... now with 35% more arrogance!

Monday, March 30, 2020

Why I Like both Wisdom and Intelligence

I have no major topic for today, so I’ll turn to a minor topic: overlapping abilities.

There’s a forum discussion about what people would pick for a seventh ability, if they were to add one, and a side topic that showed up was a complaint about Intelligence and Wisdom being “the same thing”. But of course, they aren’t the same thing. They just overlap. And I love ability overlaps.

Let’s start from the conventional wisdom (har!) that Intelligence and Wisdom are the same thing. OK, but people’s scores for those abilities are usually not the same. That means that sometimes, the GM may say “You have a chance of noticing this in time if you have high Intelligence” and you will say “I don’t, but I have high Wisdom. Does that count?” Having two chances of rolling a high score is better than one, right?

But of course, Intelligence and Wisdom aren’t the same. We don’t need to go into detail about how they are different, here, since there are several different interpretations, although most involve Intelligence being linked to learned information and Wisdom being more instinctive. The real point is: whatever the difference, there are going to be some situations where that difference is going to matter, where having a high Intelligence won’t matter in a situation, but a high Wisdom will.

By the book, high Intelligence matters when trying to control a magic sword with a high Ego, but Wisdom doesn’t matter at all. Other situations will depend on how a GM actually interprets the difference, but they will exist.

And going back to situations where either score would be useful, which score is higher will inform the player on how to play the character, and inform the GM on how the character was able to escape the situation: “You recognized the markings on the beast from an old biological treatise” vs. “You had a bad feeling about the creature” or “A small angelic voice warned you about the danger just in time.”

This is why I sometimes wish for more overlap in ability scores. But maybe there’s already some overlap hidden in the existing system? This may be a topic I will return to later.

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Thoughts on Fantasy Races II

Continuing with my thoughts on fantasy races… Previously, I talked about what different editions did with races functionally, what races do mechanically, which we can summarize as:
  • OD&D gives races minor additional benefits and serious limitations.
  • B/X drops the limitations and treats races as specialty classes.
  • AD&D turn races into ways to optimize ability scores, which becomes the dominant post-AD&D paradigm.
But what are races actually for, from a player’s perspective? Why do players choose to play a fantasy race, instead of a human?

For OD&D, where the benefits are slight, players mostly choose fantasy races for fun. They want to be an elf because one of their favorite characters is an elf, or they have an idea of how to play an elf that seems fun. Or it’s not a specific race, but specific abilities they like: they want to fly and breathe fire, so they get GM approval to play a balrog. Or they just want some variety, because they’ve been playing a narrow range of characters and want something different. In some cases, players might ask play fantasy races that have no special features at all, such as goblins.

The same can be true for other versions of D&D, but since B/X and other “race as class” versions start to focus a little more on abilities, you start seeing more people choosing races for the benefits they get. This trend gets stronger in the AD&D line and the WotC versions of D&D or their descendants. Many players in this branch of D&D pick races that provide the best benefit for the class they want to play, or to help balance the party, for example to guarantee the party has someone who can see in the dark (in contrast to OD&D, which doesn’t allow PCs or their companions to have infravision as an innate ability.)

Now, different people like different things, so this isn’t a judgment of which path is “right”. However, as I brought up in a comment when I discussed my feelings about “race as class”, I have specific needs and desires for what I want out of a race. I see fantasy races from the “play something different for a change” perspective that I associate with OD&D. I do not want to promote fantasy races as an optimization technique. I’ve probably ranted enough about system vs. fiction that this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I don’t want players to think about the rules first and then imagine a situation that fits the rules. I want it to be the other way around… so I definitely don’t want players to pick the best race for their class, or the best race to fill a niche in the party’s abilities.

I want players to play the races they think would be fun. I want them to have variety.

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Monday, March 23, 2020

Thoughts on Fantasy Races I

What is a fantasy race, anyways? What’s it for?

The shallow answer is that fantasy races are sentient non-humans. But what I’m actually asking is “Why even have a game system feature called ‘race’ in the first place? What does it do that the broad upper-level feature ‘class’ and the narrower low-level feature ‘skills’ does not?”

The B/X and BECMI strains of D&D asked those questions and answered “Nothing, really.” So fantasy races just became other classes, classes with minimum ability scores and tweaked abilities compared to the human class closest in concept. AD&D answered the question another way, making races the source of ability score modifiers, which in turn affect both class abilities and skills. This becomes the main use of race in 3e, making certain race and class combos optimal and discouraging other combos as sub-optimal.

But in OD&D, each race has class and level restrictions paired with a handful of extra abilities. Elves get to combine fighting and magic-use, are better at finding secret doors, and get a couple combat bonuses. Dwarves get magic resistance and familiarity with the underground. Halflings get magic resistance and better missile attacks. Elves and Dwarves also get extra languages (… or do they?)

So OD&D fantasy races are modifiers to class, but not to ability scores. Or to skills, which didn’t exist yet. I prefer to keep that concept and drift further in that direction, rather than either the B/X “race as class” direction or the AD&D “race modifies ability scores” direction.

There should be two components to any race: the physical side and the cultural side. Language is clearly part of the cultural side, but so are the restrictions. Elves can’t be Clerics and can’t go above 4th level as a Fighter because Cleric and Fighter are defined in terms of human culture, but they get the benefit of freely practicing magic and combat side by side, or firing arrows while moving on foot, because these are things that fit elven culture. Their heightened senses, however, are physical differences. This matters mostly because elves raised by humans or vice versa should have the physical benefits of their race, but the cultural benefits of their adopted race. Notice that Thieves, which are more like a profession than an aspect of human culture, have no race or level restrictions. It’s something I think should be maintained for new professions, like the Apothecary and Leech classes I created.

Languages would also be based on culture as well. Elves raised by elves speak Elvish as their native tongue and Common as their second tongue. Elves raised by humans would not speak Elvish, in many cases. As a side note, I personally interpret the additional languages not as actual languages, but mutually intelligible dialects. Orcs, Hobgoblins, and Gnolls speak languages related to Elvish, while Gnomes, Kobolds, and Goblins speak languages related to Dwarvish. Halflings originally got no bonus languages because their native language is supposed to be unique or possibly related to Common.

All these things are points for me to keep in mind as I decide how to develop races for Liber Zero.

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Friday, March 20, 2020

Find Your Own Way

In yesterday’s post To Map or Not, I talked about skipping precise mapping and focusing instead on flowcharts or sketch maps on index cards. But I still feel strongly that the possibility of getting lost underground is an important part of the old school experience. How do we retain that?

First, let’s acknowledge that there are two kinds of “getting lost”:
  1. Not knowing which way to go.
  2. Not knowing where you are and which way you are facing.
The first way is more common, but the second is more serious. But I’d argue from my own experience, as someone who is not really all that great at navigating or exploring, that it’s not impossible to keep track of which direction you are facing. If you enter a dungeon facing North, or arbitrarily call the way you are facing “North” when you start mapping, moving carefully with plenty of light will let you keep track of directions, so it’s fine to call the top of the map “North” and give absolute directions.

Conversely, the things that will get you lost are:
  1. Moving quickly, for example fleeing a monster,
  2. Moving in darkness,
  3. Moving along very twisty paths.
To handle pursuit, forbid any mapping and don’t give distances, exact directions or even exact number of exits.
GM: You’re running down the corridor. There’s a door on the left and some side passages on either side.
Player: We take a side passage on the left!
GM: Passage turns right, but there’s also a door on the left.
Player: Turn right!
GM: Passage ends in a T.
Player: Turn left this time!
Once the pursuit ends, players can try to make their way back as best as they can, or start a new map and hope they can fit the two maps together later. If they want a clue as to which way they are facing, characters with Very High Int (16+) get a d6 roll: on 5+, tell them which way they are facing, otherwise tell them a random direction (1 = North, 2 = East, 3 = South, 4 = West, or roll a d8 or d12 for the direction instead.) Those with some kind of background or ability that would be relevant to underworld navigation would also get a roll, even if their Int isn’t that high. And even though OD&D doesn’t give dwarves direction sense as AD&D does, I’d allow dwarves to automatically know which way is North.

The same roll applies to moving in the dark. If using light, but not mapping, or if trying to map a tunnel that curves or turns in less than 90 degree increments, use a d6 roll, but on 1-4, the players are only off by one (think they are heading East when really heading Northeast.) Shift clockwise on even results, counterclockwise on odd results.

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Thursday, March 19, 2020

To Map or Not

In a thread about mapping – who likes it, is it really necessary to the D&D or old school experience – I offered some advice about when to eliminate it and how to make it easier. It might be worth it to address the topic here, too.

People who hate mapping, as either a GM or a player, often switch to flow charts instead of precision mapping… and that’s fine. There might be a few potential experiences you could miss by not using a precise map, but for the most part, it’s fine. It’s even preferable in some kinds of play. You can save precise mapping for individual rooms, when you suspect there’s a secret area or want to figure out a physical alignment issue.

The exact shape of a room, especially an irregular area like a cavern, does not matter. All that really matters is making sure that the door the players go through and the door the GM thinks they go through is the same. If there’s a real question about shape, position, and orientation, the GM could just do a quick sketch of the room, possibly on an erasable surface like a whiteboard, a Magic Slate, or a sketch app. Players are free to copy the sketch before it is erased, if they feel like it.

Since I’ve suggested recording the contents of each sack or container on a separate index card so that cards can be taken by the GM when players drop something, the same could be done with maps. One index card would be a sketch of the tunnel system with letters or numbers indicating the position of important areas that are on separate index cards. If the players lose their map, the GM confiscates the cards. If the map is torn or damaged, the GM takes a random number of cards.

There’s more that could be said about keeping track of directions underground and getting lost, but I’ll discuss that tomorrow.

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Monday, March 16, 2020

Super Simple Attack Rolls

Some comments people made elsewhere about Chainmail and D&D got me thinking. I actually have no intention of learning/using Chainmail, but I have occasionally considered a pseudo-Chainmail-ian approach to large combats where it’s needed: 1d6 per combatant on a side, kill or incapacitate opponents for every die result that beats a target number based on armor class:
  • No Armor = 3+
  • Light Armor = 4+
  • Medium Armor = 5+
  • Medium Armor 6
But that’s not as simple as using 5+ success for everything, so I started thinking: how could I do that?

Roll 1d6 + {HD/2}d6 (round up) for the attacker, discard one die if opponent is wearing Light Armor, two dice for Medium, three for Heavy, four for Extreme. Every +1 on a magic weapon adds a d6, every +1 on magic armor discards an extra d6. As long as one die result of 5+ remains, the attack is successful.

A table to illustrate:
Attacker’s Dice Dice to Roll
9+ 6d6
7 to 8 5d6
5 to 6 4d6
3 to 4 3d6
1 to 2 2d6
less than 1 die 1d6
Ineffective Auto Fail

On this table: Shift up 1 row for each magical +1 on a weapon, shift down 1 row for each degree of armor or each magical +1 on armor.
Unless I’ve miscoded something when using Anydice.com, the base level (2d6) gives a 1st level fighter about the same chance to hit an unarmored opponent as in the 1d20 alternative combat system, but wearing armor provides better protection than the standard. A 3rd level fighter has a much better chance to hit under this system, but the bonuses start to fall off at even higher levels. I’ve capped the attack dice at 6d6, but 7d6 or 8d6 really doesn’t provide much of a benefit except against magic armor.

It’s a very simple system, and as I said it has the benefit of making everything “5+ on 1d6”. It would even be easy to explain to 5e players: think of it as advantage and disadvantage.

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Thursday, March 12, 2020

So What IS My Vanilla Fantasy Ideal?

Last week, I linked to a From the Sorcerer’s Skull post about Trey’s ideal vanilla fantasy setting and said I’d probably do a follow-up post on what my own vanilla fantasy setting would be. What would I emulate? What are my influences?

I sort of already have a vanilla fantasy setting, which I talk about here every once in a while. I named my blog after it.

There are a couple of “out there” elements: long ago, there was a cataclysm caused by giant worms, and the farther you get from civilization, the weirder things get. But part of the design behind placing the weirdness far in the past or far from home base is to keep the core setting vanilla.

The world, or at least the known world, is almost entirely human. It’s really not a typical D&D world with numerous fantasy races. History is made by and about humans, with elves, dwarves, and orcs more as footnotes and odd exceptions; they exist, but only in very low numbers, and most people haven’t seen one. Other fantastic sentient creatures being even rarer, usually the result of curses or magical mishaps than an actual species and culture. Beastmen live in the forest, but most of these are bewitched or reincarnated humans, with the rest being ordinary animals transformed by magic. Goblins are numerous, but sub-sentient, and created rather than born.

My influences are European fairy tales and Arthurian romance, at least as far as setting goes. Small, numerous kingdoms squabbling over territory or petty grievances. The main characters are not knights or princes, normally, but just ordinary people. So the motivations of PCs are more personal, rather than lofty ideals about justice or service to the king or searching for one’s true love.

There’s a little bit of Conan, much more Solomon Kane, Dilvish the Damned, Lovecraft’s Dreamlands (without the dream explanation,) and Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne, Commorion and Zothique stories. And maybe a little Groo the Wanderer, too. Hell, maybe a lot of Groo the Wanderer. As far as film or TV goes, I think the Merlin TV series is just about the only one that really captures what I want in a vanilla setting, although the movie Hawk the Slayer is close, too.

Hawk the Slayer’s main flaw is that it has a huge battle of Good and Evil driving the plot. That’s not what I’m looking for in my ideal vanilla setting. It’s all small battles, with Good being a rare virtue and Evil being numerous but petty, not united in some grand scheme.

You’ll note there’s no Tolkien. The Shire is too precious a setting for me. I want something a little grungier, but not too grungy, not a Thieves World or a Game of Thrones. Characters are a little self-interested, but it’s not a medieval version of a libertarian’s wet dream, a pre-industrial Mad Max setting.

It’s just folks with minor greed or other vices trying to get by in a world touched by a little magic.

Monday, March 9, 2020

B/X Is Bad: Summary and Conclusion

I’ve written two posts about my opinions on B/X D&D.

What I don’t like about B/X:

These are the main “dealbreaker” features of B/X that I don’t like. I also don’t like the “nickel and dime” approach to bonuses and penalties typical of B/X and other post-OD&D editions and clones: 1-2 on d6 for this, 1-3 for that, +1 to +4 on d20 for this other… I hate the idea of having to look up what to use for a specific situation, which is why I use a minimal number of mechanics and move away from bonuses and penalties in my own game materials.

I will add, though, that B/X might not be as bad as other games in this regard; I don’t have a B/X book, but if the B/X clone Labyrinth Lord is any indicator, almost all the rolls are 1-2 on 1d6 or 1d20 attack/save rolls, but there are a sprinkling of modifiers, plus the ability score bonuses that I’ve ranted against before. Still, it’s no AD&D or WotC D&D when it comes to a very rulebook-oriented, just-about-everything-has-exceptions approach.

So, do I hate B/X? Probably a little, but that shouldn’t matter to people who love it. Would I run B/X, or a B/X clone? Definitely not. Would I play it? If I didn’t have to learn any of the quirky rules, I wouldn’t mind it, I suppose. I’d be forced to pick something other than M-U as a class, though, because of the weird approach to spells.

But this leads into another comment. I embrace the principle “Players should never have to learn the rules. Most rules are for GMs, as an aid to creating and judging situations.” But judging by the way many people post on blogs or forums, there are a lot of people who think players should be rolling all the dice, should know what dice to roll when, should know what target numbers they are aiming for, and record these on their character sheets. So if I were asked to play in a B/X game, I would definitely need to ask some pointed questions to determine if this GM is one of those bad GMs who places the burden on players.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Blog Post of Note: My Flavor of Vanilla

Trey at the From the Sorcerer's Skull blog writes about My Flavor of Vanilla, as in "vanilla fantasy", without all the twists and quirks typical of modern fantasy, or the overly-rigid structures built into D&D fantasy. Since I've seen a couple other people referring to Trey's post, I'm expecting more people to be talking about this in the coming weeks. I may even return to this topic myself in a future blog post.