Saturday, June 29, 2013

Race and class in my D&D game

I am pretty sure that this post will be a "downer" in this day and age of "egalitarian" fantasy role-playing games where anyone can be anything and excel at it. Consider yourself warned?

When it comes to D&D-type games I am quite fond of "conservative racial stereotypes" in the style of the original rules: Certain races are better (or worse) at doing certain things, period. Issues of "game balance" aside, the answer to the old "Which races can pick which classes?" question is one of the central player-facing rules that allows me to make clear statements about the world, statements the players will care about a lot more than when I rattle off 20 minutes of flavor text.

Instead of discussing this entirely in the abstract, let's start by looking at the table of race/class combinations for my world:


The very first statement I make is that there are only 4 races and 4 classes that can be played which establishes the "outer limits" of the world (from a player perspective). The next statement is that humans are good at everything: the Us mean that humans can advance to any level in all available classes. The remaining U entries state what the various demi-humans are good at: dwarven fighters, elven wizards, and halfling rogues are all on par with their human counterparts. In fact, given their greater life-spans, demi-humans actually have a chance of exceeding human capabilities in those particular classes (see below for how this plays out).

The remaining nine entries are where things usually get controversial: the 4s and 8s mean that the race in question is limited to level 4 or 8 in a given class, the dash means that the race cannot have characters of that class at all. These are the cases that (in my humble opinion) require justification, and it's those justifications that convey most of the flavor about who these races really are in this particular world.

Looking at my table you may already "get" the flavor I am going for to some extent, but just in case I also provide detailed justifications below. Before we get to that, however, I'd like to briefly summarize how my race/class table differs from various "official" versions of D&D:

In comparison to (A)D&D 3e and its free-wheeling attitudes my table is blatantly restrictive. If you like "everything goes" just fine then you should definitely ignore this post.

In comparison to "classic" B/X or BECMI D&D my table is very flexible: Yes you can be an elven rogue or a dwarven cleric! But if you like "race classes" just fine you should probably also ignore this post.

The comparison to OD&D is more complex: Dwarven fighters are just as good as human fighters (instead of peaking at level 6 as in OD&D), elven wizards are just as good as human wizards (instead of peaking at level 8), but both dwarves and elves are restricted as rogues (thieves) and there are no elven clerics at all (which is more restrictive than OD&D on both counts). The elven and halfling fighters are unchanged.

The comparison to AD&D 1e is even more convoluted: Gary allows non-player clerics for dwarves and elves (but curiously not for halflings); I'd rather have a universal reason instead of treating PCs and NPCs differently. Gary stops dwarves, elves, and halflings at levels 9, 7, and 6 as fighters; he clearly gives a nod to dwarves being better at killing things, but his distinction is too muddled for my tastes. Gary does let elves advance to level 11 as wizards; as far as campaigns go, this is actually pretty close to my thinking (see below). Finally, Gary gives all races unlimited advancement as rogues, just like OD&D does; that I have a hard time with, particularly in the case of dwarves and their sausage fingers.

Does my table seem too random for your taste? Personally I find OD&D and AD&D 1e even more random, especially since those rules give very little in terms of justification or explanation. So in an effort to rectify that let me try to run you through my thinking on a class-by-class basis:

Clerics are essentially religious fanatics, an attitude that I see neither in elves (too "scientific" or "arcane" or "enlightened" as it were) nor halflings (too "laid-back" for sure, they'd at most be fanatics about food and wine). Dwarves and humans on the other hand can clearly be block-headed enough to spout religious dogma for a long time; dwarves just eventually calm down and start to realize that there's more to life than that. Humans on the other hand rarely develop far enough (not in terms of levels mind you, but in terms of overall enlightenment about the world and their place in it).

Fighters either kill things or organize others to do the same on a large scale. Every race has some potential for slaughter, but only dwarves and humans are dedicated and aggressive enough to perfect their techniques: Dwarves to defend their mountain homes (and the rest of the world) from the endless hordes of the underdark, humans almost invariably to accumulate wealth and power. Elves tend to ignore the petty squabbles of the short-lived races. They have plenty of time to "wait things out" in the relative safety of their ancient forests and most of them don't see the point of "playing soldier" and risking their (almost) immortal skin as it were. Halflings are neither fond of the discipline required nor the decided lack of comfort military ventures bring with them. In the end they also don't much care for a "fair" fight and would rather overwhelm those "ugly biggens" who want to steal their pipe weed with guerrilla tactics.

Rogues are fundamentally opportunists, they only differ regarding the kind of opportunity they prefer to exploit. Dwarves don't have much patience with this approach to life: You're either doing it right or you're doing it wrong, and if you're doing it right it's honorable and you don't have to sneak around. Elves do enjoy the mischievous aspects of life as a rogue, but they also eventually tire of the "inelegant" physical approach when magical techniques would simply guarantee success. Halflings however couldn't feel more at home with the idea of tricking others or overcoming a wide variety of obstacles with hairy toes and nimble fingers. It's pretty much the only thing exciting enough to keep them away from home during pie season.

Wizards are "academic technocrats" who unravel the mysteries of the multiverse in order to bend it to their will. Well, at least the human ones do, the elven ones look at it more as "communing with the multiverse" but it all works out to the same. Either way, studying musty tomes for hours on end (without snacks even!) doesn't sit well with halflings at all. Dwarves, while not necessarily turned off by the studying, prefer the simpler truths that tradition and religion provide over having to make up their own minds about what is what. For both halflings and dwarves their natural resistance to magic also gets in the way a bit.

Of course these are generalizations, but they are "true enough" in my world to be made into rules. I find that if I don't clearly state that "dwarven wizards" and the like simply don't exist, sooner or later a player will try to roll one up. And if I say at that point that they can't, much needless sadness results.

Note that I don't rule out the existence of "priests" as opposed to "clerics" for any race. It's just that "priests" (religious figures more akin to studious wizards than bloodthirsty fighters) are not a playable class in my world. At least not yet.

I should also mention that I really only play up to level 12 or so; in practice the "soft limit" for player characters is probably closer to 10. This means that while the level 4 limit is a significant restriction, the level 8 limit is much less of one. Combined with the fact that demi-humans can have two (or three in the case of elves) classes, this means that no race has a "hard limit" of any sort to their combined levels unless they pick unfortunate combinations. But even elven fighter/rogues and dwarven cleric/rogues can make it to 12 combined levels, so that's mostly a theoretical concern.

The limit to about 12 levels ties in with my preferred campaign style as well as my choice of level progression.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

What D&D Character?

According to this quiz (beware, takes rather long and some of the questions are extremely silly) I am a Chaotic Good Human Wizard (5th Level). Weird, but I guess at least I can cast Fireball?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Das Schwarze Auge

Although I am pretty much a complete "D&D nut" these days, D&D actually wasn't the first table-top role-playing game I played. That dubious honor belongs to a German game called Das Schwarze Auge ("The Dark Eye") which was first published in 1984 and luckily I discovered it that same year.

(Digression: I guess I was "OSR before the OSR" because I never liked any of the later versions they came out with, I stuck to that 1984 release for as long as I could. Of course eventually everybody else I played with switched so I had to as well. But much to my credit I never actually bought any of those "modernized" versions, I just played them with my friends. I wish I had been just as strong when AD&D 2e came out.)

In any case, I always thought it would be interesting to share how that system worked with the rest of the OSR community, so I had planned to write a summary of the original 1984 rules in English. But I don't have to do that anymore because someone else already did, I just never knew about it until today!

I highly recommend that you read at least the sections on character creation and combat, those give a pretty good flavor; the magic section is fun too of course but less essential. The most fundamental differences to D&D are probably these:
  1. Ability scores start between 8 and 13; on gaining a level, a character can raise one of their ability scores by 1 up to a maximum of 20; ability scores are used for "skills" by rolling under with a d20; "courage" is actually an ability score (so player characters will sometimes run away even if their player doesn't want them to).
  2. Combat has no "static defenses" so both combatants roll: the attacker rolls to hit (d20 under their "attack" value), the defender rolls to parry (d20 under their "parry" value); a successful parry can result in one or both weapons breaking; armor reduces damage unless the attack was a critical hit; critical hits or missile weapons cannot be parried.
  3. Magic uses a "spell point" system with some effects depending on how many "spell points" the caster has left; the player has to actually recite the proper words by heart, no cheating; there are no saving throws, but the caster may have to overcome the target's "monster level" with a custom roll depending on the spell.
I still have a soft spot in my heart for this quirky system. In fact, now that I found an English translation, I may just run a game or two if my current AD&D 2e group ever needs a one-shot when the referee can't make it. I'll probably even try my hands at type-setting a nice PDF version...

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Tiny Sandbox: Populated Starting Area

I've been working on the starting area for my sandbox campaign some more. Although I said I wouldn't, I did end up changing a few things about the geography. For example I introduced a small-ish marsh/swamp area to partially sink a certain semi-ruined temple into. I also added a bunch of streams/brooks/rivers (and one new lake!) to make it all sort-of work. Here's how things look right now:

Sandbox campaign starting area at 1 mile/hex.

The red outline marks hex 05.05 on the 5 miles/hex regional map I posted earlier. I have not gotten around to updating the larger-scale maps yet, but this is close enough for now. Here's some flavor text for the "populated" hexes (from west to east). Note that I have no had time to edit all of this for consistency yet.
02.13 Hold of The Chaos Cult: A small group of Xinlurgash cultists have established a hideout in this abandoned dwarven delve. They were sent by their main temple (off the area map to the west) to investigate the ruins in hex 10.16 but have not made a lot of progress toward that goal yet. They did, however, successfully recruit several small bands of humanoids (kobolds, orcs, ogres) who for one reason or another decided not to work with the Broken Fang hobgoblins in hex 26.21; their most prized recruits so far are a minotaur and an owl bear.

04.10 The Sunken City: This mist-covered lake hides an ancient sunken city under its otherwise calm surface. The topmost spires of three towers peek out in the center of the lake but cannot be seen from a distance due to the ever-billowing mist. The towers are made out of a strange bluish-green stone not native to the area.

06.03 Village of Tirn (Krak'Vaza, Citadel of Iron): A mining village of about 450 inhabitants with a sizable dwarven population of about 60. Tirn is built around an old dwarven citadel that has changed hands (between dwarves and various humanoid tribes) many times over the centuries. It was last reconquered by the dwarves around 120 years ago. About 80 years ago the dwarves invited human settlers to join them to make up for their dwindling numbers. The village is now ruled by a council of three dwarves and three humans with a mayor that alternates between dwarves and humans every 10 years. The current mayor is Mart Morren, an experienced human miner of about 50 years; Mart will step down in three years. Despite its relatively small size, Tirn has an actual stone wall.

06.24 Hidden Village of Nath'Valin (Lake of Whispers): A small semi-fortified tree-house village of about 80 high elves guards this entrance to the Vi'Valin (Forest of Whispers) which extends to the south. The elves keep close tabs on the Broken Fang hobgoblins in hex 26.21. They occasionally skirmish with the humanoids, but as long as their attention is focused on the human settlers to the north, the elves are not going to take any major action.

10.16 Temple of the Froghemoth: An ancient temple of unknown origin is slowly sinking deeper into this blighted swamp as the centuries drag on. Statues and bas reliefs of strange reptilians cover the crumbling structures that hide a strange conglomeration of lizardmen, yuan-ti, kuo-toa, and worse.

11.08 Caves of Uncertainty: This network of natural caves is rumored to lead far into the depths of the earth. A small group of about 20 bandits is currently using the surface caves as a hideout. They arrived only recently from the north and have not yet attacked any of the merchants in the area.

15.09 Village of Sern: A village of about 500 (mostly human) souls, Sern sits on both banks of the river Url. The village sprung up roughly 40 years ago at the site of an ancient (but perfectly intact!) stone bridge of dwarven construction (complete with small gate-houses on either side which are now used to collect tolls). Sern has two major temples, one to Mielikki (goddess of forests, hunters, and woodsmen) on the south shore and one to Demeter (goddess of agriculture, fishermen, and fertility) on the north shore. There is also a small shrine dedicated to a variety of other deities, mostly frequented by merchants and other travelers. Sern hosts a weekly market where both homesteaders from the surrounding area as well as craftsmen from Sern sell their products; merchants from Sern in turn regularly attend the monthly market in the town of Marken to the north (not on the area map).

16.11 Stones of Sorrow: A mysterious circle of 19 ancient standing stones (each about 12 feet high, 5 feet wide, and 2 feet deep) looms on the highest peak amidst these strangely desolate hills. Travelers have reported frightening wailing sounds emanating from the stones. Some believe that memories of an ancient cult or civilization mourn their own passing here on every full moon.

19.17 Ruins of Parm: Before being overrun by the Broken Fang hobgoblins and their minions last year, Parm used to be a small village of about 150 hunters and woodsmen. Many who survived the attack have volunteered their services to Baron Tembar and Sternbow Keep on the condition that Parm will be taken back this year. The ruins are currently home to about 30 goblin raiders who are still occasionally digging up some useful loot. A small band of 5 human hunters who are too impatient to wait for Baron Tembar's plans to take shape is waging a guerrilla war on the goblins, albeit not very successfully.

20.09 Tower of Brinsaro: The wizard Foranius Brinsaro and his wife Emiliane Sirramor (both human) reside here together with a handful of apprentices and servants. Rumor has it that the tower appeared out of nowhere about 20 winters ago, something the decidedly foreign-looking bluish-green stone it is made out of lends further credence to. A few of the surrounding homesteaders have agreed to supply the wizard with essential goods in return for his protection. Foranius is on generally good terms with the area's population, although his search for new apprentices every four years or so is something few families want to volunteer their youngsters for. Foranius has also helped baron Tembar with the fortifications of Sternbow Keep, a debt the baron repays by stationing four guards from the keep here on a monthly rotation.

22.13 Sternbow Keep: Baron Rinald Tembar has ruled this area for the last 15 years. His father, baron Orland Tembar, came south to carve his barony out of the surrounding wilderness about 35 years ago. The keep is small but well-fortified with both high walls and a sizable moot. The baron's garrison numbers about 60 men-at-arms with 3 sergeants and an experienced captain to lead them. Sternbow Keep is surrounded by a small village of about 60 farmers, hunters, and woodsmen, 30 of which are ready to serve as a militia. About 15 refugees from Parm are temporarily camped here as well; so far they refuse to join the village proper because they want to liberate Parm from its goblin invaders this year. The temple of Tyr located in the keep encouraged the refugees in this endeavour.

26.21 Fort Morr'Runk (Broken Fang): Hobgoblins of the Broken Fang tribe have been rallying the surrounding goblin clans under their banner for several years now. Last year they destroyed the village of Parm, dealing a painful blow to human settlers from the north. Fort Morr'Runk consists of three concentric palisades around a hill with a small stone keep of unknown origin that serves as their headquarters. There are about 500 goblins from various tribes as well as 150 hobgoblins who maintain order by savage discipline. A cult of hobgoblin shamans of Maglubiyet are behind all this, having received omens and visions from their god to lead a holy war against the lesser races.

28.23 Prison of Ilmor'Karanth (Hell of Stone): The old Varmerian Empire decided to dump many of its "undesirables" into this gargantuan prison complex at its eastern-most border. When the empire crumbled to dust hundreds of years ago the prison was simply abandoned. Many strange and dangerous creatures have moved in since, both from above and from below.

29.07 Village of Mirm: A small village of about 50 farmers and horse-traders, Mirm was founded about 25 years ago by Imen Mirm, a female knight who was able to befriend the centaurs who still roam this region. Imen built a small manor keep but had no ambition to rule and swore fealty to baron Tembar instead. Imen breeds excellent war horses and trains those she considers worthy in the art of equestrian combat. Her philosophy of "honoring your horse as you would your brother" strikes many as strange, but the results she achieves are unquestioned and enlightened knights travel far and wide to learn from her.
Note that there are other adventuring sites, quite a few in fact, ranging from small burial mounds to forgotten cellars and the like. I am considering adding a little bit of an "underdark" dimension as well, just in case the players decide to roam deep instead of wide.

I'd appreciate any feedback you may have about what I've thrown together here. In particular:
  1. Did I go over the top with all the water in the map? Recall that the scale is 1 mile/hex, so pretty small. I consider many of the streams I added "brooks" and the like, not "real" rivers.
  2. Should I exchange hexes 15.09 and 22.13, the village of Sern and Sternbow Keep? After I got done I realized that the old baron would probably have built his keep at the border of the forest instead of inside.
  3. Should I add another village in hex 16.02 or hex 27.01 for example? The latter would allow me to add a fishing village, what with the lake right there.
But as I said, all kinds of feedback are welcome. I've never gone this far in putting together a sandbox before, so I am sure I've screwed up a lot of things. :-)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Tiny Sandbox: Final Area Geography

The journey I started a few days ago may finally be getting to the point where I can actually populate the sandbox. Who knew that I'd be so picky about my geography? In any case, this will be a longer post because I'll include some of the "development steps" I went through to end up with the final area map. You may want to look at this post to "get your bearings" as it were.

I initially went with the tiny "one big hex and partial neighbors" sub-hex template because I wanted to build a tiny sandbox. Makes sense of course, but then I realized that I prefer a "wider" low-level area so that my players can start exploring and making their own decisions about where to go right away. I guess the more common approach, the one with "Gygaxian heritage" if you will, is to simply tell them that until their characters have leveled up enough, they must go back and forth between town and the one and only dungeon that's close enough so the trip won't kill them. (How that will prepare anyone, players or characters, for the wider hex crawls later on I do not know.) That meant that I needed a larger area-scale map at 1 mile per hex, covering a larger section of the regional map. Here's the comparison between what the initial area map covered and what the new area map covers:

Coverage of old (left) and new (right) area map.

There's obviously quite a bit more territory now: Instead of roughly four 5-mile hexes we now cover roughly 28! This is exactly what the regional template is made for. I copied an empty regional template and I started by filling in the region-scale type of each hex as the "center hex" in my new area map. Then I copied over the area previously covered by the sub-hex map and marked it with a red boundary (because I didn't want to make changes to those areas anymore). Finally I started filling in the missing pieces according to the campaign design guidelines. Here's an early state of the area map:

An early state of the new area map.

In an effort to once again test how well the campaign design guidelines do in practice, I stuck to the simplest possible interpretation: Fill each whole hex with 9 primary, 6 secondary, and 3 tertiary sub-hexes depending on the overall terrain type on the larger-scale map. After a while I ended up with an area map where only the partial large-scale hexes were missing:

All complete large-scale hexes refined.

At this point I made a post about what I perceived as the problems with following the campaign design guidelines in too simple-minded a manner and we'll get to my modifications in a moment, but first here's the completed simple-minded area map:

All large-scale hexes refined, simple-minded.

To address the problems I had identified I first concentrated on the heavy forests in the south and worked in the new terrain type I had outlined earlier. Going through this wasn't very hard, and I ended up with this area map:

Improvement: The new "heavy forest" terrain type.

That certainly looks a lot better than having "plains" and "hills" show up in the middle of what is ostensibly "heavy" forest. Next I went through all the large-scale hexes one more time and rolled for "wildcards," terrain features that are not common but still possible given the terrain for a large-scale hex. I only got four "hits" here, and for three of them I decided to make them "water" because the map otherwise looks rather dry; for one I picked "mountain" and in the middle of a "heavy forest" hex no less. I envision this as the site for one of the last "low-level adventures" the players might have before setting out into the wider world. So here's the map with wildcards:

Improvement: Three "water" and one "mountain" wildcards.

Of course I could simply have placed more wildcards, but once again I wanted to stick with the campaign design guidelines mostly as written. As for the perceived "dryness" of the map: I'll eventually add brooks and streams and rivers and the like, so things should work out okay. After these two improvements I spent about an hour looking over the geography and "reshuffling" hexes so they make a little more sense overall. I'd like to emphasize the "reshuffling" part: I stuck with the recommended breakdown into primary, secondary, and tertiary terrain types, so turning a "plain" hex into a "hill" required that I turn another "hill" hex into a "plain," at least for interior hexes. Borderline hexes are considered fair game for just about anything anyway, so I didn't have to "trade" those. Of course I am no expert, but this is my final take on the area map after my "careful" reshuffling:

Improvement: Reshuffling hexes overall.

I made one additional change: Notice the "water" hex in the top left? I added that after checking the regional map again, just north of that hex is where the "big lake" starts and I wanted to remind myself of that. It's a borderline hex so it doesn't count against the balance of hexes anyway, which makes the "rules as written" fanatic in me happy.

Phew! I swear I am done with the geography now! Three posts later than initially expected, but heck, it was worth it. I have to congratulate (and thank!) The Welsh Piper for a great approach to the geography of a sandbox, and I highly recommend his approach even if you start off differently, for example with a donjon world map.

I will now switch to rivers, roads, settlements, ruins, dungeons, random encounter tables and the like. Maybe I even get to run a few games in this sandbox soon! Wishful thinking? I hope not...

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Tiny Sandbox: Expanded Area Map

As a last (geographical!) step in my quest to put together a tiny sandbox I wanted to expand the 1 mile/hex area-scale map to allow my players to trek a little further even in their initial low-level ventures. This also allows me to put the low-level adventuring sites a little further apart instead of crowding them all into a roughly 10-by-10-hex area. Here's the result so far:

Expanded 1 mile/hex area map, original dimensions in red.

I don't know about you, but I find the terrain generated by just using the "primary, secondary, tertiary" categories from The Welsh Piper's campaign design tutorial a little too homogeneous. Also, in the southern portion of the map, I don't like how heavily forested hexes still include plains, that doesn't seem appropriate.

So my plan is to first "spice things up" a bit by also using the "wildcard" categories. In a "forest" hex, for example, we currently only get "forest, plains, hills" sub-hexes because those are the "primary, secondary, tertiary" categories. With "wildcards" included there will also be the occasional "water, swamp, mountain" sub-hex. That should help.

Second I'll change the current "forest" category to "light forest" and introduce a "heavy forest" category in which we have "heavy forest, light forest, forested hills" instead of "light forest, plains, hills" as before. The "wildcards" for "heavy forest" will be "water, swamp, forested mountain" of course. That should make those "heavy forest" hexes just a tad bit more spooky. Or so I hope. Stay tuned!

A Tiny Sandbox: Revised Geography

I couldn't help myself, I needed to know (desperately!) what the "wider world" around my regional sandbox map looks like. So once again armed with the free version of Hexographer and The Welsh Piper's excellent campaign design tutorial I "zoomed out" into an atlas-scale map where each numbered hex is 25 miles. Here's the result:

The sandbox at 25 miles/hex, 5 miles/hex, and 1 mile/hex.

So from left to right we have an atlas map at 25 miles per hex, a regional map around atlas hex 05.05 at 5 miles per hex, and an area map around region hex 05.05 at 1 mile per hex. Pretty neat.

If you compare this regional map to the one I posted yesterday you'll see that by expanding to atlas-scale I was able to "fix" a few things regarding the terrain. For example the upper-left corner now properly reflects "more water" to the north. I also changed the distribution of "light" and "heavy" forest in the south to fit. On the area map I moved the mountains fully inside the hills instead of having them run up against the plains. All improvements in my book.

Yes, I still have to populate the sandbox. But now I am a lot happier with the overall amount of geographical information available, so hopefully I won't be tempted to redo the geography again. At least not anytime soon.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Tiny Sandbox: Geography

I've been meaning to run a sandbox campaign for a while now and tonight I sat down for a little while with the free version of Hexographer and The Welsh Piper's campaign design tutorial. Here's what I have to show for about two hours of thoroughly enjoyable work:

On the left we have a scale of 5 miles per numbered hex, on the right we have a scale of 1 mile per numbered hex. The red tint on the left shows what I zoomed in on to get the right, so the big central hex on the right map is hex 05.05 from the left map.

Did I end up with a particularly cool map? No. Is it good enough for a trial-balloon sandbox? I am pretty sure it is!

Note that I tried to follow the tutorial to the letter (yes I actually rolled dice for the left map), so I guess this also shows that Erin's method produces fairly decent outcomes. (Of course his method is not an exact algorithm, you do have to tweak things here and there to make it work.)

Next I'll have to populate the maps. Erin has another tutorial for that, but as far as I can tell his method will produce too few adventuring sites for my taste. So I'll probably just populate manually, or maybe by stealing ideas from other sandboxes I have access to. We'll see.

d20 versus 3d6

Alright, so say you want to design a mechanic similar to "3rd edition" D&D where you have to "beat" a target number set by the referee to succeed at a certain task. If you have a d20 handy, you get something like this:


Sound good? Pretty good! And you are probably all more than familiar with it anyway... Now what if instead of a d20 all you have is a d6? The only way to stay in roughly the same range for target numbers is to use 3d6 since that'll cover 3 to 18. If you go that route, here is (roughly) what you get:


Sound good? What? Oh you're still thinking about it! Well, it's good as far as the numbers go, they are pretty close to the actual chances of beating these targets. What you're probably trying to figure out is if there's a method to this madness. There is indeed, but we don't really need to go there. What should be perfectly obvious is that this is very different from the "adding +1 to the roll means adding +5% to your chance of success" simplicity of using a d20.

Also note how the chances for success and failure are really "scrunched together" at the ends with 3d6. If we call anything >90% "virtually certain" and anything <10% "virtually impossible" then we have 7 numbers for the former (1-7) and 7 numbers for the latter (15-21) leaving only 7 numbers (8-14) for everything in between. (Of course we could simply "lose" 1, 2, 20, and 21 since they do not represent distinct chances of success anyway.)

Inside the 8-14 range we have of course 11 which regardless of d20 or 3d6 stands for a "50/50" chance of success. Between 11 and 12 (or 10) we lose (gain) 12.5%; between 11 and 13 (or 9) we lose (gain) 24.1%; between 11 and 14 (or 8) we lose (gain) 33.8%; and that exhausts the "in between" range. What's curious about this is that rolling d8 or d12 over a suitably adjusted range of target numbers actually gives rather similar percentages. Here's the d8 for example (I'll leave the d12 as homework):


Here's a rough graphical comparison (go by the percentage chances when you compare 3d6 to d8, not by the range of numbers covered):

Do I have a point with all this? I do indeed: Rolling 3d6 against a target number in the 1-21 range is silly! Why?
  1. You're messing up a perfectly fine and intuitive linear progression that allows players to judge the impact of a bonus or penalty in a straightforward way.
  2. You're not getting anything more interesting out of your 3d6 roll that you couldn't get out of a suitably adjusted d8 or d12 roll, and those would in turn again be more transparent in terms of bonuses and penalties.
  3. You're making people roll a bunch of dice where one would suffice, thus endangering the miniatures on my table and making us get up to pick dice off the floor more often.
If you like the 1-21 range of target numbers, then please roll the appropriate and well-understood die for it.

Now I hear some of you say "But I like rolling 3d6, it feels so cool!" and of course I cannot help you with that: Taste can neither be legislated nor rationally understood. So keep on rolling 3d6 despite knowing better, it's your game!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Mage Guild: Wizardly Resources for OSRIC

Rick Stump of Harbinger Games was nice enough to send me a review copy of his Mage Guild: Wizardly Resources for OSRIC supplement. The product is billed as "45 pages packed with NPCs, spells, magic items, plot hooks, monsters, and campaign ideas" and those things are certainly all in there.

After a brief introduction as to the purpose of the supplement we jump right into the description of The Mage Guild. Notice that it says The Mage Guild and not A Mage Guild! Indeed this first chapter describes the (relatively recent!) founding of a particular mage guild by several adventuring companions and its subsequent growth into a bigger, somewhat federated organization with quite a few ambitions. The overall working of the guild is described next, as are details about the guild's bylaws and charter.

The concept of The Mage Guild is very much modeled on the medieval guild system for other trades, providing for a certain amount of "realism" as it were. One concept that's curiously absent is apprenticeship, something I would have liked to see addressed (but see below). The focus of The Mage Guild as described feels a little more like a "professional association" similar to the IEEE for example. This is neither good nor bad, it's just different from what I would have expected.

Next we're on to Mage Houses, a more "natural" organization of magic-users based on the relationship between "master" and "apprentice." This is once again not just a general description of what a Mage House is. Instead specific details about specific houses from the implied campaign setting are described. We learn, for example, that House Barr has members that are also trained as engineers and specialize in relieving sieges. Short descriptions of 17 different houses are included. The section ends with details about the names of magic-users (a big deal in the implied setting) and a discussion of "true names" and their effect on spells.

One of the problems I have is that the interests of The Mage Guild and the various Mage Houses are in conflict. Certain houses are described as having access to "unique spells" but since all magic-users have to disclose their spells when joining The Mage Guild, that knowledge cannot remain private. I am not sure if this conflict is intentional or not. If it is then it should be addressed "head on" in the supplement and a description of the kinds of problems it leads to should be added, ideally with a few historical anecdotes about how things played out.

The next 12 pages cover a number of non-player characters, most importantly the current leaders of The Mage Guild. Each is described in quite a bit of detail covering not only game statistics but also character background, appearance and personality, typical combat strategies, and notes about role-playing the character.

I found the descriptions of these characters enjoyable and there are a few neat surprises (and plot hooks) for players potentially encountering them. I am almost certain that many of these were originally player characters, which is probably why they are rather well fleshed-out. However, after all the fuss about Mage Names and how important they are, only one of the characters is actually given with his "proper" name thereby also revealing his Mage House. All the other characters are given less appropriate (in this case anyway) fantasy names. But what's worse is that, without those names, we never find out which Mage Houses they belong to (except for one more character where the house is explicitly described).

Now we get to the spells, always a favorite of mine. There are a number of Magic Missile variants, one of which is particularly cool (so I won't spoil it here). There are also variants of Find Familiar, something I cannot recall having seen before. And we get a powerful spell that applies the earlier discussion of true names in an interesting way.

I did enjoy these spells, although I have to admit that one magic-user's obsession with variants of Magic Missile seems a little over the top. However each of those variants has a nice flavor, so your mileage may vary. The spell combining "Spider Climb" and "Jump" seemed very cool at first, but then I realized that it's at the same level as "Fly" and I found myself wondering why anyone would leap from wall to wall instead of just trying to fly. However, once again, I like the flavor of this new spell much better than the relative blandness of "Fly". (Also maybe "Fly" should have been level 4 instead of level 3, but now I am messing with Gary and I really shouldn't.)

The section on magical items is very short, only one page. Sadly these are mostly variants of existing items and except for the "Weapons of Adroitness" they are not terribly flavorful. But at least they serve as a good reminder that variant items are something each DM should consider adding to their campaigns, just to keep players guessing a little.

Next we get two special creatures, both designed to go with the new variants of Find Familiar presented earlier. Arcane Servants are for good magic-users what familiars such as quasits are for evil magic-users. Elemental Spirits are "familiar-sized" elementals.

I like both of these ideas for familiars. The first "balances" the perceived advantages that evil magic-users can get out of Find Familiar, what with quasits granting their 25% magic resistance as long as they are within a mile of the wizard. The second is very flavorful (the gem form restriction is great!) and finally gives magic-users who consider themselves "elementalists" of one sort or another an appropriate familiar. Well done I say.

Finally we get one page of advice about how The Mage Guild can fit into a campaign and one page of adventure hooks. (Sadly the appendix detailing the Guild House and the sample map for Chapter Houses are not included in the version I received for this review.)

The advice given is solid, although I wish the idea of players running their own guilds would have been taken up as well, maybe from an "end game" type of angle: Fighters build baronies, clerics build churches, thieves build thieves' guilds, and magic-users, instead of just sitting in a tower somewhere, try to influence the world by setting up their own version of a mage guild. I had assumed something like that was part of the supplement, alas it is not. (However, you can conceivably "re-engineer" it from the examples given.) The adventure hooks are not exactly fascinating but certainly solid and focus on getting player characters exposed to The Mage Guild so they can start interacting with it.

Now before I summarize regarding content and value I have to get one more thing off my chest: I found the layout and design of Mage Guild severely lacking. True, the PDF clearly states that this is the "no frills" version of the supplement, but on the other hand it's quite unclear where one would obtain the "all frills included" version. I know I have ridiculously high standards when it comes to typography and presentation, but I am actually quite happy with the relatively plain style that supplements like Sine Nomine's The Crimson Pandect use. Sadly the current version of Mage Guild looks more like the author used "Print to PDF" on an HTML file. Luckily improving the layout and design should not take a lot of effort and I hope the author will release an updated version soon.

Overall I enjoyed this supplement although as I indicated above my expectations were maybe a little higher. What I like most is that this material obviously comes from an actual campaign, it wasn't put together by a game designer approaching things from an abstract angle. In terms of content I enjoyed the non-player characters and the spells (including the unique creatures) most, something I didn't quite expect. The details on the guild and the houses are nice but since they are so specific to the implied setting I cannot see myself reusing them as is. If the supplement had provided a framework for the creation of mage guilds, and maybe some tables for putting them together semi-randomly, that would have helped me more in my own campaign.

Mage Guild is currently priced at $4.00 for 45 pages. For $9.99 you can get products like The Crimson Pandect or Dyson Logos' recently released Magical Theorems & Dark Pacts. Those products clock in at 131 and 157 pages respectively, and they run circles around Mage Guild in terms of layout and design. Neither of these supplements set out to address the question of how wizards organize themselves, something certainly worthy of exploration. The Crimson Pandect offers some ideas in this direction and it provides tables to randomly determine how "Dark Cabals" and "Wizard Academies" are set up. However it doesn't provide a worked example of a mage guild.

If you are primarily looking for a general supplement on magic-users (classes, spells, etc.) then you shouldn't pick up Mage Guild but one of the competitors I mentioned. If you are looking for a home-grown, worked example of a guild however, then Mage Guild could fit the bill, especially if the author updates it to bring it closer to his competitor's offerings in terms of production values (or alternatively lowers the price).

Edit: Rick Stump has lowered the price for Mage Guild to $2.00 and also told me that he's working on revisions. Whether these revisions will go into this or a related product is not 100% clear, but he's happy to credit people who buy an updated version the price they paid for this one. Way to go! :-)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Creeping Redesign

Over the past few weeks I've quietly been changing the look of the blog, little by little. I stayed with the overall color scheme that came with the default theme, but I tweaked the fonts, the layout, and now I finally added an image (courtesy of Old Book Illustrations) to the header.

I wonder if anyone actually noticed? I also wonder if anyone actually cares? When it comes to print stuff I am pretty OCD about typography and layout, but I didn't really care about those things for my blog before. I think the overall look and readability compare favorably to the default theme, but then again I am horribly biased. Feedback would be appreciated!

Delving Deeper

Edit: I should point out that the following is only my interpretation of things, not an "official" statement from Immersive Ink or anyone else involved with Delving Deeper. So if you don't like what I say, please complain to me and not to them, they already have enough work producing an excellent set of rules.

Over the past two weeks I've been "proof-reading" all three volumes of Immersive Ink's excellent Delving Deeper retroclone. It all started when I posted some feedback about the first volume over on the boards. Simon Bull was nice enough to encourage me to finish my read-through although I had not initially planned to go beyond the first volume. But I have to say it was a fun, if at times tedious, experience. And I learned a lot about the rules in the process.

After the first volume I did change my attitude a little. Initially I read a bit in Delving Deeper, then looked for the corresponding info in the original game, then went back to Delving Deeper, etc. For the other two volumes I didn't really worry about OD&D very much anymore, I mostly focused on the consistency between the various rules and volumes of Delving Deeper itself. I should probably admit that I am rather OCD about stuff like that. I believe that a set of rules should be internally consistent no matter what kind of 40-year-old mess you're drawing your inspiration from.

But it's easy to do more than necessary, and Simon has an excellent point that weighs against my "grand ambitions" to fix everything: There are lots of things that are "exceedingly ambiguous" in OD&D that no matter what interpretation you pick (i.e. the one that makes the most sense to you), someone is going to be upset that you didn't pick theirs. So instead of a "true" retroclone that keeps the essential ambiguities, you'd end up with something closer to a "retroclone-ish" like Labyrinth Lord's Original Edition Characters or Swords & Wizardry's White Box rules.

Now of course Delving Deeper is not a perfect clone either. Thieves, for example, work quite differently from Greyhawk's OD&D thieves. Strangely enough, the variant that Delving Deeper presents actually feels more old-school than the original. Yes, in certain places Delving Deeper seems to "out-retro" even the original rules! Isn't that something?

I think my biggest pet-peeve about the rules is that a lot more things could be made more consistent without risking that "old school vibe" at all. So for example there are several monsters who "on 4 more than needed to hit" will cause some kind of special effect, swallowing a target for example. That's great, but those things are explained with every single monster and the explanations are not always totally consistent. For instance, some monsters get "on 4 more than needed (and on 20 of course)" instead. Which one is it? There are several examples like that and I hope that these things will be resolved with the next revision of Delving Deeper.

But aside from my pet peeve for consistency, there's nothing wrong with these rules. In fact, they are my favorite reinterpretation of the original game currently in existence, presumably exactly because they strive to stay close to the original and only go a different route when there's both a clear benefit and no chance of losing flavor.

If you haven't done so before, I highly recommend you take a look. They'll also be coming out with a sexy hardcover edition sometime this year! Right now you can grab the current version of it all for free right here. Maybe you'll even get hooked? Enjoy!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The "Ultimate 1e Tome" Pipe Dream?

I think I finally managed to score a "Deities and Demigods" with the Chaosium stuff in it. That was the last hurdle in my quest to clone this guy's idea for the "ultimate 1e" book. Okay, so I am 30 years late to that particular game and I probably won't even live long enough to see my leather-bound tome look this good, but hey, I still want to do it. Of course now I am stuck obsessing over which actual books to slice up and put back together in this "eternal" format.

The most minimalist version would include the Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Monster Manual, and the Deities and Demigods cyclopedia. That would clock in at 622 pages (311 sheets) and seems to be a solid choice. Very old-school indeed.

However, there's a whole slew of creatures I like from both the Fiend Folio and even (gasp!) the Monster Manual II: Aboleth, Death Knight, Demilich, Githyanki, Graz'zt, Hook Horror, Drider, Gibbering Mouther, Tween, etc. Fiend Folio actually seems "old school" enough but Monster Manual II with the newer layout doesn't fit quite as nicely. Still, based on content it should probably go in. So now we're at 908 pages (454 sheets) and things are starting to get huge.

Which brings us to the really iffy choices.

I dislike Unearthed Arcana a lot. Not just because it turned AD&D into a zoo of over-powered races and classes, not just because there were a lot of "bugs" as it were, but also because plenty of it seems "ripped off" from other people's work without much in terms of careful editing. There are, however, a good number of spells and magic items that I like, and there's weapon specialization which at least gives fighters a little edge to distinguish themselves from rangers and paladins.

Then there is Oriental Adventures, a tome I actually sort of like. It finally puts monks where they belong and it does provide some fascinating options (such as the shukenja/sohei tradeoff which I have chosen to read back into the original game as a priest/cleric tradeoff). But it's also the first 1e hardcover that is obviously not Gary's work anymore. At least for Unearthed Arcana you can still show his involvement (witness the trail of articles he wrote in Dragon magazine) even if the source material was "collected" from all over the place and therefore lacks a unifying vision. But Oriental Adventures?

In any case, if I added those two volumes as well we'd be at 1180 pages (590 sheets) which is probably as much as any sane book binder would put together, not to even speak of how much that thing would weigh. So paraphrasing Gary a little:
What would you, Gentle Reader, put into your "ultimate 1e" leather-bound tome of eternity?
And yes, I do feel bad about slicing up perfectly good hardcover books, but I really wouldn't want to use scans or copies or whatnot. I have a secondary plan which involves carefully separating and (where appropriate) framing the covers that are still in a good enough state for that treatment. Those that are "too worn" already I'll probably turn into my "ultimate 1e" DM screen instead. So hopefully that makes up for the "sin" of tearing them apart in the first place?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Quick Note on Refining Hexes

I have been playing with hex maps recently and one of the "big things" I was trying to figure out is how people "refine" them from one level of detail to the next. In the back of my mind I remembered some method that I just could not come up with anymore and today I finally found it while browsing the old AD&D "Wilderness Survival Guide" hardcover from 1986. So, as a permanent reminder to myself, here it is:

from Wilderness Survival Guide, page 106

I am not entirely convinced that this is better than the method I've been using (and I've seen others use) which keeps the orientation of the hexes. The tradeoff seems to be that things "fit better" if you change the hex orientation on each level of refinement, meaning there's less "duplictation" between neighboring large-scale hexes. In any case, I'll try both methods for a simple example and we'll see what the results look like when I get done. :-)

Edit: Obviously this only works for individual large-scale hexes. If you try to "tile" things the "surrounding" large-scale hexes will end up with a totally "uneven" number of small-scale hexes.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Of Hit-Dice, Multi-Classing, and Dual-Classing

This post is the result of work I am doing on my own retroclone-ish roleplaying game, but to make it at least semi-useful for others I'll follow the AD&D 1st edition rules instead.

Let's start with the basics. Your character earns experience points (xp) and after a certain number of xp have been collected, your character's level goes up. For a good chunk of your character's career, every new level means more hit-points, and you roll hit-dice (HD) for those. Both the kind of HD you use and the xp required to gain a level depend on your character's class.

So let's compare a fighter and a magic-user. Let's say each character has earned 100,000 xp which puts the fighter at level 7 and the magic-user at level 8. The fighter uses d10 while the magic-user uses d4 for their HD so (ignoring all other adjustments) we get these distributions for their hit-points: 38.5 (fighter) versus 20.0 (magic-user) on average. No surprises, all good.

Now let's consider an elven character who is a multi-classed fighter/magic-user instead. This character has to split xp evenly between classes, so 50,000 xp each for the fighter and magic-user classes, putting them both at level 6. The hit-points for a multi-classed character with two classes are generated by rolling both hit-dice but then dividing by two, leading to this distribution instead. (There's a small inaccuracy here because the rules specify rounding whereas the engine truncates by default; I tried to compensate for that by rolling all the dice at once instead of dividing each and every one by two.) The shocking truth is that our fighter/magic-user is really not much of a fighter at all: 23.75 hit-points (on average) is a lot closer to the single-class magic-user (20.0) than the single-class fighter (38.5). (In fact it's worse than rolling 7d6, which is what a single-class thief would have at 50,000 xp.)

But now compare this to a human character who starts out as a fighter but then dual-classes to magic-user. To make things roughly comparable to the multi-classing example, let's say we advance to level 6 as fighter for 35,000 xp. That leaves us 65,000 xp to pour into the magic-user class which gets us level 7. So we get 6d10 and 1d4 which leads to this distribution instead. So not only does a human dual-class character get an additional magic-user level, they also end up with 35.5 hit-points on average, very close to the single-class fighter with 38.5 hit-points on average.

So multi-classing sucks. And not just a little: It sucks big time.
Also dual-classing rules. And not just a little: It rules hard core.

Now let's do something really weird: Let's pretend we had the "unified level progression" mechanic from 3rd edition but let's pick the most expensive 1st edition progression for it. (We can't use the progression from 3rd edition "as is" because they lowered the cost for gaining a level a lot compared to 1st edition. Using the most expensive progression from 1st edition means we'll be conservative.)

Turns out that with 100,000 xp all classes in the 1st edition Player's Handbook reach at least level 7, but the Paladin progression cuts it closest with 95,000 xp required. (The monk progression requires 98,000 xp but that's for 8 HD since monks start with 2 HD at level 1.)

So if we translate forward into 3rd edition again we have at most 7 levels to play with: We could build a fighter/magic-user with levels 1/6, 2/5, 3/4, 4/3, 5/2, or 6/1. Let's pick 3/4 with the magic-user level higher than the fighter level to stay close to our previous dual-class example. All that futzing around gets us this distribution which is perhaps the most shocking one so far: 

It's absolutely perfect!

In terms of averages it comes in at 26.5 which is significantly higher than the 20.0 a single-class magic-user gets. It's of course also significantly lower than the 38.5 a single-class fighter gets. This is in contrast to multi-classing with 23.75 which is much too close to a single-class magic-user and dual-classing with 35.5 which is much too close to a single-class fighter.

Like many who consider themselves "old school" I didn't expect to find something great in the 3rd edition design. But it's clearly the case that unified level progression and the revised multi/dual-classing mechanic achieve the kind of balance I would expect from mixing multiple classes. Neither of the 1st edition approaches even comes close.

Which is why my own retroclone-ish roleplaying game works like 3rd edition in this regard. Stealing the best ideas from all editions, that's my kind of old school.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Favored Enemies: A History

I thought I was done with my historical research missions, alas there was one more I needed to complete. Luckily this was a short one! :-)

In the various incarnations of D&D, rangers have always had a special advantage against a certain category of creatures. The details, however, have changed at least three times.

The original ranger class by Joe Fisher (Strategic Review Vol. 1 No. 2) as well as the AD&D 1st edition ranger received their advantage against "giant class" enemies, defined (for whatever reason) as anything remotely "goblinoid" between kobolds and (actual) giants. Mechanically rangers get +1 damage per level against these enemies, so a level 6 ranger who hits a troll gets +6 to damage.

The AD&D 2nd edition ranger drops the "giant class" notion and instead let's the player decide (and the referee approve) against what monster the ranger is particularly effective. Since a specific monster has to be chosen (at least that's what the wording implies) the ability is seriously nerfed. Also the mechanic changes: Rangers now get a constant +4 on their to-hit roll instead of a damage bonus that increases by level. So on the one hand the improvement aspect is also nerfed, but on the other hand a to-hit bonus is probably a better mechanical choice overall. What's cute though is that along with their +4 to-hit bonus rangers also get a -4 reaction penalty against the creature they chose.

The "D&D" 3rd edition ranger changes things up again. First we now get a list of "monster categories" (such as "goblinoid" or "undead" or "dragon" and so on) from which the player picks their "favored enemy" as it were. This is probably the best approach yet, provided those categories can be chosen sanely in such a way that they actually matter in the campaign. Of course the mechanic changes again, but also for the better: Rangers now get a +2 on their to-hit rolls against favored enemies. That may seem like a step back at first, but we also get level-based improvement! Roughly every 5 levels the character can pick a new favored enemy, and attacks against them will again be at +2 to-hit. However, the existing favored enemies gain an additional +2 at the same time. So now a level 15 ranger can be +2 against undead, +4 against dragons, and +6 against goblinoids. That's not too shabby, although it does open up the door to a lot of fiddling during character creation and advancement. Edit: Forgot to say that the reaction penalty from 2nd edition is gone again, which presumably means that 3rd edition rangers aren't infamous killing machines of their favored enemies anymore? :-/

I shall once again ignore whatever "D&D" 4th edition did, feel free to enlighten me if you think I am missing out.

So looking at these different approaches to the "favored enemy" ability, I think it's safe to say that 3rd edition got it mostly right in terms balance: It's somewhat broadly useful, there's some potential for players customizing their characters, and yet it's not overpowering. Good job!

However, for my own games, I'd rather go with a slightly simpler procedure. Yes, some rangers may develop "new grudges" over time and so letting them choose new enemies may be cool. But why would they get better against already favored enemies as well in such a situation? To get the "new grudge" they must have been up against many of those "new favored enemy" creatures and presumably they didn't keep fighting their "previously favored enemies" all that much during that time. So I'd give the player the choice to either pick up a new favored enemy at +2 or to improve the to-hit bonus for an existing favored enemy by +2, but not both at the same time. I'd probably also go with a smaller increment, say every 3 levels instead of every 5 levels. Sound good?