Thursday, May 31, 2007

PC is for PsyChopath

The other night, I saw the first episode of Dexter, a TV series on Showtime which is based upon the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter. It was really good, but that isn't the point of this post.

Dexter is about a guy (named Dexter. surprise.) who was adopted at a young age after some sort of traumatic incident. He believes himself unable to feel emotions. His foster father, a cop, recognized early on that Dexter had homicidal tendencies. He taught Dexter to channel them and, essentially, trained Dexter to become a vigilante serial killer who preyed only on 'bad people' who the police couldn't catch. Dexter, now grown, works as a blood splatter analyst in forensics for the Miami police.

One of the first things that I thought was that this would be a cool RPG concept. Take someone who has a keen interest in vivisection, but only practices it on bad people... or evil creatures. In D&D, humans and demihumans may be off-limits, but orcs and goblinoids could be fair game.

Then I stopped and realized that I just described half the D&D characters in existence.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Gearing up

Life is busy.

I was out of town last week for work. I'll be out of town for at least one weekend this coming month, and I have a big work-event that I'm planning for the end of June.

...all that and Worldwide Adventure Writing Month.

I'm going to make it happen.

There will be goblins.

Oh yes. There will be goblins.

Touched by the Hand of Fate

Yesterday I ran the Secret of Zir'an one-shot for the C-U Run Club.

We didn't quite have enough time to finish. I had a nice set-piece battle for the end that we never actually got to. Part of it was me not noticing the time (I would have rearranged things to speed the plot up), part of it was me drawing out investigation-time (possibly out of a nervousness about running combat), and part of it was that the players went to the top deck instead of the bottom one at an inconvenient time...

I think, overall, it went OK.

I recreated a simplified character sheet because the official character sheet, is - in my mind - an example of how not to create one. I tried to keep it intuitive, and stuck the skill packages up front to help the players get an idea of who their characters were.

I ran a somewhat altered version of the Cargo of Doom - a quickstart adventure that Paragon published. The big change? Instead of an ocean liner, I set the adventure on an enormous airplane, held aloft by the giant runic glyphs on its four wings. Also, I stuck some mind-controlling shadow snakes in there... because you can't have an adventure on a plane without snakes. It is a law.

My frustrations about the game system were largely borne out. The skill system worked decently, but it was tricky to figure out when a PC counted as stressed and needed to roll rather than relying on a finesse level. I am also even more convinced than I was before that the skill list could be streamlined significantly.

Combat was significantly faster than I expected (and was aided when Jeff brought out some tokens for tracking speed), but it was still a bit confusing given the number of things that went into each attack: allocating speed, rolling the attack dice, rolling the defense dice, buying finesse effects, determining hit location, calculating damage vs. armor, applying vitality damage, applying lethal wounds, and applying any status effects. Gah.

The mob/mook rules didn't really work, though. I had a mob combat, and I found it somewhat boring. It failed to take advantage of the strengths of the system (the finesse effects).

Overall, the game has some brilliant ideas, but it desperately needs streamlining. As it is, on my character sheet, I just had one number (precalculated stat+aptitude+practice) for each skill. I found the double-resource-allocation (speed + finesse effects) to be a bit much. I'd probably eliminate the resource-allocation aspect of speed. Similarly, I'd simplify the wound system (this would probably involve multiplying damage/wound by lethal wounds... and maybe making vitality equal to double the wounds you have in your head or chest or something).

As long as I'm dream-revising the game, I'd get rid of all the silly terms that serve to clutter and confuse more than they add flavor. The Hand of Fate is a GM. Valdeyr are Merits and Flaws or Quirks or something. Ianer, Zhalanti, and Dolonorri are Humans, Elves, and Dwarves.

All my complaints aside, I'm definitely glad that I ran the game. I've been a fan of the setting since it came out, and I've been intrigued by the rules since I read them. It is one of those games that would benefit incredibly from a revised edition, but will almost certainly never get one. I hope that my players enjoyed themselves.

Edit: Jeff just posted his thoughts as a player in the game.

Monday, May 21, 2007

They come for your brain!

On Friday, Jeff asked an all-important question...

what the heck is a Bathalian supposed to be?

OK. Maybe the question isn't that world-shattering, but the answer got me thinking. The answer, of course, is that a Bathalian is a non-copyright term used by miniature producers for something that looks an awful lot like a mind flayer.

I don't want to get into a copyright discussion at the moment (though I will heartily recommend this ummm... instructional video for an incredibly amusing take on fair use). All I want to take from this right now is the observation that there are no Mind Flayers in the SRD.

There should be some sort of OGL beastie that fills the niche of utterly alien hive-mind based underground thingies that take humanoid slaves and devour their brains. Is there?

I had an idea for one.

Tiny, ten-legged spider-things. The legs radiate out evenly from the center. In the center is a single, large, pupil-less eye. Beneath the eye is a stinger. These things swarm over a victim. One of them perches in front of each of the victim's eyes, and pierces it with the stinger. The stinger locks into the victim's optic nerve and serves as a means for the swarm-collective to control the victim.

Controlled victims serve as a means by which the Collective can communicate with other sentient beings as well as a breeding ground and food source for new members of the Collective. Eggs are injected into a victim's body and larval spiderythings eat their way out. Once the victim is crippled due to being eaten alive, the creatures linked into its optic nerve suck out its brain fluid, and grow to the next stage of development (a larger creature capable of controlling a swarm or - if needed - functioning independently).

I need a name for these things... and stats. Stats won't come this week, unfortunately. Suggestions are welcome, though.

Friday, May 18, 2007

When do they stop being goblins?

The goblins in Goblins of Gourm share a number of traits with "typical" goblins. They are malicious, creepy, little guys. As the adventure progresses, however, the PCs will run into goblins who are increasingly unlike the stereotype. Goblin farmers aren't a huge stretch. Goblins need to eat, and - despite D&D's tropes - raiding is not a sustainable method of food gathering.

What about a technologically advanced goblin civilization? A goblin bureaucracy? Goblin artists? There's definitely an underlying creepiness to the whole thing, and the civilization is fairly alien, but can this still work with goblins?

I hope so. Sometimes I worry.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Current Projects

So many things are going on...

At work I have a conference coming up at the end of June that I am planning - and this is a busy time of year otherwise. Personally, I will be going away for at least two weekends in June. This upcoming weekend is a friend's wedding (tonight is his bachelor party - I made him a meat cake). Much to do.

It is all cutting into my gaming project time.

The weekend after this coming one, I'll be running a one-shot Secret of Zir'an game for the C-U Run Club. I am not yet ready for it, but I think that I'll be OK.

I'm also working on a WoAdWriMo entry: The Goblins of Gourm, which is in turn part of a larger project.

Yesterday, I met Jeff for lunch (at a shwanky-hipster sushi place) and he passed me a copy of "The Taltos," an article from Dragon written by Tom Moldvay that features a funky variant 2nd ed. AD&D class that is sort of a weird shamanistic bard. He asked me to update it to be 3.5 compatible for him - possibly as a prestige class. I probably will.

In the meantime, I haven't abandoned the other projects on this blog: d20 herbivores, cool magic items, my monk rewrite, and the like. I mean, I just added another possibly-continuing project with Elmer's spellbook.

Hopefully, I'll make it to July.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Zir'an Frustrations

I'm finding preparations to run The Secret of Zir'an to be equal parts awesome and annoying.

I'm creating pregenerated characters. Character creation? Awesome... and annoying. The concepts flow quickly. The process of creating a character uses a lifepath-like system that creates a well-rounded PC with unavoidable coolness. Unfortunately, the mechanical bits behind the lifepath system are less than intuitive and require a ton of picky steps. Moreover, the lifepath system it uses is so setting dependent that I am constantly peeking back to the setting chapter to figure out what everything means.

The rules? Annoying... and awesome. The rules are presented in a counterintuitive fashion and are overly complex. You have your stats (Physique, Mass, Intelligence, and Acuity). You have your derived stats (Reaction, Speed, Perception, Shadow, and Hand to Hand). You have your Aptitudes (Knowledge, Personal, and Social). You have your skills (too many to list). Each skill has a Finesse Level (Basic, Advanced, Expert, or Elite) and points of Practice. GAH! Of course, sometimes the Aptitude + Skill Practice is referred to as the Skill Aptitude. The infuriating thing? The mechanic is ultimately simple: add your applicable Stat + Aptitude + Skill Practice + 1d10. This could have been easily streamlined. The 'Aptitude' bit does some worthwhile work, particularly in the way that Aptitude is generated through the lifepath system, depending upon what skills you take. If you take a bunch of social skills, your Social Aptitude will likely go up, so your experience with some social skills bolsters your ability with others. This is kind'a cool... but I don't think it is worth the craziness of the presentation that they put you through reading the book.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Elmer's Spell Book: Wall of Gravy

The material enclosed in the box below is released via the Open Game License.

Wall of Gravy

Conjuration (Creation) [Meat]

Level: Sor/Wiz 2
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Effect: Vertical plane of gravy, up to one 5-ft. square/level
Duration: Instantaneous
Saving Throw: see text
Spell Resistance: No

This spell creates an opaque, vertical wall of gravy that is 1 inch thick per two caster levels and composed of up to one 5-foot square per level. The wall must be created so that it rests upon a solid surface. The wall cannot be conjured so that it occupies the same space as a creature or another object.

The wall remains vertical for 1 minute per two caster levels, after which time it flows into a slippery pool on the ground that functions as a grease spell.

The wall is warm, permeable, and strongly scented. Any creature passing through the wall must succeed at a Fortitude save or become nauseated for one round. Also, a creature passing through the wall is covered in gravy. The creature's clothing, armor, and exposed items are affected as if they were targeted with a grease spell.

The wall is edible, and can be used to provide nourishment, though it is not particularly healthy.

Material Component
A pinch of flour.

An interview with Elmer...

"I have with me here today Archmage Elmer, whose researches into the Elemental Plane of Meat are well-known to all in the Order. Archmage, without your studies, the plane itself would be little more than apocryphal, and we certainly wouldn't have such spells as Elmer's Beefsteak Balm, Detect Meat, Power Word Marinate, and Wall of Gravy in our libraries."

. . .

The rest of this interview has been censored due to the presence of "Hold Sausage" jokes.

. . .

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Tuned in to FM

In general, I like the idea of contested rolls in gaming systems, but I don't like the actual reality of them. The idea that one person's ability opposes another's makes sense. Unfortunately, two rolls is not only a whole lot of die rolling, but it is also a whole lot of variability. I don't know what the actual probability effects of opposed rolls are, but it feels more random to me than it should.

I was thinking about the FM system a bit earlier, and thought that it might have a nice way of handling this.

In the FM system you'd have 1-3 mastery levels and a die pool (usually, again 1-3) associated with each level.

So, someone extremely skilled at something might have B3 J3 M2 (and a possible result of 3-18). Someone with a basic level of skill might just have B2 (and a possible result of 1-6).

I'm thinking that, perhaps, when you oppose someone's ability with your own, you roll versus a target number equal to something like the sum of their die pools + n (1?) per level of mastery that they have completed (completing a level of mastery entails having gone on to the next one). So (assuming n=1), opposing the first skilled example above would require a target number of 3+3+2+1+1, for a total of 10. This would be impossible for someone at the first level of mastery, and very difficult for someone at the second (whose highest possible roll would be a 12). Someone at the third level of mastery (roughly on par) would have a reasonable chance at this. That seems about right. I'd need to run the probabilities, though.

I'll also note that in looking back over the Finesse System from The Secret of Zir'an, I've been clearly influenced by it in coming up with what I have for FM...

Monday, May 07, 2007

I'm running with it

I've been struggling with the decision of what to run for the C-U Run Club. I can't delay any longer - my turn comes up on May 28th.

I've decided to run The Secret of Zir'an. This is a game that I've neither played nor run, but I've had it since it came out. It has generally been reviewed positively, but it suffered from some very poor layout choices that limited its appeal.

Why did I decide on this game?

  • I've had the books since they've come out, but I've never really done anything with them. I wanted to run a game that I'd never run before.
  • I am intrigued by the mechanics. The Finesse levels allow you to accomplish many tasks without rolling. The finesse effects are the only real known example of an idea I've been toying with for a bit with my thoughts on the FM system.
  • I wonder how complicated the game is - character creation seems dense. It will be an exercise to wade through. The mechanics of play look complicated, but I have a hopeful suspicion that they will play well. The Run Club looks like a good place to test this.
  • The setting is cool and pulpy, but has the whole fantasy thing going too. The mix of tech and magic is neat. It is like if Eberron were redesigned from the ground up without the need to adhere to D&D tropes.
  • There is a lot of online support. The designers are still active and accessible and want to help you have fun playing the game they made. There are two quickstart adventures out there for me to steal from. These are things I may use, and things I definitely encourage.

Creepy babies...

So, yesterday Angela and I had brunch at Dave's workplace, and we were chatting about the Goblins of Gourm. I don't know if it will make it into the adventure, but we came up with the idea of a swarm of goblin children (using the swarm subtype). The write-up presents some challenges, but I put it together sometime this week. Stay tuned.

d20 Monster of the Week: Goblin Babies

As promised...

I wasn't sure how to handle their trip modifier. Tiny things with low strength are incredibly ineffective at tripping, but there are so many of these things in a swarm that they'd effectively be giving each other a ton of 'aid another' bonuses. I ended up treating them as size Large (they take up that much space, after all) to reflect their numbers.

The material enclosed in the box below is released via the Open Game License.

Goblin Child Swarm

Size/Type:Tiny Humanoid (Swarm)
Hit Dice:3d8 (13 hp)
Initiative: +6
Speed: 15 ft. (3 squares)
Armor Class:14 (+2 size, +2 Dex), touch 14, flat-footed 12
Base Attack/Grapple: +2/-
Attack: Swarm (1d6)
Full Attack: Swarm (1d6)
Space/Reach:10 ft./0 ft.
Special Attacks:Pickpocket, Trip
Special Qualities:Half damage from slashing and piercing, darkvision 60 ft., swarm traits
Saves:Fort +3, Ref +3, Will -1
Abilities: Str 4, Dex 14, Con 10, Int 8, Wis 7, Cha 8
Skills:Hide +5, Move Silently +5, Sleight of Hand +6
Feats: Improved Initiative, Stealthy
Environment: Temperate Plains
Organization:Solitary, Nursery (2-4 swarms)
Challenge Rating: 2
Treasure: None
Alignment: Usually chaotic evil
Advancement: None
Level Adjustment:


A swarm of goblin children deals 1d6 points of damage to any creature whose space it occupies at the end of its move.

Distraction (Ex)

Any living creature that begins its turn with a swarm in its space must succeed on a DC 11 Fortitude save or be nauseated for 1 round. The save DC is Constitution-based.

Pickpocket (Ex)

If a swarm of goblin children ends its turn occupying the space of another creature, it may make a sleight of hand check (DC 20) to grab a small object from that creature as a free action. The target may make an opposed Spot check to notice the attempt.

Trip (Ex)

A goblin child swarm that nauseates an opponent with its distraction ability can attempt to trip the opponent (+1 check modifier) as a free action without making a touch attack or provoking an attack of opportunity. If the attempt fails, the opponent cannot react to trip the goblin child swarm.

I'm thinking that maybe a DC 15 Intimidate check in Goblin would disperse one of these...

Thursday, May 03, 2007

That Darn Fourth Wall

At the Run Club on Sunday, we got into a bit of a discussion about breaking the fourth wall in rpgs. A DC Heroes adventure featuring Ambush Bug (that came with a mask so that the GM could pretend to be Ambush Bug escaped from the adventure) was prominently mentioned.

I've always been tickled by things that break the fourth wall. I saw Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind last week. They are a Chicago-based show which has no fourth wall, characters, or setting. I'm a fan.

I know that since the near-beginning of the hobby, it has been fairly popular to play yourself, thrust into a situation that changes you in some way. Villains and Vigilantes was a very early superhero rpg that made the assumption that you would, literally, be playing yourself (with powers). Then there was the D&D Cartoon. It wasn't just old-school stuff, either. I can't even imagine how many World of Darkness games started off with the players themselves becoming vampires, werewolves, mages, or whatever.

The thing I haven't really seen, though, is a game in which the characters know (or could learn) that they are in fact fictional. I find this odd, particularly insofar a how it has become almost standard in many rpg sessions to make in-jokes about the rules and such.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

NPC tactical guides

So, this morning, Jeff posted some stupid Dracula tricks. I should probably just post this as a comment in his blog, but... ummm... I didn't. So there.

Unless you've already read it, that won't make sense, so let me explain. This past Sunday, Jeff ran Lords of Creation for the C-U Run Club. If you are curious to know what sort of game it was, I played Aleister Crowley with a lightsaber. That should tell you enough.

Anyway, we fought Dracula (of course), and Jeff made up a little table of stupid Dracula tricks for him to use in combat. He could roll on it if he wanted to, or he could pick from it.

Jeff says:
If I were in charge of developing D&D 4E every monster with more than one special power would get a chart like this. DMs would not be obligated to use these charts, but sometimes when you're trying to run 6 demons it becomes the opposite of fun to figure out what each creep is going to do each round.
I think that's an interesting idea, but I think that a monster manual is the wrong place for such a thing.

The cool part of the 'stupid tricks' chart for me is that it can suggest tactics. Tactics are environment-dependent. I'd love to see something like one of these for every combat encounter in an adventure that makes extensive use of the environment and specifics of the encounter. I'm going to try to include a chart (or at least a list of options) for each such encounter in The Goblins of Gourm. We'll see how it works out. This thing might evolve.