Friday, August 28, 2015

Dragon Magazine #10: Dark, Black, and Oriental?

Building Realistic Dungeons

Dragon issue 10 continues with an article by Richard Gilbert titled, "Let There Be a Method to Your Madness," which discusses logical dungeon design. Here are a couple of key statements from the article:
"To the peoples of your world, digging a dungeon out of solid rock is a tremendous task, one not to be undertaken lightly."
I have often thought this. If you're going to place a handful of kobolds into a finely carved network of tunnels, those tunnels better have been there long before they settled in, otherwise there should be hundreds of kobolds living there, with leaders, wives, shamans, children, etc. Your first question to ask is, "Who built this place, and how and why?" Gilbert reinforces this: "You, as the designer, must think like the builders when you design a dungeon...".
"Before you do anything with a dungeon, you should have specified where it will be located, what the surface area looks like, and what, in capsule form, its history is."
There are GM"s that don't do this? This is a no-brainer. Have in mind the origin of the structure, and a tasty description of the approach for your players.

Gilbert continues by leading us through the creation of a sample dungeon, remembering of course to include a paragraph on "love nests." Overall, his approach is recommendable: Imagine the original purpose of the structure, its history, and how it came into its current state.

One point at which I diverge is on the use of trap and maze rooms. In a quasi-medieval economy, who can afford to dedicate an entire section of their stronghold to frustrating intruders? Plus, I can't imagine wanting to live in a place where my own ability to move around is hindered by a giant puzzle. Here's my guideline when it comes to these matters:
If a temple, keep, or some other structure that guards valuable treasure contains life-threatening traps, the inhabitants of that structure must have had an easy way to bypass them.
Failure to provide a means for regular inhabitants to go to the bathroom or visit the kitchen to make a sandwich without threat of being sliced in half by a giant axe-headed pendulum is what I call the Tomb Raider Effect: the problem of a dungeon that is built only to kill visitors, but not shelter tenants.

Building Realistic Character Bodies?

If there's one thing I can say about First Edition AD&D, it's that its creators (and house-rulers) were obsessive about having a table for damn near everything. P.M. Crabaugh lives up to the statement with his contribution, "Weights & Measures, Physical Appearance and Why Males are Stronger than Females; in D&D." Here, he takes vital statistics, the part of character creation where we spend the least amount of time and effort, and combines it with encumbrance, the part of character creation which we loath dealing with the most. Riveting!

In a nutshell, Crabaugh provides tables for the generation of height and weight, based on species and gender. Tables like this are useful if you insist on randomizing the process. Personally, I don't see how picking your own stats could break the game. No GM has asked how tall my character was, or how heavy. Nor has hair and eye color come into play beyond the first introductions in session one of a campaign. You want a randomized system? Here, I'll make one up right now: Google average height and weight for your gender. Flip a coin: heads, you add, tails you subtract. Add or subtract 1d8 inches from height, 1d20 pounds from weight. 

Crabaugh makes all this data somewhat relevant by applying hit die and CON bonuses based on body mass, and then gets into carrying capacity. I know we can be tempted to make our games more realistic, since RPG's are, after all, simulations of reality; but such meticulous attention given to demographic and encumbrance stats seems unnecessary for anyone but the most annoyingly detail-oriented rules nerd.

Crabaugh closes the article with, you guessed it, more tables; although they do call attention to things I haven't thought much about, and might try to more often: voice pitch, handedness, "habitual expression," and complexion, which he unfortunately limits to (default-white?), dark, black, and oriental.

Gaining a New Experience Level

Tom Holsinger writes,
"Existing rules for D&D/EPT are very unclear concerning the mechanics of how a character gains the new abilities, hit points and whatnot upon reaching a new experience level. “At the end of an adventure” is about all they say."
 Okay, I'm with you so far. RP'ing level advancement is something we could do more of.
"What is needed is some sort of definite ritual that characters may undergo at any time once their total experience points qualify them for a higher experience level."
Well, "needed" is a strong word. Not a bad suggestion for some characters at some levels, though.

Holsinger then presents an elaborate ritual for gaining the favor of the gods, which grants the PC's their new level bonuses. As I said, handling level advancement in-game is an appealing idea. But here are two major problems I find in Holsinger's approach:

First, it requires gratuitous effort. By the rule of, erm, the rules, if a character has gained enough experience to level up, he has already earned the new bonuses. Spell casters should still observe whatever rules exist on purchasing or copying spells; but things like hit points and attack bonuses are automatic. Why subject the player to a session dedicated to activities that will only result in something that's already guaranteed?

Second, and more importantly, it's very meta. How does the PC know it's time to "level up?" After about the 7th or 8th iteration, wouldn't the routine seem suspiciously redundant? How does it affect society in the game setting? Knowing how often PC's and NPC's alike will be visiting "leveling" shrines, would local townspeople dress them up and turn them into tourist attractions? Might they start charging fees for access and booking months in advance?

I think a well-designed rules system already lays out the process for leveling up. Usually, it's automatic bonuses, except for new spells, which have to be learned or copied, often for a fee. Thieves' skills might involve some process. I prefer to keep it simple. I assume that most players, after leveling up a character, are too eager to get back into the fray to go on some mini-quest (with guaranteed success) to earn what they already earned.

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