... now with 35% more arrogance!

Monday, January 28, 2019

Time to Go to Jail!

So, what I was planning for Monday went way off the rails and won’t be ready for a while. Instead, here’s some commentary on a problem someone raised elsewhere: How do you handle sending a player character to jail?

A player picks a lot of fights with NPCs or otherwise does things that would trigger punishment normally. We’ll ignore hypothetical cases where this is due to interpersonal issues at the table and only deal with the case where the player knows there’s a consequence and is willing to take the risk. But how do you handle it?

I see jail in the game being like any other downtime activity, like training or enchanting items. The PC is inactive until the sentence is served, but other characters can attempt a rescue, and the player can suggest plans for escape, like winning over one of the guards or sneaking a message out to a retainer. Some scenarios can be played out to see if the plan works, but for the most part, that character is considered unavailable, and the player switches to a backup character.

It doesn’t actually have to be traumatic, or mean the end of the player’s participation. If the player is traumatized, though… well, that’s probably one of those interpersonal issues, then.

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Saturday, January 26, 2019

January 2019 Blog Maintenance

As part of my blog renovation, I fixed my page for maps. I moved all the old, crufty maps I no longer like to the end, moved the geomorphs up, and added links to some forgotten one-page modules that I actually like quite a bit, so I’m not sure why they were missing. These are all “mega-dungeon plug-in modules”, designed to be used in a mega-dungeon as sublevels or as part of a larger level. Just plug them into your dungeon, or draw up a rudimentary entrance and use them as stand-alone dungeons.

All links should be working, but let me know if any are broken. That seems to happen a lot with sites like Google Drive or Box.

A smaller renovation I did this weekend: changed a blurb in the sidebar about the 20-sided Quickies to include a link to the Quickie Dice Tool, which I revisted a night or two ago and thought “Why did I stop using this?”

I should do more with this. I’m working on some ideas.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Avoiding Homework with Limited Handouts

In my post “No Homework for the Last-Minute Player”, Rob Schwarz disagreed with the idea of keeping the world’s backstory to a minimum.
I think giving the players history, pantheon, even maps of the kingdom (aka homework) works nicely as a handout. It means I don’t have to read/explain to them the basic stuff their characters would already know growing up in that environment and we can worry about things their characters don’t know.
I’m not totally against handouts, but would limit them to a single page (one side of a sheet of paper.) Two pages, if you want to add a crude sketch map of the starting area.

One reason: it’s easier on players to refer to things they already know rather than try to match the detail of a novel or series like The Lord of the Rings.

Another reason: It’s easier on the GM to start with a couple hexes on a map and brief notes on what’s far away in each direction, adding other details as needed.

Third reason: It’s also easier for players to learn as they play, even more so if they help create world details. If a player says “I want to be a viking-like barbarian. What are the names of some tribes I can choose?” my answer would be “What do you want your tribe to be called?”

I briefly mentioned restricting yourself to just three short sentences on any topic, what I call factoids. Your first topic is the world itself, which might only need one factoid. Any well-known person, place, or thing is also a topic worthy of factoids, including each race and class that’s different from the default.

Many D&D worlds can be summarized as “like fairy tale Europe crossed with Middle Earth and Hyboria”. A different world might be “Barsoom, but with Egyptians”. Analogies that include exceptions are the best factoids. Start at the top and drill down, focusing only on the topics you will need right away.

Only some of the factoids would be on a player handout. For example,
  1. Name of starting continent and broad geography (forests in north, arid plains in middle, desert in south.)
  2. Names of a handful of important distant kingdoms.
  3. Sub-regions and names of kingdoms in starting region.
  4. Names of a few mid-distance major cities.
  5. Names of nearby towns and cities in starting kingdom.
  6. Local landmarks and major personages.
  7. Summary of history, one bullet point for each major era (ancient history, cataclysm, post-cataclysm, recent conflict.)
A one-page map handout showing the starting area could cover 2-4, with a second page covering more general information.

If people are interested, I could walk through a demo of this world-building process for my own campaign in a series of posts, showing which information I’d put on a handout and which information I’d keep hidden until a player asks.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

No Homework for the Last-Minute Player

Brendan at Necropraxis wrote a post on No Homework that players shouldn’t have to study up on character builds or game world backstory just to play the game. In fact, it’s kind of antithetical to old school play.

I couldn’t agree more, as it’s part of the foundation for my own Old School Player Manifesto, which I will now quote in full:
  1. You shouldn’t have to know the rules.
  2. You are not your character sheet.
  3. You’re an adventurer. Adventure!
  4. If you want to try something, try it!
I already wrote a couple follow-up posts explaining what I meant by all that, which should explain why it’s connected to Brendan’s No Homework Manifesto. So I’ll mention two other things instead…

First, I’m also in favor of a lot less homework for GMs, as can be seen from my Last-Minute GM ideas and my Nine and Thirty Kingdoms setting. It’s not just because I’m too lazy. It’s also because creating too much backstory for the world means the players have to learn that backstory in order to study it.

Second, elsewhere I was involved in a conversation about what to call Valyrian Steel in a homebrew setting. My suggestion was “Why not ‘Valyrian Steel’?” I didn’t explain all my reasoning for this, but my experience is that D&D settings, both homebrew and published, tend to be 90% a mishmash of stuff GMs have seen elsewhere, in books, magazines, comics, film, and TV, and that’s a good thing. Having Tolkien elves and dwarves in your game world means people kind of know what to expect, since everyone’s seen or read The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit by now. It reduces homework. Even if you want something different, you start with what people know and then list up to three short sentences that explains what’s different.

It’s why things like The Only Fantasy World Map You’ll Ever Need and The Lands of Clichéa work as a setting. Everyone has already “lived” in that shared reality for ages, so it feels like home.

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Monday, January 21, 2019

Speedy Psionic Combat

A further thought on one specific thing that’s wrong with the OD&D/AD&D psionic combat system: the time it takes to resolve. I’m not complaining about how long it takes, but rather… how long it lasts.

Let me explain: There’s a long-running debate about one-minute melee rounds vs. shorter rounds of six seconds or less. One argument for one-minute rounds, put forward by Michael Mornard (Old Geezer/Gronan from the various forums) is that each round of OD&D combat takes about a minute to resolve, so using one-minute rounds makes combat practically real-time.

Psionic combat is supposed to be fast, over in the blink of an eye. It all happens in the first round before the first physical actions are resolved. I imagine part of the reason for not using die rolls for the psionic combat exchanges was to speed it up relative to melee combat. But the system really isn’t fast enough to reflect that.

If you really want psionic combat to be that quick, it should be a one-and-done system. During character creation, instead of recording a single psionic attack strength and defense strength, record one for each attack and defense mode. When psionic combat begins, the combatants secretly pick which modes to use, then reveal their attack and defense scores and compare. Side A can have an attack score that is higher than, lower than, or tied with Side B’s defense score, and can have a defense score that is higher than, lower than, or tied with Side B’s attack score, for a total of nine outcomes:
  • High/High: Side A exhausted, Side B defeated.
  • High/Tied: Side A dazed, Side B defeated.
  • High/Low: Both sides defeated.
  • Tied/High: Side A exhausted, Side B dazed.
  • Tied/Tied: Both sides dazed.
  • Tied/Low: Side A defeated, Side B dazed.
  • Low/High: Both sides exhausted.
  • Low/Tied: Side A dazed, Side B exhausted.
  • Low/Low: Side A defeated, Side B exhausted.
The idea is that each side will finish in one of three states: mentally exhausted, dazed, or defeated.
  • An exhausted psychic can’t use psionics until they rest, but are able to take other actions, like melee combat.
  • A dazed psychic can’t take any action for at least a round (perhaps there is a die roll based on attack mode?)
  • A defeated psychic takes the full effect of the attack mode used against them.
So, after this quick comparison of scores, one or both psychic combatants stumbles and there is a clear winner. Then, the GM rolls either for the length of time dazed or the exact effect of a successful attack and makes it clear what happened as the melee combat begins.

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Psionic Thoughts

Jason Vey of The Wasted Lands blog has been running a series on psionics in TSR-era D&D, covering both the OD&D and AD&D systems and the differences between the two. The easiest way to check it out is to go to the psionics label on his blog and look at the last four articles. I disagree with Jason on one major point, but it’s a matter of opinion rather than a debate over facts. The series is a good read.

The last time I dealt with the psionics system was 40 years ago. I never had anyone play a psionic character when I GMed, but I played a psionic magic-user when my friend GMed. Since, for some reason, my friend only GMed one-on-one sessions with me vs. the larger number of players when I GMed, psionics turned out to be crucial to my character’s survival. Psionic Blast saved my bacon on solo encounters vs. some tough random monsters. I enjoyed my psionic experiences, but although the OD&D and AD&D rules aren’t unplayable, they are really much too clunky, which is why I’ve previously tried to rewrite the system.

But there are a couple things I’d keep, at least conceptually:
  • The different feel of psionics for each class (Fighter/Thief psionics are considered yoga in OD&D, for example)
  • The rarity of psionic characters
  • Slower progression or reduced power in the main class
  • Differences in effectiveness of attack modes vs. defense modes
  • Very quick psionic combat (multiple attack/defense exchanges in first round)
I do think my past attempts to use the existing melee combat system to handle psionic combat is the right way to go, but I still have some work to do on fixing the rest of psionics. And the way things are going, I think it’s all going to be linked to a rewrite of magic spells as well. We’ll have to see what happens.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Re-Examining the Cleric Without Spells Gimmick

The thing about the “Cleric Without Spells” concept that I think people are finding intriguing is not the trivial aspect of not having cleric spells. Technically, I didn’t get rid of cleric spells at all when I wrote that post. I used the existing spells as a guide to see how likely it would be for the cleric’s s request for a miracle to be granted.

No, what I think people are looking for is a cleric that feels different from magic-users. Not just another class that has a different spell list, but one that has a different approach to supernatural power.

What I’m wondering, though, as I consider ways to develop the idea further, is: how different do other, similar classes have to be to likewise feel different and not just a retread?

Shortly after the original “Clerics Without Spells”, I did write-ups on a couple other classes that used the reaction roll/turn undead mechanic:
  • Mesmerist (hypnotizes people for mind control/illusion effects)
  • Weather Worker (bargains with spirits for weather changes)
  • Necrocmancer (controls spirits of the dead)
  • Beast Master (charms wild animals, controls animal helpers, shapeshifts)
These classes don’t all use the exact same rules. Mesmerists are the closest to clerics, in the sense that they use a reaction roll + the Illusionist spell list to effect their powers. Weather Workers are similar, but needed some weather-working spells as a guide to what they could do. Necromancers aren’t too far off, but have no special spell list, just using a selection from the M-U list. Beast Masters have no spells, just some rules on how to implement their ability to speak with, charm, or evoke beasts and beast-powers.

But how desirable are these classes, really? Will they feel different enough?

That’s a big question I’m going to need to answer.

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Looking Forward from 2018 to 2019

I posted about what was popular on my blog in 2018, but it’s a bit long, and doesn’t say what I plan to do with that info. Here’s the summary:
  • Maps, dungeons and geomorphs are the big thing on my blog.
    Part of this is probably random. I think maps and dungeons in general are in high demand, so some people are arriving at my blog after looking for those. Hexcrawl is also a hot topic lately, and some people are following links from various hexcrawl discussion threads. I’d link past interest in the dungeon shorthand series also falls in this category.
  • Clerics Without Spells is an enduring favorite
    Clerics Without Spells, and perhaps related simplified class and character material, gets a lot of draw here. I think this is the number one thing people come to my blog for, as opposed to a random blog that just happens to be mine.
  • Last-Minute GM is a potential "next big thing"
    I don’t think people are really coming here looking for LMGM, but it’s something people check out. On-the-fly GM tricks could be something people want more of.
What I should do, then, is raise the priority of map-related projects as well as my plans for Clerics Without Spells. Clean up the Maps and LMGM pages, at the very least. Plan to do at least one dungeon a month. Get the wilderness generation tables into a nicer, more usable form.

Friday, January 11, 2019

2018 Blog Year in Review

I forgot to do my year-end review of my blog, which I usually do on the 31st. Time to do that now, starting with the top ten all-time posts from the Blogger control panel.
  1. Clerics Without Spells
  2. Dungeon Shorthand: A Quick Reprise
  3. Shield Rule
  4. Classifying the World
  5. Legendary Weapons
  6. Dungeon Shorthand Addendum
  7. Liber 3d6
  8. Weapon Damage Tables
  9. Reaction Table Combat
  10. Lawful Stupid
No surprise that Clerics Without Spells is still on top. That page gets views every week. I had to refresh my memory on the Shield Rule post. It turned out to be a house rule that still sounds pretty good three years later.

For the top ten posts of 2018, I needed to use Google Analytics instead. Excluding the home page, they were:
  1. geomorph label
  2. Maps page
  3. Clerics Without Spells
  4. lmgm label
  5. Random Subhex Wilderness-Generation PDF
  6. Reaction Table Combat
  7. Old School Player Manifesto
  8. Random Hexless Terrain Tables
  9. LMGM page
  10. Links page
I think that gives me a better idea of what is really popular on my site currently and what I need to focus on. I’ve been meaning to rework the links page (it was supposed to be my blogroll and offsite links, rather than internal links.) And a lot of people are coming here looking for the Last Minute GM and for maps/geomorphs, so those pages need to be improved.

Skipping the search labels and secondary pages for a moment, here are the rest of the top ten articles for 2018.
  1. Thief Skills as Surprise: Stealth
  2. More on Clerics Without Spells
  3. Multiple Attacks for Fighters
  4. Last Minute GM: 20-sided Quickies
  5. Q&D Poison and Venom Effects
It makes sense that the follow-up to Clerics Without Spells also got some views. It’s a good thing I’m planning to do something with all of that. The others are all 2018 articles except for the 20-sided Quickies, which is still getting views eight years later. Assuming people weren’t looking for something risqué and stumbled across my site by accident, I may have to look at that drop dice table again and see what I can do to improve it.

The busiest month of 2018 was November, mostly because of the Old School Player’s Manifesto and some related posts. December was the second busiest; the most popular article that month was Last Minute Keys and Locks The third busiest was March, when the Thief Skills as Surprise series was going on.