Monday, October 25, 2010

Players and Their Ability Scores

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

I don't want to trash my players.  They're good people, one and all.  At least one of them even drops by to read this humble blog.  But... what a bunch of crybabies they can be when the results of my more than generous "4d6, drop the lowest and arrange to taste" is met with blank, horror-stricken looks as a single score is saddled with a minus on the ability adjustment... or they lack a single +2.  Ruination, they cry. 

I don't think this phenomenon is unique to my group.  In fact, take the very concept of "character builds" and point buy systems that are now the default for modern RPGs.  Often described as "new school" my belief is that they have actually been around since the day after the very first D&D player rolled a crummy character and was forced to keep it.  These strike me as the logical evolution of the underlying, universal feeling on the part of the players:  They want to win.

DMs that write blogs and who embrace the "old school" can wax poetic about the purity of straight 3d6.  They can correctly point out how the successful players will generally play the game wisely and well despite their ability scores.  They will indicate specific examples of adventure or encounter design where player skill and not high ability scores were required.  Their arguments will be well-founded but meaningless.  You see, our players simply want to kick the game's ass and high ability scores help ensure that... at least in their minds.

The player that doesn't fit this mold is the exception to the rule.  They are either too new or too unconcerned with mechanics to worry about that AC bonus... or their day job is DMing the "real" game.  This latter group can respect "The Game" with that imagined, egalitarian zeal one with no great stake in the outcome may adopt.   Players, the real players, love high ability scores.  When they roll their characters together, they crane their necks to see what's going on down the table.  As a result of what they find they either stifle their smiles like poker players with bad tells or begin a series of facial gestures reminiscent of one's first bout with a shot of tequila.  This depends, of course, on their relative position in the group in terms of rolls.  Worse than both combined are the mopers.

I used to require all ability rolls to be made in my presence, if for no other reason than to watch the craning necks and sour faces.  When that was consistently applied, the player characters all had remarkably similar scores in terms of the net sum.  Of course there was the lucky or unlucky outlier, but the curve was predictably bell-shaped. 

But we are adults now, and worthy of the benefit of the doubt.  We are busy, and play infrequently enough that yes, you can show up early at Dan's place and roll up a guy.  I'll be there on time to look over your character and then get the game going.  Yes, this is perfectly reasonable and over time, yes, that nice bell curve became misshapen... leaning more and more to the right with each new character.  As the ability scores got better and better it was obvious the players were in collusion.  They were watching one another like crooks splitting up a stash of loot.  One for you, one for me.  Don't spend anything until the heat is off.  We don't want to attract attention and spoil a good thing.

Yeah Jim, I watched him roll up his guy, everything was kosher.

So, after noticing this trend over time I decided to have one player roll his new character with me and live with the results as-is, provided the net result of his bonuses and penalties was a positive number.  I was challenging the now established status quo.  Things predictably came to a head.  He hemmed.  He hawed.  He ground his teeth and squirmed in his chair.  I think he might have cried had I not let him off the hook.  I called him a big baby and let him re-roll.  Which he did.  Without shame.

I don't even blame them really.  After all, I've got all the cards as DM, don't I?  So, I've learned to love the bomb.  As long as nobody is stupid or ballsy enough to show up with nothing lower than a 16 I'll pretend that the bastards aren't rolling and re-rolling ability scores until they find a satisfactory set.  There's an unspoken agreement not to embarrass one another. There's a certain status quo to maintain here, is there not?  Don't disrupt it and you may keep the 5th set of rolls you made in the 15 minutes I wasn't watching.  And you know what?  I'm OK with it.  I do hold all of the cards.  Successful players WILL need more than high abilities. I WILL display specific examples of adventure or encounter design where player skill and not high ability scores will be required.  Let them have their tartar sauce.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

D&D Survey

Posted as part of a response to a discussion at Telecanter's

What I like best of/ want most from the campaign (rank them in order of importance, 1 being most important.  If you don’t care about a particular choice put a “0):

____ “Sandbox” approach where we, as the players, feel free to help create aspects of the campaign world and decide what direction the adventures take us while the DM improvises to move things along

____ “Predetermined” approach, where the DM designs most of the adventures to support a larger story arc the party is involved in (e.g. a world-shaping conflict that the characters will be at the center of for several game-years) without a lot of participation in the world-creating or overall direction of the story by the players

____ The “campaign” isn’t very important to me, each adventure could/ should stand on its own and be enjoyable

What I like best of/ want most from the adventures (rank them in order of importance, 1 being most important.  If you don’t care about a particular choice put a “0):

____ Kick down doors, kill bad guys and collect treasure

____ Investigation and problem solving (uncovering mysteries, solving puzzle rooms or riddles, overcoming traps)

_____ Involved story lines with lots of room to develop my character and interact with NPCs without combat

_____ Exploration and survival:  going to remote or new places and uncovering ruins/ surviving the elements

_____ Other: 

What I like best of/ want most from the encounters (rank them in order of importance, 1 being most important.  If you don’t care about a particular choice put a “0):

____ Fewer but more challenging combat encounters with powerful foes that can’t always be taken head-on

_____  More numerous hack and slash encounters where enemies can be felled by the score with a simple, direct approach

_____  A mix of both

One thing I’d love to see in the next adventure is…

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Creating a Cosmology for Avandar

The first thing that I did when considering a Cosmology for Avandar was to forget that I had ever seen the above image as well as those that would follow.  In truth, I had never gotten much use out of them, even as a youngster.  It struck me then, though I couldn't have put it into words until much later, as a misguided attempt to quantify and organize what should remain mostly beyond the capacity of mortal comprehension.  It probably didn't help that that the initial, "official" attempts at a D&D cosmology cleaved to the alignment system that I have in turn ambivalently accepted, then ignored and finally actively rejected.

But my dismissal of alignment is not the whole of it.  I've tried designing my own "Great Wheels" over the years to describe what were ultimately just variations on the theme I saw established in the AD&D DMG, and I've always considered the results a failure.  The process of discovery possesses its own sense of wonder and I find that this is diminished as things become defined and cataloged.  All things unknown have the capacity to be fantastic, and we dare to dream that they are.  Once a thing is known it inevitably becomes mundane.  In my game I wanted the mind-blowing and incomprehensible alternate dimensions of Lovecraft and not the tidy, nine-fold morality of Gygax.

So what did I do? I stole better ideas.  I knew that I wanted to exploit both the idea of  Faerie as well as Joseph Campbell's Underworld, because these were human inventions with an established universality to them.  The basic dungeon adventure that early D&D embraces is essentially Campbell's monomyth.  The idea of facing and mastering the strange and the unknown is in the very bones and blood of the human experience.  I wanted to tap that rich vein.

It might have been easy at this point, in having both places,  to tend to think of one as mostly "good" and the other as mostly "evil", perhaps with Avandar as a sort of middle-ground.  I didn't want to go there.  Again, I wanted something of the incomprehensible in my cosmology and introducing morality into it would be a step in the wrong direction.  But what, then, would differentiate these two places?  After all, if I can't make them different enough thematically, why bother with having them both?  I had actually decided at one point early on to make it such.  Faerie/ Underworld would be the same, twin-world to our own only called by different names:  Istanbul, not Constantinople. 

Over time, though, each began to develop into a different place from the another.  Faerie, described briefly at the end of this post, would emerge rather intact as it is popularly conceived (or at least how I conceived it prior to designing it into the game.)  It's relationship to Avandar and the Urth is one of ambivalence.  Faerie is a rather self-involved place and the mortal lands, to them, a backwater of dull-wits and provincials.  Underworld, though?  The Underworld wants to posses the Urth...  to conquer Avandar and force it under its heel.  Why?  Why does any tyrant want to rule?  Power is its own end. Without introducing a strict moral divide, the two places are nonetheless differentiated, staying true (I believe) to their spirit and providing a relationship between the three places (Urth/ Avandar : Faerie : Underworld) that could lead to some interesting conflict and role playing.  So far, so good, but...

In giving motivation to the two alternate planes I was missing the mark on the incomprehensibility that I stated as a goal for the cosmology.  The whole so far also hadn't yet allowed for the existence of gods, whomever they may be.  Enter the Outer Planes.  Now, I wasn't about to sit down and draw another Great Wheel.  But somewhere, out there in time and space are located those cosmic and powerful beings intrinsic to the founding, operation and eventual destruction of creation.  A mortal may only ever glimpse a fleeting fraction of a fraction of this power.  These are the Elder, Outer, Other and Great Old Ones of Lovecraftian bent, without me attempting to catalog them into moral alignments or perceivable goals (as the author himself seems also to have never done).  This fact won't stop the religions of Avandar from anthropomorphizing these entities to suit their purposes, though, when that time comes.  There's really not much more to say about them.  Like what seemed to be the intent of the namesake author, my plan is to leave this aspect of the cosmos ill-defined and change its application to the game as it suits the immediate needs.  I don't see this as a cop-out, but rather an intentional choice in setting out a framework for the creation.  The gods are, indeed, out there.   What they truly want is anybody's guess. 

The above is the essence of the cosmology.  Looking back, it seems terribly brief but does introduce the founding concepts that I embraced and is hopefully a basis for any further discussion or a reference for future posts involving the same.   It doesn't explain what happens when a mortal dies, but that's a more involved discussion.  It also doesn't recognize elemental, negative and positive energy planes.  The entities that would otherwise come from such places are spirits existing "between worlds" in my conception.  These beings inhabit or assume a form when "presenting" themselves in a specific world, which is generally as described in the monster entries.  This "between worlds" idea accounts for most astral and ethereal beings as well.  The impact to magic and spells involving the same might be explored in a future essay.  You know, I may draw that Great Wheel after all... it's just going to look more like a sandwich or a jig saw puzzle.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Background Specials

Having finally worked out my problems regarding the posting of images (operator error, by the way) I'm now posting what I meant to post last week.  Shown below is the table that I have recently adopted for use in both of my D&D campaigns.  It is used for character generation and takes the place of the skill, proficiency and feat systems used in later versions of the game than what I'm using.  Yeah, I know that BECMI has a skill system too, but I've always largely ignored it and will continue to do so.  I will allow new characters to make one roll on the table, though my current player-characters each have two of the below due to their having been converted from another rules-set.  I'm easing them into this, I suppose.  

The actual entries are taken from numerous sources, including my own previous tables, several years old. This is a goulash of other peoples ideas as well as my own.  Perhaps one or two of your own ideas are below.  I'll save further discussion on the specifics in the event that this generates some discussion in the comments.  You'll have to click the image below then enlarge/ zoom on the next screen to view it properly. 

My World: A Brief Introduction to Avandar

I can't tell you how many unused world maps I've drawn over the years.  I tend to use a lot of the same location, city and nation names, but the maps always change.  A few years back I settled on this one:

Does it look familiar?  If not, wait about 250 million years or just go here.  Why this one?  I like that its at once familiar and strange.  I like that it implies a 3-D world.  It's not necessarily an accurate representation of a globe when flattened out, but it lacks those annoying "breaks" in the map when rendering the three-dimensional into two.  The linked image isn't even that bad... worse is when the breaks cut across land masses. 

I like that somebody else drew this with what I presume to be a better understanding of geology and geography than what I can reasonably say I possess.   Note the mountain ranges where continents are colliding.  The coloration, which I interpret as density of vegetation and therefore an indication of rainfall seems believable given what I do know about the broad strokes of weather and climate.   Coastal areas are green so ostensibly vibrant and biologically diverse.  Here would be the cradles of my civilizations.  The vast tracts of interior land are dry and given to extremes of heat and cold for lack of large bodies of water and dense plant life to help regulate temperature.  Here would be my fantastic landscapes.

This map isn't meant to be used as a gaming aid, per se, but rather a world building one.  It is the context within which I place the maps that describe my campaign world.  See that A-shaped wedge of land between the two large mountain ranges at the approximate middle of the map? There lies almost all of the cartography and other world building I've committed so far to Avandar, and I've only scratched the surface of that small area.  The town of Brookmere resides almost at the interior top of the A.  Thrull, The City of a Thousand Tongues, resides along the coast of that large, interior ocean just north of what looks like the Indian subcontinent.  This is the location of my solo game with my wife and one I hope to flesh out somewhat here on the blog and perhaps elsewhere.

Imagine this world similar to ours in other ways.  Imagine a people having asserted themselves eight or ten thousand years ago by establishing agriculture, permanent residency and therefore civilization and all which that entails.  Perhaps this coincided with a global warming phenomenon.  This caused the great continental ice sheets that once reached halfway to the equator to recede back to the poles (you'll also have to imagine the polar ice cap that doesn't exist on this map.)  When these glaciers drew back, perhaps the hunter-gatherer progenitors of this culture found also the remnants of an older and greater society;   fleeting glimpses into the very lives and abodes of the gods.  Or, so the unsophisticated but imaginative mind of the primitive might think.

Now, open a few gates to Underworld and Faerie and teach those primitive shamans some real magic and you have the dawn of history upon Avandar.  Actually, Avandar is more or less translated as "All of the Lands" in the High Derosian of the former Empire and was meant to mean, essentially, the large northern continent of the world map.  The planet is otherwise known as Urth, by most of the people upon it.

I'll return to this sometime soon.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

House Rules: Thieves and Armor

Far less involved and far more likely to be applied during play than my rules for armored mages are my house rules regarding the thief class and armor.  They go as follows:

Thieves may opt to wear armor other than leather, but doing so limits their effectiveness in their chosen profession.  Wearing armor providing up to AC 6 (scale mail) will reduce a thief's abilities to 1/2 normal (i.e. hide in shadows, move silently, etc...).  Wearing armor providing protection of AC 4 or 5 reduces the same to 1/4 normal.   A thief may not use his special abilities when wearing armor providing protection of AC 3 or greater.

Some common sense still needs to be applied.  A thief capable of reading languages should be able to do so regardless of how well-armored they are.  A thief climbing  walls may need to put down their shield to even make an attempt.  

My purpose in offering this rule and the one for armored mages is not to have iron-clad footpads and wizards traipsing across my world.  Rather, I want the players to have options.  Even bad options are better than a flat "no" when asking, "Can my character pick up and use that shield?"

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sticking a Fork in the Thieves Guild

With all due respect to Mr. Leiber, whose work I enjoy and who must be regarded as most responsible for the D&D concept of a thieves guild, I'm through with it.  Allow me to take a small step back and explain my abandonment of one of the staples of the game.  I once had the tendency when world building of making things too tidy.  I envisioned a world, a region, a society, a city... whatever, and this would of course be an amalgamation informed by all of my exposure to such places, real or imagined.  I would hope to introduce some original concept or novel idea.  I would hope to evoke a sense of interest if not wonder in my players. Instead, though, I would often make the thing too damn neat and dull.

I used to go on about the business of world-building as if my imagined realms were a place I'd like to visit, live-in, or better yet... to rule.  Things were arranged logically to appeal to my sense of order.  The government or local powers made sense within the context of a structured and ultimately benevolent society.  The populace (and players) were left capable of the pursuit of happiness, provided they played by the very fair and reasonable rules.  Yes, I was much like the middle-aged man laboring over the extravagant model train set that I never enjoyed in my youth.  The pristine, plastic evergreens dotted the rugged paper-mache peaks just beyond town where, say, is that Mr. Wilson fetching some ice cream for the local children?  My, isn't Main Street pleasant this time of year?  Here comes the 507, bound for Lucky Lake I suppose.  Is that apple pie I smell?

It was terribly indulgent of me and would of course have been rather boring for the players that I inflicted it upon.  But don't fear.  Whenever such places did cross the boundary from my notes to the table they were either largely ignored as a footnote in the game or their pristine order disrupted by player-invoked chaos.  It didn't take too terribly long for me to learn my lesson once I wanted the action to exist outside of the dungeon.  The thing is this: the city, the town, the kingdom, IT shouldn't be the ordered, idyllic place  the players alternately exploit and save from harm.  It should possess threat and opportunity in equal measure.  It should be subtly antagonistic.  It should be as wild and bustling as Manhattan, or as Byzantine and dangerous as D.C. or as subversive and weird as Middle America seen through the lens of David Lynch.  In short, make it a worthwhile setting for adventure.

Uncertainty, conflict, opportunity... these are the things that make for an interesting story or game.  When I world-build now, these are design features.  What I end up doing prior to exposing a new location upon the players is subverting whatever ostensible order exists there prior to the players coming upon it.

Player:  Let's enter the city.  Would my character have any contacts with the local thieves' guild?
Me:  What thieves guild?
Player: (pushing index-finger knuckle to nose) I get it.  What thieves guild.  Right.
Me:  Would you like to enter the city now?

What they find on the other side could be a crime-free Stepford-Wives dystopia, a free-wheeling Deadwood or a Romanesque metropolis, racked by violence between groups of mostly poor citizens fighting for turf, food or in support of some local government faction.  What they won't find is Fritz Leiber's mother-fucking thieves guild.  This, combined with a firm grasp on how your environment functions and a healthy dose of worldliness allows for the adventures to almost happen by themselves.  

House Rules: Magic Users and Armor

(Text below was modified to fit with BFRPG vs. Labyrinth Lord)

Yes, it's true.  I allow mages to wear whatever armor they like.   Despite this heretical allowance, our game has not become unbalanced... see below for risks.

Magic Users and Armor: Magic users may opt to wear armor.  When casting a spell so adorned the mage must make a Dex check with a penalty of -1 for every point  of AC that the armor provides.

Failing the saving throw means that the spell was lost.  Failing it with a natural "1" indicates that a casting mishap has occurred (if you'd like to introduce a little more chaos or uncertainty, you could make the rule any modified value 1 or below results in a mishap.  Heck, you could say 5 or below... or even any failure.)

The results of the mishap are determined by rolling an additional d20, unmodified, and referring to the table below:

Roll for a Critical Mishap
Mana-shock:  Spell fails and energy is released as 1d4 points of damage per spell level to the caster.
Spell is miscast and target is determined randomly
Spell fails and caster must save vs. spell or fall unconscious for 1d4 hours
Spell fails and caster must save vs. spell or fall unconscious for 1d4 minutes
Spell Fails and caster is surrounded in a nimbus of magical energy for 1d4 minutes.  This energy is harmless, cannot be dispelled and provides light equivalent to a torch
Growth:   Spell is miscast.  Intended effects do not occur, rather target (or targets in area) grow one full Size Category for 1d6 rounds.
Shrinkage: Spell is miscast.  Intended effects do not occur, rather target (or targets in area) shrink one full Size Category for 1d6 rounds.
Slowed: Spell is miscast.  Intended effects do not occur, rather target (or targets in area) act as if slowed for 1d6 rounds
Hasted: Spell is miscast.  Intended effects do not occur, rather target (or targets in area) act as if hasted for 1d6 rounds
Spell fails with no further effect

If that's not harsh enough for you, there's always the critical mishap tabled, invoked by rolling a "1" above.  In this rare instance, the caster in question would throw another unmodifed d20. (I have no idea why the table below is right-addressed and have given up trying to figure it out.  Also converting the tables to an image and posting that way seems not to be working today as the images won't complete uploading)


The critical results provide more permenant, far-reaching or just plain nasty developments.  I'll further explain some of the results.  For the Planal Rift, you simply use your imagination or develop a sub-table in the event of its occurrence.  I have something specific in mind for my party should this situation arise.  Polymorph is just a random table of animals or DM fiat.  For Mark of the Mage I have a sub-table that I'll refrain from posting, but it amounts to the growing of horns or the turning of skin into different colors, the constant smelling of brimstone or lilac or dung.  Go wild, I say.  Translocation assumes you've got a pretty good idea about the surrounding area.  You could roll randomly to determine a solid object if you like.  All other results should be self-explanatory.  Enjoy.

Pillar of Ash:  make a save vs. spell. Failure is immediate death as magical energies consume you, leaving only a pile of ash in their wake.
Planal Rift:  The spell fails spectacularly and the sorcerous energies thus released have caused a rift in the fabric of space and or time.   Characters (and others) may move to and from worlds through the rift.  Fall unconscious for 2d4 hours
Polymorph:  This spell has been miscast with peculiar results.   Spellcaster is transformed into a randomly determined animal.
Mark of the Mage:  The miscasting of this spell has altered you in some permanent way.
Translocation:  Spell fails and caster is transported to a random location:  Roll 1d8 (N,NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW) for direction.  Roll 1d4 for unit of measure (1=feet, 2=yards, 3=miles & 4= 10 miles) and 1d20 x 5 for distance.  If this places the character into a solid object and an adjacent location is empty, they are ejected into space.  If not…
Spell Coma:  Spell fails and you fall unconscious for 1d4 days
Super Mana-Shock: Magical energy is released in a 10’ diameter burst causing 1d4 damage per spell level