselves elsewhere.

‘Please excuse my colloquial use of ‘we’. But I think that this is a more transformative era for us gamers than we realize. It is the period where we set down the fears and attitudes of the past that forced us to account for the malcontent and the miscreant at our gaming table, and decided instead that this was a social game, a game of give and take, where not everyone would be satisfied but all would be welcome. Where we let the dice fall where they may, and let no two games be alike—since we realized finally that they could not be.'

Classes/Races of Varth

So I ran the OD&D game (really a S&W homebrew, but I prefer not to split hairs) the other night and it went off quite well. I got kind of bored with the ‘how to build a world' series, so I put it on hold. Besides, I doubt that anyone really needs my insights on the matter anytime soon.

Instead, I thought I'd give you a rundown of the classes and races I used/invented for the game.

The classes I allowed were: Magic-User, Fighter, Cleric (for humans), Beast-man, Elf and Halfling. The Beast-man class wasn’t taken by anyone, so I won’t discuss it at present.

Elves on the Doomed World of Varth are psionic characters. They have the powers of Charm Person, Daze and Telepathy, as well as a Laser Sword (…yep). The Laser Sword does 1d6 damage and can be manifested for free, and the other abilities can be activated via Psionic Power Points which they receive equal to their level plus their Charisma modifier. They can read thoughts for free as well, at a 25% chance plus 5% per level. They can wear leather armor, and wield light one-handed weapons.

Those were all of the rules we needed for this session. Elves on Varth are space aliens who landed in their enormous black ships some 500 years ago and might have precipitated the disaster that catapulted Varth into a pocket dimension (much like Tekumel). They are haughty and traditionally atheistic. 

Halflings are one of the more prominent races on Varth, having existed as slaves, scouts and thieves from time immemorial. They are perhaps the most numerous race, but do to their clannish sensibilities are far too fractious to think of themselves as one people. Halflings are especially prone to mutation. When a halfling character is created, roll a 30% chance for mutation, then flip a coin to decide physical or mental. Check d% on the Mutant Future charts to determine the end result. Halflings can wield any light, one-handed weapon and wear leather armor.

Instead of alignment, I had characters decide whether or not to choose a god from one of the charts I made up for Varth. I had a d30 ‘Evil’ god chart and d20 charts for ‘Good’ and ‘Neutral’ faiths. I might post those up here at some point. They consisted of gods drawn from a multitude of sources, ad I left it up to the PCs what their relationship was to their particular deity.

So we wound up with a party consisting of: Drak the (none-too-clever) Fighter, a Cleric follower of the Prophecies of Kalistrade with a drinking problem, a halfling with the power of Teleportation (who worshiped He Who Waits Between the Stars), Clea the Elven Warrior Maiden and a Magic-User looking for a way to be turned back into a unicorn. All in all, a good party.

With a party largely made up of new-to-D&D people, I think alignment is a bit more of a chore than it's worth. The mechanics are hard enough without trying to throw in an arbitrary morality simulator. With that said, the party acted about as amorally as one could expect, mostly in the vein of abusing henchmen to no end (but paradoxically knocking on every door in the Dungeon...err, Vault, as I called them). The Cleric kept hypothesizing that the bloody sacrifice of his hireling might unlock some kind of hidden power in every room. Out loud. Next session, they better keep watch as they sleep that night. The Former-Unicorn M-U apparently had no qualms about the destruction of servants in her quest to return to the cast of My Little Pony. But despite the inherent sociopathy of our adventurers, they had a pretty good time. They fought some mutant halflings who were crawling on the ceiling and discovered that the mountain over the Vault was in fact a pyramid at one point in time. But there is plenty more to find, so I hope they'll have the opportunity to adventure again next week.

Dark Wilderlands of Forgotten Greyhawk (The Final Fantasy Campaign)

or, World Building Part 1

            I’m running (hopefully) a game of OD&D for some friends of mine next weekend, most of whom have never played D&D before. Now I was going to take this as an opportunity to dust off an abandoned OD&D setting project I’d worked on before which I called Varth (Zarth, Oerth, Vanth…the pattern goes on and on). The intention was to create an explicitly D&D setting, and a fairly traditional one at that, for sandbox play. I usually create settings and then play D&D in them, rather than attempting to derive the setting itself from common elements. I usually dislike most published D&D settings since they usually take the ‘kitchen sink’ approach and I like things a bit more streamlined. Nevertheless, after reading Vornheim I was all jazzed to do some kind of crazy setting where everywhere you went there was some group of pseudo-humanoids hanging out like its no big deal, the ‘Cantina Effect’ as I call it.
            So I sat down and thought of all the races I wanted to run around and cause trouble in my new world and all of the ones I wanted to lay back and look sinister and bizarre and I almost immediately realized that I wasn’t doing what I intended to in the first place, which was to have a world that unfolded naturally from the first adventure. But I am a natural cataloguer, and while many people have gone through and classified and historicized all of the critters in the Cantina, that scene didn’t start out with Lucas sitting around thinking, ‘OK, in this galaxy we have humanoids and non-humanoids, the latter being divided into five further subcategories…’
            But the attempts to reconcile the two impulses in my brain (one towards randomness, the other toward divergence from common principles)(OH MY GOD I thought I was done writing philosophy papers) led me to some interesting thoughts regarding settings. I am a compulsive setting-builder; it’s something of an addictive habit for me (since settings are easier to control than real life). I have read many good articles about world-building from multiple perspectives, and there are whole books devoted to understanding how different versions of mythic worlds (Tolkien, Howard, Moorcock, real Earth cultures) are the results of different kinds of psychological projections blah blah blah etc. I won’t attempt to do one better. But I want to talk about D&D settings, in general, as being a combination of the mythic and the weird.
            Mythic settings are akin to the mythologies of Northern European cultures in this context. Strictly speaking, all indigenous mythologies are mythic, but many of the world’s mythologies can come off as weird to us living in the good ole USA since we don’t necessarily have the same network of associations (or at least the context is underdeveloped). So I beg you to excuse my cultural simplicity for a moment. In the Northern European (Tolkienesque, to many) mythologies, many of the monsters that predominate echo concepts of time, natural elements and anthropomorphism. Hence, Giants are associated with things like snow, are impossibly ancient and look like big people. Elves are also old, hang out in forests and look like pretty people. Varieties of other humanoids have exaggerated human characteristics and natural associations and are usually associated with elements (and on occasion human things like occupations or even articles of clothing). Now, if you look carefully at genuine Norse or Celtic mythologies the weird starts to become more apparent (the Nuckelavee for instance), but the generalized form (again, often best represented by Tolkien) has a universe which blends the human experience of nature with the human experience of itself.
            The weird, on the other hand, deals with the different. While well-presented mythic settings often drive home just how different the perspective is of a giant who has sat so long in the same place that he resembles a part of the mountain itself, the differentness of the weird deals with that which is incomprehensible or unapproachable. If you could live as long as a giant, and if you could be as tall, you could maybe understand where that giant was coming from. But an ooze resembles nothing in your experience, and offers precious little to orient you. I find there are usually two distinctions of the weird: the weird/alien and the weird/primal. The weird/alien is something that is designed to be other to your experience, with no real correlation so much as a kind of overall contrariness with the familiar. Such is the Lovecraftian horror, which could be said to function as a kind of anti-life (anti-comprehension?). The weird/primal is an element of experience divorced from all human connection; an ooze is hunger, and maybe the ‘memory’ of being an amoeba, but we have nothing in common with either of those things in this distilled form.
            Now there are many overlaps, and obviously I could talk all day (and nearly have already) about the differences between these two poles; but this simple distinction is enough for my purposes. We must at least mention the obvious conflation: creating your own unique mythology, and letting your PCs figure it out. What shall I do? Hmmm... 

I’ll take a break here and talk about urban vs. rural next time. 

The Monster Without

Any unusual campaign setting has one or two (hopefully more, but one or two will do) very unique monstrosities that express the core flavor of the setting. When crafting a gonzo setting for your old-school campaign, or just an atypical sci-fantasy campaign, the tendency is to want a number of races that especially inspire the ‘WTF!?’ reaction. More familiar races give a sense of familiar themes or enable the DM to play against type for effect, but it is our truly weird races that let us know that this world MEANS BUSINESS. Of course, as soon as you’ve designed your crazy telepathic slug-people with a fondness for zoos, you begin to design their culture and eating habits, and next thing you know, you want to detail them as a playable race. Because it seems unfair, somehow, to invent all this info and then leave it out of the hands of the players to dive into to create their own spin and intrigue and interspecies melodrama, right?


First of all, there are only ever two kinds of creature: those that PC’s can play, and those that they can encounter. From that perspective, you can have any number of weird races you want, since that’s all they are—window dressing. Or combat. Otherwise, they function in a way roughly analogous to human forms of interaction. So that shopkeeper who looks like a Rhino walking upright with a hookah pipe in his hand? Perfectly ordinary, save for that odd cinnamon smell that comes and goes. Remembering that, it’s OK to allow the unusual details and complex cultural mores of the vast majority of species to remain in the dark.

If, however, you find that this leaves much to be desired in your new invented race, which was almost all about lunar ritualism and a completely different set of genders and their interactions, then—tough. Ask yourself: What will these creatures mean to my PCs when they encounter 2d6 of them? Will they just be another shade of lizard people? Or will they have some readily apparent, unique feature that forever marks them in the player’s mind? Will my players have to know this elaborate backstory in order to give a shit? Or will they care immediately based on the situation in front of them?

As for PCs playing monsters, I have increasingly come to realize that, if you want your monstrous races to be at all mysterious and foreign, let them be…well, mysterious and foreign. Don’t let players play them. Otherwise, you fall into trying to preserve the unusualness of your race by attempting to school the player on the race’s complex culture and society and mysterious aims and…just stop. The player will usually violate this stuff anyway. If you have a bunch of players fully committed to playing crazy foreign cultures and bizarro physical needs, then make up a set of charts to roll on (Unusual Ritual Practices, Bizarre Dietary Restrictions, etc.) and let them take things from there. Otherwise, you wind up trying to be a roleplaying coach. This is where the whole idea of monstrous races as classes makes sense. You aren’t playing an Elven Wizard or Thief or whatever. You’re playing an Elf. That does Elf things. Not Thief things, though the two are identical on occasion.

One last bit, about monsters in cities. Now, we all know that Mind Flayers want to conquer the galaxy and the Sahuagin want to sacrifice folks to their shark-god. But really, that Illithid down the street is just a book seller*, even if he specializes in tomes relating psionic powers to Continental Philosophy. He has no one else’s agenda but his own. We craft the ‘racial narrative’ so that, when we see a goblin, we know that he cannot be parlayed with. He must be killed, and this apparently happens all the time, so it’s OK. When we see a Mind Flayer, we know now that this whole adventure has to do with the Plot To Take Over The Galaxy. It is a useful shorthand for a game, even if it has Unfortunate Implications. But if you think about cities in our own time, and even more so for great port cities of the past, they are places to escape the troubling implications of one’s culture and heritage and immerse yourself in the freedoms of uniqueness and anonymity. So let your city monsters, those that walk the streets at least, be individuals before they are anything else. Besides, who knows what that Mind Flayer’s spawnmates used to call him at home when he was a tadpole? Maybe he’d rather live in a little apartment and read a book than hang out with those assholes, thank you very much.

* I understand the peculiarities of the Illithid diet render any sort of peaceful coexistence problematic. So what?