Friday, November 21, 2008

Blogging the Dragon: Morale

Issue 6 of the Dragon introduces Morale tables. Morale is an essential component of any combat system, since it can't be assumed that all parties will fight to the death (although many PCs I've seen will invariably do so).

In early editions of D&D, morale checks are sometimes made by the DM on behalf of the monsters to determine how committed they are in combat. The morale system presented in The Dragon Issue 6, however, designed for the Player Characters! In short, the DM determines the "Fright Factor" of the enemy. Then she determines the morale score for the adventuring party, which takes into account the party's racial makeup, character levels, the enemy's Fright Factor, and other variables. After deriving the morale score, the DM rolls a d10 and consults a table where the x-axis is the 1d10 result and the y-axis is the party's morale score. This generates one of four possible results: Break and Run, Hesitate, Stand and Fight, and Fight with no further chance of a morale check. And I thought my Fudge Point formula might have been overkill.

There is an ongoing debate between old-schoolers (which I consider myself ) and post-3e'ers over tactics versus role-playing. Generally, a tactical game is rules-heavy, with a game mechanic for just about anything. A rules-light game leaves more to the imaginations of the players and DM. Old-schoolers typically lay claim to more descriptive, role-playing oriented games, and abhor 3e and 4e for being too "by the book." Yet a survey of old issues of The Dragon reveals a table for just about everything: family background, tomb generation, random monster generation, physical appearance generation...and that's just in the first ten issues.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was largely pieced together from addenda -- a sort of Frankenstein system, where tables govern just about everything. The assertion that 3rd edition introduced too many rules is one point where I respectfully diverge from my fellow old-schoolers. What's simpler, a game which utilizes one mechanic -- the roll of a single d20 -- to resolve most actions, or a game where a low d6 is used in finding traps, a low d20 for attacks, a d% for picking pockets, a high d20 for saving throws, et cetera? I still despise Feats, but that's a subject for another day.

Anyway, back to the morale tables in issue 6: First of all, I don't believe morale checks are even necessary for monsters. Basic D&D used morale checks to determine if monsters would retreat from the PCs. This makes sense in a game which is essentially designed to attract newcomers. But in the "Advanced" edition of the game, the DM ought to be skilled enough to determine for himself when the party's enemies are driven before them. Good DM'ing means getting into the heads of all intelligent NPCs and making their decisions.

But morale checks for PCs? The proposal of the idea is somewhat insulting, because it betrays a lack of confidence in players' ability to appropriately direct their characters actions. Furthermore, it takes power out of the hands of the players, which is potentially a violation of the Rule of Fun.

Am I accusing the authors, Jim Hayes and Bill Gilbert, of poor judgement in offering morale tables? Not necessarily. Remember, D&D grew out of wargaming. Early players lived in a very dice-centric environment. It's not surprising to me that subjectivity was a big no-no in early D&D campaigns, which had a more tactical bent. But for today's gamers, such tables are almost meaningless.

I can only think of one possible use for these tables. In a session where the players are either very young or complete RPG novices, the DM could use this table to cue himself when to suggest something other than direct conflict. In this context, it is a coaching tool.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Critical Hits and Fumbles

First, allow me to express my general opinion on crits. Crits pretty much suck. Here are my reasons:
  • They often favor the enemy. In many encounters, the party is outnumbered by weaker creatures, like kobolds or stirges. This gives the enemy a greater chance of scoring crits.
  • It just adds more rules to the game. In a game with an abstract combat system, critical hits are redundant. It is already assumed that the standard damage roll represents the effectiveness of a successful hit. Critical hits, called shots, and other mechanics are all part of a sliding scale toward a combat system that is unneccesarily cumbersome.
  • They are too frequent. I already have a problem with using d20 instead of 3d6 for attack rolls, because of its lack of a bell curve. Add the fact that some weapons in 3.5 allow a critical threat with 19 or 18 and I get pretty uncomfortable with the odds that crits will happen. A crit should be a holy crap moment, like when Robin Hood pierced an opponent's arrow, or when Perseus succeeded in beheading Medusa, with limited visibility, in one swing. They should be the RPG equivalent of a grand slam, a four-point play, or a runner-runner inside straight.
If you must implement a critical hit system, then throw in some effects and balance it out with fumbles. Here is my suggestion for a crit/fumble system. I'll test it in my C&C campaign (I hope my players haven't yet found this site):


Rule Number One: Natural 20 does not automatically hit, and natural 1 does not automatically miss.

If defender is already at 50% max hp or less...
1. Threat on natural 20 (only if 20 hits).
2. Player re-rolls 3d6 for 2x damage (two damage rolls, not a multiplier).
3. If re-roll is natural 18, DM re-rolls for chance to use effects table. A hit scores.

Effects (d20):
1 Attacker breaks bone (failure to describe target negates).
2 If head wound, blood from eye socket blinds defender for 1d4 rounds.
3 Defender is stunned during next round.
4 If head attack, defender suffers trauma. Con save vs. knockout for 1d6 turns, 1d4-1 Int. points lost.
5 If head attack with piercing or slashing weapon, loss of eye - results in stun for 1d3 rounds, -4 circumstance penalty for subsequent actions during combat.
6 If flame attack, subject catches fire. Suffer fire damage until extinguished.
7 At DM's discretion, a companion is distracted by the carnage for one round.
8 Defender loses balance. Dex save to avoid falling on back and starting next round prone.
9 Defender recoils blindly, stumbling into whatever is within 5' behind him.
10 Defender crippled in specific spot (must be called); on subsequent rounds, the attacker may exploit the area with called shots, by trading up to 4 to penalty points for an equal amount of extra damage.
11 Defender involuntarily drops weapon.
12 If slash attack, defender loses appendage; called shot required. DM's discretion for specific penalty.
13 Massive blood loss results in Con check vs. unconsciousness every round (Dex check +4 for attacker to avoid slipping on blood).
14 If head shot called, vision is affected. Defender fights as if attacker is behind 50% cover until he gets a one-round break.
15 Defender's weapon is broken. Swords unlikely, wooden handles etc. better.
16 A possession other than the defender's weapon, like arrows in a quiver or a potion vial, is broken.
17 If slashing, an article of clothing is rended. Defender suffers -2 to hit penalty due to entanglement.
18 Something besides the defender's weapon - like a backpack, belt, or helmet - falls to the floor. Dex checks every round to avoid tripping, plus possible breakage, AC penalties and other effects.
19 Bladed weapon buried so deep, retrieving causes another damage roll, halved.
20 Attacker succeeds quickly enough to be granted a second attack at -2 (no crit chance).

If defender is above 50% max hp...
1. Threat on natural 1 (only if 1 misses).
2. DM rolls 3d6 privately. If the result is 3, DM rolls secret to hit for player. A miss results in a fumble.

Fumbles (d20):
1. Attacker drops weapon.
2. Attacker hits self for 1/3 damage, 1/3 subdual damage.
3. Attacker must succeed in a Dex check or lose footing, and be flat-footed for one round.
4. If attacker wears helmet, the helmet shifts, resulting in partial blindness for one round.
5. Attack overcommits and is off-balance, with flank or back exposed. Defender gets an Attack of Opportunity.
6. If near a post, soft ground, clay, trees, or anything else that can be pierced, a piercing weapon gets stuck. It takes a move action to remove the weapon.
7. The attack is wild; Those in adjacent squares must succeed in a Dex check or be hit for 1/3 damage.
8. Weapon clashes against armor, shield or environmental object, causing it to break.
9. If ranged attack, those in the rear of the defender must make a Dex save versus 1/4 damage.
10. This round is exceptionally tiring. Attacker is temporarily out of breath, and his limbs tremble from the repeated impact. 1d2 subdual damage, plus minus one Constitution point until the end of the battle.
11. Attacker gets tangled in his backpack straps, overcoat, or other loosely worn gear. A move action will cut the offending material free, or the attacker must succeed in a Dex check every subsequent round to avoid a minus one penalty on hit and damage rolls.
12-13. Blade dulls. Attack rolls reduced by one until sharpened. This effect is cumulative.
14. Blade loosens from hilt. Attack rolls reduce by one until secured or replaced. Not cumulative.
15. If the attacker used a ranged weapon, the weapon is broken beyond repair.
16. The attacker's fingers get pinched. 1d3 subdual, Dex check versus dropping weapon, with circumstance penalty of -4.
17. Attacker hits nearby environmental object for full damage.
18. Attacker gets sweat in eye. Blinded for one round. Dabbing brow is a partial action.
19. If the attacker is holding a weapon or spiked armor in his off-hand, he hits himself for 1 point damage.
20. The sound of combat alerts a wandering monster, local habitat permitting.

This guy also has some choice words on the subject. Check out his site.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Blogging the Dragon: Statting Gandalf

Hasn't every D&D player, at one point in his life, tried to reconcile parts of Tolkien's mythology with the D&D rules system? What do you suppose Gandalf the Grey's record sheet looked like? In issue 6 of The Dragon, Bill Seligman imagines the same. His conclusion is stated clearly in the article's title: "Gandalf Was Only a 5th Level Magic-User."

Seasoned D&D'ers are already aware that Middle Earth is a low-magic setting. But does Seligman's evaluation surprise you nonetheless?

In his article, Seligman lists all the occurrences of Gandalf's use of magic in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. I was rather surprised, once having seen all the relevant instances listed back-to-back, to notice that Gandalf relied very heavily on light and fireball-related spells. All in all, his abilities never require a character level beyond 5th.

How is it that a 2000 year-old Istari has only reached 5th level? Seligman offers possible reasons in his closing paragraph:

So how do we reconcile our intuition with the bare facts? Well, for one thing,...the universe of LOTR was magic-weak. It is easy to assume that it was run by “ a very tough DM” who rewarded experience so slowly that it would take 2000 years for a pseudo-angel to get to the 5th level, and 6000 years or so for an EHP to reach 12th. But it is still unsettling. I would rather place the blame on the scale we are using: the D&D magic system. It seems a more likely thing for Gygax and Arneson to misjudge the spell levels. So what can we do? Change the spell system, the experience system or the levels of the spells, or all of the above? What is your response?
Well, the obvious response is that D&D is not supposed to be compatible with Middle Earth. There isn't anything broken about the rules system if it doesn't work with a specific setting that wasn't designed for D&D. He uses the word "blame" as if Gygax and Arneson screwed up. The D&D world is clearly not intended to be an equivalent to any other fantasy world. It is only derivative in the sense that it shares the most common elements of high fantasy -- monsters, spells, treasures, and such.

This issue does call attention to something I've always believed: That low-level adventures need not be boring. In fact, they're my favorite kind. Considering that level advancement is so slow in Middle Earth, we can assume that the events in the Lord of the Rings comprise a low to mid-level campaign; yet look at how rich a variety of action the characters experience. DMs, take note: If your low-level adventures are nothing more than kobold hack-fests, serving only to provide the XP needed to advance to more "interesting" levels, then you might want to audit your adventure writing methods. If Tolkien can place such weak characters in such epic-scale adventures, then we know the same can be done in D&D.

In fact, in D&D I've always been pressed for ideas when characters get into higher levels. Under the latest three rules revisions, the Challenge Ratings, while useful, become increasingly meaningless at higher levels.

So the lesson to be learned from this Dragon article is: Even low-level characters are way more powerful than average people. Provide an extraordinary gaming experience, and your players won't care what level their characters are.

Oh, and by the way: After 3e, we can more correctly refer to Gandalf as a Sorceror, since I don't recall ever noticing that he carried a spellbook. Perhaps a multi-class with druid or fighter. He does carry Glamdring, so either he wields it with a non-proficiency penalty or had some martial training. I would bet on the former.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Hallowe'en!

What better gamer-friendly holiday could there be than one during which we indulge our fascination with the surreal and fantastic! I just wanted to take a moment to extend my sincere holiday wishes to the readers.

In my family, Halloween is our most enthusiastically celebrated holiday. It's one of the things that have brought my wife and myself close, and something I expect to celebrate as fully as possible with our new son (pictured).

My fascination with Halloween began when I was quite young. My mother was a fan of gothic horror and B-movies. I remember several times asking "whatcha watching?" and answers including "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," "The Blob," "The Hand," "The Curse of Dracula," "Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy," "The Howling," and others. Later, she would further nourish my love for the macabre by handing down to me every Stephen King novel she read. I remember October in a world without 800 cable channels, when the best specials were documentaries about vampire lore on PBS, or made-for-TV horror movies like "Dark Night of the Scarecrow." I would watch the Disney Channel's Halloween special, which contained excerpts from Fantasia and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, whenever I was home and it was on. Before there was a History Channel or Travel Channel to run spooky features non-stop for weeks, we savored every show that aired. As I grew older and rented VHS tapes and DVDs, my scary movie tastes would evolve: "The Man Who Laughs" and "Nosferatu" remain on my short list of go-to films. As a Music Theory / History major in college, I found Halloween compatible with my love for Expressionism.

My most cherished Halloween tradition is the annual D&D sleep-over. My gamer friends and I gathered at one of our houses each year during our tweens to early teens, and played the crap out of D&D, with special clearance from our parents to stay up as long as it took. As the DM, I made sure that my best module was reserved for the occassion. I remember the inaugral event: The first ever MTV Music Awards show was on television one room away, but our attention was consumed by the Isle of Dread. A year or two later, it was the Veiled Society. From year to year, we would dress up to scare the trick-or-treaters and pass out candy; then, after dusk turned to dark, we'd relocate to the basement, dim the lights, and lose ourselves in fantasy for hours. If the module ended before we were too tired, we'd watch a rented movie, like "Conan the Barbarian" or some other cheesy sword-and-sorcery flick, or experiment with Ouija or Tarot -- whatever we could do to preserve the mood of the holiday.

It has been many years since that tradition ended, but a couple of years ago I suggested to my online group that, on Halloween, we take a time out from whatever is going on in our campaign and do something unique. Our first Halloween session was a battle royale: Each character was transported to a mysterious house, from which only one would be allowed to escape. After the event, our characters awoke to realize it was just a dream, and we returned to our campaign in progress. Since that session, Halloween has meant something special to our gaming group.

Thus, Halloween and Christmas do something no other holidays do for me: Each year, though I get shorter of breath and closer to death, I get two days back from my youth. And if you asked me to choose between those few days I spend in youthful nostalgia and several more years of longevity, the choice would be mighty tough.

Halloween is a time during which we exhibit the paradox of donning masks while loosening inhibitions. One year, in college, I went bar-hopping with friends. We were dressed as Droogs. As I looked around at other costumed revelers, I thought, "Why can't we dress in costume every night we go out?" I still can't think of a reasonable answer, beyond "too much of a good thing."

Halloween is the crux of many things that quicken my heart: The colors and scents of Autumn, the freedom and fascination of youth, the exploration of the fantastic, and the bittersweet counting of seasons gone by. It's quirky, spooky, fun, sentimental, awakens a glorious boquet of sensations. And I hope you all have an enriching Halloween experience this year, and in many years to come.

Blogging the Dragon: Pest Control

Issue 5 of The Dragon introduces the Ankheg, which has since been a staple of many D&D-derived games. I noticed similarities between the Ankheg and the Bulette, which was featured in issue 1: They both burrow underground, then erupt aboveground to take unsuspecting prey by surprise. So how was I to come up with adventure hook with a creature I've essentially already handled? By amending the original idea.

My hook for the Bulette was a scenario in which the PCs must spring a trap for a Bulette that's been terrorizing a rural community. There isn't much else you can do when it comes to planning an adventure around a monster that doesn't have a lair, and was essentially designed to be most effective as a random encounter. So we can't do much else with an Ankheg, except add it to the original scenario. Here's the hook:
  • The PCs are employed by a monstrous extermination service, which uses creative methods to trap rural pests. They travel from one community to the next, taking assignments through a dispatch.
This can be an ongoing campaign, or a one-shot, in which the PCs are "temps." You could introduce a side plot which has a rival exterminator seeking to undermine the PCs' efforts (I'm reminded of this episode of Saxondale). Let it evolve into whatever possibilities you can imagine.

Crap, now I wish I had the time to try this out in one of my own games.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Legalizing Metagaming

We all know that metagaming is a big no-no. But does it have to be?

I was thinking about new character classes recently, and an idea hit me: Imagine a campaign setting in which the characters are aware of the DM. After a brief brainstorm, here are some ideas on how that campaign would work:
  1. If a player wanted to introduce a non-core PC class, an avatar for that class would appear in the game, and would challenge an NPC controlled by the DM to a duel to the death. Both characters would have to be of the same level. 
  2. In the campaign world, adventurers belong to a religious sect that regards the DM as an objective director of all events in the universe. PC's believe that they have spirit guides (i.e., players) that direct their own behavior.
  3. Fudge Points are implemented, but in this case are referred to as "Grace Points." Low-level PCs benefit from the DM's grace, and the effect is similar to the lucky breaks that bumbling protagonists in television and the movies experience. You know the cliches: The bad guy's handgun jams, the hero falls off a bridge and into a garbage truck, an apple cart gets in the way of a pursuer, etc.
  4. There can be no possibility of metagaming, because the characters' knowledge is entirely based on that of their players. You can justify this as the result of off-camera PC research, or as some sort of divinely granted insight.
What's interesting to me about this type of setting is how it promotes a sort of "DM versus Players" way of playing. The DM must work harder to challenge the players, because they can't roleplay ignorance. Say you're DM'ing for a group of seasoned players, all with first-level characters, and they encounter a rust monster. You describe the creature as being "armadillo-like, but with a buggish face, with a long tail terminating in a couple of fins and two large antennae." In a no-metagaming environment, your players must try their best to feign ignorance of the creature's identity. You could allow their characters to recognize the creature with an Intelligence check, Challenge Rating 5 (the monster's HD). In a metagaming-allowed environment, a rust monster is recognizable to your character if you the player know what it is. In the game world, this could be considered a benefit of "being in tune with the collective unconscious," or some mumbo-jumbo.

How do you keep monsters interesting? By creating your own, of course. Naturally, the ecosystem is all messed up when new species constantly appear; but that could be worked into the setting, also. For example, this could be a very mystical world, where the Supreme Being (DM) constantly toys with creation. The PCs' religion bears an interesting twist; the GM is not to be worshiped, but always challenged. Believers of this faith see their deity as mischevious -- a force to be tamed, not idolized.

We've seen the phenomenon of characters breaking the fourth-wall quite often already, as in the Order of the Stick web comic. In Knights of the Dinner Table, there is plenty of metagaming, which in their case seems to enhance the intensity of the gaming experience; although it often results in B.A. having to spend more cash at the local game store, in his ongoing efforts to stump his players. And who could forget the godawful D&D cartoon from the 80's, in which the characters knew they were in a game and had a working relationship with the DM as an NPC.?

This approach to fantasy gaming takes some pressure off the players to be in-character. Might this enhance the experience, or hinder it? I personally think it could go either way, depending on how it's justified in-game. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Blogging the Dragon: Healers, Jesters and Witches.

I was going through my index of Dragon back issues, looking for items to add to my ever-growing "Hooks, Encounters, and Brainstorms" file.

Issues 3-5 contain some suggestions for NPC classes. I won't go into as much detail with them as I did earlier with the Alchemist class; but I'll summarize them, along with my ideas for using them in a campaign:

Issue #3 gives us the Healer and Scribe NPC classes. I can understand why you'd want a doctor-type NPC. He would be a secular alternative to the evangelistic Cleric. The Healer's science-based methods might not be as effective as a cleric's Cure spell, but his understanding of anatomy is superior, which can make him valuable as a trainer for a military organization or knightly order, or as a state-sponsored physician, or a prison inspector. Unfortunately, the Healer presented in The Dragon is a spellcaster, like a Cleric, but not as powerful, which makes him redundant in a typical fantasy RPG setting.

The Scribe is offered as someone who can be hired to transfer spells from scrolls and spellbooks to a PC's spellbook. It seems that nowadays most rules allow for the PC to do this himself somehow. Even if that were not the case, there are ways you can make this happen without having to utilize an official class.

Following are the Samurai and Berserker classes. Naturally, the Samurai is well-treated in modern rulebooks and supplements; so I chose to ignore the article. The Berserker, on the other hand, looks like an interesting predecessor to the Barbarian. They're similar in that they both can fly into a rage; but in the Berserker's case the timing is at the DM's discretion. Also, the Berserker is described as belonging to a lycanthropic clan. So I promised myself I'd revisit this concept by adding this line to my Hooks, Encounters, and Brainstorms index:
  • The PC's must neutralize the threat of a roving clan of evil berserkers (issue 3).
Finally in issue 3 we have the Idiot and the Jester. Basically, these two classes are designed to cause confusion in an enemy. They use Charisma as a barbarian uses Strength. It's up to you to find or create a good class description, but here's what I entered in my index:
  • An Idiot or Jester is employed by an underground organization to disrupt the PCs' investigation into the organization's affairs (issue 3).
I didn't find anything of value in issue #4, so skipping on to 5...

Issue 5 gives us some very deep insight into Witches and witchcraft. The article doesn't actually contain rules for a character class, but there it does contain a plethora of witch lore. Here's what the article inspired in me:
  • The young sister of an accused witch asks the party to intervene, before her older sister is burned at the stake. Meanwhile, a malevolent witch is sabotaging the local witch hunt by serving on the town council. (issue 5).
You have to be careful how you handle this plot idea. In a high-fantasy world where even the clergy are casting spells, witches might not be persecuted solely for the fact that they are spellcasters. Rather, there may be a stigma associated with the witches' culture. Their deities could be in direct conflict with the popular local pantheon, or maybe they are seen as belonging to a culture of sadism and falsehood. Maybe they are thought to be cursed -- that their mere presence brings pestilence and decay.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Game Night: First Blood

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am attempting to start a gaming group with some coworkers. Eight expressed initial interest, and four actually came to the first event, which I hosted in my kitchen last night.

Due to player demand, we didn't begin with an RPG; but instead tried Axis and Allies Miniatures. The whole session consisted of a practice run with tank-only squads. By the night's end, I got an impression that the event was mildly successful -- at least enough to warrant a second event.

We'll probably try A&AM again next time, and perhaps throw a card game into the mix (I've been itching to play some Chez Geek). Perhaps by the third night, we'll get our C&C on. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 17, 2008

To Fudge or Not?

Even though most RPG systems allow a GM to fudge a die roll when the result would otherwise spoil the fun, I've never been a fan of arbitrary rules violations. When all is said and done, the "G" in RPG stands for "game," which means that rules need to be upheld, or we all might as well sit around a campfire and tell stories. I guess this would place me near the "tactical" end of the Tactical/Roleplaying continuum of playing styles.

Yet, it does seem rather unfair that a 1st level party member could be killed with a single roll of a die. In fact, let's weight the Pros and Cons of a strict, "live by the dice, die by the dice" policy:

PRO: It's realistic. Orcs, even at 1HD, are supposed to be formidable. Otherwise, why would half-orc PCs be so strong? This is especially true in gritty, low-magic, Tolkenian campaigns. You should expect a common, low CR monster to dispatch any novice adventurer on a regular basis. Where do you think all their treasure comes from?

CON: It violates the Rule of Fun. Even with my handy-dandy, time saving PC Motivations index, character creation is hardly worth the trouble when your character is snuffed during her first encounter. Many players, especially the better ones, have very deep ideas for their characters that they'd like to see in play. Killing their characters takes away what your players might percieve as an important part of the game.

PRO: Low low-level life expectancy doesn't replace the opportunity to create deep characters. Rather, it encourages players to start with a relatively blank slate and develop the characters in-game.

CON: Of course, this places more of a burden on the shoulders of the GM. It's easier to tailor your campaign for the players' expectations than to expect them to hone their characters within the frameworks of your scenarios.

PRO: It evens out the PCs' power at all levels. Because it's likely for a GM to be more reluctant to kill a new character, he may be more likely to fudge damage at lower levels. Why should a character be harder to kill at level one than at level seven?

CON: In a campaign with strict hit point rolls at level one, it is possible for a character to begin play at one hit point. Rules are rules, but one hit point is kind of ridiculous; it doesn't even leave the amount of damage inflicted by a successful hit up to chance. You're down after 1d1 damage. There should be a way to compromise between the randomness of a realistic approach to hit points and the players' desire for a cinematic, heroic experience.

PRO: It encourages creative problem-solving. A first level party shouldn't be kicking down doors and charging blindly into combat. And the GM should be providing non-violent options for the players -- escape routes, special opponent weaknesses, etc. -- even though he need not make these options obvious.

If we think long enough, we could fill several pages with pros and cons. So let's just pick an approach and stick with it. If you're a GM who can sleep at night knowing that you've faked some rolls, then you're a better man than I. As for me, I have a difficult time with the idea of implementing life-saving fudges outside of the framework of the rules. But if I'm going to institute a strict, by-the-dice policy, I still need an escape hatch for when things just seem unfair. So here's a proposed system for fudging, one that is still rules-based, because it is a rule in itself:


At the beginning of each session (regardless of in-game time), the GM allows himself a limited number of Fudge Points, according to the following formula:

((N-m)(r/P))/P = Fp

= Total number of PCs in the adventuring party.
m = Sum of all constitution modifiers within the party.
r = Ratio between all PCs' total potential HP and max HP at their respective levels. Constitution bonuses do not count toward potential HP.
P = Average PC level.
Fp = Total Fudge Points allowed for current session, rounded to the nearest non-negative whole number.

This formula is a work in progress. Believe it or not, it was originally more complex. Ideally, it should result in fewer Fp as a party's average level increases, and fewer Fp for strong (i.e., having more HP) characters than for weaker ones. If there are any statisticians out there who feel they can improve on this, please drop a comment.

Here is how you use Fp: When an NPC, monster, trap, or magical effect render a PC near death or worse, and the GM deems the result premature or needlessly tragic, he may spend a fudge point. A fudge results in the same event occuring, but to a lesser degree. Examples of how fatalities can be reduced to major inconveniences include the following, but the GM is encouraged to be creative:
  • Instead of killing the PC, the villain's blow destroys a helmet or shield, rendering it ineffective. If the PC doesn't wear a helmet or shield, her weapon is damaged.
  • In the case of a magical effect, the damage incurred is subdual damage.
  • Instead of losing hit points, the PC suffers a debilitating injury, like a broken arm, which results in severe Dexterity and Strength penalties, and perhaps a temporary loss of Constitution points.
In any case, the result should still incapacitate or seriously inconvenience the character. If the GM describes a fudge as a blow that was absorbed or shrugged off, or in any way ineffective, then the result is no different than a miss.

Example: Boris, Fafnir, Eleanor, and Pitkin are members of a brand-new 1st-level adventuring party. Boris is a Fighter with 11 HP and a Con modifier of +2. Fafnir is a Wizard with 1 HP and a Con modifier of -1. Eleanor, a Cleric, has 4 HP and a Con modifier of 0. Pitkin is a Rogue with 4 HP and a Con modifier of 0. Because a Fighter uses d10 as his hit die, Boris' max HP (not counting any Constitution bonus) is 10. Fafnir's is 4, Eleanor's is 8, and Pitkin's is 6. This makes the ratio (r) between the party's potential HP and max HP at (10+4+8+6):(11+1+4+4), or 28:20, which equals 1.4. The sum of all their Con modifiers (m) is 1. With 4 PC's averaging 1st level, we get ((4-1)(1.4/1))/1, or (3*1.4)/1, or 4 fudge points to spend on the first night's session.

This works out as I might have expected -- about one fudge per session, adjusted up or down depending on the overall strength of the group. The fudge points should dwindle away as the party increases in level, because at higher levels the GM can scale an encounter down. At level one, there isn't much wiggle room for scaling down.

When fudge points aren't being spent, the players are playing well. Therefore, for each fudge point not spent during a session, the GM increases the XP earned during that session by any surviving members of the party by five percent.

I don't recommend using fudge points in systems that automatically grant max HP at first level, especially in a system like D&D 4.0, where you've got to work pretty hard to kill a character, even if you desire to.

This fudge system gives the GM a chance to play, not just adjudicate. By carefully deciding when and where to spend these points, he is working with the players, albeit behind the scenes, in helping them achieve their objectives. And he doesn't have to worry about whether any arbitrary, impromptu fudges were appropriate or necessary. Is this a ticket out of having to put any creative thought into being a GM? No, it's just a way of quantifying something most GM's do, in a way that keeps the results objective and balanced.

I'll be trying this, and I'll keep you posted as I go.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Blogging the Dragon: Birth Tables

I love how early D&D'ers seemed to want a random generator for everything. In the Dragon #3, p. 14, we get birth tables for players who want quick backgrounds for their characters with a minimum of effort.

I'm not sure that I can legally reproduce the tables verbatim, but here is an outline of the process. DM's can complete the tables by furnishing their own data, or just get a copy of the article from the source.

  • In the article, a d% results in the character being a Commoner, Merchant, Gentleman, or Noble. DM's should arrange this table to reflect the social strata of his chosen campaign world.
  • The results of this roll determine how many siblings the character has (up to 4 in the original article), or whether the character is an only child, orphan, or bastard (their words, not mine).
  • The article also adds that on a roll of 1 on a d6, the character is orphaned. That sounds a bit too probable to me.
  • At the DM's discretion, there may be a chance of inheritance. The article suggests that only a first born receives an inheritance (10% extra starting gold). It also says bastards get 10% less starting gold, but I don't agree. In fact, divorced parents could use generosity to compensate for the percieved emotional stress they caused their children.
  • Commoners, Merchants, Gentlemen, and Noblemen each consult a separate table.
  • Each table is a d% roll, with results ranging from Impoverished to Very Wealthy.
  • Each result carries an initial amount of starting gold, multiplied by level, and an allowance, which is sent to the character by his family once per month for up to a year, or when he reaches 3rd level, whichever comes first.
  • Each result also has a code referring which skill tables to refer to. These aren't "skills" in the 3.0 sense, but more profession-related talents.
  • Depending on which social class a character belongs to, his father rolls on appropriate skills tables.
  • Depending on the results of Steps III and IV, consult one or more of these three tables. All are d100:
  • Group 1: Includes lower-class professions like Vagabond, Tinker, Woodsman, Sailor, and Soldier.
  • Group 2: Includes professions like Merchant, Craftsman (which can be fused nicely with the related 3.0/3.5 skill), Animal Trainer, and Shipwright.
  • Group 3: Includes professions like Sheriff, Physician, Interpreter, Don Juan (?!), and Biologist.
  • All tables include the entry 00 = Adventurer, for the PC's father.
  • There are further restrictions, such as "Peasant may not roll above a 70," etc.

Make sense? Let me know if it doesn't. I'm not sure if I'd use these tables on a regular basis, but they do provide a quick means of generating a character's background when time or creative juices are in short supply.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Blogging the Dragon: The Alchemist PC Class

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm going through all back issues of the Dragon, one by one, and logging information that can be updated and recycled in newer RPG campaigns. Here's a line that I added to my database, entitled "Hooks, Encounters, and Brainstorms:"

* Character Class: Alchemist (issue no. 2, p. 28).

That doesn't tell you guys much, does it? So here's a brief summary of the class, adjusted for Castles & Crusades. D&D 3.0 or 3.5 players shouldn't have too difficult of a time adapting:


Description: Alchemists are not only trained chemists, but they have tapped into the same magical resources as Wizards, only less so. This slight magical aptitude gives them a natural insight into what makes an effective potion; it also, combined with the fact that they tend to sample their own work, even allows them a slight natural immunity to the effects of potions and poisons.

Prime Attribute: Intelligence

Base to Hit, XP per level: as Cleric
Alignment: Any
Hit Die: d6 until level 10, then 1hp per level
Weapons: short sword, dagger, rapier, scimitar, mace, club, sickle, knife
Armor: any leather, brigandine, cuir bouille
Saves: +2 vs. posion and non-magical paralyzation

Special Abilities:
Detect Poison: Can tell by explanation (must be told or have a clear definition of symptoms) whether an item or creature is poisonous, or whether a character has been poisoned.
Neutralize Poison: Once per week (allowing for the passage of poison through his system), an alchemist may neutralize the effects of poison whose challenge rating is the alchemist's level or lower. The effect of neutralization is equal to the best possible save; if there are negative side effects of a poison even after a successful save, the side effects apply.
Neutralize Paralysis: Creatures whose hit dice are half the alchemist's level or lower cannot induce paralysis by non-magical means, like venom or fear. This ability does not work against paralysis caused by devices (wands, staves, swords, spells).
Identify Potion: The alchemist applies a +1 per level bonus to Intelligence checks to identify potions. If a Potion of Delusion is not identified, check again to see if it is identified incorrectly. This may also be used to test for acids or similar compounds.
Read Languages: The alchemist receives a +4 bonus when performing an Intelligence check to read unfamiliar languages. If successful, he can get the gist of a simple text, especially when the content is related to spellcraft, alchemy, science, or the planes.
Prepare Potions: At level 4, the alchemist can prepare potions and acids.
Read Magic: At level 7, the alchemist can Read Magic as a Wizard of equal level.
Replicate Potion: At level 10, the alchemist may replicate a potion from a sample.

C&C alchemists follow the potion creation guidelines in Monsters & Treasure, p. 87. For other systems, consult the appropriate manual.
There are some additional ideas regarding special potions on pages 29 -30 of The Dragon, issue #2.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Blogging the Dragon

I have the marvelous Dragon Magazine Archives CD set and haven't done much with it. So I recently began skimming through each issue and creating a plain text index of the most notable and useful articles. I've been getting through at least a couple per day. The CDs come with a program for Windows that allows you to search the archives, but I don't run Windows. Plus, I am tagging the entries with keywords that make search results more relevant for my personal needs. It sounds like a major undertaking, but it only takes a few minutes per issue.

Concurrently, I'm also reading every article I tagged and creating a second index, entitled "Hooks, Encounters, and Brainstorms," that contains suggestions for using the ideas contained in the articles. So for example, if I read an article about medieval siege equipment, I add a quick line to my index that contains a suggestion for including the new knowledge in my campaign. Something like, "After the PCs return to a keep to claim rewards for a successful mission, vengeful allies of the defeated villain lay siege to the castle (issue X pXX)."

Today I realized I could take this a step further, and share my ideas with you. So every line I add to the index will also be posted here. Here is what I have so far, from the first two issues of The Dragon. Keywords are included in parentheses, to facilitate easy searching. Also, I'm adapting for Castles & Crusades, so if you encounter some cryptic nomenclature you may have to adjust for your preferred system:
  • A bulette has been running rampant in the area, terrorizing farmers. A trap must be sprung. (bulette, wilderness)
  • A chest in a villain's chamber is locked, and trapped with three spring-loaded poison daggers. The antidote is in another locked box behind a secret panel. (trap, urban)
  • A treasure contains a hobbit's pipe and two varieties of pipeweed from The Dragon #2, p13. Halflings get Intelligence check CC12 to identify each variety. (treasure, magic)
  • A high-altitude cavern near a mountain pass houses a Remorhaz. (wilderness, Remorhaz, cold)
Note that the second and fourth ideas are pretty straightforward. That happens sometimes. Not every little thing that happens in a fantasy roleplaying game has to be complicated or profound. Sometimes a DM just wants to be reminded that a Remorhaz might be a good thing to spring on his players in a certain environment.


Some thoughts on random wilderness/roadside encounters:

Don't you think it's a bit strange that, when attacked by brigands or a humanoid raiding party, most PCs will unthinkingly slay all attackers, then leave their corpses to rot? Here are some ideas that can add realism to your next wilderness ambush, and also remind players that even in a fantasy world, laws of cause and effect apply:

1. Fix Your Tables. If you work from random encounter tables, rework them to include the possibility of encountering the aftermath of a previous encounter. For example, if an encounter occurs, set a percentage -- say, 30 to 50 percent -- that the encounter is with the corpses of victims. When your PCs' overland sightseeing is marred by the stench and decay of dead adventurers, your players might think a bit differently about how they handle outdoor skirmishes.
2. A Glade is Not a Dungeon. In a dungeon, monsters guard their treasure hoards with their lives. In open wilderness, it takes nerve to attack a campsite that is guarded by powerful characters. Think twice about full-on ambushes by intelligent creatures. Unintelligent creatures like the Bulette are more likely assailants. Also, never rule out the possibility that intelligent enemies might have an escape plan, or at the very least, are likely to break up and flee.
3. Think Like a Criminal. If there's one thing you learn on America's Most Wanted, it's that attackers will only target those they feel are weaker than themselves. An orc raiding party mustn't feel overpowered. This is tricky, because good DMing usually requires well-matched enemies. Try catching the PCs at a time when they seem more vulnerable than they usually are. A related idea is having your would-be attackers deciding to not go through with their raid, then attempting to sneak away. If the PC on guard duty spots them at this time, then the PC's party must decide whether to switch roles and become predators themselves.
4. Corpses are your Friends. If the party encounters a group of dead adventurers, you've got several possibilities open to you: You could simply allow the corpses to be found dead, with their gear stripped. You could leave gear that might have been a poor fit for the attackers, like a two-handed sword or plate mail fit for a halfling. You could leave a red herring, like an ethnic craft item that could be mistaken for an artifact or magic item, but which the attackers recognized as being mundane ("Leave it, Ogg. We've got plenty o' those in the cave..."). Try allowing a Ranger to spot tracks leading from the scene of the crime, left by a survivor bent on revenge. Or maybe a Rogue could notice that the bodies were arranged deliberately, as if to serve as bait, but just as he is about to alert the others...surprise!
5. Take a Hostage. Either because a PC carries a coveted item, or to gain the upper hand when the chips or down, an attacker (perhaps with an assistant) may wish to either subdue a PC and use her as a hostage, or threaten to deal a finishing blow to an unconscious PC. Try having the PC carted away. This works well if a regular player can't make it to the session. With the remaining characters tied up in a rescue mission, you've got a way to pass the evening.
6. Lay Down the Law. If the party is travelling on a road, chances are they're under the jurisdiction of a local militia or police order. Should a cavalryman on his rounds notice signs of a recent bloodbath, he would be duty-bound to race up the road and apprehend the survivors for questioning.
7. Encourage Good Roleplaying. Lawful members of the party would be loathe to abandon unburied corpses, no matter how evil they are. Depending on the local terrain, body disposal could be as complex as digging shallow graves, or as simple as dumping bodies in a nearby stream. Of course, there's always the risk of a traveller stopping to take a drink, and just as he raises a handful of clear water to his lips, he finds himself face-to-face with the white, bloated visage of a dead hobgoblin! Would your players want this to happen to them?

Any other ideas? Leave a comment.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

PC Motivations

I often encourage my players to keep an alternate character handy, in case of fatality. In a good D&D game, you need a sense of constant danger; and that feeling can be inspired by a decent mortality risk.

On the other hand, isn't it in the spirit of RPGs to create a character that is rich in personality and background, and not just a hack machine? Why waste all the time a player spends fleshing out his character's background by subjecting the character to an early death?

We have a contradiction here. As an old-school DM, I feel it's very important to allow characters to die whenever circumstances dictate, and not when a player or DM deems appropriate. The here today, gone tomorrow randomness of death is what we expect in reality, and we should expect the same in a realistic game. Yet we also want our characters to feel real, and that takes preparation -- preparation that could be wasted if our 1st-level characters are killed before seeing much action.

So I present to you a list of PC Motivations: One-statement summaries of PC aspirations, attitudes, and personality quirks. This list should not only supply quick background info for players who want to minimize the time required to create a PC, but it can also inspire character-centered campaign subplots. Take a look and tell me what you think:

Character Motivations

1. PC is a naturalist, who wishes to document sightings of as many known low-intelligence creatures as possible. He is not interested in killing these creatures, just observing.
2. PC is a sociologist, who is highly interested in humanoid culture. She wishes to observe some humanoid society (choose one, like goblin or giant), and seeks to establish a peaceful relation with a local community so she can conduct her work.
3. PC is a historian, and wishes to chart as many ancient settlements as possible, hopefully claiming an artifact or two along the way for his local museum. He may be a sole proprietor of the museum, or work for an employer. Chaotic historians may intend to save items of particular interest for themselves.
4. PC is an evangelist cleric who serves a chaotic or neutral deity. She travels from village to village, staging revivals for profit. Her charisma and healing ability attracts devout followers, whom she relies upon for a comfortable standard of living. She is otherwise a good, kind person.
5. PC is in love with a woman who will not marry him until he can prove he earns a good living. He turns to adventuring to get off to a quick start, hoping to use the money he earns early on to open a shop.
6. PC is a rogue posing as a medium. She uses cold reading techniques to dupe clients into believing she speaks with the dead.
7. PC's father was an infamous, ruthless villain -- perhaps a slave master or serial killer. The PC struggles to distance himself from his father's memory, while also trying to live up to his father's reputation.
8. PC owes a very large debt to a shady guild. This could be money, or services rendered for a "favor" the guild bestowed on the character (extra points if the favor was something the PC didn't initially hope for -- like a "message" that went too far).
9. PC is a pathological liar. He brags about his fantastic exploits, but hesitates to accept a truly dangerous assignment. Then someone or something finds his "hot button" and he hastily takes on something too big for his party, much to his partners' irritation.
10. PC has a death wish. She lost a loved one to a particular rare monster, and seeks revenge, only to get a thrill out of staring death in the face once she has her chance to make things right.
11. PC starts the game with a curse that must be removed in an unreasonably systematic manner.
12. PC is a member of the noble class, who frequently takes leave from court responsibilities to pursue adventure. Her private escorts are sworn to secrecy.
13. PC is getting very old, but cannot find a place in normal society. He continues adventuring despite his increasing handicaps.
14. PC is masochistic. She insists on allowing foes to injure her before she tears them apart.
15. PC is an overly action-driven leader. Perhaps he is a knight, who leads his party into dangerous situations without giving much thought to alternative strategies.
16. PC has an obsession with flight, and would give anything to be able to fly.
17. PC believes an unpopular, unconfirmed rumor about a lost treasure hoard, which is ridiculously difficult to reach (perhaps underwater, or in the middle of the desert, or under tons of earth), even if it exists.
18. PC took on an adventuring lifestyle to escape the pressures of marriage and motherhood.
19. PC believes he can do just about anything, at least after only a couple attempts, and is likely to volunteer for tasks best suited to other members of the group. If held back by others, he might take initiative when no one is paying attention.
20. PC is clearly ill-suited for her class. Perhaps she is an unwise cleric, or a weak fighter.
21. PC is a wizard who shuns violence. He tends to learn non-offensive spells.
22. PC is a cleric who is losing her faith. She has been raised to serve a specific deity, yet has never directly witnessed any evidence of the deity's presence in her world.
23. PC is a Jekyll/Hyde case. For example, in the city he may be shy and withdrawn; but underground, he cracks wise and causes trouble -- perhaps by failing to exercise due restraint in combat, or by blowing the group's cover in stealth situations.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hello, World!

Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Lyle. I work full-time, and on weekends I perform with various musical groups. My music-related website is, and I host a podcast entitled "Wired Guitar World," which is available through the iTunes store, or can be directly downloaded from I live in Madison, Wisconsin with my wife and four-month old baby boy.

The point is, I have way too much on my plate to devote a great deal of time to gaming. But I love gaming. Looooove it. Since I was ten, I have been into Dungeons and Dragons, both as a DM and player. That's over twenty years, with a break during much of college, during which I was into other, less wholesome pursuits.

So I've been keeping my passion alive one night per week, with online sessions using special play-by-chat clients like D20Map, OpenRPG, and MapTool. Recently, I have begun recruiting players for a live game. That's about the extent of my current involvement with D&D.

I feel compelled to record the ongoing thoughts and experiences of a DM who is also a family man with a career and other side pursuits. I hope you enjoy reading.