Sunday, November 30, 2008

I Like Dwarves

Ever since I read The Hobbit I've been fascinated by dwarves. I love the stunty little guys! As I mentioned in the last D&D podcast, I've been messing around with some dwarf sub-types. Here's one of them:

Iron Dwarves
Hailing from the deepest reaches of the mountain depths, iron dwarves are basically redneck dwarves. They seek out the furthest veins of precious minerals and even venture down into the Underdark in pursuit of precious metals. Few non-dwarves have even seen an iron dwarf, as these greedy, grasping creatures only show up in civilized realms (usually dwarf towns) long enough to sell their ores and invariably spend all their accumulated wealth on strong drink and similar diversions.

Iron dwarves rarely become adventurers. After all, life on the fringe of the Underdark is an adventure unto itself. Between dodging drow and mind flayers, surviving cave ins, and digging mine shafts that could suddenly open up to a cave filled with dire corbies or ochre jellies, iron dwarves have enough problems to deal with without seeking out trouble.

Iron dwarves that do become adventurers are invariably derided as soft and weak by their kin. Sure, charging into a dragon's lair might be dangerous, but real dwarves earn their fortunes the hard way: by ripping them out of the earth with pick and shovel.

Game Stuff
Iron dwarves use all the normal rules for dwarves, but with two exceptions:
+2 Strength instead of +2 Wisdom
When an iron dwarf uses his second wind, he can choose to forgo regaining hit points. Instead, he may regain the use of one his expended encounter attack powers.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Terms of Confusion

It's easy in designing a game, particularly an RPG, to overlook the importance of building a good vocabulary for your game. It's not a particularly exciting or thrilling part of the process, but if you screw it up you can turn your game into an annoying, unplayable mess.

When you slap a label on a mechanic you're creating your game's jargon. This applies specifically to measures like hit points, tools like skills and weapons, and anything else that the people sitting at the table, playing your game, need to refer to.

My rule of thumb, after working on a number of games and seeing terms soar or flop, is that similar mechanics need very different names, particularly mechanics that run into each other alot.

In 4e, temporary hit points are a poster child for this. They look and act a lot like hit points, thus the shared name, but if you treat them like hit points the game goes haywire. The problem is that, unless someone reads the rules in depth, it's very easy to overlook that word "temporary" in temporary hit points. With a similar name and 90% similar mechanics, it's easy to mesh the two together.

On the other hand, a shared name is useful as long as you apply it to a mechanic or measure that uses it correctly. In D&D, there are 10,000 things that are given a level, but it's rare (despite "Use of the Term Level" headers in early versions of D&D) for people to confuse the term. Magic items, monsters, characters, dungeons, and so on all use level the same way: higher level means more powerful. In that case, a single term keeps things simple and clear. It helps that it's hard to figure out a way to conflate a level in a dungeon with an item's level. The two don't interact in a meaningful way!

So, those are my brief thoughts on naming mechanics in your games.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The 1e Monk

A while back I posted some ideas for my 1e house rules. Of all the classes in the game, the monk needs by far the most work. The other classes range from fine as-is to "needing" a few tweaks just because that's what I feel like doing.

The monk violates one of the core precepts of class-based RPG design: it pulls a bait and switch. Most well designed classes stake out their core concepts and remain within them. In terms of game play, playing a fighter at 1st, 3rd, or 8th level is a relatively similar experience. You're good in melee, you have lots of hit points and a good AC, and you're probably at the front of any battle. Magic-users/wizards, clerics, and thieves/rogues all have similar, consistent identities.

Some games succeed in introducing some fundamental shifts in a class, but that's rare. AD&D and BD&D gave characters access to land holdings and groups of retainers at higher level, but most (all? I don't have my books with me...) of the classes underwent that change. It wasn't a shift in how the class played so much as a shift in how the *game* played at higher levels.

Rebuilding a class's identity over the course of gaining levels is bad for a number of reasons:
  1. A player might like the class at certain levels, but hate it at others. That makes for a lame experience. The player either grits his teeth at low levels, or loses interest at higher ones. Note that AD&D classes that had an "initiation" phase, like the wizard, don't fall prone to this trap. Sure, a 1st-level wizard is weak, but the key is that at high levels the wizard plays mostly the same. He has more spells and more powerful ones, but it's not like he transforms into a melee monster or a healer. The class naturally improves at its core abilities.
  2. Balancing power at high levels with weakness at low levels is a bogus design trick. The monk's weaknesses at low levels become strengths at high levels. Chewing through hordes of weak monks at low levels is cold comfort when a high level monk rips Orcus in two. The magic-user does gain in power at high levels, but its basic weaknesses remain the same. The class simply improves its core abilities. The monk's weaknesses go away. That's why the magic-user works, and the monk doesn't.
  3. The monk lacks a clear identity. Is the class a martial artist that excels in melee? The 10 AC and 2d4 hit points dispute that. Is it a replacement for the thief? Maybe, but at high levels the monk replaces both the thief and the fighter. When a class shifts so much as it advances, it either starts without a niche in the game or it expands to cover more than one. In either case, it meshes poorly with the rest of the game.
These three points are major guideposts in 4e class design. I think we did a good job of defining each class and working within those definitions. The classes feel different in play, and each has a distinct identity.

In comparison, 3e fell into this trap with its item creation rules combined with the rules for wands. A low-level 3e wizard, sorcerer, cleric, or druid plays much, much different compared to a high level caster with access to plenty of long duration buffs, wands, scrolls, and potions. Whenever you see a shift like that in a class-based design, you're probably looking at deep issues with the class or maybe even the system.

It's interesting to note that the other class dropped from 1e to 2e, the assassin, suffers many of the same problems. The assassin is a crappy thief with a cumbersome, difficult to integrate assassination mechanic grafted on to it. On the other side of the coin, the bard went from a strange, optional mishmash to a core class in 2e. The bard has a pretty clear identity in fantasy novels, one that was strong enough to make it a class that cleanly severed its druid/fighter/thief heritage.

Here's what I'd do:

1. Pick a a few core mechanics for the monk and stick to them. I think I'd focus on the monk's thief abilities, good AC without armor, and multiple attacks with unarmed strikes. I'd give the monk 2 unarmed attacks per round at 1st level, but never let him go beyond that number. Damage would start with 1d6 and improve to 1d8, 1d10, and 2d6 at its highest point. A monk's AC would start around 6 or 7, improving to AC 2 at its best, and allow for Dexterity to improve it.

2. For the assassin, I'd first make the thief more of a Gray Mouser than a... whatever character the thief is actually supposed to be. I'd institute a mechanic to give the thief an equal AC footing with the fighter despite light armor, maybe some sort of active defense. I'd drop backstab, because...

3. The assassin would drop the assassination tables, but then steal the thief's backstab ability. That'd be the class's core ability, with an improved bonus to the attack roll and an increasing damage multiplier with level.

4. I'd drop the thief's abilities entirely, instead embracing an OD&D approach of using traps to challenge players, rather than a character's stats. This is one area, though, where I'd mess around with the fundamentals of the game. As DM, there are plenty of times when deciding if an orc sees a character trying to sneak past him is entirely open to my fiat. There's little the player can do to affect the situation, making the dice an ideal arbiter. I'd give monsters a perception-based defense, similar to AC, and give each class a sneak rating that improves with increased levels. Like the attack matrices, you might have a sneak matrix broken down into categories, like this:

  • Thief, monk, assassin, ranger, the best sneaky characters.
  • Magic-user, illusionist, druid, the average sneaky characters.
  • Fighter, paladin, cleric, the anti-sneaky characters.
So, those are my thoughts on the monk, assassin, and 1e in particular, and class design in general.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Because the King Wears Green Boxers!

In response to my last post, fire snake aries asks:
It sounds like you're really good at improvising and adapting the area and what its inhabitants do depending upon what happens. I try to do that, but it's tough! I always seem to find myself thinking, "Uhh... I have no idea what should happen now."

When you make these dynamic decisions on the fly like that, how much of it is simply you thinking, "What would actually, logically happen here?" and how much is more like, "What can I do that will be cool, but won't be too unreasonably hard on the PCs?"

I always want to make the players feel like they're dealing with a real, living place with occupants which interact with one another organically, so that there are definite ramifications to their actions beyond simply the current encounter. YET, I always worry that if I really do this, it will almost certainly end in a TPK. How do you balance that?

I felt rather clever when everything went down the way it did because of a little technique I've applied to my dungeons.

Back in the day, there was a ton of DM advice about creating a history for your dungeon. The idea was to think of the dungeon before it became a ruin, determine the rooms' uses, and then push time forward, account for the ravages of time and wandering monsters, and use that to drive what the place looks like when the PCs enter it.

I do something a little similar when placing monsters in a dungeon. I try to answer the following questions:

1. Why did these guys come here?
2. What keeps them here?

Answering these questions is useful, because it helps set the stage for quick decisions and improvisation. In the kenku's case, the answers were:

1. The kenku are thieves and bandits looking to make some easy cash.
2. Iuz's lieutenants pay them to act as spies and raiders.

During the last session, it was a lot easier to plot the course of events with those two things in mind. The kenku were in it for the money and they were here because they got paid. Why wouldn't they run to help the wizard?

The simple, but boring, answer is that they just didn't hear the alarm gong. I decided that I needed something more interesting to keep the action going. If they heard the gong, why wouldn't they come? That suggests conflict or some active plan on their part.

The risk to this approach is that you might create stuff that you never need to use because the PCs just kill the monsters when they meet them. For instance, in the same dungeon the PCs fought a band of hobgoblins. The hobgoblins had traveled to the moathouse from the south looking for mercenary work. I had built up an entire skill challenge that allowed the PCs to bargain with the practical minded, hobgoblin commander. They ended up just killing most of them.

OTOH, if I create a monster background that I like and it never comes into play, I just recycle it for the next dungeon.

Really, it's just building in details that seem a little pointless but have the potential in play to come in handy when you have to improvise. I don't obsess over the details, but rather look for some simple, one sentence explanations that can come in handy. It's all about the useful parts of simulation (depth, detail) without the bad parts (drowning in minutia).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why I Love D&D

Today's session of Temple of Elemental Evil reminded me how much I love D&D.

The characters were in the dungeon beneath the moathouse, locked in a fight with a doppelganger wizard who had posed as Burne. Immediately before the fight, they had accidentally triggered a gong that rang and alerted the entire dungeon level. Luckily for the PCs, they had already defeated most of the creatures on the level. Or, if you're a pessimist, they had unluckily only defeated most of them.

So, while the PCs fought the doppelganger and his orc guards, a pair of ghouls rushed down the hall to attack the party from behind. The characters managed to close and bar a door to hold back the ghouls for a few rounds, just long enough to defeat the doppelganger and the orcs. They had one round to get ready before the door finally splintered to pieces and the ghouls charged in.

By the end of the fight, half the party was down and everyone was badly injured, but the characters were victorious. They trudged out the escape tunnel from the dungeon and made camp. As one PC was down to 1 hit point and zero healing surges, the party felt a trip back to Hommlett was too risky. It was near dusk, and everyone was in bad shape.

This is when things got interesting.

See, I had spent a fair amount of time stocking the moathouse and its dungeon, and my inconsiderate players had skipped half the encounters. I had all these monsters in the dungeon, and the cruel, cruel dice had dictated that only the two ghouls had heeded the ringing gong.

On the fly, I decided that the kenku that the dice had determined took their sweet time responding to the alarm were upset with the doppelganger. They figured that, if they tarried and the wizard died, they could clear out the treasure in the dungeon and take over the place.

So, as the PCs rested, the kenku went to work. With the ghouls dead, I judged that the kenku were able to command the skeletons that still remained in the crypts. The kenku then organized a search party to make sure the PCs weren't still around.

That led to a brief fight in which the badly injured, really hoping for an extended rest party managed to cut down all three kenku. There was another tense moment when some skeletons almost stumbled across the party's camp, but the undead failed to notice the characters.

At that point, with one search party gone the kenku decided that the characters were still close by. As dawn broke they went on one, final sweep of the dungeon. As the characters woke up, the shrill, high pitched screams of dying kenku echoed from the moathouse.

The kenku had found something the PCs had missed. Something terrible, something hungry, something angry.

Anyway, I love D&D because when the session began we had the party trapped in a room with two ghouls outside, trying to batter down the door. It ended with the characters outside the moathouse, wondering what's going on. I never could've guessed that we would've ended up with the kenku ransacking the dungeon and unleashing a very, very bad thing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Keep on the Borderlands: Environs of the Caves

So, if you followed my WotC blog you know that I'm currently running a 4e game based on Temple of Elemental Evil. I've messed around with the plot a bit, added some new villain groups, and shifted around some NPCs. I run the game twice a week at work, during lunch, though Player's Handbook 2 has zapped many a session as of late. Luckily, we can finally play again tomorrow.

In addition to the campaign at work, I've been hankering to run a game based on Keep on the Borderlands. I love being able to run D&D at the office, but I sometimes miss the depth and complexity that four hour sessions allow. With one hour sessions, I try to keep things a little modular and fast-paced, so that every session has a nice beginning and end point.

Anyway, tonight I put together an overview map of the Caves of Chaos. As with my Temple campaign, I've changed a few things around to keep things interesting and to have a bit of fun with. A straight conversion of the Keep is fine, but I want to add some more depth and backstory to the dungeon as a whole. In addition, I want the campaign to have a strong sandbox element within the bounds of the Keep, the Caves of Chaos, and the area around the Keep.

So, a few things I changed:
  • The ravine of the caves is far larger. It looks much more like something out of this image, rather than a narrow box canyon.
  • I placed a small lake in the middle of the ravine, flanked on both sides by steep ridges that form a barrier between the ravine's entry and its rear area.
  • There are several sites of interest in the ravine, including the ruins of a small fort once occupied by an order of knights tasked with watching over the caves, a few strange pillars dedicated to the Lords of Chaos, a mysterious wizard's tower, a necropolis, and a small hut where an undead ferrymaster takes pilgrims of chaos across the lake mentioned above.
  • A strange mist hovers over a region at the far end of the ravine. A ring of standing stones surrounds the mist. No one has ever entered the mist and emerged to tell the tale.
  • I came up with a background for the caves, explaining its history and why humanoids congregate here, but it's not quite ready to go.
So, that's what I did with my Monday evening.

Friday, November 7, 2008

My Old Flame, 1st Edition

I have to admit, I still love 1st edition AD&D. Sure, the rules are whacky and labyrinthine, but there's an undeniable core of fun that beats at the heart of the game. Sure, I love 4e (duh!), but there's something nifty about 1e. Whether it's the art, Gygax's prose, or the fundamental simplicity of the game, I'm always drawn back to it.

The thing is, I've been playing D&D in its various forms for over 25 years now. There are things in AD&D that still really bug me. I have half a mind that, once I get a replacement laptop, I'm going to embark on my own, personal redesign of bits and pieces of the game. Not a redesign in the sense of adding a skill system or rebuilding things from scratch, but more from the perspective of having played a lot of (A)D&D and learned what I think works, and what I think doesn't.

Really, the list of things to change is short and almost entirely wrapped up in character classes. To whit:

  1. The fighter could use some other toy to play with. Rangers and paladins are strictly better, and that bugs me. I'd want to see something simple and in keeping with the spirit of AD&D, more like "+1 attack when using a weapon you are proficient with" than a feat or maneuver based approach of 3e or 4e.
  2. The thief, oh the poor thief. From those who curse its appearance in OD&D, to people like me who really want to play the Gray Mouser without feeling like a chump, I'm not sure this class really makes anyone happy. I'd look to do a radical revision, though I'm not sure exactly what I'd want. Remove the proto-skill system? Make it a fighter sub-class more in-line with a swashbuckler? I'm not 100% sure.
  3. The assassin is stuck in the same boat as the thief. This is the class I'd like to see embrace the backstab/assassination mechanic. To me, that's interesting, but I think the thief's backstab makes the assassin semi-pointless.
  4. The monk! OK, I love the concept of the monk, but I always disliked Gary's implementation of it. The monk falls into the same category as the magic-user, in that you have to manage to survive low-level in order to gain massive power at higher levels. However, the magic-user's fundamental weaknesses remain at all levels. Whether a lowly prestidigitator or a mighty wizard, the M-U breaks into a cold sweat when a nasty ogre shuffles up to him. The monk, on the other hand, carpets over his weaknesses with innate, constant abilities. Having played a monk at low and high levels, it is essentially two classes. That shift in playstyle bugs me, and is far too bald a filter between a weak and strong character. I'd seek to balance the monk, strengthening it at low levels and toning it down at upper levels.
I'm not sure I'd change much else. Sure, initiative needs to be fixed up, but that's not something I see as critical. After all, people have played the game for decades without that getting in the way. The class issues are more topics that, for me at least, make the game less enjoyable.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

In Search of the Unknown

Now that PH 2 is off my plate (well, mostly; it killed today's Temple of Elemental Evil session), I've had more free time to doodle around with stuff. Lately, I've been stocking Mike Carr's In Search of the Unknown, the lesser known but still popular companion to Gary's Keep on the Borderlands.

The really fun thing about the module is that, since it's a "teaching" adventure that lacks monsters, it spends a lot of time focusing on interesting details of the dungeon. For those out of the loop, the idea is that the PCs find a map to the subterranean lair of a pair of long vanished adventurers, the magic-user Zelligar and the fighter Roghan. There's a room overrrun by fungus, a chamber with lots of weird pools to mess with, and so on.

My favorite bits concern the secret chambers of Zelligar. They have lots of little bits that point to Zelligar as a less than nice guy. His lab has an empty coffin, the skeleton of a slain enemy, a tapestry made of human skin, and a few other baubles.

I really liked the idea of Zelligar poking at things best left alone, so there are a number of extraplanar critters in the dungeon and chambers with weird, demonic themed puzzles and oddities.

Today, I picked up this Dreamblade miniature on the free table at work. It looks cooler from the opposite side - it has a big, steamroller splattered with blood. I liked the idea of Zelligar leaving behind a really nasty guardian to kill intruders. So, with that in mind, here's what I did:

If the party takes a short rest in the dungeon, roll 1d20, +2 per prior short rest taken during this expedition. On a 15 - 19, the party faces a wandering encounter (I haven't placed monsters in the dungeon yet). On a 20+, the Doom Crusher appears 2d10 squares away from the PCs and moves to attack. It cannot open doors, and scrupulously avoids destroying the furnishings and decorations in the dungeon. Otherwise, under Zelligar's 30+ year old orders, it attempts to crush intruders as an encouragement for them to leave.

I'll work up stats for it soon, but I'm thinking of making it a level 10 elite in a dungeon aimed at level 4 characters. I'll also add in some signs of its presence, like a crushed chaos warrior or orc here or there, pulverized skeletons, shattered armor and weapons scattered in the halls.