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Monday, August 19, 2019

Lankhmar and Urban Geomorph Ideas

Instead of Map Monday, this Monday I’m going to follow up on the Lankhmar review I did last week. There was a reason why I did it. I’ve been having some thoughts about how I should do town and city maps.

You see, the published town and city maps I’ve seen that take the fully-mapped, fully-keyed approach, like Carse or Tulan of the Isles, don’t quite meet the quality I’m looking for in a city map. It’s not that there is anything necessarily bad about them. I keep mentioned Carse because I do like the way the map looks, with its little 3d buildings. And the locations described in those products can be pretty good. But keying all the encounters and locations for an entire town, let alone for a city, just seems like a tedious way to present it. You’d have to study the book thoroughly to find out all the hidden conflicts, secrets, and schemes it contains, and to familiarize yourself with where all the shops and services of various varieties are located, or provide some really, really detailed cross-references, the kind I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a published product.

That’s why I prefer only keying a few important locations at the start and creating a more general map of a city, which I can fill as needed using improv rules, like the rules I’ve already written about here. That’s why Lankhmar, City of Adventure, despite a few flaws that make it kind of unwieldy, still interests me. It’s that promise of “Just-In-Time” mapping that pulls me in.

And it’s what’s leading me towards a certain solution. I already have a plan for Last-Minute Cities, a compilation and expansion of my improv town and city rules. But I think urban geomorphs may also be part of the answer. And it’s something I’ve been trying out already. This map is a draft version of one I’ve been working on. When finished, and when I add more urban geomorphs, GMs will be able to drop them into a Lankhmar-like city map with blank spots for geomorphs… or, I’m thinking, replacing city blocks on other maps that were never designed to use geomorphs.

Remember Revelode? It’s a town with a few keyed locations, but mostly just unlabeled buidlings. Suppose you took a block of 3 to 6 building and replaced it with that geomorph? It would be a quick customization. And if there were a map key available for that geomorph, it would be an on-the-spot solution to quickly filling in an urban adventure area. Of course, there are aesthetic differences between that geomorph and the maps in the Instant Village series. But that’s not insurmountable…

Expect to see more on this soon.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Shield Defense for Dice Neutral Attack Tables

Wednesday’s dice neutral combat table did not include shields, for a couple reasons. One being: There’s just too many ways shields get changed in house rules.

In standard D&D, upgrading your body armor from leather to chain, or from chain to plate, effectively adds +2 to your defense. Keeping your current body armor but adding a shield is half as effective, adding +1 to defense. If a GM prefers the standard approach and is using a d20 (or 4d6 drop 6,) they can either add +1 to the target number or (my preference) subtract 1 from the attack roll to get the same result.

But that’s not the only way GMs handle shields in D&D. Some people think shields should be more effective, giving them a +2 defense. Or they add different tiers of shield. For the flat +2 approach, the GM can just shift right one column, so that adding a shield is just as effective as upgrading your body armor. For shield tiers, just subtract 1, 2, or 3 from the attack roll based on the type of shield.

Another idea for a shield houserule. If an attack roll hits exactly (roll = target number, not roll > target number,) roll 1d6. On 4+ the shield blocks the attack. A GM can also adapt this for shield tiers, with weaker shields only blocking on 5+, better shields blocking on 2+ or 3+. Or keep the target number static (5+) but use different dice types for different shields: 1d6 for bucklers, 1d8 for standard shields, 1d10 for tower shields.

Or another option: merge the idea of a shield roll with Shields Shall Be Splintered. Roll a 1d6 to block any successful attack. If the result is higher than the damage rolled, the attack is block, but if the result is 5+, the shield is splintered, whether it blocks the attack or not.

If the GM is not using 1d20 for attack rolls, but is using 1d6 or 2d6, then upgrading body armor is only “worth” 1 point of defense. If you modify the target number or the attack roll, this means that a shield will be just as effective as upgrading to a heavier class of body armor. If that’s not what you want, you should use one of the “shield roll” house rules, or use another houserule, like reducing damage.

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Thursday, August 15, 2019

Nearly-Permanent Spells Using Conceptual Magic

Last time I talked about changing the way spell stats are handled, I focused on spell duration. By default, spells would be very short, only a few minutes (determined by a random roll.) To extend the spell, a spell caster would include something to bind the spell duration to. Some examples:
  • Bind a spell to a candle. When the candle burns out, the spell ends. Duration is several hours.
  • Cast the spell at sunrise, binding it to a flower that closes at sunset. Spell lasts until the sun sets.
  • Cast the spell over several days, binding it to a chicken egg. Delays the spell until the chick hatches. Spell lasts as long as the chicken is alive.
These all extend the duration of a spell, they offer tactical choices for PCs facing spell-casting opponents. Snuff out the candle, destroy the flower, or kill the chicken to end the spell early. It also has the benefit of explaining “weird” rooms in dungeons. A room full of candles with no explicable purpose is sustaining one or more spells. Extra candles make it difficult to end a specific spell.

Along the same lines, consider some of the ways fairy tale spells are broken, like being awakened by a prince’s kiss, or killing the bird that hatches when you break an egg hidden in a chest buried beneath an ancient oak on a distant island. What’s the reason behind things like that? Why would a magician even specify how a spell can be ended?

Magicians set odd conditions for ending a spell to make the spell last a very long time.

This is why I call conceptual magic “conceptual”. Tying spell durations or counterspells to concepts, like “being kissed by a prince”, rather than numbers, like “12 turns”.

There’s have to be some rules to something like this, of course. For one, the number of conditions would be tied to either spell level or spell caster level. Sixth level spells could have a chain of up to six conditions:
  1. Break a mirror
  2. On an iron anvil
  3. While ringing a bell
  4. On a burning barge
  5. On a mist-covered lake
  6. When a nightingale begins to sing
Each of these conditions would require spell components. Some obvious, like the mirror and bell. Some linked conceptually to the desired condition, such as a piece of rotted timber from a shipwreck. Some may require creating “fake” versions of the desired condition, such as constructing a “lake” in a basin and blowing a cloud of incense over it.

If any generic item fitting a spell condition will do (break any mirror, on any anvil, ring any bell,) then the spell caster can likewise use any ordinary item. Any time a specific item must be used (this mirror, this anvil, this bell,) the caster must make the item themselves, or personalize it with some ritual.

Binding spells to things with an obvious duration (candles and chickens) requires some care, but usually doesn’t require supernatural ingredients. The spell caster might have to make their own candles and mix herbs into the tallow, for example. Binding spells to things like breaking a mirror requires the inclusion of magical ingredients, like the blood, fur, feathers, or bones of an enchanted creature, or rare roots and leaves collected under unusual circumstances. These help bind the condition desired to the spell.

More work needs to be done on this, of course. For example, extraordinary conditions need to be sorted into types… at the very least, conditions that seem logically impossible must be harder to bind than those that can be duplicated by almost anyone. But there are enough details here to be able to improvise at least a few such conceptual bindings.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Dice-Neutral Attack/Saving Throw Table, Adjusted

Almost immediately after I posted the Saving Throw table last Thursday, I realized I screwed up. Oh, sure, the table entries are correct and the table is usable – if you use the table a specific way. A non-intuitive way. But it can be improved.

The way I was expecting the table to be used:
  1. Use the header to equate a saving throw category to an armor type, if necessary.
  2. Find your dice rating or level title in the columns on the left.
  3. Read across the row until you find the armor class you are attacking/saving against.
  4. Move down the column to find the target number for the dice you are rolling.
This all works, but the headers are barely getting any use, and aren’t being used in the traditional way. Plus, you have to do some weird math adjustments if you are attacking a weaker armor class at higher levels. I made several attempts at explaining how to make the adjustments, but none of them sounded very clear, and I was not satisfied.

Simply reversing the entries on each row and changing the way you read the table fixes that. So, I made a new table. Here’s how to use it:
  1. Look in the header for the column for your target armor type or saving throw category.
  2. Move down the column to the row for your dice rating or level title.
  3. Read the adjusted armor type (for example, Heroes attack opponents in Medium armor as if they were wearing Light armor.)
  4. Find the adjusted armor type in the Suggested Dice Rolls section and use the listed target number.
If the adjusted armor type in Step 3 is blank, count how many columns you have to move to the right to get to an adjusted armor type of None. Subtract that from the target number for Armor Type None, if rolling 1d6 or 2d6. Double this modifier if rolling 1d20 or 4d6-4. This is easier to explain than the adjustments for the previous version of this table.

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Monday, August 12, 2019

Thoughts on Lankhmar, City of Adventure


Lankhmar book
Let’s take a break from Map Mondays to talk about… city maps. Specifically, TSR’s Lankhmar, City of Adventure (1985).

City adventures originally were handled one of two ways:
  1. freeform/unmapped, where the GM glosses over route details and goes directly to the location;
  2. fully mapped/keyed, where every building’s shape, position , inhabitants and contents are written out beforehand, just like a dungeon map.
Some GMs used the freeform method, but I don’t think there were any commercial products that described it. Commercial products, like Carse, were almost always fully mapped and keyed.

TSR’s Lankhmar product took a new approach: full but semi-random mapping, partial keying. The full-color map is divided up into districts, with a key in the main book for every district. District maps are incomplete; each district has two to nineteen empty spots for city block geomorphs, randomly selected with a d12 roll (with a d4 for orientation.)

Only a few locations are keyed in each district, with a total of 99 locations described in the book. Sounds like a lot, but there are nearly a thousand buildings on the map. Other locations are added by the GM to worksheets from a separate booklet, which also include geomorph sheets that can be photocopied and filled in. There are random tables in the back of the main book to determine building type and NPC occupants for the huge number of unkeyed locations.

The Lankhmar book is not perfect. Numbers for keyed locations don’t seem to follow a strict pattern, appearing to run from North (low) to South (high) in parallel strips starting from the east wall, but there are exceptions. This makes it hard to find locations mentioned in the key. Using two books (or a book and a notebook containing photocopied worksheets) seems a bit clumsy. A GM would need to flip back and forth between the district close-up map and any geomorph referenced. Finding districts in the book is complicated by the fact that the districts aren’t labeled on the large color map; you need to know which streets act as boundaries between districts and remember the name of the district so that you can look it up.

Still, Lankhmar, City of Adventure was the seed that grew into a third semi-random mapped method, with several good ideas:
  • A split between unique locations (keyed beforehand) and generic locations (typical merchants, inns, taverns, craftsmen, as well as households.)
  • “Just-In-Time” map keying for most city locations (fill in details for a building when the details are needed, not beforehand.)
  • Random generation of the bulk of the generic locations, to simplify map keying even more.
Combine those with built-in variation (geomorphs) to make a published city unique for each GM and it’s the kind of city product I’d actually use, and the kind I’d rather emulate.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

OSR Splinter Faction

There have been a couple posts lately debating whether or not the OSR is dead (because reasons.) I will only link to this one at The 3 Toadstools, not only because I agree with the basic point, but also because it links to several other posts, so I don't have to do it myself.

One of the things people on both sides say is that the OSR is splintered. But I'm going to ask: Is it, really?

The core OSR experience is to revive old school D&D and some of its practices. Few people who were involved with that have stopped playing old school games. They are doing what they always did. Are they a unified community? Well, no, but they never were. There were always some people who didn't talk to each other. Hell, I left Dragonsfoot more or less because of a handful of people who dominated those forums and made the conversations unpleasant, one example being when they started insulting Isaac Bonewits after he died, because ... they were good Christians, I guess? That was one year after I started this blog.

So there's really no more splintering than there was at the beginning. What may be confusing people is that there's a whole extra set of people that weren't part of the OSR back then. These are the people who think of the OSR as being edgy, DIY, light mechanics RPGs. They aren't really interested in old school D&D at all. We could debate whether they are really OSR, but the point is: there are at least twice as many people who identify as (or are linked to) the OSR as there were originally, and there is a sharp divide in their interests.

It's not because one faction has split away from the other. It's because a new faction has joined.

Perhaps it's a bad alliance. Perhaps the two factions will never get along. But the point is, the OSR has expanded as a result, not splintered.

Friday, August 9, 2019

I Hate Will Saves

On the previous post, Andreas Davour asked what my problem with Will saves is. I’ve answered bits and pieces of this question before, but maybe it’s time to address it directly in a single post.

Let’s start with my broadest objection: I like the old categories better. Part of that is because the old system names warn players about unexpected dangers in the game. They specifically do not include mundane dangers, like falling. The new system names are general actions and provide no special clues. Players should already know that their characters can dodge or resist urges, so a Reflex or Will save tells them nothing.

A more specific objection: having a Will save tells players they can resist magic by being strong-willed, instead of avoiding magic through luck, destiny, divine favor, or even a bit of magic of your own. My first rule of saving throws is: You escape supernatural dangers by supernatural means. If there are mundane means to avoid magical effects, such as diving into a river to escape a fireball, the mundane effect almost always works in marginal cases. Saving throws are meant for exceptions, not ordinary consequences of actions.

My second rule of saving throws is even more relevant: You play your character. The GM doesn’t play your character. Your character behaves the way you say your character behaves. Having a Will save tells players (and some bad GMs) the opposite: that you can lose control of your character if you fail a save. “You said your character is abrasive. Make a Will save or your character starts insulting the baron.”

In broader cases, like falling asleep because you are tired, I don’t allow a save if there is a mundane action that can solve the problem. If you are tired, sleeping will fix that. If you, the player, choose to have your character skip sleep, then your character is tired and suffers the ill effects until your character sleeps. There is no save to avoid the consequences of your actions.

For a Sleep spell, arguably a save vs. Magic might be appropriate, although notably there is no save for Sleep in the original description of the spell. Nor is there a save vs. Detect Evil, or vs. illusions like Phantasmal Forces. The way to avoid Detect Evil is to not be evil. The way to dispel an illusion is to announce “I don’t believe this is real. I try to touch it to prove it.” This automatically works. Allowing a Will save to “disbelieve” actually takes that benefit away and makes D&D more of a numbers game instead of allowing strategy and critical thinking.

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Thursday, August 8, 2019

Saving Throws as Attack Rolls

Everyone wants to simplify the way saving throws work, but the approaches I’ve seen all leave something to be desired. The single target number save system is just too simplistic, when it’s not the original system in disguise. The Fortitude/Reflex/Will system adds saving throws where I don’t want them, and I vehemently object to Will as a category.

How about this?

It merges the saving throw table with the attack table by equating saving throw categories to types of armor. It assumes the following for normal humans:
  • Save vs. Magic or Dragon Breath is as difficult as “to hit” vs. Heavy armor (plate,)
  • Save vs. Stone or Wands is as difficult as Medium armor (chain,)
  • Save vs. Death is as difficult as Light armor (Leather.)
Character classes would get bonuses for some categories: Wands and Dragon Breath for Fighters, Magic and Death for Clerics, Stone and Magic for Magic-Users. Thieves could get a bonus to Wands and Death.

Since this is a dice-neutral table, the exact bonus depends on what dice you are rolling for attacks and saves. A +1 or +2 would do in most cases. The M-U save vs. Magic bonus should be Level/4 (round up) if you want it to be closer to the original probabilities. Or, as an alternative, you can use the advantage system on one or both of a class’s favored saves, rolling twice and taking the best, which will give a much greater benefit than a simple +2.

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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Hallucination Spell

The [Confusion][] spell makes me think of Hallucination, even though there is no such spell in the original books. So of course I have to make one.
Hallucination (5th Level Mind Spell)
Similar to Confusion, but randomizes the appearance of any creature or object as well.
The way I would randomize appearances: replace any noun with another noun that starts with a random letter. At the beginning of the spell, roll 1d6 three times, once for each category: people, monsters, objects. Find the indicated letter in the nouns being replaced.

1d6 Roll Letter to Use
1 first letter of word
2 or 4 second letter of word
3 or 5 2nd letter from end
6 last letter of word

Example: You roll 1, 2, and 1. For any PC or NPC, such as “Bob the Warrior”, take the first letter of their name (B) and think of a noun that starts with that letter (say, “bear”.) For any monster, such as “goblin”, take the second letter of the word (O) and think of a noun that starts with that letter (say, “owl”.) For any object, such as “sword”, take the first letter of the word (S) and think of another noun that starts with that letter (say, “salami”.)

So, if an adventurer is hallucinating and their comrade Bob is swinging a sword at a goblin, the adventurer sees a bear attacking an owl with a salami. You only roll the dice once, to basically “pick a secret code to use”, then convert nouns on the fly using that code. You use three dice just to make it less obvious which letter you are using, making it harder for the players to “crack the code”… but you could just roll the dice once and always use that letter.

For simplicity’s sake, all hallucinating PCs see the same thing: they all see Bob as a bear wielding a salami.

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