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


I can't decide if this is wonderful, terrifying, or both.

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...