Thursday, December 28, 2006

Order of the Stick

Last night, I played the Order of the Stick Adventure Game. The game is based on the Order of the Stick webcomic, one of the few webcomics I read regularly.

The game's production values are high, which was nice to see. It comes with a set of Quick-Start rules in comic form. The Quick-Start comic rules are several pages in length. It also comes with double-sided cheat-sheets with combat rules for each player, filled with densely packed text. These two things, taken together, should have been warning signs.

The game wanted to be Munchkin. It played, however, more like Talisman.

To play the game, you (randomly) choose a character from the comic. The available characters are the member of the Order of the Stick. Each character has a deck full of schticks - these range from standard things (Roy's gets the Greenhilt Sword, Haley gets a Longbow and Sneak Attack, Elan gets a Rapier and Chain Shirt) to amusing things like Belkar's "Probably Evil" and Elan's "Poorly Planned Illusion." You start off with a few schticks and gain more as the game progresses (by trading in loot and slain monsters).

The dungeon is created as you explore it. You go room to room, slaying monsters. There are dungeon room cards and monster cards (in two different decks). The monsters aren't random: they are played against you by other players. Monsters drop loot (another card type). The rules were a bit complicated for a game that centers around stick figures.

Every schtick card and monster card has a small comic on it. Some of them are quite amusing. A lot of the loot is funny as well.

Unfortunately, gameplay was prohibitively long. We opted to go for the game version that was supposed to last 2-3 hours (you can add or subtract dungeon levels to regulate game time), but after five hours we hadn't even made it to the lowest level of the dungeon. The game encouraged a mix of player cooperation and competitiveness, but in our game the competitiveness seemed to win out and we spent some time sniping at each other. I could see the game going more quickly with more cooperation, but the competitiveness was clearly encouraged.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

House rules for a campaign

For some reason, I've been thinking a lot about my Sigil Hardboiled campaign idea lately.

Will I run it? Maybe, some day. I haven't had much luck running games of late.

Anyway, I was thinking about the house rules I'd use if I did run it, and thought that the thought-process I went through might be interesting.

First, I go through a period of brainstorming, thinking about the qualities I'd like to see in the game that aren't part of D&D's default assumptions.

I come up with:

a dark and gritty noir-like feel:
  • I don't want characters running around in heavy armor carrying giant weapons. Daggers, light (or hand) crossbows, clubs, and staffs should be the weapons of choice. Wearing a sword (while not illegal) will mark you as a troublemaker, and you'd be treated as such.
  • Combat should be fast and quick, and should occur mainly in darkened rooms and alleys. It should often end with one side running away.
  • Problems should be solvable with or without combat. The "with combat" option should often lead to more complications in the long run. This isn't the sort of game where killing your enemy outright solves everything.
  • Good and evil are much more in shades of gray than in black and white.
an almost entirely urban environment:
  • The city government, such as it is, isn't going to be overrun by the PCs - but many officials are susceptible to bribery.
  • Naturalist-based characters probably won't be appropriate.
  • Stuff that happens outside of the city is rarely as important as things that happen within it - external scenes are largely set pieces.
  • The city should be cosmopolitan and exotic, but known to the PCs (at least on the surface).
characters who are capable and skilled at their jobs, but who aren't god-like:
  • PCs need to be employable, both personality-wise and skill-wise.
  • PCs shouldn't be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, optimistic fools - but neither should they have seen it all already. I imagine the characters to be in the level 5-12 range.
  • PCs should be imperfect heroes placed in even less-perfect situations.

Then lets look at each of these, in turn. I'll come up with one or more house rules (or setting changes/elements) for each.

Weapon choices:
- Much of this can be handled through social pressure, but I don't want to rob characters of their class abilities without giving them something in return. The unarmored Defense Bonus option is a good place to start. Also, giving someone a good reason to use a dagger over a sword would be nice. How about allowing a dagger to be drawn as a swift action, rather than a move action? Alternately, some sort of dagger-specific feat might be created.

Fast combat:
- I want to speed up combat, but I don't want it to be too deadly to PCs. I'm not a fan of pointless character death. Encouraging rogue levels among PCs would be good - starting a combat with sneak attacks is a good way to shorten it. There are a number of methods of simplifying things at the table that I'd use (pre-rolled initiatives on index cards and that sort of thing). I don't know that a specific rule would help here. I do want to make it easier to run away, though. Perhaps allowing a Flee action - a DC 10 (+1 per opponent threatening you) Reflex save will allow you to avoid attacks of opportunity if, as a full-round action, you take a double move out of a threatened square and don't move into any other threatened square.

Problems solvable without combat:
- Wizards made sure that all character classes have something to do in a fight. I want to make sure that they all have something to do in a social situation. Aid Another actions help, but they aren't terribly exciting. Also, given the characters' jobs, they'll probably all need some social skills. I might simply say that characters can choose one skill from the list of (bluff, diplomacy, gather information, intimidate, and sense motive) and treat that as a class skill. I'm probably going to have to increase skill points anyway.

Shades of gray:
-This is more setting than rules. Factions exist, but they do so mainly in the shadows. The Society of Sensation is a social club. The Dustmen are cultists who have infiltrated the morticians guild. The Fraternity of Order is a secret society. Outer planes won't be defined in terms of Lawful/Chaotic/Good/Evil, but rather in terms of Logic/Passion/Peace/Conflict. Many elements of the former will map on to the latter.

City government:
-Again, mostly setting, though I may need to make up some guidelines for bribery. The problem here is less The Lady of Pain than the Dabus. I may make the latter more free-willed most of the time. Perhaps the Dabus are really spirits that possess city employees on occasion. I'll play with it.

Naturalist characters:
-I'd allow the urban ranger variant from UA. I'd also consider an Urban Druid-like character who communes with city spirits or somesuch.

Centrality of the city:
-This is a setting/adventure design thing. I might do something to increase the likelihood that natives of Sigil will somehow end up back in Sigil.

City familiarity:
Knowledge (local) is sort of a pain. It will need some attention. I'd want this reserved for things like knowing about secret societies and legends about things that aren't major landmarks. I don't want PCs to need this in order to locate a tavern, know the name of prominent residents, or know current events.

PC Employability:
No psychopaths. No complete loners. Everyone should have some useful skills - more useful than a specialized Expert, at least. Flexibility is key. I think that starting characters at level 3 would be a minimum. I'm toying with the possibility of allowing characters to be gestalt up to level 3 for increased flexibility - but one side of the gestalt would have to be a class with no magical abilities (rogue, scout, fighter, or swashbuckler, mostly). If I did this and required that, by level 3, the character would have to have at least - say - 30 skill points, then I wouldn't have to worry about increasing skill point allotment.

PC level:
I might play with the advancement rate. If I start them at level 3, I'd allow them to advance normally until level 5 or 6 so that they can advance/customize their character a bit as they begin playing. I'd then slow the advancement so as to stretch out the sweet spot (to level 12ish) that I'd identified. If things made it to that point, I'd figure out where to go from there.

Imperfect heroes:
I'd allow the character traits option, but not flaws. PCs should be distinctive, but not crippled.

Now, I need to go through the points I have above and condense them, stripping out the unnecessary stuff. I also have to address the issue of magic and how to reconcile it with the tone I am seeking.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Strange campaign idea

Character creation guidelines:

One of your parents was a member of Famous Adventuring Party X, that defeated Great Menace A. Famous Adventuring Party X, along with your parent, disappeared when you were very young. You were left in the care of your other parent. When you got old enough you received a letter held in trust for you from your long-lost parent - it told you that you must meet those who would share your destiny on the first day of the year (next) at the Famous Adventurer Tavern. They'd all be wearing red hats. You should wear one too.

The others, of course, are the children of the other members of Party X.

The twist?

There was no Party X, really. It was all one guy - a shapechanger (doppleganger, changeling, wizard with Shapechange, whatever). That one guy did in fact defeat Great Menace A. Maybe he had a party with him at the time and didn't want to admit he was the only survivor. (Alternately, that one guy was Great Menace A, defeated the party, and replaced them.) In any case, he would come into towns as different members of Party X... and, well, had some kids with a bunch of different people (and may have switched genders for some of them). The PCs - who may all be of different races - are actually siblings, though they don't know it.

As they set off to look for their lost parents, perhaps the truth will come out...

Where did I put that beast...?

Okay, if you attack a Displacer Beast and you hit it, you roll a miss chance. Why is it that if you miss you don't roll a hit chance?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Shareable on-line character sheet

A month ago, I was ruminating about the possibility of using Google Docs & Spreadsheets to keep an updated character sheet on the web in a way that you can share it with your GM.

You can look at the sheet I've been working on here.

Another neat thing about this: there is a discussion feature. I haven't played with it yet, but it might be a good thing for sending notes back and forth between games.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

d20 Class Creation Rule 3

Rule 3: Don't Delay Gratification

This rule is implicit in Rule 1, but it deserves explicit mention. A class shouldn't be designed such that members of that class are underpowered at low-levels and have to 'pay their dues' in order to access the actually-cool abilities later. Delayed gratification isn't any fun during the delay, and in many games it isn't clear that there will be a "later" in which you will get to reap the benefits of your dues-paying.

On gaming forums, classes are often compared with the assumption that the character will be level 20. This makes little sense to me: in the vast majority of campaigns, even if the character reaches level 20, most of its play-time will be far below that. Moreover, not all characters are played to level 20 - or even to level 3. Keep this in mind when designing the class.

WoAdWriMo: thoughts on adventure design

Over at the WoAdWriMo forum, I alluded to something unusual I was thinking of doing with the adventure I want to write.

In short, the point is to make the adventure useful to as many people as possible. I'd considered statting things out in multiple systems, but realistically, the vast majority of people who would run the adventure would do so in d20 - and, of those who wouldn't, the vast majority are likely familiar enough with d20 to convert it.

Instead, I'm thinking that I will write in support for a wide variety of gaming/campaign styles rather than game systems.

Want to run a political game? A humorous game? A dark, morally ambiguous game? A game with evil PCs? An old-school, trap-filled dungeon romp? A pulpy swashbuckling adventure?

My current plan is to provide advice and encounter alternatives to support as many of these as I can.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Introducing Bart

Angela is planning on running an every-other-Sunday or so D&D game in the old Wraith time slot. She's never run D&D before. She's barely played D&D, really, but she grew up possessing an old 1e Monster Manual, which she loved. She's obsessed with creating ecological and environmental detail and has an encyclopedic knowledge of zoology, which she will use.

In order to take advantage of what I expect her strengths as a DM will be, I decided that I should create a character interested in exploration and animals. The party already includes a druid and a scout, though, and I didn't want to infringe upon other characters' niches. Thus, I decided I would play a chef.1

Bart Fliegenbart2 is the son of a dwarven tavern owner. He grew up in the kitchen, but was stifled by the banal tastes of the typical dwarven palate. Fortunately, he was exposed to travelers who would talk of other lands and their cuisines... and who would occasionally appreciate his creative kitchen concoctions.

Bart has left the hills where he was raised in the hopes of broadening his culinary horizons. He seeks out people of various races to learn what they eat... as well as creatures of various species to learn what they taste like.

1 I like to cook. I've also been reading a lot of Poppy Z. Brite lately.

2 The name is a reference to Clan Fliegenbart, a mad concoction of a series of all-night, mostly-dwarf, marathon games of Warhammer Quest.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Jeff has declared June as Worldwide Adventure Writing Month.

One month.

One ready-to-run adventure.

Any game system.

I'm doing Swamp Castle for D&D: sunken castles, savage lizardfolk, a hidden enemy, and a bard who just wants to sing...

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

I Charge the Cthuloid Horror!

Last night was the middle of the end of the ridiculously-high-powered epic/gestalt game. We killed gods, and it was fun.

I've been out of town for Thanksgiving and lacked net access for most of a week.

My Hexblade revision is nearly done. I still need to balance some powers.

It looks like a number of games I'm involved in are in the process of rebooting. I may be thinking a lot about character creation and related topics in the upcoming weeks.

I'm considering a re-reading of the 1e Ad&D DM's guide. I dug out my copy before I went away for Thanksgiving. If I do it, I'll post running commentary.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Neat Tool?

I've been playing with Google Docs and Spreadsheets a bit lately.

In the past, I've used Excel-based character sheets for various games. I'm thinking that I might try to find some good character sheets that I can upload to the spreadsheets bit.

  • Character sheets are always available via the web. When I get an e-mail with an xp award that was calculated from my last weeks game, I can immediately update my sheet - even if I am not at home. If I forget my character sheet at home, I can print out a copy from any net connection.
  • Spreadsheet-based sheets are nice for auto-calculating annoying things.
  • I can share the sheet with my GM - so he can review an up-to-date version at his leisure.
  • The sheets might not be super-pretty. I might be able to fix that, though.

Monday, November 13, 2006

d20 Class Creation Rule 2

Rule 2: Find the Single/Multi-Class Balance

This rule has a number of parts. The first of these is detailed on the Wizards website, so I won't go into it too much. Briefly, the idea is that when designing a class, it is important to make sure that every level gives a character something. My gloss on this is that a player should always look forward to levelling up, and that levelling up by continuing in ones own class should be just as exciting as levelling up by multiclassing.

My rule of thumb: If, at any point in a 20 class progression, it is clearly optimal to take a single level of Fighter instead of the next level in your class, there is a problem. (I use fighter for two reasons: (1) the first level of fighter is pretty good, and (2) the second level of fighter is near-identical to the first, so the problem will not likely go away in one level). One way of handling this that I find unsatisfying is to punish multiclassing. Gamers often forget that the objective is fun as opposed to the enforcement of rules (or even tropes). If I want to encourage single-class play I'd rather make it fun to play a single-class than make it un-fun to play multiple classes.

Do I want to encourage single-class play? Sure. I want to encourage all sorts of play. Why design a 20-level class if no one would take all 20 levels? On the other hand, multiclassed characters are just as valid as single classed characters. How many iconic characters in heroic fantasy fiction began as rogues or barbarians or wizard's apprentices and moved on to something else? One of the things that bothers me about most d20 classes is that they seem to explicitly discourage multiclassing. Some of them (Monk and Paladin) all but prohibit it. Others (all spellcasting classes) put forward an opportunity cost that tends to be prohibitive.

While I want to make a class that will be fun and worthwhile to play for 20 levels, I also want to make one that doesn't need to be. When making a class, think of the sorts of characters who might dabble in it... and think of the classes that a character of the class being created might dabble in. Build in some nifty features that will make such dabbling worthwhile. If I'm building a sneaky class, I might add in a feature that works well with sneak attack or or trap sense. If I'm building a divine class, I should be aware that characters taking levels in it might well have (or gain) cleric or paladin abilities. In thinking through the ramifications of this, I should avoid the gut reaction to nerf certain combos (No! That Cha bonus to Fort and Will saves doesn't stack with Divine Grace!), and instead build the class so that its abilities complement those of other classes without becoming overpowered (Instead of a Cha bonus to Fort and Will saves, perhaps make it the Mettle ability - usable a number of times per day equal to your Cha - or Wis - bonus).

Tying this back in to Rule 1, as long as a character has 10 levels in the class I create, they should be fully recognizable as highly competent members of that class, even if they have multiclassed.

d20 Class Creation Rules: Rule 1

I've been working on my rewrite of the Hexblade that I've alluded to here before. I thought it would, perhaps, be worthwhile to comment on my general priorities in terms of class creation - both to solidify them for myself and because there is some small chance that someone might read this and find it interesting. Here is the first one (not that they are in any particular order:

Class Creation Rule 1: The 1/5/10/20 Rule

1: Don't front-load too much into the first level or so. Monk and Fighter are guilty of this. It is very tempting to take a couple of levels in a front-loaded class and then abandon it. If you can say of a class, "It is always a good idea to take X levels in this class," then your class could be better designed. If you can say, "I don't know why anyone would take more than X levels in this class," then you have a more serious problem (see Swashbuckler, where X=3). In either case, the lower the value of X, the bigger your problem is. It is certainly the case that you often need to introduce basic class features at first level. One way of doing this without too much front-loading is to introduce the features in a fairly weak state and add on to these features at higher levels - Bardic Music is an example of how this can be done.

5: A number of classes get a significant power boost from gaining new class features at 4th-6th level: Druid, Paladin, and Ranger are, perhaps the most obvious. Try to make the power climb more gradual than this. At the same time, you don't want to delay the gaining of integral class features past this point. Also, at about this level you should begin qualifying for prestige classes. Build the class such that it will not be too difficult to qualify for the most appropriate prestige classes for it. I find it infuriating when Wizards introduces a new class that fits thematically with an established prestige class, but from which it is near-impossible to qualify for that prestige class (Beguiler/Arcane Trickster?).

10: I tend to consider 10th level to be "name level" - by the time a character has 10 levels in a class, they should fully epitomize that class. That isn't to say that levels 11-20 should be empty. Far from it. What I mean here is that a characters with 10 class levels ought to be able to accomplish the feats that one expects of a competent member of their class. This is going to mean different things for different classes. For instance, it would be a serious problem in my mind if Clerics didn't have access to Atonement and Hallow at 10th level. Also, by this point you should be able to qualify for the appropriate 10-level prestige classes.

20: There is a desire to put 'capstone' abilities at the last few levels of a 20-level progression. These are powerful class abilities that reward a character for 'sticking it out' with a single class. This has become a bit more prevalent after the initial classes in the PHB, but even there the Monk and (to a lesser extent) the Druid have such abilities. I don't have a vendetta against capstone abilities per se. I think it is important to make it worthwhile to take 20 levels in every class. On the other hand, I think that it is important that such abilities be built up gradually. The Druid's Elemental Wild Shape abilities seem somewhat tacked-on to me, as does the Monk's ability to become Ethereal, and the Dragon Shaman's wings. What I am advocating here is balance. The high levels of a class should include some damn cool class features - just make sure they fit in with the rest of the class.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Crossroads in the Dust

Last night was the last game of what was probably the longest-running Wraith LARP in the world. It began in the mid/late 90s as a spin-off from Champaign-Urbana's One World by Night Vampire game. Initially, it was a play-test of expanded Wraith LARP rules written by some of the game masters - and there was only one player at first.

When I moved out here in 2001, I joined the game. At the time, there were probably a dozen or so players. At some points after that, the game would swell to almost double that size, but it was more often than not smaller than that. Most of the players were close friends. Several of them moved into a house together, which was dubbed "The Necropolis." I wasn't in that group, and the population of the house has almost completely changed, but I'm actually living there now.

The game had a good ending - a better one than I could have hoped for, really. Angela (who was running it), was worried... in part, I think, because she put us up against near-impossible odds at the end and didn't know how - or if - we could succeed. She confessed to me that she had stopped bothering to come up with methods of overcoming obstacles awhile ago, as we almost never used the methods she expected anyway. We surprised her again, though our method was a long-shot... and only worked because we were really, really lucky (it isn't often you can count on winning rock-paper-scissors 11 times in a row, but I managed it), but my character proved himself to be the most bad-ass Pardoner in the universe.

It was a good end to an era.

Friday, November 03, 2006


I was seriously considering trying my hand at NaNoWriMo this year, but it looks like work is entering into a ridiculously-busy phase.

I will, however, include herein an excerpt from last year's abortive attempt at novel-writing:


"My door is covered in scissors." Tom spoke these words several times as he stood outside at the base of the stairs leading up to his apartment. The first time he said it, the words were a whisper of disbelief, as he wondered about the full extent of his black-and-blacker induced hangover and whether he was, in fact, awake and standing outside his apartment or whether he was still asleep on Calla's couch. By the fourth time the words came out of his mouth, he'd convinced himself that he was awake, and the words turned into an angry rumble that began deep in his throat. Around the seventh time, he'd begun letting the words escape in a resigned sigh, accompanying them with a sad shake of his head.

He walked up the steps. The door was still covered in scissors. There were scissors of all different sorts - plastic children's safety scissors, stainlesss steel desk scissors, a few of the cheap pairs of tiny scissors that you get in a one dollar sewing kit, and even a pair of pruning shears. There must have been over a hundred of them total. He began to count, but caught himself in the act.

Each pair of scissors was anchored only along one blade-handle axis. Every single pair of scissors on the door was at least semi-functional. Tom marvelled at them for several moments, and he probably repeated the phrase, "my door is covered in scissors," a few more times before he thought to turn it into a question.

He carefully closed those pairs of scissors located closest to the doorknob and most likely to cut someone attempting to use it. Then, he opened the door and called out to his roommate in as calm a voice as he could muster, "Allever? Why is our door covered in scissors?"

Allever's voice drifted out of the kitchen. "I did it to keep us safe from temptation," he said.


"Huh. I guess it worked," Tom said as he sat down at the table across from his roommate, who was staring intently at a waffle. He had three jars of differently-colored jellies sitting open on the table next to his plate, and had filled in each of the waffle's squares so that they formed a spiral pattern.

Allever looked up at Tom, "No problem with snakes, then?" He sounded skeptical. "That's good."

"Snakes. Right," Tom said. "No snakes." Despite his lapses into rather strange behavior, Tom was relatively sure that Allever wasn't really crazy or abusing drugs. He kept himself clean and had a steady job. Allever had been living in the apartment for a year when Tom moved in, and the property manager - who lived next door - only had good things to say about him. Tom wondered what she'd think about their new door decorations. "So, umm, should I ask why you put scissors on the door to keep snakes out?"

"Snakes," Allever said, "are often depicted as agents of temptation and corruption. I suspect that this is a misapprehension based upon their phallic appearance, but it is better to be safe than sorry. You needed to be protected from temptation. You didn't come home last night. Again. You smell like beer. What bar was it this time and what was her name?"

"You're not my priest, Allever. Don't lecture me. I just stayed over at a friend's place."

"So... was this friend," Allever paused, briefly, "pretty?"

"Yeah. So was her couch, where I slept." Tom glared at him. "Alone," he added. "Not that I had to be alone, but it seemed like the best choice at the time. Now, I'm not so sure what I was thinking."

"Ah. Good. I kept the snakes away, then." Allever began methodically slicing his waffle along the grid pattern so that he had separate, little jelly-filled squares.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween!

I have random songs from The Nightmare Before Christmas stuck in my head. I suppose it could be worse.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

d20 Tweaking: Level Adjustments

Over on EN World, there is a thread about the frustrations of trying to make an effective PC wizard who happens to be a Drow.

The problem is the Drow's Level Adjustment of +2, which means that Drow of a particular number of experience points are always going to be behind several other races when it comes to class level, caster level, and the like - despite the fact that Drow have a reputation as superior spellcasters.

This is a common problem with Level Adjusted races, and it isn't the only one. While members of these races would, comparatively, be rather powerful at lower levels, their racial abilities rarely stack up at high levels. There are some exceptions - Half-Celestials and Half-Fiends, for instance, gain significant new abilities as their hit dice increase - but these exceptions are few and far between.

Even at lower levels, though, members of these races suffer some serious problems. A Drow wizard of ECL 3 has one wizard level and is equivalent in experience points to a 3rd level human wizard. That 3rd level wizard will have about three times as many hit points as the Drow. Can a first level, 1-HD wizard really be effective in a third level adventure, even if he has additional racial abilities? Maybe, but the balance seems off in some ways.

How can we fix Level Adjustments?

In Unearthed Arcana, we see rules for 'buying off' level adjustments. These optional rules solve a significant part of the problem at high levels. They don't do anything for lower level characters, though.

Another option would be to expand all level adjusted races to be like the Half-Fiend and Half-Celestial. For example, the Drow might gain additional spell like abilities... or maybe +1 caster level at, say, levels 3, 6, and 12. In the latter case, a 12th level Drow wizard would have equivalent xp to a 14th level human wizard, but have a higher caster level (though a smaller spell capacity). This still does little to alleviate the problems of low-level characters, though.

I think a satisfying solution will need to abandon Level Adjustments in favor of some other limitation. Ideally, we want something that is something of a liability at low levels but which doesn't render a character unplayably weak - while having little effect at high levels.

I don't have a perfect solution, but here are a couple of options:

1) The Commoner Route
Level Adjustment does not figure into Effective Character Level. If a race has a Level Adjustment of X, then every even level gained up to and including 2x is a level of the Commoner NPC Class. When a character reaches 3x, he may begin to 'buy off' the Level Adjustment as per the rules in Unearthed Arcana. Each level of Level Adjustment bought off in this way allows the character to replace a level of Commoner with a level of a base PC class.

2) The Level-Related Benefits Route
Again, Level Adjustment does not figure into Effective Character Level. Instead, a character gains standard level-related benefits (feats and ability score adjustments) as if her level were her Actual Level - (3 x her Level Adjustment). Thus, an Tiefling character (with a Level Adjustment of +1) would gain her first bonus feat at level 4 (instead of 1) and her first ability score adjustment at level 7 (instead of 4)., while a Drow would gain her first bonus feat at level 7 and her first ability score adjustment at level 10.

Monday, October 23, 2006

I don't need no stinkin' dice bag...

In the last post, Jeff (semi-inadvertently) reminded me that there was another picture I needed to post.

I keep my dice in this:

Sunday, October 22, 2006

I'm the best at what I do...

In my Wednesday night D&D game, I play a druid who often wild-shapes into a dire wolverine. One of our early encounters in the game was with a dire wolverine, and it made an impression. I've typically used a dire bear miniature to represent him in that form, but Angela recently made me an actual dire wolverine miniature:

More pics here.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Character Death

Character death is not something I have dealt with a great deal. In general, I'm opposed to player character death determined by the roll of a die. This is odd, of course, because most of the games I play include this as a possibility and, indeed, as the assumed method of character death.

In my mind, player characters are the heroes of the game, and heroes don't die meaningless deaths. It is certainly possible for a meaningful death to come from a dice roll, but I don't have an objection to those - and I think them the exception rather than the rule.

Why do I bring this up? I had a character die on Wednesday. It wasn't a character I had an investment in - it wasn't even one I'd played before . In thinking about it, though, I can't remember the last time I had a character who died in a way that wasn't pre-planned. It seems like, in many cases, GMs I've played with have bent the rules of the game in order to keep characters alive... because their deaths at that point would have reduced the fun of the game.

...yet games continue to allow for the possibility of random death. The purpose of doing so, I take it, is to add an element of challenge and a sense of danger to things like combat. Death seems to me to be the easy (and unimaginative) way out - there are plenty of other things that could be at stake. The neo-forgey way of dealing with this seems to center around setting those stakes on the fly, but I don't see why stakes other than death couldn't be built into a system.

For example, imagine a mighty warrior who loses a battle badly. He is dishonored, shamed, and loses his self-confidence. He lays down his sword and is reluctant to fight. This sort of thing happens all the time in fiction. How could we do this in a rpg? Take d20:
When a fighter is reduced to 0 hp, he either falls unconscious or is dishonored. A dishonored fighter suffers a -2 penalty on Will saves (-4 vs. fear or compulsion), attack and damage rolls, and all Strength and Dexterity based skill checks. A dishonored fighter must make a dc 15 Will save to pick up a weapon and a dc 20 Will save to initiate combat.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Noble Confusion

Angela got me a copy of Nobilis for my birthday.

I don't know what to make of it. The book is pretty, yes. It is written by Rebecca Borgstrom, which - to me - means that the fiction will be good, the game text will read like fiction, and the game mechanics will likely be frustratingly unclear. This is, however, speculation. I hope I find it to be more playable than that... and I have some reason to believe I will. I know several people who have played it who I have always identified as fairly straightforward gamers.

I'll take a close look at it and report back with my impressions. In the meantime, I'm fully satisfied with admiring it as an artifact.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Cool GMs

Today is my birthday. To celebrate it, I will spread the love. Here, then, are things I appreciate about my GMs (without their names attached):
  1. You describe short cut-scenes with recurring villains/NPCs who we haven't seen for awhile. This effectively keeps them in our minds, so that when they do show up again it is meaningful.
  2. Your game is always fast-paced and fun. I wish that I could bottle your pacing.
  3. Your NPCs are cool. Your method of building them - as far as I can tell - is to find a colorful special ability or feat or whatever and create a character that would naturally have that ability. This also creates some really memorable challenges.
  4. You go with the flow. If the players come up with something that shocks you (and they often do), you don't smack them down. Instead, you appreciate it.

Friday, October 13, 2006

d20 Tweaking: Dragons

This thread over at EN World is commenting on a recent article at the Wizard's web site by David Noonan.

The bit that I found interesting about the article - and the thread - was the belief that dragons-as-sorcerers is too complex and doesn't fit the concept of dragon's well. While I like the draconic connection to the sorcerer class, I have to agree that having a dragon casting a spell in combat just as a human or an elf would is kind of lame.

How would I fix this?

I'd make dragons more naturally magic. They aren't spellcaster so much as the living source of spells.

What the hell does that mean?

Well, first, a dragon should have spell-like abilities, rather than spells. A dragon shouldn't need spell components like a sorcerer does. (To me, the idea of a dragon using most material components is ridiculous.) These spell-like abilities could be chosen from the sorcerer spell list, and dragons might be very flexible in their use of them (to evoke the nature of the spontaneous caster). However, in my considered opinion, a dragon's spells shouldn't generally be used like spells - they should show up naturally in what a dragon does. It is kind of boring if the Blue Dragon casts Chain Lightning or shocking grasp. On the other hand, if it breathes lightning at a target and lightning arcs off of that target to strike all of its allies - or if the dragon bites you and its teeth - without warning - coruscate with electricity doing an extra 5d6 damage... well, I think either of those would be much cooler. If a dragon casts Hold Person, it is just a dragon casting a spell, but if all those who succumb to its frightful presence become subject to a Hold Person spell effect... again, this seems cool.

One way of accomplishing this would be to steal spell channelling abilities from classes like the Duskblade or Spellsword or Enlightened Fist. Additionally, we could create a feat that allow a dragon to attach a spell effect to its Frightful Presence... which, incidentally, begins to look a wee bit like that Draconic Aura thing that Wizards has been into lately.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Background, revisited

So, a month or so ago, I was griping about my resistance to writing a background for my Exalted character.

The character's name is Hijiki. He and his water elemental business partner, Fluidity of Truth, scavenged shipwrecks and other sources of undersea wealth... and then Hijiki became one of the Solar Exalted. Other than a character sheet (which, for an Exalted character, includes some backgroundy stuff like Motivation - which for Hijiki was "To uncover the lost secrets of the First Age and spread them across Creation.") and what he was doing immediately before the beginning of game (which sort of took the form of a kicker involving pirates and a sunken golden sarcophagus), that's essentially all the background that I had coming in to the game.

The GM wanted more. I asked her why, and I got two primary reasons (1) to find out more about what sorts of things I'd be interested in and (2) to give her some background material to work with in tying the characters and campaign together. (2) was a more compelling reason (to me) than (1) was - I was enjoying the game as it was going... and I'd already given her a list of things I was interested in: discovering undersea wealth and legends, uncovering lost secrets, and exploring the relationship with Fluidity of Truth.

I supposed, though, that I could flesh that out a bit. What about the relationship did I want to explore? Why was I in the business I was in? I really didn't want the character tied down with family, but I suppose I should define it. Perhaps I can give some depth to the reasoning behind why he was chosen specifically as an Eclipse Caste (who are normally emissaries, diplomats, travelers, and merchants). In the meantime, I could come up with some cool background elements.

Here is what I came up with:

Hijiki grew up on Seaflower, a small island West of the Neck. Seaflower was so named for its major claim to fame, a potent liquor made from the fermented petals of a Wyld-touched species of flowering surface kelp.

The people of Seaflower would regularly travel out to the edge of the Wyld to collect the flowers. The population of the island was small, and mostly centered around the port, where the flower-harvester, Seaflower exporters, and taverns all did business.

Hijiki's father was a Seaflower addict. It happened to some people, particularly those who had been long-exposed to the flower in its raw state. He practically lived in the seaside taverns, spending his days and nights in a strange sort of reverie. He'd tell fantastic stories that he had no right to know. Some of these were found to be true. This was a side effect of Seaflower addiction. It is said that a passing knowledge of legends come to those who drink of the Seaflower... and, indeed, in taverns where the Seaflower flows, so do stories.

Hijiki never knew his mother, and his father was rarely attentive, though Hijiki

He was learning to be a flower-harvester, travelling out alone toward the Wyld for the first time, when he met Fluidity of Truth. The two spoke for a while. Fluidity of Truth seemed interested in one of the stories he had learned from his father, the tale of an island that had sunk beneath the waves, maybe half a week away from Seaflower. The next week, Fluidity of Truth reappeared. The island was there, he said, not more than 100 feet below the surface. The two of them set out to explore it and recover what they could...

Thus began a partnership that would last some time. Hijiki believes (but hasn't proven - and FoT is quiet on the issue) that Fluidity of Truth didn't happen upon him by accident... that he wanted to divert him (and him specifically) from a career as a flower-harvester. He isn't sure why, though... always loved listening to his stories and retained far more of their content than his father ever did. Other islanders kept an eye on him, but he largely raised himself. He'd often travel from household to household on the island, gathering what he could from one family's goodwill and leaving before he wore out his welcome.

It is not too long. It introduces a couple of plot hooks (whatever happened to his mother? what is the deal with Seaflower and legends? is there something Fluidity of Truth is keeping from him?) and some potentially cool general background (Seaflower: the island, plant, and liquor) without defining much about the character that I'd be likely to violate in play (which was a concern). A few things in the background were specifically written to explain some of the choices he's made so far in the game... and to provide me with the basis for consistency in playing the character.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

d20 Tweaking: The Hexblade

The Hexblade is a base character class introduced in the Complete Warrior. The basic idea of the class is a primarily martial character with some arcane abilities - most notably the ability to call down a curse on its foes. I like the concept. Unfortunately, I really dislike the execution. His supplementary powers are of very limited use. The curse ability can only be used a very limited number of times per day. At low levels, the Hexblade quickly runs out of curse uses and usually functions as a second-rate fighter. At 4th level, the Hexblade gets to begin casting a few spells and can gain a familiar. His spells are generally ineffective, though, since he has so few of them and their caster level is limited. Familiars are thought by many to be liabilities more than assets - with a Hexblade's high hit points and BAB and a few familiar-boosting spells, a Hexblade's familiar can actually be fairly competent in combat, but the cost of having one die is rather high.

I've been tempted to revise the Hexblade. If I were to do so, I'd concentrate on its two key features: martial combat and cursing.

I'd scrap the spellcasting and the familiar altogether. My Hexblade deals in hexes, not spells. I'd model the basic curse ability off of the auras of the Marshall or the Dragon Shaman. The Hexblade would have a choice of learning a number of minor hexes that would have an effect on all enemies within a certain radius. (examples of weaker curses off the top of my head: The Curse of Fragility - All items held, worn, or carried by the Hexblade's affected enemies have their Hardness reduced by the Hexblade's Charisma modifier. The Curse of Clumsy Defense - All of the Hexblade's enemies affected have their Dexterity modifier to Armor Class reduced by the Hexblade's Charisma modifier; if a Dexterity modifier to Armor Class is reduced to 0 or below, that enemy counts as having lost its Dexterity modifier to Armor Class.) These would be useable an unlimited number of times per day. More powerful hexes could be learned at higher levels. There would also be a Hex Strike power that would more strongly hex an enemy struck in combat. This might be useable a limited number of times per day. Alternately, I might make it freely useable, but reduce the damage of the attack on which it is used.

Other than that, I'd probably scrap the bonus feats a Hexblade gets in favor of a choice of abilities that can expand the usefulness of the hexes (such as expanding the hex area, being able to put up a hex as a swift action, increasing the difficulty of resisting the hex, or other sorts of things). I'd also give the Hexblade a good Fortitude Save, but drop Mettle as a class ability. Mettle is cool and all, but it doesn't seem right for a class with a poor Fort Save to have it.

I'd be really tempted to increase the number of skill points that the Hexblade gets... and to increase its armor proficiency. I think I'd need to see how it balanced out power-wise before I did either of these things, though.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Why are there ability scores?

On occasion, I like to think about statting out various fictional characters in RPG-terms. One frustration I often have with this most geeky of passtimes is that, in most RPGs, a character's capabilities are well-defined across all areas. In fiction, this isn't the case. Unless it is a defining characteristic of a fictional character, you rarely know how strong that person is. Similarly, you might read a series of books centered around a particular character and not discover entire skill sets that the character has presumably always had until they become relevant to the story.

If I am playing, say, a Sorcerer in D&D who relies on blasting things with spells, my strength is probably wholly irrelevant. I might have an 8. I might have a 12. Is it really going to have a significant effect either way? Probably not. If it doesn't have an effect, why bother with it? Why not only record ability scores when they are notable? What would a system that took these considerations seriously look like?

Unknown Armies does this a bit - There are four stats (Body/Speed/Mind/Soul) and a few everyman-type skills, but beyond that all of a character's abilities are user-defined. This is pretty neat, even if it isn't exactly what I'm thinking of here.

I want to explore this a bit more. Let's use d20 as a framework. First, we'd get rid of the standard six ability scores. We'd keep the skill list, though. Instead of ability scores, we'd have some ability feats that you could take at character creation (and, perhaps, under special circumstances later). These might be things like "Great Strength: +2 to attack/damage and (some subset of) skill rolls" or - even more specifically - "Great Leg Strength: +2 to attack/damage on kick attacks, +4 to Jump rolls, and +5' base movement." Similarly, you could take Flaws such as "Weakling" or "Poor Eyesight" or whatever that would probably look a bit like the flaws in Unearthed Arcana.

Friday, October 06, 2006

More from the "Campaign Ideas I'll Probably Never Use" file

Another D&D campaign setting idea, this one combines Fallout and the Underdark:

An eon ago, there was the Cataclysm. We only have the stories to tell us what happened. Some say that wizards probed too deeply into the nature of magic and that something in the nature of the world simply snapped. Others say that there was a war in which such powers were unleashed that the world itself suffered as a result. Most stories agree that the sun itself changed in the Cataclysm. That is why we came Below - to escape it. Most of us simply lived within the caverns near the surface. We have traveled somewhat deeper since those early years - both for mining and to escape the range the fell beasts which now roam the desolate surface world. We have not gone too deep, however. We learned that lesson well. Some of us in the first few years travelled farther Below than the rest of us. For centuries, we thought them lost. The truth, we later discovered, was that they had been changed by their time in the deep earth. Those who traveled deep who were of the elven race, for example, were corrupted by a demon and have become her cultists...

Basically, take the standard D&D races and stick them into the upper levels of the Underdark. This will probably require giving them a boost in low-light/darkvision. The "standard" Underdark versions of PC races (Elf-Drow, Dwarf-Duergar, Gnome-Svirfneblin... maybe Human-Orc? and/or maybe Grimlock? and Halfling-Derro?) become twisted offshoots who delved too deep and were corrupted or otherwise changed.

Possible campaign ideas: (1) The re-connection with the "Deep" races may have been recently made. Diplomatic/trade relations may need to be set up... or perhaps there are the rumblings of a war. Alternately, perhaps the "Deep" races have encountered even more twisted things (Illithids and/or Aboleths, say) and seek an alliance against an enemy... or to use the PCs as a weapon against their enemies... (2) The PCs may need to scout out new, deeper areas for settlement. This could include a lot of exploration and conflict with the inhabitants of those areas. (3) Eventually, PCs may want (or need) to travel to the surface, which might be a place even more inhospitable than the Underdark.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Milestone

There comes a time in every gamer's life when he kills his first Tarrasque.

Well, maybe not every gamer.

In any case, last night - for me - was that time.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Ultimate

So what is the ultimate d20 gaming accessory?

Jon, alongside whom I play with in Jeff's game, has these nifty plastic frame thingamjigs that you can place on a battlemap. They are the outlines of effects of various radii. They are extremely useful when you don't want to have to figure out the size of an effect in the middle of a fight. On the other hand, they are kind of floppy and cumbersome. They are cool, but I don't know that I'd call them the ultimate in gaming accessories.

What I would find to be the ultimate accessory would be something that would make it simple to keep track of a wide variety of status effects and how they interact. My character is under the effects of Bull's Strength, Haste, Prayer, Protection from Evil, and the Inspire Greatness bard song, but he's just been dazzled and knocked prone. I want something that will allow me to quickly get the sums of the modifiers to his attack rolls, damage, AC, saves, etc. That would rock.

I always hated being the banker in Monopoly...

EN World has been pushing this Fantasy Money thing hard, billing it as the ultimate gaming accessory. Essentially, fantasy money is a bunch of bills in denominations like 5cp or 100gp or whatever. It is Monopoly money for D&D.

This strikes me as the worst idea ever.

Part of it is that I don't like to worry about piddly sums of funds in most of my D&D games. If my character is relatively wealthy, I'd prefer to not worry about anything with a negligible cost. If the cost is negligible, I'm going to ignore it. I don't want to have to trade in a 1,000 gp bill and get change so I can spend 10 cp. That is a lot of pointless busywork.

Moreover, I can tell you... I have enough trouble keeping track of my character sheets. For a lot of games, I just print out a new one each session. I certainly don't want to have to keep track of where I've stashed a pile of bills.

Lastly, I don't even see what this accomplishes. How is passing bills back and forth (and making appropriate change) any easier than keeping a running total on the back of your character sheet?

Okay, it might not be the worst idea ever. There are a lot of really bad ideas out there, like the $1,000 ice cream sundae. I suppose this is a better idea than that...

Friday, September 29, 2006

Fortune in the Middle

I've been thinking a lot about the skill-based spellcasting method for d20 that I discussed in an earlier post - in particular, the manner in which I suggested applying metamagic in the comments. This amounts to a sort of hybrid fortune in the middle mechanic. The idea is that you'd declare the spell, roll the dice, and depending upon the result rolled you could fail, succeed, or even add metamagic effects.

It occurred to me that this could also be used in combat in a d20 variant. What if, say, for every 5 points you exceeded the number that you needed to hit a target by you gained a success level? Success levels could then be spent on things like a free disarm attempt, adding a status effect to the target (who might get a save), or even a critical hit.

In general, I like these sorts of mechanics. They give players an interesting sort of freedom to make their character effective in the manner in which they envision them.

I'm somewhat surprised at how few conventional/popular rpgs use such mechanics, however. The only non-indie rpgs I can think of which use these sorts of mechanics are Secret of Zir'an and (in limited situations) Unknown Armies, both of which somewhat out of the mainstream. Is there a reason that these mechanics aren't in more common use? Is it just historical momentum, or am I just a weirdo for thinking this is a good idea?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Two weeks and counting...

As of tonight, it will have been two weeks since I last roleplayed.

This feels like some sort of strange milestone, but mostly it has been frustrating. I've been miserably sick, and currently have no voice. I feel particularly bad about bailing on people with whom I have regularly -scheduled games, but there is not a lot I can do.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Campaign ideas I'll probably never use

I don't know why it is that I come up with ideas for campaigns that I will probably never run. I suppose that if I put them up here, someone might get some use out of them. In any event, in this edition of Campaign Ideals I'll Probably Never Use, I give you a D&D campaign:

Sigil, Hardboiled

Concept: The characters work for a private investigation firm in Sigil.

Explanation: There isn't much more needed than the concept. The Planescape setting does most of the work for you. Toss in a mysterious owner for the P.I. firm and blatantly steal plot elements and tone from Noir fiction.

Rule variants: You'd probably want to keep this fairly combat-light and skill-heavy. Extra skill points and/or a few free class skills wouldn't be out of the question. I'd suggest starting PCs at about 3rd-4th level and keeping advancement slow. Don't give experience points for killing things. That isn't the goal. XP should be given out for uncovering clues, solving problems, and resolving cases.

Variations on the concept: For a slightly more traditional variation, try Shadowrun in Sigil. Factions replace corporations. The PCs become troubleshooters and theives for hire, specializing in tricky jobs. Some of these could run a lot like traditional dungeon trap-fests. PCs would have to depend on ingenuity and clever use of resources.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Remember, remember the Realms this September...

I know almost nothing about the Forgotten Realms, the more-or-less default setting for D&D. I was always a Greyhawk kid, I guess. I never had any of the 2e FR products (books, modules, boxed sets) despite having a decent amount of other D&D things from that era. Until I played through Icewind Dale II a couple years ago, my largest exposure to the Realms was probably Elminister showing up in the pages of Dragon Magazine.

So why did I borrow my roommate's copy of The Dark Elf Trilogy?

I part, it is due to a morbid fascination... I mean, I mock the silly drow ranger thing on occasion. I should probably know what I am talking about. I'm also constantly mystified when I see R.A. Salvatore books on the bestseller list. Do non-gamers read this stuff? They must. I'm curious as to why. We'll see if I can get through it.

The other part is due to actual interest. I find the Underdark to potentially be an interesting setting, and I'd like to see what has been done with it. I've had a campaign concept in my head that is largely set there, but I haven't really fleshed out little setting details. I tend to find gaming novels to be good tools for getting a sort of holistic feel for settings. In most cases, I find that to be the only real good use for them.

So, how much will I regret reading these books?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

let me give you some background here...

So, I am playing in an Exalted game that meets every other week or so. It started up relatively recently. I don't really have the time for it, but I wanted to play in the game. So far, I've been having fun.

I have one strange problem with the game. The GM wants me to submit a character history. I find this to be a strange problem because this is usually the sort of thing I do automatically. I like to write down notes on characters in order to help myself flesh them out more fully. I've been finding myself increasingly resistant to this, though.

I think that this comes from my LARP (Live Action Role-Playing) days. I was (once upon a time) very involved with vampire LARPing (I was a clan coordinator for One World By Night for awhile, if that tells you anything). In LARPs, when you bring in a new character, it is entering into a very fleshed out social world. The sorts of backgrounds players wrote for their characters (which unsurprisingly tended toward ever-increasing badassedness) rarely meshed well with that world unless the player was familiar with it. Moreover, when the GM : Player ratio is about 1 : 20 (at best), little of your character's background is going to make it into the plot.

This never stopped people from trying - nor did it stop GM-types from recommending (or requiring) detailed backgrounds. I was as guilty of this as anyone, though I did make an effort to at least draw plot ideas from PC backgrounds.

In the five years or so since I've been in a vampire LARP, I've written a number of character backgrounds, but they've become shorter and shorter as time has gone on- now they rarely do more than sketch out major life events and relationships. They rarely detail anything that would count as an adventure that would have occurred before the game's beginning. I've begun to see the fundamental futility of the PC background. A character isn't the person described in a document written before play begins; a character is the person who is described through play.

Friday, August 11, 2006


Okay. Yesterday, RPGpundit declared (among other things):
D&D is the model of what most people define as an RPG, and therefore also the model for a successfully-designed RPG. It can be improved upon or changed, but any theory that suggests that D&D in any of its versions was an example of a "bad" RPG is by definition in violation of the Landmarks.
He's made this claim (and stronger variations on it) before, and a lot of people seem to accept it as gospel. To be sure, there's an element of truth here. RPG theories don't work if they indicate that D&D isn't fun. It is. A lot of people enjoy it.

On the other hand, there is a fallacy inheren in this. The fact that D&D is the model of what most people define as an RPG in no way entails that it must be the model for every successfully-designed RPG. There is no logical connection there at all. Moreover, the fact that D&D is the model of what most people define as an RPG does not even entail that it is a particularly well-designed RPG (though it may be).

What does it mean to be popularly perceived as the model RPG? It means that you have the largest market share around. Let's replace D&D and RPG with some other things:
Coca-Cola is the model of what most people define as a soft drink, and therefore also the model for a successfully-designed soft drink. It can be improved upon or changed, but any theory that suggests that Coca-Cola in any of its versions was an example of a "bad" soft drink is by definition in violation of the Landmarks.
McDonalds is the model of what most people define as fast food, and therefore also the model for successfully-designed fast food. It can be improved upon or changed, but any theory that suggests that McDonalds in any of its versions was an example of "bad" fast food is by definition in violation of the Landmarks.
George W. Bush is the model of what most people define as the U.S. President, and therefore also the model for a successful U.S. President. It can be improved upon or changed, but any theory that suggests that Bush in any of his versions was an example of a "bad" U.S. President is by definition in violation of the Landmarks.

Now, I'm not saying that D&D is bad or anything. I'm just saying that this argument is invalid. A graduate education in philosophy has made this sort of thing into a bit of a pet peeve.

Another picture

Here is a picture of a Reaver Daiklave that I made. Originally, I made a cardboard daiklave on a whim for Nick (pictured holding this one - he runs the long-running Exalted game I play in) because he was going to go to a costume party. In part, I made it because I was curious to find out just how large and unweildy these things would be.

The cardboard was less than satisfactory, however, and I soon began it obsessive project that is pictured below. You can't really see the grip on this thing, but it is over a foot long. The blade is over 4 feet long. It's made of spraypainted (and hand-carved) hardboard.

The whole thing is ridiculously heavy and would be near-impossible to actually use - which is unsurprising, really.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Impromptu D&D party

The discovery of gummi eyeballs at the dollar store prompted my roommate to make a beholder cake:

Of course, at my house, we believe that anything doing is worth doing in excess.

So originated the rust monster:

and the baby grell:

...and, of course, no party would be complete without the Gelatinous Cubes:

(I also made a red and green slaad.)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sleep is for the dead

Last night, we played Don't Rest Your Head, an indie game I picked up after reading a number of glowing reviews.

While the game isn't perfect, we had a lot of fun. Don't Rest Your Head is like a cross between Neverwhere and Dark City... or if The Phantom Tollbooth had been made with the sensibilities of Jacob's Ladder. Characters are bizarrely powerful insomniacs. The setting is dark, surreal, and full of symbolism. The mechanics, in which you get your strength from a combination of acquiring exhaustion and courting madness, reinforce the atmosphere well.

The game was centered around finals week. My character was Timothy "Moth" Parker. His father and his grandfather had been watchmakers, and he had a bit of an obsessive need to be on time to things. With late nights studying and early morning exams that he was terrified of sleeping through, he hadn't actually slept in a week. Heading into his last exam, he didn't recognize anyone from his class. He checked the schedule and found that it was for the next year's finals. He checked the school paper and the date matched the finals schedule. He'd somehow skipped ahead a year in time. Eventually, after travelling into the surrealistic Mad City with some other insomniacs, he discovered that he had that year saved up... and could parcel it out in small increments, effectively stopping time for everyone but himself.

Anyway, we had a lot of fun. The mechanics flowed fairly smoothly, despite us needing to pass dice around. We had a few too many (5) players, though. I think the game would work better with a small group and might function really well for a one-on-one session/campaign.

The mechanics, now that I think about it, are similar in idea to something I'd thought of a couple of years ago. In DRYH, you have three die pools: Discipline, Exhaustion, and Madness. These are rolled against the GM's Pain pool. Discipline is usually three dice. Exhaustion and Madness range from 0 to 6 dice each. The Pain can get up to 15 dice, but is typically 4-7 or so. The player and the GM each roll their pool and compare total successes (1-3 on a 6-sided die). Whoever wins is successful in the conflict. Then the four pools (Discipline, Exhaustion, Madness, and Pain) are looked at and whichever has the highest number showing Dominates the conflict. Dominating a conflict generally colors how it turns out. Some effects of this: if you want to succeed in a conflict, you can add more Exhaustion and/or Madness to your pool. You'll probably win the conflict if you do, but you run the risk of having Exhaustion or Madness dominate - and those are pretty much as bad as they sound.

Once upon a time, I was considering a game mechanic (for a heroic fantasy-type game) that used Self-Determination and Fate in similar sorts of ways - the idea was that you were likely to succeed, but the important question was how you succeeded - whether you were a slave of fate or whether you forged your own destiny.

In any case, some pros and cons of the game:

  • Great atmosphere supported by the mechanics.
  • Really fast character creation
  • Fast-flowing gameplay
  • Potentially really good for one-on-one play (which is kind of rare)
  • A bit clumsy with large groups. Mechanics for multiple protagonists in a conflict don't seem to work too well (though that might have been due to our misunderstanding of them).
  • I worry about how it would stand up to an extended campaign - it seems better suited to short story arcs insofar as characters really can't go to sleep (well... they can... but it is a bad idea).

Friday, July 28, 2006

d20 Magic System Musings...

Spellcasting in d20 bugs me for a number of reasons:
  • Spell knowledge is all-or-nothing. If you know a spell, you can cast it without error. If you don't know a spell, you just can't cast it. There is no looking up spells you don't know in ancient grimoires. Moreover, you can't be in the process of learning a spell and attempt to cast it even though you probably ought not do so.
  • Following up on the last point, you know all of your spells equally well (unless you take a feat to specialize in a school of magic or something).
  • It is entirely possible for a high-level sorcerer (or wizard, but sorcerer is more likely) to have a high-level spell of a particular type (a fire spell, say... or a powerful illusion spell) without having any lower level spells of that type. You can cast Meteor Storm, but not Fireball, Delayed Blast Fireball, Flaming Sphere, Scorching Ray, or even Burning Hands? You can cast Monster Summoning IX, but none of I-VIII? How much sense does that make?
  • The whole memorize-and-forget thing is dumb.
  • Metamagic is cool, but marginalized. It requires a serious investment in feats, as well as (in general) advanced planning. It was obviously a subsystem that was tacked onto a pre-existing magic system. Why isn't it integrated? Why can't spells be adapted in various ways on the fly?
Random, rambling thoughts towards fixing these things:
  • Spell use is skill-based. A roll is required. For well-known spells, failure on the roll may not mean failure to cast the spell. It might simply mean that it is cast at a lower caster level or somesuch. A roll, however, allows DCs to be set for things such as applying metamagic.
  • Spells are grouped. There might be an "Evoke Fire" group that has Burning Hands, Scorching Ray, Fireball, etc. in it - as well as metamagic versions of those spells. Knowing a spell in that group will make it easier to cast other spells in that group that you don't know well. It will also allow some improvisation within that group. Improvisation might be more of a sorcerer thing than a wizard thing. Sorcerers are naturals - Wizards learn by rote.
  • Ritual spellcasting - find something in a musty old book? Well... you can make a casting check to attempt to cast the spell as a ritual, even if it isn't a spell you could normally cast. Look at the Incantation rules in Unearthed Arcana for inspiration. This should be more a wizard thing than a sorcerer thing.
  • Spells will be classed something like unknown, familiar, and known.
  • With a casting check and rules for learning spells, do I need a spells/day limit? What if subsequent castings of different spells of similar difficulty impose a penalty?
  • Casting a spell at a lower caster level should lower the difficulty. I have no problem with a twelfth level wizard tossing 5d6 Lightning Bolts all day long.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Crazy 88

Last night's D&D game...

The opponents:

95 8th level Githyanki
4 19th level Githyanki
2 half-fiend red dragons (juvenile, I think)


It took us 2.5 rounds. None of the PCs were seriously injured.

Yes, the game is unrepentantly high-powered, but I still don't know what to think.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Check it out

My first paid publishing gig has been released. I have an article in the June issue of the Silven Trumpeter.

I'm toying with the idea of writing another article for them, but I'm not sure what I want to write about. Do I do a follow-up to the current article (which is about adding moral complexity to roleplaying) or do I write something wholly different?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Inspiration and ramblings

Over the weekend, I read The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams. As a good changeling story, it is immediately going on the Neitherworld inspiration list. I've read a good chunk of the stull Williams has written at this point, and I'd generally recommend it as inspirational reading for gaming. Much of the action in The War of the Flowers takes place in Faerie. Like some depictions of Faerie (and like the virtual world in the Otherland books Williams wrote), the geography is inconstant. Locations are not always the same distance from each other and journeys between two places do not always pass through the same intervening locales. I find this interesting compared to the map-boundness of the typical rpg setting. Maps are useful to players insofar as they provide background information and a sense of context. Thinking about it, though, I can see how they could inhibit drama and tension. I know that in the Exalted game that I play in, travel has become trivial. While this has some advantages, there are also costs - in particular, we have lost the tension that is usually created by the dangers of travel and the risk of getting lost or being late. I think there is a balancing act here, and it might be made easier by loosening strict assumptions about geography.

I also recently read Ex Machina (the comic, not the rpg), which was amazingly cool and gave me a nifty idea about costumed vigilanteism as a social movement (an odd riff off of Watchmen) that I will have to use somewhere...

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Playing Softball

Yesterday, over on his gameblog, Jeff was talking about a game he ran last night and the possibility of a total party kill. I'm a player in the game (and the TPK didn't happen by a long shot), but that wasn't what really hit home about his blog entry. What really made an impact was when he said:
But times like this really underline the inherent conflict in my approach to Dungeon Mastering. On the one hand I am totally rooting for the party. I want the good guys to win and the players to go home happy. On the other hand I can't reach a satisfactory payoff with doing my darnest to make life hell on the PCs. And there's no better way of making a win credible than by setting up tough opposition and letting the dice fall where they may. The problem with this approach is that sometimes the whole thing goes down the toliet.
I completely understand this. When I GM, I want the PCs to win. I want the players to be happy. Most players are happy when they overcome challenges. This means that, as a GM, I should pose them challenges designed for them to overcome.

The problem that I run into is that when designing challenges for them to overcome, I tend to concentrate a bit too much on the overcoming bit and skimp on the challenge bit. I know that this was an issue in the Exalted game that I ran... after I almost killed a group of Solar PCs with a single starting Dragonblood I tended to underestimate the strength of the PCs and send fairly weak opponents against them. When truly serious opponents showed up, assistance was nearly always available (though not forced upon them).

I think what it boils down to is that I want the players to feel like their PCs are being challenged and that they are in danger. I don't necessarily want them to be in danger. Perhaps what I need to do is seriously consider the resources of the PCs. If I build challenges that are specifically designed to drain their resources, rather than kill them, will that simulate danger enough? I don't know.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Neitherworld Frustrations

The more I work on the multiple-player/one-character model for Neitherworld, the more I become convinced that it isn't feasible to meet all of my gameplay goals for that model. At this point, I am fairly convinced that I cannot write a game in which all of the players portray the same character unless either (1) the players take competitive roles toward one another or (2) there are constantly players who are sitting on the sidelines (though this might rotate). Neither of those are appealing to me. The third alternative was to share the GM-role between players who would otherwise be on the sidelines, but this isn't a playstyle that I'd be likely to enjoy, and I also suspect that it would devolve into (1).

I be a DM

So, last night I ran my first-ever d20 game. It is a campaign I've been planning to run for my housemates and unofficial household members for awhile now.

I think it went well. I framed it around a small trade caravan - as it seemed a good way of keeping the PCs together and forming a bond between them. I had a few pacing issues, but I don't think that they were apparent to the players until I admitted to them - mostly the issues were in my own head. The game was moving at a decent pace, but when planning the game I hadn't really expected to focus on several scenes that the players seemed interested in... so we didn't get nearly as far as I expected.


Wolfgang, the scout, who is leading the expedition. He's utterly broke and none too happy about it. He likes to swear in Goblin - it is a language made for expletives.

Alexis, the half-elven tinker, who is under orders from her guild to take some strange objects (including what looks like a full plate armored boot for a giant) to a small town.

Hezkhe, the druidic savant, who joined the caravan because it would cross the Giant's Stairway, a series of 50' high steps carved all the way up a mountain - a sight that she was excited to witness.

Isaac, the fighter/barbarian who left the big city for the frontier. He killed a tree. With a greatsword. That he threw. (He was aiming for a hobgoblin bandit, but the tree was in the way.) He came along because he heard Hezkhe talking excitedly about the stairs, and thought that they might be neat to climb. or something.

NPC-wise, so far, we have one NPC who could (and almost certainly will) turn into a recurring villain and an NPC merchant with whom I think the PCs are in a love-to-hate relationship. I'm curious to see if they heal him of his crossbow wound. We also have another merchant and her... boy. The relationship between the two seems curious and, maybe, a bit disturbing.

Next Session: Stairway to Heaven

Monday, April 17, 2006

d20 Tweaking: Hacking Classes

So, in the game I am about to begin running, I have four players.

One of them had a solid concept. He was toying with playing a Ranger, but didn't see his character as a spellcaster (much less a divine spellcaster). I showed him the Scout class. He was hooked.

Another wanted to play a tinker-type character with some spellcasting. If the game were set in Eberron, I'd have shown her the Artificer, but it isn't... and the Artificer is very focused on Eberron. She could have played a Wizard, but even with a high Intelligence score a Wizard isn't going to have many skill points to toss around at Craft abilities. A Bard? Closer, but most of its abilities don't mesh with the concept.

A third wanted to play a naturalist/scientist type. A druid seemed the most logical choice, but she didn't see her character as a shapeshifter.

The fourth went through a few concepts, but she settled on a nontraditional Fighter/Barbarian (a guy from the city who went off to seek his fortune and became a thrillseeker - the sort who, today, would be into extreme sports).

So, what did I do about the middle two? I made shit up. I figured that neither of these concepts were so strange that they deserved to be unsupported, especially considering the wild proliferation of classes that do exist in 3.5.

I designed a Tinker class. This is something I'd actually been working on anyway (in part inspired by conversations with her). It took the bard as a base, replaced sonic/song spells in the spell list with craft-based spells, and replaced bardic music with item-crafting abilities. Easy enough.

I created a Druidic Sage variant of the Druid, with no Wild Shape abilities, but with some extra knowledge-based abilities.

Easy enough.

Catching up and a new beginning

It has been awhile since I last posted. That doesn't mean I've been idle:

1. I've been working on an article for the Silven Trumpeter. It will focus on addressing moral issues in rpgs.
2. I've been setting up the groundwork for the D&D campaign that I'll be running for my roomates/extended household. More on this below.
3. I've been making a Reaver Daiklaive. I don't know why. Perhaps I'll post some pictures soonish.

So... the D&D game. I'm nervous about it. I haven't run a D&D game since 2nd ed... probably over 15 years ago. I've run other things since then, but I'm worried that my GMing style (I'd characterize it as fairly hands-off. I tend to focus on setting up conflicts and then letting players act as they will.) won't be conducive to an enjoyable D&D game.

Why am I running D&D as opposed to Exalted or Unknown Armies or Sorcerer or Wraith or... anything else?

Part of it is that one of my players (who has been roleplaying for about six years now) has always wanted to play in a D&D game, but has never managed to do so. Making her happy would be good. Part of it is that I love tweaking d20 rules, and running a game will let me playtest a few ideas I've had. Part of it is that I do actually have a fairly compelling (to me at least) campaign idea, and I'd like to see how it comes out... and it is fairly D&D dependent.

I'm nervous right now about the first game (this Thursday evening). Beginning a campaign always has a sort of a forced feel to it, and there is a lot that can go wrong. About half of the players are playing sort of jack-of-all-trades type characters - will D&D support a game in which there isn't much niche protection? At least one of my players has requested that this be a relatively combat-light D&D game. Do I really need to start the game off with combat? (My current plan is to throw a fight in there and leave it up to the players whether or not they want to get involved. It is possible that some will and some won't.) I plan on baiting the big hook for the campaign in the first session (though it won't be clear what it is) - what if they don't take it?

All of my questions will be answered soon enough, I suppose.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Exalted 2nd ed. Character Sheet

I got bored yesterday, and created what may one day become a semi-workable character sheet for Exalted 2nd ed. Here is the first draft of it.

Friday, March 24, 2006


I was reading this thread on The Forge, which was linked to in Ben Lehman's Blog, and got inspired by it to come up with a quick outline for a Sorcerer setting. I don't know what it is about that game that begs for it to be modded to other settings.

Anyway, the idea?

Sorcerers are post-war veterans. Demons are their training, their altered mindsets, their ability to kill, and their weapons. Are Demons entities apart from this? Perhaps. This is something that could be explored in game, particularly if you wanted to go for a more surreal Jacob's Ladder feel rather than something more Ramboesque. Humanity is empathy and the ability to see others as human. At Humanity 0, you simply can't interact with people anymore - people are mere objects, and those who stand in the way of even the smallest of your goals are likely to be killed without thought.

Source material? First Blood, Commando, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, or anything where someone resolves conflicts by relying upon combat training and/or a willingness to step outside of the normal rules of society.

Mandate of Heaven

So, I picked up the Exalted 2nd Ed. Storyteller's Companion last night. I did this primarily to check out the Mandate of Heaven rules. There is a thread on with a good overview of these rules, so I won't go into too much detail here. Essentially, the Mandate of Heaven rules are like Civilization: the RPG set in the world of Exalted. My roommate became very excited about it due to the thought that he could run his beloved Birthright in a system that would actually support its peculiarities.

The really notable thing about the Mandate of Heaven rules is that it makes a player/character distinction that one practically never sees in larger-market mainstream rpgs. By default, the players run city-states, nations, villages, etc that their characters may not be directly connected to - this is assumed to be a sort of mini-game that can serve both as a fun diversion, a way of having the players become involved in developing the game-world, and as a plot generator. Yes, there are rules for playing cities that are actually run (or influenced) by the player characters. These aren't the focus, though.

I haven't had the chance to read the rules in depth. I worry that they may be too complicated for casual use. This is unfortunate, as I would see the default method of playing this mini-game as being best used casually in periods of PC downtime.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Too much gaming

Right now, I'm involved in a lot of gaming. It isn't taking up quite as much of my life as it did when I was really involved with LARPing (and this is a very good thing), but it has gotten to the point where I have regularly had to put off plans to do productive things (like organize the kitchen, clean the chinchilla cage, paint, etc.) because of a game. Part of the issue is that work has been busy and refuses to be neatly confined to the hours between nine and five. Another part of the issue is that I'm lousy when it comes to time management.

On top of this, I'm probably going to run an occasional D&D game for my housemates... and I'm eyeing Exalted Second Edition.

The D&D game ought not to be a huge burden. It will be run every third week or so, and will steal time away from other games. I plan on using it to test out a few ideas that I've had about tweaking d20. One of the players will be playtesting a core Tinker class that I designed.

Exalted, I don't have any particular prospects to run, but I like what I've been hearing about the changes. I don't want to run it with the group I ran first edition with - they get too hung up on minutiae. This was a major frustration for me the first time around. If I run Exalted, I want the concerns to be big ones.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

How I learned to stop bean counting and love resource management...

As a general rule, I don't like resource management in role-playing games.

There are exceptions, of course. The rule is a general one, not absolute. Ultimately, though, I would rather be paying attention to the action than obsessively counting up tokens or paying attention to how long an effect will last. Steady depletion of resources doesn't build dramatic tension for me. Instead it simply increases my overall anxiety. I hate it when I get the feeling that I wasted something that I was saving for the right moment.

This really hit home the other night. I was playing (the non-d20 version of) Aberrant (reviews), a not-particularly-four-color superhero rpg put out by White Wolf. Like most White Wolf games, Aberrant has a resource pool that is depleted as you use your powers and replenished fairly haphazardly. In this case, it is called quantum, as opposed to quintessence, essence, gnosis, inspiration, pathos, glamour, or blood (betcha can't guess what game that last one was from). Now, I find the idea of resource-depletion management of this sort to be particularly odious in a superhero game. This might be because I still like the old Marvel Super Heroes game put out by TSR where the abilities made the acronym FASERIP.

Aberrant is otherwise a cool game, though. The setting is fairly well thought out to allow for stories based around conspiracies, politics, and changing the world. The rest of the mechanics are fairly strong, considering that they are built on White Wolf's Storyteller system.

I said that playing Aberrant the other night brought home how much I disliked resource management. In addition to managing a quantum pool, different powers have different durations. Some require that additional quantum be spent on them after a certain number of rounds or scenes. Others work as long as you concentrate on them. Going into the game, I was dreading the necessity of keeping track of all of this despite the fact that I was only likely to have 2-3 powers going at any one time. Ultimately, though, the GM decided to simplify things. We'd spend the quantum on our powers and they'd last until the end of the scene. At the end of the scene, we'd get some quantum back and our powers would need to be renewed.

All I had to keep track of was the quantum I used in the scene. He'd announce the scene end and tell us, at that point, how much quantum we'd get back. Next scene? Repeat. This was easy. I could do this without worrying. The relief I felt was tremendous. I must remember to keep resource management in my game designs no more complicated than this.