Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What if I do like Pathfinder..?

I did a bad thing. When I was looking into Temple of Elemental Evil (the 80s module) I was annoyed that it was a video game and it made it difficult to search for fan-made (i.e. better) maps and notes on how people adapted the module. Then I saw the game was $6. Then I started playing.

Is a relatively faithful adaptation of the third edition rules, making the game run something like those old gold-box games from the TSR era. Its also a relatively faithful adaptation of the module, especially given that the module was designed (as they all kinda were) for DMs to customize them. So I stopped reading the module and focused on the playing the game first. Its pretty good.

Maybe its just because I've avoided video games for much of the past decade (If I got into WoW or something, I'd be a complete recluse), but I got to thinking: these 3.5 rules aren't so bad. And then I wondered what if I like Pathfinder?

As I'm playing with this 5th edition group, I've been realizing that some of what I dislike is play style and some of it is rules. Perception and stealth be damned, but you can use those as you like. Its the style of play that has emerged since third edition though that seems reliant on those skills. Now I'm curious to go back in time and see how some of the World of Darkness games I've played went. Are people constantly rolling perception skills there? Are they more concerned with what's on their sheet than the game they're playing?

I guess the point is that we should probably take each game on its merits, but also that groups and play style can be huge. There are some things that just break the system in 3.5 (wand of cure light wounds..?), but it isn't necessarily an awful system. There's a whole lot of overpowered options for 3.5 (and presumably Pathfinder, just like 4e and such), but overpowered options come as more and more options are added.

Now the trick: how do I get players used to the way I'd like to do things, or train a GM to think the way I want the game to be run?  Obviously the DM has the most sway in how things are done at the table. But if I could get players to players but into the notion of only rolling them when its vital to the story, that'll be a game I'm more interested in playing on either side of the screen. I've just been baffled that the guy running this 5th edition game I'm playing keeps having us roll perception checks for just about everything, and sometimes just has us re-roll skills checks when we should have passed them. Its a lot of rolling for what could be easily narrated and then we'd move on to the more fun bits.

I've had this notion that sometimes players operate with sheet blinders: they don't think beyond what's on their sheet. And that probably motivates a lot of "Can I roll Perception?" questions. But playing the video game and comparing it to this new 5th edition group just seems to have reminded me that the rules don't necessarily tell you how best to use them. A lot of games have house-rules sheets, but maybe we need something like game-style sheets as well.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

OSR and TSR Options

Since I've got a bug up my butt about running Temple of Elemental Evil (For better for for worse), I'm looking through some of the OSR material I have as well as the TSR options. I've seen a few things I really like or are at least notable. A lot of this comes from the Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS) with a eye on Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea (ASSH). But some of it might be doable in a 5th edition game or 13th Age, not just TSR D&D or an OSR retroclone or whatnot, but some are really tied to those older d20 rolling fantasy games.

1) Warrior damage bonus and cleaving. ACKS just flat-out gives warriors a scaling damage bonus from +1 at first level to +5 at 12th Level. It reminds me of weapon specialization in AD&D. At some point, fighters just need to be doing a little more damage. I'm just not quite sure what the correct amount is, but something simple like +1 at levels 5, 10, 15, and 20 surely can't be overpowered. Weapon Mastery (double specialization) and beyond show up in Combat & Tactics as single-classed fighter only options which is nice, but guarantees that fighters become very kensei-like and overspecialized in a single weapon. I like the option, but I'm unsure what the implementation ought to be. ASSH gives fighters a couple weapons that they get +1 hit/damage with over their careers and the option to double specialize in one. I like the kensei class option in greater specialization, but maybe its not for all warriors.

2) Warrior cleaving. First edition had a somewhat hidden/obscure rule (well, lots really) that allowed a fighter to make a number of attacks equal to his level against creatures less than 1/2 hit die. It gets repeated in a number of OSR books, and adapted a little by Combat and Tactics. But I like the ACKS implementation mostly though it might need a slight tweak. When a warrior kills an enemy, they get to make a bonus attack with the same weapon against an enemy within 5' (though if they have movement they can still move 5' and make the attack). They can do this a number of times equal to their level. Clerics and Thieves can do it up to half their level. That's powerful! Removing the hit die cap (which is what ACKS appears to do) makes it much easier to use. Combat & Tactics specifies you must be outnumbered to use the rule, and it might still have a hit die limit. I like the idea of a scaling Hit die limit still. Though a "kill in one blow" wording might de-facto do an appropriate hit die limit. Combat & Tactics limits the number of bonus attacks, giving double your normal attack rate as the limit, which I kinda like. But some version of this really gives a nice bonus to warriors. Note that, depending on the wording, this warrior cleave or heroic fray might work for missile attacks as well, not just melee.

3) Encumbrance in Stone. Its around the internet in a few places, but ACKS uses is too. Basically, you use a much larger weight unit so encumbrance has a better level of granularity. ACKS defines a stone as 10 pounds, but the 14-pound stone is still used in the UK as a unit of human body weight. However you define it, you're dealing with numbers in the range of 20 or less usually, so that's a bit easier to math out.

4) Rations. DungeonWorld and ACKS use a nicer ration system, though its there in all forms of TSR D&D too. It could just be a little simplified. TSR D&D never gave lots of healing overnight though, which is where rations might be more important for a game like 5th edition or 13th Age where you fully heal (or more fully heal) overnight. I actually did something like this in the 4th edition Dark Sun game I ran, which was letting the PCs cast defiling magic to regain all their healing surges while they were travelling. It made wilderness encounters actually worthwhile since you might actually lose resources on the way to the dungeon. Normal AD&D makes regaining HP difficult enough unless the cleric totally blasts the party with cure light wounds.

5) Dual Wielding. In ACKS, dual wielding just gives you an offensive bonus, not extra attacks. Extra attacks should, I feel, be limited to special situations and certain classes (warriors in general, the monk specifically). I also like the 13th Age take on dual wielding, but extra attacks can get pretty powerful (especially when you have magic bonuses to hit and damage in addition to ability score bonuses) and they can be a pain to deal with consistently. Saying that though, some missile weapons in TSR D&D more readily get multiple attacks, particularly with weapon specialization.

4) XP for gold and Carousing (i.e. gold for XP). I can see how gaining XP based on the loot you get makes the game a bit more Sword-and-Sorcery than high fantasy. So I like it. I also agree that its maybe best if you get the XP for magic items you sell (but don't use): so its really for gold you're bringing back to town. ACKS has a carousing rule which says you can piss away that gold and start an XP bank for your next character. I kinda like that idea too. Again, not sure the best implementation, but I like the idea. However, this doesn't look like it'd work well in a game like 5th edition or 13th Age: something about those distinct XP charts for classes and AD&D multiclassing makes this feel like it works best in those games. When you either don't really pay attention to XP (or gold, for that matter) and just give out level-ups for milestones or whatnot, it doesn't seem to matter.

5) Simplified weapons. ACKS does a 5th edition on weapons a bit, taking the broad number of weapons down from AD&D's massive set. I like the idea, but I also like the notion of weapon properties. A few more properties might play up some more differences between weapons, like flails and chains ignoring shields (wrap around) and entangling enemies (easier to disarm or trip). You could even capture some of the weapon vs armor stuff of AD&D with properties like plate-penetration or whatnot. Certainly they must have considered this in 3rd edition and decided against it for some reason, but I'm not privy to what that reason was so it still seems worthwhile to simplify the weapons slightly but keep some of the crazier properties and oddities of the system. Maybe the properties could be steamlined a bit to generic +2/-2 so its easier to keep track of though.

6) Shield sundering (and more). Though I can't seem to find it in ACKS, the internet claimed there was a shields-will-be-sundered rule. I'm not sure I like the option where you can just let your shield break anytime for half-damage, but I like weapons and shields breaking. Its part of the reason why I'm thinking one benefit of fighters is they should automatically get something like tight-group proficiency with weapons and be able to use more weapons, rather than funnel them into grand-mastery specialization with just one weapon. I wonder if this might be great as an alternative to some critical hit nonsense. Crits and fumbles might where your equipment has a chance to break (or enemies equipment does) rather than always just doing something like max damage. Actually, I really like the idea of crits doing things like breaking equipment in addition to or instead of just heaps of damage. Cause unless you have a max damage on crits rule, just rolling double dice can be a bummer when you roll 1s on the damage die for a crit.

7) Wisdom (and Charisma) for bonus XP. This comes out of Swords and Wizardry, where your prime requisite bonus is only 5%. A wisdom or charisma of 13+ gives you a 5% bonus to XP as well. I'm not so sure I like it for Charisma, but any class with a better wisdom seems like it should get that XP bonus. I might give the Cha bonus for classes who would otherwise be required to have a good wisdom like Clerics or a Necromancer rather than letting wisdom do double duty there. But Wisdom as a prime requisite for all classes might be nice.

8) Spell preparation. ASSH uses the TSR / vancian method of fire-and-forget. But ACKS uses the method that classes like the Spirit Shaman of 3rd edition or now 5th edition use. A wizard's spellbook lets him practice/prepare a set of spells, but the spell slots themselves are also magic points used to cast those spells. In this case, the wizard is a little more versatile. Clerics in ACKS, it seems, have their whole list prepared! I do like the 5th edition system a little, but is is odd if you have 2nd level slots left and need to cast a first level spell. I'm not sure about this, but see scrolls below.

9) Scrolls. ASSH gives mages the ability to scribe scrolls right away at first level. This is a case where I'm not sure I like it. Scribe Scroll seemed quite potent in third edition, so allowing wizards to explicitly scribe scrolls at low levels seems a lot. Mostly because at mid and higher levels, the wizard is only spending a pittance of XP or gold to have a good number of useful low-level scrolls scribed. Now, a game where you still use your own slots or magic points to power a scroll might make it more interesting and balanced: you're scribing the scrolls to expand your repertoire but not your number of spells cast per day. Depends on your rules, perhaps. Though that wouldn't fit with thieves being able to read a scroll on occasion, though maybe you could also rule you lose 1d4hp per level of the spell if you don't use a slot to cast that spell.

There's a whole lot of other options out there, but the Player's Option books and the OSR literature don't always make this stuff easy to find. Also, deciding on what to implement isn't easy. I'm guessing a lot of this stuff wasn't playtested as well as it could be, and what works well in one system or even gaming table might not translate at all to another. More reading to do, I suppose, but this was a first pass at some interesting options.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

13th Age Bestiary: Ettercaps (and more)

I don't know where ettercaps came from in D&D, but the 13th Age Bestiary finally makes me want to use them. Like, so much that they might rival Yuan-Ti and all the undead as one of my go-to enemy/rival groups.

I'm not really one for super gonzo or whimsical things in my D&D, but somehow the 13th Age material just seems to hit me at about the right level. Its imaginative and sometimes fanciful, but not so over-the-top with cyborg-apes riding robot dinosaurs.

Art-wise though, I might have liked the much longer fingers of the 2nd edition ettercap.

Other favorites in the bestiary: Couatl, Hag, Lammasu, Lich, Manticore, Naga, Ogre Mage, Red & White Dragons. But I might find another one or two after another read-through.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Skills, proficiencies, and secondary skills in D&D

I was going to try to run one-on-one D&D this past weekend, but my friend's napping stopped that. So instead I was looking through some old D&D stuff and thinking about the 5th edition game I've been trying to play. One thing I noticed: even with this new group, people are rolling a shit-ton of perception checks. I even heard someone tell one of the new people to take perception because that and stealth are among the most useful skills in the game.

My dislike of skills keeps growing. Or, at least how they've been implemented in D&D. When I ran some 2nd edition this past year, I was happy to skip proficiencies. I'da had the players roll for secondary skills, but it didn't seem relevant at the time. Secondary skills, in second edition, were just backgrounds basically. You were a blacksmith, so you should know blacksmith sorts of things. Simple as that.

But looking at proficiencies again now, I feel like some are misplaced. Blind-fighting is a key example. The only reason it's a non-weapon proficiency is because weapon proficiencies came first. If they were called combat proficiencies, blind-fighting would obviously be one of those. The Players' Option books have lots of different options (not surprising) for things to do with your weapon proficiency slots other than weapons, so a backwards compatible (i.e. OSR) revision of 2nd edition might distinguish between combat and non-combat proficiencies.

There's also a few which provide real good benefits, while others are more back story. Pottery or Agriculture, for example, are occupation-based backgrounds that could really just be a secondary skill. There's almost no reason to roll those. Tracking and healing, however, provide some really great benefits. Yet these are, to an extent, still background related.

Then we see the thief skills in 2nd edition. Acrobatics and read-lips are proficiencies, but the thief-skills aren't. I assume that's backwards compatibility too.

So. I might consider using proficiencies, but in a slightly revised way. Most characters would need an occupation-based proficiency or two. Or maybe just that one-word background that'd cover some of that stuff. Then maybe those other things could become more like thief skills. Reading lips, healing, tracking, setting snares, disguise, forgery... These are useful but... really. Why should a wizard be reading lips? And how could a wizard not have Spellcraft? Some need to be baked into the class a bit more, others less. Maybe I could just use the secondary skills and assume wizards would get the benefit of having spellcraft with just intelligence checks.

But then we come to Healing. Back when I thought I'd be playing, I was totally min-maxing the healing non-weapon proficiency to see how good it could be. There's a Halfling healer kit that is for priests and doesn't modify the proficiency. There's an Anatomist in the necromancer book who ends up getting a +2 to healing checks. There's a medician in the paladin book who gets to heal 1d4hp if they get to the wound within a round or three, rather than 1d3 if they get to the wound immediately. Both the necromancer and paladin books have a proficiency (anatomy and diagnostics respectively) that boosts healing, while herbalism does that too in the main book (but herbalism actually boosts the amount of healing too, not just the check). So it looks like the best you could do is that medician paladin who heals 1d4+1 hp if you tend a wound within a round or three. If you use skills and powers proficiency rules, you could heal 2 pts if you get to the wound within an hour. It only works once a day on any given character, but you can also ensure an extra hp or two for resting. Of course, if you were a paladin, you'd also have magic healing via lay on hands anyway. I thought it'd be cooler on the necromancer. Meh.

I also was a bit baffled about the rate of healing in older editions, but a friend of mine pointed out that it could be a feature, not a bug. If hit points represent some kind of ability to deflect wounds and such, then a fighter is legitimately taking a lot more damage than a wizard, and the wizard who was reduced to 1hp should heal up faster than a fighter in the same situation. Meh. Digression. Healing plus herbalism gives you 1d3+1 hp on a good healing check, once per character per day. Plus maybe an extra hp each day over night of travel/camping (or 3 if they're full-on resting).

This isn't impressive healing, but it is useful at lower levels. Even higher levels a little bit of healing can help, as a by-the-book 10th level fighter might only still have 50-60 hp, and you only get a fixed bonus after a while so a level 20 fighter might not pass 100hp without a hp boosting rule. And what does this digression mean? Some nonweapon proficiencies are actually useful. As in, might have a noticeable impact on the game. Of course, this seems to be a 2nd edition thing, my copy of Oriental Adventures doesn't have a healing proficiency at all. The healing proficiency could be overrated.

But, maybe skills aren't all that bad. 5e seems a little simplified for my taste, and includes that awful perception skill. If I run 5e, my house rule will probably just be that I roll most skill checks for the players. Perception is still overly useful compared to, say, preform, but at least it might stop people from constantly rolling perception checks (to be fair, it is the DM for this new group asking for all the perception checks).

It might be worth giving Lorefinder (gumshoe rules for pathfinder) a closer look, since I picked that up a little bit ago. Seems like an easy transplant, but its also designed for a game with good recurring attendance. I'm thinking I might be running a megadungeon with a slightly rotating cast, if I can get some people into it.

I'm not sure how you can fix more backgroundy skills (carpentry, blacksmithing, pottery) with useful skills (stealth, tracking, survival, healing) but there must be some better system than these games are currently using. I think 13th Age has it good with their backgrounds-as-skills, but it doesn't give you mechanically effectual healing. Though 13th Age is one game where that doesn't seem needed based on all the recoveries (i.e. 4th edition healing surges) PCs get. For an old school game though, a few of these skills might really benefit a group, if only they could be worked in to the system a bit better. Maybe that just means pairing down the proficiency list and putting some skills (back?) where they belong (i.e blind-fighting as a combat proficiency, read lips as a thief skill) and giving fewer proficiencies for PCs to choose? It might work. As long as one of them ain't perception. That still grinds my gears.

[Update: I was looking at Combat & Tactics over lunch. It lets you buy some proficiencies which are normally listed as non-weapon with your weapon slots (awareness). So, backwards compatibility, but they recognized some problems with the weapon/non-weapon distinction.]

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Using Crusader, Monk, (Mystic,) and Shaman in 2nd Edition (or earlier)

I've always been a bit of a fan of the Player's Option stuff in 2nd Edition. But come on, I was, what, 15ish, when that stuff came out. Also, I've been a low-key fan of the Shaman as a different take on magic. So when I'm contemplating running an old school (ish) second edition game running Temple of Elemental Evil, I want to give my players at least some relevant options without just outright opening up all of 2nd edition.

So I get to thinking: why not allow the alternate priest classes from Spells and Magic. (Aside: There's also the mystic if you add Faith and Avatars, but I think that one seems dumb because they use candle magic. I might know someone who loves to play witches who would love that class though. Dunno. At any rate, I have a vague rule of: no more than one extra book per player, and you gotta bring the book to the table. I'm not buying Faith and Avatars for that class, but I might not stop someone else from doing it.) So then I start looking around the internet and simply cannot find a halfway decent rundown of how these might work. Granted, I might be looking for shit that is marginally pre-internet (I know, I know, 1996 wasn't really pre-internet, but maybe reviews were posted on AOL or something). But getting actual play info on these classes isn't easy apparently.

First issue: 2nd edition balanced priest classes by access to spells, not by number of spells. So the bard isn't as great a caster as a wizard, but that's not how priests worked. Whether you build with the Priest's handbook or Spells and Magic, number of spheres (i.e. spell access) is the balance, not number of spells you cast per day. So the Crusader, Monk, and Shaman have a limited spell selection compared to the Cleric, and that's a key balancing factor. Access to weapons/armor is another. So if you have better weapon selection, you should lose out on spells. I'm not 100% sure that is the best design, but that's how these classes were designed.

Second issue: the classes seemed designed to make use of the Tome of Magic spheres. That's kinda laudable, since otherwise these Tome of Magic spheres were just there and clerics couldn't use the spells. Some supplements used them, but not all of them. And whereas wizards got elementalists and wild mages, the part where priests didn't get a shaman or monk or crusader or mystic seemed odd. Sure, you can design your own faith (and those rules should have been in the DMG not the Priest's Handbook), but generic clerics and druids didn't benefit from those new spheres like Numbers, Time, Travellers, War or Wards. So, in a sense, Spells and Magic really just filled out the details of what we were missing for years: basic classes to use the Tome of Magic spheres: spheres which were neglected in other products since they were "optional" anyway.

I'm sure I've used the Spells and Magic monk in the past, including briefly for an attempt at 2nd edition planescape last year. The violence was strong with him, but because it was planescape, my spells were bunk when we got out of Sigil. So it was hard to tell, but it seemed like a reasonable class which could somewhat fill in that healing role of the Cleric. The spell selection was definitely limited, and I felt it. But it did the divination stuff well with access to Numbers and Thoughts. The slight beefiness in combat might have been due to combat and tactics martial arts. None of the other players looked at that book.

The crusader is the one that people online seems to just poo poo right away. I think its mostly the part where the crusader is a full-on caster with a warrior THAC0. But, in one discussion I was able to find, there are distinctions between the crusader and paladin. Importantly, the crusader doesn't get the warrior bonus attacks. Likewise, they're rolling d8 for hit dice, don't get exceptional strength or the warrior constitution bonus. And, from what I gather, even if you used the expertise rules from Combat and Tactics, you maybe would only ever get 3 attacks per 2 rounds, not the full-on specialist number because that's based on also getting the warrior bonus attacks. So on the surface and at lower levels, the crusader probably does step on the toes of the paladin or other warriors. By about 7th level you'll start to see that the crusader needs those spells to keep up with the warriors. They also have access to a reduced spell selection compared to the cleric. Overall, it seems boarderline acceptable. If you're really concerned, you could give them one fewer spell at each level (that'd be no spells at 1st level if you don't allow the wisdom bonus spells). Fewer spells would be a noticeable drawback at low levels, but might balance things out. Alternately, the bard's spell progression chart would be even more of a hindrance. Not sure if reduced spell progression is really needed though.

As for the shaman, people seemed slightly concerned that the player could abuse getting access to some spells early with their bonus boons they can get from spirits. But I think the roleplaying factor probably would limit this somewhat, as nature or ancestor spirits might just be too far from their homes to provide all the assistance all the time. Plus they could ask for things in return, presumably. Its the kind of hokey OSR story balance, but I think this works much better than, say, the Elven Bladesinger's massive chruncy benefits compared to a few easier-to-ignore story hinderances. Seems reasonable. At least more flavorful than the Barbarian's Handbook Shaman or the Humanoids shaman. Not sure how it compares with the Shaman shaman though.

If I do ever run the Temple or maybe in another 2nd edition game, I'll totally let the players choose these or at least consider them based on the setting (Al-Qadim could use a crusader, I suppose, but less so the martial arts monk or unenlightened shaman). Crusader is the only one I'd consider dropping, just because I think the cleric does the role of warrior-priest quite well. But that's more story-based than mechanics based. Then again, given the folks who I've gotten to play some 2nd Edition here, I doubt they'd really take the options. Even if I also allowed things like the Berserker (Vikings), Runecaster (Vikings/Giantcraft), or Sha'ir (Al-Qadim), it'd probably be more a party of fighters and thieves and assassins than monks and shamans.

But whatever. I like options. But they need to be good ones that fulfill the basic needs of the game. And I think the Crusader, Monk, or Shaman could probably fill in for a cleric or druid just fine, and two could exist in the same party without stepping on one another's toes too much. This monk might step on the toes of the 1st edition Monk or Shukenja, but in a 1st edition game I might still try to import the shaman.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Party of one: Part 2

A few other discoveries since my last post on solo adventures. [Edit: briefly updated with a couple more finds.]

One of the strange things I've noticed about solo adventures is they aren't geared for level 1. Even the D&D X's challenge ones. It just seems to me that it'd be logical to do solo adventures with a new player  or new character in an OSR type game to give them a little XP and some treasure. Guess that's either not how people write these things or they just wrote one-on-one adventures to have one-on-one adventures, not to fill some need in how these are used or desired. Because it seems to me that having a wider range of levels for any given adventure would make them much more useful.Also, from what I've seen of the X's Challenge modules, its just kinda standard that the lone PC is likely to have a henchman or hireling. I guess that's one way to do it, but it seems a little... unsatisfying. Then again, many OSR games were designed for much bigger parties too: 4-10 is a bit more of the spread than the 4-6 that seems like the norm today. And some of the old school modules really want 5+ or 6+ PC more than just a group of four. Anyway, the new finds:

There's one-on-one adventurer guide for OSR games free on RPGnow from the same folk who did Red Tide (Sine Nomine Publishing) called Black Streams: Solo Heroes (the term solo keeps being used to mean one hero, but also the no-DM choose-your-own-adventure style thing just for added confusion. I keep trying to clarify it by using one-on-one but I can't change the name of someone else's product. Also, the plural seems disturbingly delicious there: solo heroes.). Its free, so you're probably picking it up now. But it's basically a set of simple modifications to OSR games to allow a solo PC to be competitive.

I ran across a review for one Dungeon adventureThe Ulrich Monastery, which doesn't get a very good review.  But if you want some ideas... maybe? Oddly, its for levels 5-6. This lead me to search more of the reviews. White Fang (Dungeon 20), Scepter of the Underworld (Dungeon 12),  and The Djinni's Ring (Dungeon 9) appear to be solo (not one-on-one) adventures. Tenfootpole.org doesn't really do much review for the last three, leading me to suspect they're really choose-your-own-adventures. But, not 100% sure, I'd have to take a closer look.

Sine Nomine also kickstarted an OSR one-on-one game itself: Scarlet Heroes! But I haven't picked up a copy to see if it does more than their Black Streams: Solo Heroes stuff. It looks like it might, but its also tied up with their Red Tide setting.