The Ferrowar

Sometimes the most fierce denizens of a dungeon are the smallest.

The Cat-taurs (a name the Ferrowar loathe) are a clannish breed of fae who dwell in tunnels and caverns laced with magic. They resemble ordinary housecats in shape and size, but in place of a head a humanoid torso with enormous cat ears emerges. In contrast to their drab surroundings, they are striped and spotted with many bright and unusual colors . Along with their sensitive ears, they possess darkvision and move incredibly silently (they gain a bonus to stealth and alertness, however that is handled in the game). They roam the tunnels in packs of 3d6 individuals (1d6 HD), always led by an alpha (2d6 HD) that may be male or female. Their chief weapons are usually bows and spears tainted with a poison that functions as a low level sleep spell. In addition, they possess the remarkable ability to phase through solid walls and floors up to 3 times per day, and have an unfailing sense of direction.

Theirs is a warrior culture, with epic lyrics composed in their caterwauling variant of Pixie to be howled through the empty caverns to distract and disorient their foes. Often, clan members will duel with one another over matters of honor, and it is not unusual to find ronin Ferrowar cast off on their own to wander clanless after some defeat. Their sense of personal honor is vast and volatile, and their word is unshakeable, especially in the case of a life debt. This does not mean, however, that their sense of honor interferes with their strategic judgement. They are great hunters of larger, dumber humanoids, and will not hesitate to track adventurers for days before ambushing them when they have the advantage. Honor shared freely amongst one's own kind is not necessary when one is facing one's enemies. When defeated, the enemies will often be picked clean of shiny objects, and while the Ferrowar do not indulge in the cannibalism of sentient species, they have no qualms about leaving their prey to the mercy of other creatures. 

They prefer elaborate multisyllabic names such as Rampolcanther and Pirrowee. They will never consent to being a familiar of any wizard or witch. They worship a petty god called Arihina of the Hidden Moon, who guides them in their hunting and is propitiated with shiny objects dropped in dark underground pools. They purr only in their own company and when about to strike a finishing blow, and this last is said to be a most horrible sound. 

Roguish Luck in S&W.

Rogues are any characters that rely on luck, wits, and street smarts to overcome their problems. They can be thieves, merchants, assassins, swashbuckling pirates, highwaymen, or anyone else who lives by breaking the rules. I have often percieved the Rogue to be a class that is really all about luck and street smarts, but have always been a fan of the 3e sneak attack. Thus, I have come up with a Rogue class that I think can embody any number of archetypes.I have never been a big fan of thief skills, since they create a lot of the same 'arms race' effect that I talked about with Fighters. So, here is my Rogue for S&W:

Hit Die: d6
Armor: Light or Leather Armor only.
Attack Bonus: +1 per 1 and 1/2 levels.
Saves: As Cleric in the Core Rules

Luck: A Rogue may retry any die roll a number of times per day equal to 1/2 his level + 1. So a first level rogue can use Luck once per day, a second level twice, and so on.

Dirty Trick: A Rogue has a number of Dirty Tricks up his sleeve equal to 1/2 his level + 1 per day, just like his Luck. A Dirty Trick represents an unexpected advantage that the Rogue has over an opponent in combat, and can take one of two forms:

a) the Rogue gains a bonus to an attack and damage roll equal to his level, or
b) he can perform a combat maneuver as a move action, like a Fighter.

He may also make a Dirty Trick from a position of surprise any number of times per day.

Street Lore: This ability begins at 10% and increases by 5% every level thereafter to a maximum of 99%. This is a Rogue’s knowledge of the word on the street, the combination of gossip, hearsay, and unexpected fact that makes up worldly knowledge. A successful check with this skill will reveal what is known to the common people and the criminal underworld about a person, place, or thing.

What Makes a Man a Fighter?

Fighters present a unique problem: since they embody a skill that is fundamental to all classes (combat), any modifications/additions to that core ability tend to generate an arms race among the other classes. There is nothing that the Fighter can do that doesn't make a kind of sense for some other classes as well, at least in combat. Usually people try to diffentiate Fighters by means of higher bonuses, but this often contributes to bonus inflation in D&D combat in general. My solution to this problem in S&W is to allow Fighters to use Combat Maneuvers as move actions, thus increasing their versatility. So a Fighter can kick a chair in somebody's way and then turn and take a swing at another character without stopping. They can bull rush a guy off a cliff and then attack his buddy coming up on the flank. Fighters should be the 'mosh pit masters' of S&W, always able to do a little more in combat than everybody else.

Otherwise, they function as follows:

Hit Die: d10
Armor: Any
Attack Bonus: +1 per level
Saving Throw: As in Core Rules.

And that's it. I often want some other kind of skill to make Fighters different, but I suspect I'm just overthinking it.

Combat Maneuvers in S&W.

At bottom, there is one reason to have combat maneuvers at all in D&D: to make combat interesting. That is really the only reason. Not to make it more or less deadly, not to make it more or less realistic, but to make it more fun to do and to imagine. Herein lies the problem, because the sliding scale of simplicity vs. complexity, realism vs. gamism, etc. means that what is interesting and fun is not always necessarily what is realistic or easy for different players. Different people prefer a different mix, easily seen through the proliferation of different D&Ds over the years.

In all my houserules, I want a simple system that can allow complex results. With combat, I ask myself the question: what do I want a fight to look like? If my players are in a tavern brawl, these are the things I want to happen:

I want someone to break a chair over someone's back.
I want someone to swing in on a chandelier.
I want someone to dump a spittoon over someone's head, blinding him.
I want someone to get doused in whiskey and lit on fire.
I want someone to lose their weapon because it got imbedded in a stool.
I want someone to bash another person unconscious with a serving tray.
I want an unarmed person to steal someone's weapon in the middle of a fight.
I want the band to keep playing throughout, just pick up the tempo.

The problem with most maneuver systems is: why would I want to waste the chance to kill someone (make a standard attack roll) for the chance to blind/stun/do something awesome and interesting?

The answer: make maneuvers more likely to succeed than attacking.

I use the Zak Sabbath d10 + stat bonus method, and I find that a 3 or 4 in 10 chance to affect the situation in your favor is often as tempting as taking a standard swing of the axe, especially if I have the bad guys doing the same thing. I typically point out the standard new school combat maneuvers as well: Push/Pull, Overrun, Trip, Grapple, Disarm, Feint, Bull Rush, and Sunder. I tend to call all the interesting things you can do to improve your tactical situation (jumping on a table, kicking a stool in someone's way, etc.) a Stunt, and usually they give the player a +1 or something like that.

Anyone can make a maneuver check instead of an attack roll. For Fighters, this is slightly different, as will be shown in my next post.

The Collector: A Mysterious Magic-User in S&W.

Magic-Users, known colloquially as Collectors, are called by many other names besides (such as sorcerers, witches, druids, magicians, shadowcasters, blood mages, etc.) based on their philosophy and style. They are the masters of occult lore, and spend their lives gathering magical knowledge and spells. Collector Guilds are often defined by the spells they know in common, and wage furtive war with each other over magical knowledge, with neither wishing to show the extent of their expertise.

Hit Die: d4
Armor: None
Attack Bonus: +1 per 2 levels
Saving Throw: as in Core Rules

Spells: All Collectors start with 4 spells (+/- INT Mod), chosen randomly from a d30 list prepared by the DM and kept in a Collector's spellbook. They gain spells as they collect them in the game world and copy them into their spellbook. There is no automatic learning of spells in this game. A Collector possesses spell slots as a Magic-User in S&W, and must prepare their spells ahead of time as in the core rules.

Occult Lore: This ability begins at 10% and increases by 5% every level thereafter to a maximum of 99%. It represents the knowledge the Collector has acquired of the magical world, its items, denizens, and history. A successful check with this skill enables a wizard to know something about a magic item, another wizard, a magical creature, etc. In order to read another Collector's spellbook (which may be written on anything) Collectors must be adept at cracking codes. Thus, a successful check with this skill enables a Collector to read the magical codes of other Collectors. To read a Collector's coded spell, you must roll your percentile chance minus 5 x the spell’s level. Thus, a first-level Collector would be unable to read a sixth-level spell (5x6=30% vs. 15%), but a third-level Collector could, even if he could not cast the spell. This ability can also be used as Detect Magic, any number of times per day.

Starting Spells (1d30)
1 Command
2 Cure Light Wounds
3 Light
4 Shield
5 Purify Food & Drink
6 Create Water
7 Remove Fear
8 Resist Cold
9 Sanctuary
10 Animal Friendship
11 Detect Trap
12 Entangle
13 Faerie Fire
14 Predict Weather
15 Speak to Animals
16 Pass Without Trace
17 Affect Normal Fires
18 Burning Hands
19 Charm Person
20 Comprehend Languages
21 Dancing Lights
22 Ventriloquism
23 Feather Fall
24 Hold Portal
25 Magic Missile
26 Mending
27 Message
28 Sleep
29 Spider Climb
30 Unseen Servant

(Above is the basic list that I use for my game, but you might want to throw in spells from any number of sources, such as Adventures Dark and Deep, Space-Age Sorcery, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, etc.)

Swords and Wizardry Appreciation Day is Metal.

Here we go.

Swords and Wizardry Appreciation Day has been an incredible success so far, and I'm very pleased to be participating. I first want to take a moment to say that Swords and Wizardry really is what got me into the OSR to begin with. When I first started learning about older editions, my heart went out to the Original Edition, and S&W remains my default for all houserules that I come up with. It remains the version of D&D that I have DM'd more than any other except 3rd, which is what I started playing back in the early 2000s. It was and is a revelation, the breath of fresh air that taught me how to really make the game my own, more than all of my modifications of 3rd ever did. I owe Matt Finch and co. a debt of gratitude forever because of that.

Thank you.

To show my appreciation for this beautiful little ruleset, I offer up my humble houserules in the next few posts.

This is a fun game we played last night.

We were over at a my friend Dave's, who had a whole lot of D&D 3 books around and a bunch of people were there who had never played an RPG. I like the art in a lot of 3e books, so I told everybody to find a book they liked and pick some picture of a vaguely humanoid dude they liked. Everybody did, except for Patrick who found a picture of a Neogi and was really adamant about playing a Neogi and I said fine except that he would have to be about the size of a guinea pig and he was fine with that.

Then everybody took a sheet of paper and I said to write down three sorta-specific things that they thought their character would be good at, and three sorta-specific things that they thought their character would be bad at. I then told them to write a little +1 next to two of the good things, and a +2 next to the other, and a little -1 next to two of the bad things, and a big -2 next to the other.

While they did this, I pulled up Untimately's random dungeon gear chart and my own list of random first level spells. I assigned everybody gear, then I rolled a 20% chance to see if each character had magic. If they did, I gave them a random spell from the magic list, which they could cast once. I just had them roll 2d6 for HP and for attacks we just rolled a d20 (with a bonus +1 if they mentioned something about fighting in their description). There were adjustments allowed for weapons to fit their description, and I pointed out that being good with a bow doesn't make you necessarily good with an axe, etc., and we were ready to go!

On Paladins

I've never liked Paladins. Many people don't; it's no big deal. But they've been around since at least the Greyhawk supplement, so it seems that those of us who don't care for them ought to make some kind of peace with the class. I know plenty of DMs that don't use them, usually because they don't like alignment and so much of what Paladins are up to has to do with alignment restrictions and the power they get in exchange. Other guys just don't like the idea of Lawful Good hero-types in a party full of murderhobos. I decided to sit down and come up with some ways to make the class a little more meaningful to me in my own games.

Of course, the main reason I'm thinking about Paladins is Gorgonmilk's badass Greyhawk cover.

The main features of the Paladin in the older editions are usually:
Detect Evil
Badass Saves & Disease Free For Life
1 Weapon, 1 Suit of Armor, etc.
A Tithe & a Code of Conduct
Lay on Hands
A Horse, usually the Epic Magical Kind

Later editions added Smite Evil, which I dig.

Now the main question about the Paladin is: Whom do they serve? Which god or demigod or monster or whatever does the Paladin do his thing for?

Some people say you can't divorce the Paladin from the Lawful Good side of things. I am not those people. But it is not enough to determine what alignment your Paladin is. To make playing a Paladin interesting, you have to make decisions about what sort of things a god wants your Paladin to do. What does the bug-god or the fire-god or the poetry-god want from its Paladin?

Try this:

Instead of Detect Evil, go with Detect Alignment or Detect Deity or Detect Opposite Alignment.

As for the Tithe, who do you pay it to? Maybe one god wants you to give it straight to the poor, and the other wants you to toss it all into a sacred lake.

Lay on Hands might have very different applications for different gods. One god gives you the ability to communicate disease, another a version of Burning Hands that still heals your bros, another a Mind Meld.

As for the Code of Conduct, the most interesting way to handle this is to split the difference between player and DM work. One could create an elaborate religious code for a player to follow (which could be neat and atmospheric, but give the player zero input or control) OR you could try this method:

Once per level, there is a chance for the player to declare that an activity is against the Paladin's code. Depending on the severity of the restriction, the DM awards an XP bonus to the player. The bonus is a one-time deal, but as the player goes up in level, the number of restrictions grows (as the power the Paladin recieves from his god grows and develops) and the player has an opportunity to really engage with his Paladin's code in a game-affecting way.

I don't care for magic horses, so I can't come up with anything there. Maybe your Paladin gets a dinosaur or a Giant Riding Beetle or something cool, not just a lame Shadowfax redux.

Random Races: The Sicani

Things about the Sicani:

They are ratmen the size of very short humans
They are known for their architecture and sense of design
They are fascinated by inscriptions, which are common as gifts and decoration
They make excellent sailors and jewelers
They tend to prefer democracy, but their clans are run like the Mafia
They revere ancestors and prophecies of all kinds, and tend to know about Necromancy and Divination (+1 to checks)
They are good with whips, knots, and any sort of hook (+1 to attacks and checks)
They are small and fit into tight spaces easily by dislocating their shoulders
They are adept at traking by scent (+1 to track)
They are quick, clever and weak (+1 DEX/WIS, −2 STR)

Random Races: The Kayyil

Things about the Kayyil:

They are jackalmen who come in many varieties
They worship the Egyptian gods, especially Set, and persecute sun-worshipping monotheists 
They are excellent traders and negotiators
They love coffee and pork, and are known for their fastidiousness
They are highly superstitious and believe in spirits such as djinn and pangool
They revere insects and often keep crickets as pets
They always test potential friends for loyalty, and always honor their oaths
They have a natural flair for languages (+1 language)
They are charismatic and lean (+1 CHA, −1 CON)
They are excellent swordsmen and archers (+1 to attack) 

Random Races: The Obraski

Things about the Obraski:

They are rotund hippopeople
They care very much about pecking order and decorum
They fight endlessly over obscure matters of personal honor
They are quick to anger, but boistrously joyful
They are excellent at matters of fine detail
They worship a god called Behemoth, alongside various demigod heroes
They believe a man must pay his debts in order to enter the afterlife
They are good with polearms and flails (+1 to attack) 
They require special armor (gp value of armor x2) but have thick hides (+1 to AC)
They are strong, tough, and tend toward narrow-mindedness (+1 STR & CON, −1 DEX, −1 WIS)

1e Style Combat Options

So lately I've been hearing talk of the four basic AD&D combat 'moves': Attack, Parry, Fall Back, Flee.

Attack is full offence. Parry is full defense. Fall Back is a defensive retreat that protects the rear, but allows the enemy to follow. Flee opens the combatant up to an attack of opportunity, but enables them to run away if quick enough.

I like these 'maneuvers' a lot because they add tactical consideration to a fight without removing abstraction. But there are two other 'moves' that are more interesting to me and I don't hear people talk about a lot: Closing and Charging.

As I understand it, in AD&D you can't just run up and take a swing at someone. You have to Charge them, which grants you a +2 (I think) and gives your enemy a +2 against you. Or (if those odds are a little rough for you) you can Close with them, which doesn't allow either of you to attack right away.

So if I understand AD&D correctly (and who can say they really understand AD&D?) you have two options for approach, two options for retreat, and two options for the combat itself, discounting any more unorthodox tricks and abilities.

The Closing rule is a particularly interesting one. If you say that the target of a closing maneuver can't get away without Fleeing or Falling Back, then it becomes an effective way to pin down combatants in the early stages of the fight. Potentially, one could close with an opponent and Parry perpetually in order to keep them locked up. A dangerous move for a low-level character, but effective if one survives.

This is old hat to a lot of AD&D players I'm sure (if I've got the formula right) but the system is still interesting on its own. I started out doing combat 3e style, and even when I got into OD&D for the first time I preferred individual initiative. But something interesting happens when you declare actions and use group initiative, especially with some of these rules in play. Combat remains freeform, but strategy revolves around how you enter and leave melee rather than on your advantages in the melee itself. I'm always interested in how the rules make you think about in-game situations, and in more rules-lite games, a few simple changes can make a world of difference.

Skill Dice

When you make an ability check, you add a skill die to the roll when you can justify that it falls within one of the 3e skill categories that you are given as part of your background/specialty/theme package. So, for instance, a first level Rogue with the Scout theme adds 1d4 to her ability checks (on a d20) for Disable Device, Knowledge (Nature), Sneak, and Survival. The skill die improves with level, so that at 20th level the Rogue uses all the same skills at 1d12.

This is the basic skill mechanic in the latest playtest packet from 5e. It's pretty simple.

In some ways, the ideas that have been debuting for Next have felt both familiar and avant-garde, and the skill dice mechanic is an example of this. It reminds me of the randomized attack bonuses in 3e's Unearthed Arcana. Many things seem to remind me of that particular rule, I suppose because of the difference that it illustrates between Average Improvement and Incremental Improvement.

These two terms I am using to differentiate between an improvement of +1 per level (Incremental) and an improvement from 1d4 to 1d6 (Average). The former tends to contribute to bonus inflation and min/maxing, the latter… I'm not sure. I kind of like the idea of increasing a die because it allows for definite improvement without marginalizing the random elements. At certain points in 3e, rolling dice became annoying as one acquired enough bonuses to feel 'above' to luck of the die. 4e was built with this in mind, as many hits and damage amounts are rendered automatic. The 'skill dice' system seems to allow for improvement without entitlement, and that's a good thing. It also consciously builds off of the Ability Check system without rendering the former pointless or underpowered, like the 3e skill system did.

One question: what about picking up skills later? I haven't seen many good ideas for this, despite the fact that one assumes that adventurers would develop in new and unexpected ways as they continued their journeys. This would seem to be at odds with a class system, where one's powers at 20th level are assumed to be direct extrapolations of 1st level abilities. I like my Token Proficiencies, but they are just a way to formalize ad-hoc knowledges and special abilities.


And on this day, January 22, I recognize that the Edition Wars, which had cost us all so much in life and sanity, are nearing their end.

Now if only Wizards would extend the OGL ...

The Isil-Ithil

(or, what I use when I need some Lovecraft in my game)

The Isilithil are an ancient race of eyeless subterraneans who despise loud noise. The caverns under their control are vast and quiet, often haunted by other silent creatures. They are roughly a head shorter than most humans, with  a mass of tentacles on their face and no other visible features. Their skin is cold and clammy.

While their technology has become primitive over the centuries, the remains of their dull-grey rock cities remain, enormous and monolithic, on the shores of deep underwater lakes. They often commit bloody sacrifices of captured humanoids, and legends abound of entire towns claimed in the middle of the night. Those who have observed them in their lairs and lived (a rare feat) report that the sacrifices are accompanied by horrific dances around silent fires.

Their principal ability is to cast a Zone of Silence spell (15'-30' radius) at will. They attack in other ways as Grimlocks, but tend to prefer to follow their prey at a distance for some time. They will investigate any loud noises in their chosen caverns, and occasionally mix strange poisons for their blades. No-one knows how (or what) they eat.

The Alignment Game

People always debate alignment in terms of philosophy: the meaning of law/chaos, what exactly alignment says about your character, what it means for a character to behave 'outside his alignment' and what, if any, consequences there should be. The main reason that alignment is often discarded is that players tend to find it restrictive to the way they want to play the game, instead of giving them a clear picture of the kind of guy their character is. I think many old schoolers don't really prefer the idea of alignment as an iron-clad set of rules, and instead tend to try to make it morally more interesting and thus more inspirational for the players. Also, a well-conceived approach to alignment can really help develop the vibe of the world you are playing in. But I think there is another way to approach alignment.

Instead of talking about D&D as one game, for the moment let's think of it as multiple games beneath one umbrella. I think this makes a little more sense in the old school world, which tends to love multiple subsystems and approaches for things. If we look at it that way, we can ask each individual element what its 'game' is, what makes it uniquely fun. What is the combat game? The adventuring game? The domain-building game?

So the question becomes: What is the alignment game?

First Edition has a couple of uses for alignment besides character behavior. It is used for various protective spells and magic items, and in the utterly bizarre idea of 'alignment languages'. It makes sense for multiple alignments to cooperate so as to accommodate many possibilities for languages, items and spells. Even though I believe the rule prohibit this to some degree (I don't think Paladins can knowingly hang out with Assassins and whatnot), any party would still benefit from possessing several alignments. It's possible to invent all kinds of similar plays off of this idea, from magic items that work differently with different alignments, to gates that only allow certain alignments to pass through unless disabled. So alignment becomes a benefit or a detraction based on circumstance, another choice that players have to make and then make the most of, like how many gallons of lamp oil or how much wolfsbane to pack.

This doesn't mean there aren't alternatives to the alignment system as presented. I just want to suggest that instead of attempting to come up with a better set of moral principles or roleplaying aids, let's try thinking along the lines of what sort of game we want to play with an alignment system. Then we can maybe get over the idea of alignment as a set of dubious restrictions and think of it as another facet of the complex world of adventuring.

Goodwife encounters are with a single woman, often indistinguishable from any other type of female (such as a magic-user, harlot, etc.). Any offensive treatment or seeming threat will be likely to cause the woman to scream for help, accusing the offending party of any number of crimes, i.e. assault, rape, theft, or murder. 20% of goodwives know interesting gossip.

I love the Gary DMG. 

Hello again, blogosphere. We haven't spent enough time together.