Friday 28 May 2010

The Wall

I've hit a wall when it comes to GMing. Not burn-out per se, but rather a sudden gloomy loss of enthusiasm — our roleplaying group has had a lot of postponements lately, which makes keeping continuity going a bit difficult, and for the last couple of weeks I just couldn't make the effort to get things back on track.

I'll sort out a decent weekend playing session to get things to a good stopping-point, and then put the campaign on hiatus for a while I think.

I'd quite like to be able to play for a while instead of GMing all the time, but nobody in our group either (a) wants to GM at all, or (b) wants to GM any of my favourite game systems.


Tuesday 25 May 2010

Fall in a Feather-Like Fashion

Feather Fall (or the Magic Parachute spell) is an astoundingly useful spell, especially when you're plummeting to a grisly doom on to nasty, sharp, hard, pointy rocks. It's a spell that (as far as I can find) doesn't exist in OD&D or B/X, but it does turn up as a 1st level magic-user spell in AD&D. The closest thing I can find in OD&D is Levitate, but the chances are that by the time you get to casting that, you're already going to be smushed on those nasty sharp rocks.

Anyway, Feather Fall is one of the AD&D spells I'm bringing into my S&W game. In common with my usual habit though, I intend to make it a bit less convenient in some ways than its original incarnation. Here'a the original spell description from AD&D1e:
Level: 1
Range: 1"/level
Duration: 1 segment/level
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, M
Casting Time: 1/10 segment
Saving Throw: None

When this spell is cast, the creature(s) or object(s) affected immediately assume the mass of a feathery piece of down. Rate of falling is thus instantly changed to a mere constant 2' per second or 12' per segment, and no damage is incurred when landing when the spell is in effect. However, when the spell duration ceases, normal rate of fall occurs. The spell can be cast upon the magic-user or some other creature or object up to the maximum range of 1" per level of experience of the spell caster. It lasts for 1 segment per level of the magic-user. The feather fall affects an area of one cubic inch, and the maximum weight of creatures and/or objects cannot exceed a combined total  equal to a base 2,000 gold pieces weight plus 2,000 gold pieces weight per level of the spell caster. The spell works only upon free-falling or propelled objects. It will not affect a sword blow or a charging creature, but it will affect a missile. The material component is a small feather or a piece of down somewhere on the person of the spell caster.
OK, that's what we have to work with. There are a few things about the spell I had never really considered until I typed it out just now, one of which is that although it's a 1st level spell, it's going to be pretty useless to a 1st level magic-user since it will only work for 6 seconds over a whopping 12' drop. Woo-hoo. OK, so a 1st level M.U. could easily be killed by a 12' drop, so he'd probably like to feather fall that distance, but then again it has a casting time of 0.6 seconds, so even if he started to squawk out the verbal component the very instant he starts to fall, he's going to have landed before he's finished speaking. Ow. Poor, pathetic 1d4 hit-point fool.

Another is the phrase "immediately assume the mass of a feathery piece of down". That may not be a big issue in a calm, still subterranean dungeon environment, but outside in places where a feather fall spell would be really useful — like mountain climbing, for example — it tends to be a bit windy. Often, in the mountains, quite windy. That means that your person-sized, down-massed individual is quite likely to be blown far, far away, until the spell duration ends and they plummet to their doom somewhere else, instead of just falling from where they were. Come to think of it, that could be quite hilarious.

Anyway, on to my rewrite of the spell. The first thing to do is to do away with that 0.6 second casting time. One of the things I like about D&D's Vancian magic system is that it requires some forward planning (and often plain guessing about what's coming up), and I don't like the idea of instantaneous spell-casting. I'll replace that with a casting time of, say, a minute, but have the spell activated more or less instantaneously later on.

It would have a double duration: first, the time in which the spell can be activated... let's say an hour per level, and second, the time the feather fall effect actually lasts once activated... let's make that one round per level (note: I use ten second rounds), so that will let our 1st level M.U. fall 20 feet without fear.

I'll make personal activation automatic rather than by command word; that way the spell will still protect someone who has been knocked out. I'm kindly like that. The activation circumstance will be any free-fall further than 10', so the spell won't be wasted by jumping down from a 6' wall.

I will keep the "...immediately assume the mass of a feathery piece of down" thing, because I think it has great game possibilities.

I will make the spell a multiple-effect, in the same way the Pyrotechnics is a multiple-effect spell. The spell caster can learn it in either an active or a passive mode; in its active mode he or she can voluntarily activate its effect against a falling object or creature within range, while in its passive mode it can the spell is cast on him/herself and/or others and will then be activated automatically, as above.

So then:
Feather Fall
Level: 1
Range: 10 yards per level
Duration: 1 hour per level; target feather falls for up to 1 round per caster level.
Area of Effect: Special (see text)
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 minute
Saving Throw: None

This spell reduces the recipient's mass to that of a piece of feathery down for 1 round (10 seconds) per caster level, and slows a creature's or object's fall to a maximum of just 2' per second.

The caster may learn this spell in either of two forms:

Active: At any time within the spell's duration, with a single word and gesture the caster can activate the spell effect on a falling creature or object within range. The spell caster must make a successful attack roll against an AC of 10 (plus any range modifiers) to affect his or her target. The spell's energy is vitiated regardless of whether a successful hit is made or not.
Passive: The magic-user may cast the spell directly on him or herself, and/or on any number of other creatures up to a maximum total weight (including his or her own) of 200 lbs per caster level. Each spell recipient is given a magically activated feather; as long as they are carrying the feather, if they fall more than 10' any time within the spell's duration the spell is activated and their mass (and rate of fall) is reduced as described above. The spell being activated on one recipient does not end the spell for any of the others.

Note that a human-sized creature with the mass of a piece of feathery down is very strongly affected by air currents, and in any sort of breeze they may well be carried a very long way before landing. Updrafts may even carry them higher than they were before the spell was activated.

A feather-falling creature has no footing and nothing to brace against, and falls like a piece of down — that is, in a swirling, haphazard fashion. Therefore, attempting any sort of melee combat, missile fire or spell-casting is likely to be futile.

When the spell recipient lands, he/she/it immediately regains their normal mass. Once the spell's duration ends, normal falling resumes.

Material component: a handful of down, which is distributed among the recipients of the spell.

OK then, so that's my version of the Magic Parachute. I don't think I've forgotten anything.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Saving Throws

Saving Throws — die rolls used to attempt to avoid or ammeliorate some effect or situation — have been around in D&D since the dawn of time, but they change and morph and distort from edition to edition. They've kept some things in common though; they've all varied by both character class and level.

OD&D (the little brown books) used these categories:
  • Death Ray or Poison
  • All Wands - including Polymorph or Paralyzation
  • Stone
  • Dragon Breath
  • Staves and Spells
All fairly self-explanatory except for the somewhat cryptic "Stone" entry. Does it refer to stones hurled by giants or trebuchets? Does it relate to the chance of avoiding being turned to stone by a gorgon's gaze? Remaining cool under the influence of ganja? Or does it mean the chance of avoiding bashing your head on the low ceiling of a mine? Anyway, I never played OD&D so it was never an issue.

B/X D&D shuffled things about a bit with these categories:
  • Death Ray and Poison
  • Magic Wands
  • Paralysis and Turn to Stone
  • Dragon Breath
  • Rod, Staff or Spell

Again, I never played B/X. I just recently (last year, in fact) managed to get my hands on a copy of the D&D Rules Cyclopaedia, which is pretty cool I must say, although most of the illustrations are pretty boring.

My main contact with saving throws was via AD&D1e (and my bastardized combination of 1e and 2e), which had separate save categories for:
  • Paralyzation, Poison or Death Magic
  • Petrification or Polymorph
  • Rod, Staff or Wand
  • Breath Weapon
  • Spell
The saving throw mechanism is all very well in its way; it's nice for the characters to know that they might, just maybe, be able to mitigate or even avoid the dire effects of a spell or glyph or something. It's a formalized Luck mechanism.
As it was presented in The Old Days though, it was all a bit arcane; the reasoning behind the categories was never actually spelled out. Exactly why a fighter should find it harder to save against an effect from a spell than against the exact same effect via a wand was never actually explained (as far as I know); it was left to the individual GM to rationalize backwards from the data. And it was open to ambiguity — if one was attacked with a wand that squirted out a roiling, roasting cone of fire exactly like red dragon breath, should one properly save vs. Wands or vs. Breath Weapon?

When D&D3e came along, all those effect-based categories were swept away, and instead three characteristic-modified categories replaced them:
  • Fortitude (modified by your Constitution bonus or penalty)
  • Reflex (modified by Dexterity)
  • Will (modified by Wisdom)
This system is much more rational and less arbitrary than the old saving throws, and it is a system much better suited to being applied to unforeseen situations. If an effect could be dodged, obviously a Reflex save would be appropriate, and so forth. Its fault, if fault there be, is that compared with the old saving throw categories, it's a little colourless — which tends to happen with any generic roleplaying system, I've found. The more genre-flexible a system becomes, the less evocative it becomes of any given genre. But I digress.

I don't play D&D4e (boo! hiss! spit!), so I don't know how saving throws are dealt with in that system.
Note: Geoffrey, in the comments,describes the D&D4e saving throw system. It has the sole virtue of simplicity, but it doesn't encourage me to bother with that glorified over-hyped version of Descent.

As I've mentioned before, my game of choice at the moment is Swords & Wizardry, which discards all saving throw categories and uses a single Saving Throw target number for each class and level.

I believe that in its 3rd printing it states that the save be modified against various effects according to class (e.g. a cleric gets +2 to their save against being paralyzed or poisoned). It's not a terrible idea, and it does help to further delineate the individual classes, but then to a small degree it also compromises the Single Save's main virtue, its simplicity and I don't use it myself.

Although I do miss the baroque splendour of the old AD&D Saving Throw Matrix, I've found S&W's single save number to be very workable and flexible in play. I tend to use it as a characteristic save a lot of the time; for example, if a character trips a trap in which he finds himself dodging a multitude of poison darts like Indiana Jones in the first movie, I can call for a DEX save and have the character modify the saving throw by his DEX bonus (or penalty). If they trip a mysterious, non-obvious magical trap, I can just ask for a saving throw.... and because there are no verbal clues (i.e. not a save vs. paralysis, or a save vs. poison, but just a save) it adds to the tension when nothing obvious happens.

I like the concept of the saving throw a lot. It means there's always a chance.... maybe a very slim chance, but a chance, and where there's hope, as they say, there's life.

For that reason, I'll almost never not allow a saving throw in any situation, no matter how hopeless it may seem. Even if it does no good in the end, it makes people feel better, and that means a more enjoyable game.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Detect Stuff

Because I am a mean and cruel GM, I've never really been very happy with the definition of various D&D detection spells which allow a magic-user to cast their spell and go "Aha! That, and that, and that are all magical. Grab them, ignore the rest, and let's get out of here", or "Aha! He's evil, we're allowed to cut his liver out!".

D&D magic is surprisingly flavourless in many ways. It's always reliable, it almost never costs the spellcaster any effort (other than the time it takes to prepare the spell). It tends to be treated as just a list of, y'know, stuff this dude can do once or twice a day. I guess my gripe is that it just feels too convenient, rather than Meddling With Forces Mortal Man Ought Not To Wot Of.

Now as far as playability goes, that's OK. If you make magic-use too dangerous or difficult, people will just choose not to play magic-users. However, there are a few areas where I believe a bit less convenience can make for more fun and interesting game play, and the area of detection spells is one of them.

To that end, I've rewritten them. Pretty nearly all of them — detect evil, detect traps, detect booty-call, etc. — follow the same pattern as detect magic, which I present below as an example:

Detect Magic
Level: 1
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 round
Range: Personal
Area of Effect: 60’ cone
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 round/level
Saving Throw: None
Magic Resistance: No

You detect the presence of magical auras in a 60° cone up to 60’ long, within your line of sight.

Although the spell will alert you to the presence of magic within that area, it does not specify which object, if any, is actually magical.

If you continue to concentrate on the same area, the second round of concentration will give you a direction to the most powerful magic source in the area of effect. A third round will give you both direction and range to within a 5' diameter area of the most powerful magic source, OR you can discern the direction to the next most powerful magic source. Successive rounds of concentration will allow you to home in on other magic sources within the area of effect.

To focus on a specific object, you must actually be touching it, though if you have narrowed the detection down to a 5' circle, and there's only one object in that area, it might be safe to assume that that object is the source.  Then again, it might not.

You may turn to face another 60°, or focus on another object at hand each round.

This rewrite makes detect magic less easy and convenient, but it doesn't really fundamentally alter the workings of the spell. You can still isolate magical auras — you just have to take a bit more time over it. Of course it does make the spell a lot less useful for 1st level magic-users... but screw them. Wimps.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Why Rolling For Combat Initiative Is Pointless And Wrong

A little while ago I was reading yet another long discussion about just how to create yet another new, playable, accurate combat initiative system for D&D. It's something I've thought about off and on pretty much forever.

Then I had a blinding epiphany that left me stunned and gasping for breath so that I had to go and have a bit of a lie down.

In an abstract game combat system, where a round of combat represents an exchange of blows, parries, and offensive and defensive maneuvre, there is absolutely no point in wasting time and dice rolls on determining who goes first. All that matters is determining how much damage a combatant can dish out over the course of that round.

That's already dealt with in the hit+damage dicing system. Roll to see if you manage to do any damage at all, and if you do manage to damage your oponent over the course of the combat round, roll to see how much damage you achieve. Fighters with multiple "blows" simply have a greater damage potential within the combat round's time-frame.

Even six or ten seconds in combat is a long time.

The surprise roll, now that's still useful in an abstract combat system — being able to do damage without taking any in return is basically what combat tactics are all about. I'd definitely retain the concept of a surprise round; in fact it would become even more important if initiative were removed from the equation.

Where an initiative determination system is valuable is in a system where one combat round equals one blow (or grapple, or throw, or whatever). Then it actually becomes important who goes first and who has to react. Otherwise — it's a waste of time.

NOTE: It has been pointed out to me that the initiative roll has a valuable dramatic impact on D&D combat — that's a valid point, and I concede it. It's probably worth retaining for that reason alone. I still think it's structurally pointless though .

Friday 7 May 2010

Danger! Danger! There is treasure here!

In the past, I haven't ever bothered with placing much in the way of randomly-generated treasure in my adventures. I've generally been reasonably discriminating about what I let out into the wild, ever since an incident with a well-equipped (helpful) NPC who went down to a few lucky hits from a roper and immediately made the PC he was supposed to be supporting rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

As a result, I've achieved the reputation of being a mean, stingy GM who takes magic goodies away, but never gives anything good in return. That has turned out, through circumstance, to be kind of true, but in my own defence I note that several juicy hoards of goodies have been passed by completely unnoticed due to the feeble, cowardly behaviour of players who are too chicken to go into danger.You know who you are.

Lately though, I've resolved to run things a lot more by chance. I'm letting the dice decide what treasure is available to be scooped up, and though I can't quite bring myself to accept a +4 Godentag of Awesomeness just lying unguarded in the middle of a passageway, I am experimenting with a much freer hand with the gee-gaws. I use whichever treasure tables happen to be closest to hand when I'm plotting something out, whether they be from Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, LL Advanced Edition Companion, AD&D1e or AD&D2e.

I've noticed something that had never been an issue when I was carefully choosing precisely what to put where. There are a lot of cursed items in those lists.

Or maybe it's just that I've been rolling an unusual number of cursed items. Whichever the case, they seem to be coming out surprisingly regularly. On the one hand, that's kind of a pain, but on the other hand it might — not likely, but it might — start to teach my players not to rush in like a bull at a gate looking a gift horse in the mouth while throwing stones in glass houses (what?).

Last night a character got his hands on a nice, shiny magical helm. A Helm of Opposite Alignment, naturally. First chance he got, he put it on and went from being a Lawful Good wannabe paladin to a slavering Chaotic Evil psycho.

Now, I really don't like things that enforce radical character changes on players; it's very, very seldom that one encounters a player who will take it as a roleplaying challenge rather than as a vicious GM-enforced outrage to be resisted to the last breath. This particular player is one who is unusually resistant to that sort of thing; if anything happens to change his character without his expressed consent and intention, he's more likely to just abandon the character and start a new one than to try to find some in-game way of accommodating or ameliorating the change.

In this case though, I have some sympathy. If it was me, I'd try to find an in-game way to incorporate a missing leg, or a change in sex, or even a forced change in class. I wouldn't be happy, but I'd give it a go. But a radical alignment change is something else; it means that you have to change your whole atitude to life, the universe and everything.

It goes to the very heart of roleplaying gaming for me — I'm not an actor, and I'm not one who likes to use roleplaying to experiment with different psychological outlooks, and again, I'm not an actor. I like the pastime for its action and the problem-solving aspects (and of course for its socializing aspects), and I play as if it were me in that situation, though usually a me with much bigger muscles or a much bigger brain, and a much stronger stomach. As I've mentioned before, I really don't like playing Evil characters. My heart just isn't in it.

Anyway, in this particular situation a plan has been formulated to get the character back to his old self, hopefully with a reasonably low body-count and in a fairly timely fashion. Being the bastardly GM that I am, I fully intend to throw the occasional spanner in the works, but the plan is a pretty good one and unless things go horribly wrong, I expect it will bear fruit before the player becomes utterly disheartened and rolls up a new character.

As I mentioned earlier, I really dislike alignment-changing curses. But that doesn't mean that I won't use them if the dice tell me to... until I decide to end my aleatoric experimentation.

Saturday 1 May 2010

Lava Children and their ilk

On page 61 of the 1st edition of the Fiend Folio, there appeared an entry describing creatures called Lava Children.

It was one of the many critters in that book illustrated by Russ Nicholson, an artist whose work I really like for the most part, but I cannot find it in me to feel the love for this particular illustration. It's been described most often as "Alfred E. Neuman in a bondage harness".

The description of the creatures is pretty lack-lustre; they're pretty much just another humanoid monster with a bit of a gimmick — in this case they're "immune" to metal. Whack one of these guys with a sword and it just passes right through without even disturbing that stupidly vacant grin, and of course they can just reach straight through your wonderful plus one-gazillion Plate-mail of Awesomeness and rip out your spleen.

Meh, boring.

Later on, in one of TSR's modules (Slave Lords, I think) and then in the Monster Manual II (p.82), there appeared a critter called a Magman. It was a bit more conceptually interesting than the Lava Child, being a non-aggressive but mischievous creature that would most likely run away from a fight and would probably only cause major problems for a party of PCs if they were acting like pricks.

Which, let's face it, most PCs do, most of the time.

This is another illustration that I find pretty underwhelming, along with most of the pictures in the MMII. The illustration of that book was reasonably competent I guess, but I can't think of any images that really rang my bells. A couple of the grues maybe. Overall, the illustrations were boring.

The Monster Manual 3e reintroduced the Magman, but called them Magmin — I'm not sure, but I think that's supposed to be the collective noun for them. Again, they made them mischeivous rather than malicious, which can introduce some interesting moral quandaries for Good-aligned PCs who are being dangerously inconvenienced by their fire-play. They also made them a tad more interesting from the DM's point of view by leveraging their fire-elemental nature to make them more interesting combat opponents.

The 3e Magman, being as hot as the lava in which it plays, is actually damaging to get close to, and if you whack it with your sword or axe or whatever, there's a good chance that it will actually melt away.

That's the sort of thing I like when I'm being a bastardly GM, because of the howls of outrage from players when they realise they just ruined one of their precious posessions, and better still because they did it to themselves by attempting to brutalize creatures who were really just playing with them.

I like the 3e illustration of a Magman a lot better than the MMII version, though in my opinion it looks less like a playful elemental creature and more like a deformed dirty old man leching around a hot-tub.

I don't know exactly where I found this illustration (Maybe a Dragon or Dungeon mag?) but to me it evokes a much greater sense of playfulness than the MM3e illustration. It also feels a lot more innocent than the MM3e dirty old man.

It inspires me to rewrite the Lava Child more in the Magman mould.

I'd play up the sense of friendly, playful innocence, and make them actually child-like in character. Unlike the Magman, which is actively mischeivous and enjoys setting things on fire, these things would do so purely from ignorance and playfulness. They would be literally unable to conceive of how they or their molten environment could possibly be harmful, so they might playfully splash PCs with lava or throw magma-balls at them — but only to make them laugh. If actually told that their actions were hurtful, they'd assume it was some kind of pretending-game; they might go along with it as long as it amused them, but without any real sense of the situation. I'd run them pretty much like very young children at play.

I see this creature as being only semi-solid, and so rather than making it actually immune to metal (like the Lava Child) I'd give it a high rate of regeneration to reflect the way in which its molten-rock body could reform itself. Perhaps the regeneration would reduce over time if it leaves the lava, and eventually actually turn into progressive damage unless it gets back to its magma home.

I'd keep the 3e Magmin's possibility of melting any metal stuck into them, and its damage-causing heat aura. They'd ignite any flammable material they touch, of course. Grabbing a spear shaft would burn it through in an instant, and cotton clothing would go up in flames if they just brush against it. Thrown oil would ignite before it could even touch them, and if they handled a ceramic flask of lamp-oil it would probably explode — no doubt causing them to collapse in a giggling fit at the pretty lights.

The creatures could come out of the magma in which they live, but normal solid rock would feel icy cold to them; they'd be uncomfortable, and if they stayed out too long they'd risk the equivalent of frostbite and could potentially even freeze to death. They might treat solid rock as we'd treat snow, and might dash out to play in it for a while, maybe scooping up handfuls of rock for "snowball" fights before heading back for the comfort of their lava stream.

Their nature would make them terribly vulnerable to cold-based attacks; a bucket of water — even boiling water — would hurt them badly, as if a bucket of boiling oil had been thrown on a human being.

My aim here is to create a hazard rather than a monster, a creature which might potentially do great harm, but which would do so not just from ignorance, but from a desire to please. I think it might make an entertaining moral problem for a more-or-less Good party who have to get past them without going all mad-slasher-in-a-kindergarten on them.