Monday, February 23, 2015

Reflections on Running 13th Age Online

I've learned a bit from running 13th Age. This is a bit of a grab-bag summary, but I wanted to write up some thoughts while they're fresh(er) in my brainpan.

You can do a lot with minimal prep. I ran a couple 13th Age modules/adventures, the first from the basic book and I steamrolled my players through good portions of Crown of the Lich King (a 13th Age organized play adventure). Now, the Crown stuff was a bit odd in that the thing was organized into 2 hour play chunks, and I totally skipped one completely, but it all worked out fairly well. A few skeletons of encounters, with notes on how many creatures and which creatures to shove at the players worked wonders, and the simple stat-block format of the monsters really helped that. When I was running 4e, I could actually construct or modify the next encounter from the printouts I had during the downtime in players' turns, but this was a bit nicer.

I could have prepped a bit more. There were some things I should have expected to happen, and prepped those. Magic items are one example. When the modules recommended magic items, they also recommended rolling relationship dice and whoever gets the highest roll gets an item, or whichever icon comes up highest per player gets an appropriate item. With only 6 icons in play between the 2 players, it would have been easy to decide in advance 1-2 items for each icon, and to have the text ready to give to the players.

Montage scenes can be good ways to speed a few things up. I recall doing this explicitly with some Fading Suns games long ago (even describing the star-wipes), but a montage scene can be a good way to help keep the players involved and also move past some parts that could be a bit cumbersome. Obviously more important in story-based games. When I plowed through the last 3-4 portions of Crown on Sunday, we hit the montage button a couple times though, and it definitely got to be a bit much. So a montage once in a while seems reasonable to me, but not every game. Despite the fact that the collaborative montages came out of the Crown adventure, they seemed like they could have been in the 13th Age main book. Ultimately I did end up doing a bit of montaging (there were some odd trap sections of Crown that I'm not sure I understood) with dice rolls, and that worked out fine. It made the montage a bit less focused on heroic awesomeness, but I got the sense the the PCs were spending resources based on how they handled obstacles.

Tell your players the numbers they need. If players are rolling dice, why hide the difficulty? I think this goes hand-in-hand with not require superfluous rolls. But towards the end of my 13th Age time, I realized it was just easier to tell people what they need to hit. I think this notion mostly came out of my last session where I found myself spilling the beans on the DCs more. Even if its general "Nothing under a 18 will hit these guys" or whatnot. And for skill checks too. I tried to follow some of the difficulties recommended in the books/adventures, but if they need a 20 or even 25 to succeed, why not tell them? I think it gives a bit more suspense to the roll. Fail forward can really help here. Telling the player the difficulty of an action also lets them judge for their character how difficult an action is going to be. That said, if you don't want players to know how well they did, make the roll for them or just use an average roll (like the "passive" perception of later edition D&D).

For the love of all that's holy, make rolls important (or at least not trivial). If the players are willing to spend a resource on overcoming an obstacle, they probably don't need to make rolls. I let the PCs scale a cliff and bypass some crazy undead magic obelisks because the sorcerer said he'd just use a flight spell to get himself plus a rope up. No need to make the pretty athletic thief roll a DC 5 or even 15 check to climb that rope. No dramatic tension, resource already expended, no real need for a roll. I'da probably asked for a roll if they were tossing the rope up just to see if they ended up taking a little damage (or, more likely, losing a recovery) if their gamble didn't work out. But all sorts of knowledge rolls or perception checks... generally unneeded. Also, don't let the PCs re-try things too many times. You failed the check to figure out how to open the secret door, you're going to need things to dramatically change (or maybe come at it with another skill) before you get another roll. But I also know that because there were multiple routes: the PCs didn't need to get that secret door open in order to make progress.

13th Age style backgrounds rock. I really like the notion that you should put a few skills into sentence form. One idea I'm floating for a 5e game is that simply for each skill you have, you need to put it into a sentence form to solidify how your character acquired the skill and what it really means. That's a bit of a different middle-ground, but I think I might really like that. A couple times it wasn't always clear why a players' background should have benefited a roll, but I think I only disallowed a couple. I could have put some more pressure on the players to be creative though: "What crimes did you commit as Heir to the Prince of Shadows that were similar to sneaking into a Lich Baron's house?" Or: "How did your blue dragon tutor teach you about necromantic magic?"

Online tabletops are odd. Roll20 worked fairly well, we didn't have too many audio problems after the second and third sessions. If I'm going to keep doing that I'd like to figure out some of the bells and whistles to get creatures into the system easier, and organize my play spaces. But overall it worked better than I had expected. I can imagine doing some other games with it, though because all you have to work with are the little map and tiny head-shots of the players, I think it might be a bit more suited to actually using gridded combat. The abstract distances were occasionally a bit hard to judge when we do have all the little tokens on the board. But, it wasn't a real problem.

Story games can be fun despite the railroad. I didn't feel like I necessarily left my players a lot of choices, but because I was adapting some of what I did to what they were doing, I think they got the impression that their choices mattered. Obviously I was going to use the Crown adventure regardless of which deceased icon they were trying to steal/resurrect, so it wasn't hard to reskin it for the Leviathon instead of the White [dragon]. I even reskinned the Lich King's vaults as Baron Voth's mansion because I didn't take enough notes and that's where the players thought they were going. No problem though. I think this is a real difference between story games and old-school sandbox games: in one the players choices are a bit illusory and the journey is more important. In the other, the players choices matter, but there's so much to explore its often quite moot.

Take notes. I liked starting each session off with a recap, rolling relationship dice, and having a few notes on things to try to add in (even if I didn't really get around to adding in graffiti much or describing lots of non-visual sensory info). But, damn, having a couple weeks (or months!) between sessions means I should have kept better notes. Notes of all the items I gave out, where players were going and why... All would have been useful. Reminds me a bit, however, of the journals I tried to have players do for an old Fading Suns game. We didn't keep those reliably, but its cool to go back and look through what we did do. And I think they did help keep people more aware of what had happened before and what their plans were for their characters.

Non-tactical combats are fairly fast. While I actually did enjoy the tactical combats of 4e (best part of the system, right?) they did start to grind on. Most 13th Age combats were pretty quick (though it was only 2-3 players). 5e combats can be similarly quick. I wonder about higher-level 13th age combats though. The virual dice took us a while to get used to, but they mathed everything out for us and it didn't take a minute for someone to collect enough dice, shake them an unreasonably long time, then roll and count. And you still got to see the dice explode on the virtual tabletop (like 15d6 on an empowered critical hit). Add to that the 13th Age "articifial intelligence" of monsters (their tactics are largely based on dice rolls, so the DM choices are easy to make. So a smaller number of players, the electronic dice, and 13th Age monster tactics might have really helped speed up combat, but I don't think it was just that. Tracking conditions definitely slowed me down as I was using the table top too. But its a refreshing change of pace from some previous editions still. And even small/quick combats have a chance to go awry or eat up the players' resources.

I'm not sure if we'll get a chance to return to the 13th Age in the near future or not. Even if the guys and I can find a time for another game here and there, we might switch to something else. But its been a good experience, that's for sure. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Quests of Doom: When do I doom my players?

So, I kickstarted Quests of Doom (along with Fifth Edition Foes and whatever the spell book is titled). Just got the PDFs today for Quests of Doom (two books, part 1 and 2), but there's no little summary of which levels each adventure is for. You're welcome. I organized them by heading (and mixed up the two books), rather than party level or strict order in which they appear.

Bugs & Blobs
1-Noble Rot (5th - 8th Level)
1-Hidden Oasis - Temple of Thoth (7th - 9th Level)
2-Of Ants and Men (4th - 8th, 2-3 characters, maybe solo)

Demons & Devils
1-Ra's Evil Grin (11th Level or Higher)
1-Sorcerer's Citadel (9th Level or Higher, 5 characters)
2-The Pit of Despair (13th Level or Higher)

Giants & Dragons
1-The Dead from Above (6th - 8th Level, 4-6 characters)
1-Emeralds of Highfang (High level? Some rogues...)
2-Dread Dragon Temple (5th - 7th Level, 4-6 characters)

Lycanthropes & Elementals
1-Bad Moon Rising (4th - 6th)
1-Death in Dyrgalas (6th - 8th)
2-The Darkening of Namjan Forest (4th level, 6-8 characters)

Men & Monstrosities
1-Deep in the Vale (1st level - brand new characters)
1-Irtep's Dish (6-8, trap expert, healer, fighter, wizard)
2-Perils of Ghostwind Pass (5th to 7th Level, 4-6 characters)

Vampries & Liches
1-Pyramid of Amra (12th level or higher, Cleric, wizard/sorcerer, two front-line warriors)
1-Sewers fo Underguild (11th - 15th level)
2-The Isle of Eliphaz (14th Level or Higher)

I have to say, on first pass I'm a little disappointed with this element of the kickstarter. First, I was one of the voices asking for an adventure for a smaller party. Often I might be able to do a game with 1-3 players, but getting a lot can be rough. And playing with 7+ people in modern D&D can be really slow, so I would't take more than 6 if I could handle it. The adventure for small groups turns out in the part 2 book, which I feel like they wanted to do so just did anyway but I still payed extra for it and I think that the Pathfinder version is going to include all of the quests anyway. So ugh.

Second, the fact that I had to compile this little summary is, I think, indicative of some of the old school sensibilities which should have been updated. The modern math of the game (and even some older-school math) means that there's a big gap between four 6th level characters and six 8th level characters. I'm not sure that we're getting good guidelines on when to use these adventures. Many don't specify a number of party members at all. If my summary above is unclear or inadequate, its because the adventures we're presented with are unclear. This is a bit of the "first edition feel" that I dislike. Give me a range and some ideas on making some encounters tougher or easier, but give me something. Also in table-form for easy perusal is nice: hiding things in needless paragraphs is needlessly old-school. It would have been super easy (and clear!) to have a sub-heading saying "for 4-6 PCs of 6th-8th level" or whatnot under each adventure title. Missed opportunity.

Third, a lot of these are for higher-level PCs. About 1/3 are for what I'd call "high level", about 10+. There's only one for beginning PCs, and none for PCs at second or third level (though the quest for level 1 pcs might take people to level two or even three).  It feels again like a little missed opportunity to have enough adventures of the right levels to easily use this book (these books, I guess) to actually progress through levels smoothly.

On the plus side, at first skim, these look sufficiently old-school and also good. I can imagine running one or more of these (hopefully I will, for what I paid). I just gave in and got Caverns of Thracia and Dark Tower, and they look like they might fit in with this collection. So, some good looking stuff, but I'm a little disappointed about the implementation.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

5e: Making Ability scores useful

One of my current beefs with 5e (alongside other versions of D&D) is that sometimes your ability scores just aren't useful. Sure, in 5e there are now strength, intelligence, and charisma saving throws, but they're pretty rare. There's nary a benefit for a barbarian with high charisma or intelligence. A few class options try to give a bonus for these scores (Fighter and Thief have spellcasting options), but ultimately its a bit dissatisfying to try to make an intelligent tactician fighter.

First, constitution and dexterity are already probably good and don't need a boost. Constitution already affects your hit points, concentration (for spellcasters), and a number of other saves. Dexterity already affects your initiative and AC. Likewise, it probably doesn't need a boost. Alongside constitution, I've never really seen an optimization guide for 5e that suggests dumping either dex or con. These are so good you never want a penalty.

Wisdom affects a good number of saves as well, and they're powerful ones. I'm not 100% sure this needs much of a boost either, but perhaps a minor boost wouldn't be bad. The appropriate boost is tools and modern languages. Tools and languages represent your livlihood and that seems right up the alley of a wisdom-based character, though the DM or group should get veto-power here. These aren't ancient languages that you studied at school: they are modern languages you picked up because they were useful to you, or another professional tool because it was a way to earn a living or even just as entertainment (i.e. a musical instrument). Its a relatively minor boost, though I'm not sure if it does much to help a barbarian who takes wisdom.

Strength affects your carrying capacity and some ability to wear the heaviest of armors. I think if 5e used a stone-based encumbrance system and people actually tracked equipment, that would come into play. I'm thinking of simply writing any object of merit (i.e. 1+ stone) on an index card. If an item weighs two or more stone, just staple a couple cards together.  The idea is to use a real-world unit of weight (or approximate) so you're tracking encumbrance in meaningful and small units. So maybe strength doesn't need a boost if it is actually used for tracking carrying capacity.

Finally we come to the weak stats: intelligence and charisma. There's two pretty easy fixes here.

For intelligence, back in the day it gave you additional languages or proficiencies or skills. Additional skills would be too much. But additional languages or tool proficiencies actually doesn't quite seem like enough (also, I've very tempted to let those fall under wisdom, see above.). What I'm considering is lore specialties for intelligence.  What's a lore specialty? back in one of the playtest packets, characters only had lores, not skills. So a lore would be something like a very specialized sub-skill of the player's choice, which counts as an expertise skill (i.e. double proficiency bonus). For fighters, they might select a lore like Heraldry, History of their Noble House, Engineering, or Tactics. Wizards might have a lore for Abjuration spells, Devils of the Nine Hells, or Beholder knowledge. An urchin might have a lore like: Streets of Waterdeep or the like. The idea is these are super specialized skills based on knowledge. They're much more specialized than History or Arcana, so if your lore applies then you get the double bonus. DMs should feel free to say a lore doesn't apply: often they might not. But the lore would represent a specific bonus over a trained skill (you can even know a lot about your family lineage without knowing much about events your ancestors didn't take part in, i.e. History). I imagine one lore per point of intelligence modifer would be appropriate, and at least make a tactical fighter a slightly more viable character. I'd even consider giving advantage for characters with the right lore on other situations (or maybe just claiming an inspiration so as to not be constantly handing out advantage).

For charisma, back in the day you got hirelings and henchmen. Its a simple thing to let your hirelings gain a bonus to moral checks based on your charisma modifier, but that's not going to come into play without moral checks or hirelings. But these are reasonable, so why not let each point of your charisma modifier at least grant you some sort of contacts, allies, or henchmen? Henchmen would obviously be the best as they might accompany you to a dungeon and at least guard the horses while you're inside. I'm tempted to say one henchmen is as useful as two allies (loyal but might ask for a favor occasionally) or four contacts (also loyal, but mostly good for info rather than tasks).

The one odd thing about these changes is that warlocks and sorcerers would automatically be good at leading troops into battle. That just might be a quirk of the system: charisma has been somewhat redefined over the years.

There's another issue here, that you can have a negative modifier. The symmetrical math of third edition and later rather assumes heroic characters and that your lowest ability score might be an 8. You could assign appropriate penalties as well: some sort of anti-lore for intelligence or a penalty to others' followers for charisma (they really don't like their leader keeping that cad around!). The issue with this is that the basic spread of abilities (15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8) also assumes you'll have one low ability. I like that assumption, but if the penalty is too great you're really hampering your group. I'm sure the low penalty for intelligence and charisma is why so many optimization guides consistently recommend that you can take that 8 in one or both of these stats. I think the negative correlate of henchmen are rivals or enemies. The negative correlate of a tool or language can be the loss of a tool/language. In the core rules, background gives you two of those, so you could lose out on one or both if your wisdom is dangerously low. I'm not sure about an anti-lore though. I guess its likely to be incorrect knowledge.

To sum up, the changes I'd propose here are:
1) Use a stone-based encumbrance system to make a low strength meaningful.
2) Each point of intelligence modifier gives the character a lore.
3) Each point of wisdom modifier gives the character a background-related language or tool.
4) Each point of charisma modifier gives a henchman, two allies, or four contacts.

The negatives still could be worked out. A couple alternatives I was thinking of though are more GUMSHOE style, where int or cha mods could just be spent each level for autosuccesses on a roll of some sort. Maybe not that glamourous, but it'd get you what you need in a different way. Much more story/indie game though.

In an old school game, I like the idea in Swords and Wizardry that wisdom can give you an XP bonus, and the additional proficiencies/languages of 2nd edition seems to make intelligence more worthwhile. Then again,  ability scores mean less in TSR D&D than the new era. Just seems like intelligence and charisma are a bit lacking in the new stuff.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

RPG Resources for an Arabian Nights Game: Al-Qadim and Beyond

It must have been around 1993 when I got the Al-Qadim book for AD&D. Its loomed in the back of my mind as something I've yearned to try since then: I made a crappy attempt or two in highschool, and was able to vaguely use it as a setting for some SaturD&D when I lived with the Antagonizer, but I never got to actually run any of its grand boxed sets.

Still, I kinda yearn for that and now that I basically live here I feel like I should give an Arabian Adventure its fare shake. Plus, I've actually almost completed my Al-Qadim collection (just have to re-purchase one boxed set that I got which did not have the maps in it). There's a lot of inspiration to go on though. This is an in-progress list with uneven annotations and formatting, but it might be useful to others as well, however imperfect. I'll update it as I form stronger opinions or if I miss anything.

Official D&D

d20/Pathfinder Supplements

  • Dunes of Desolation. Frog God Games. Pathfinder supplement. Covers some different types of deserts as well. 
  • Endless Sands. Avalanche Press. d20 supplement.
  • Southlands. Kobold Press. A pathfinder supplement for the Midgaard campaign setting. I kickstarted this but haven't gotten a chance to really look yet.
  • Legacy of Fire. Pathfinder adventure path. I keep thinking about picking this one up, but I never do.

Historical Settings/Games

These are all adaptations to a real-world medieval Arab setting. As such, they're all actually pretty decent for the background info. The rules are all different, but they're useful for inspiration. The Caliphate Nights one is particularly good.
  • Tales of the Caliphate Nights. True 20. Real-world based. This is really an excellent supplement, but I'm a bit more into the fantastic rather than the real-world. Still, great inspiration.
  • Gurps Arabian Nights. Real-world based.
  • Rolemaster Arabian Nights. Real-world based.
  • Nights of the Crusade. A self-contained, ENie & Origins nominated, RPG. Real-world based story game.

Indie Games

There's a number of 1001 nights inspired indie storytelling games. They're here:


Not required, but certainly helpful for many people. I've been picking up some when I can find them. Unfortunately, non-western minis can be difficult to come by [Edit: easier when you try a few different search terms, see below.]. If you've got a bit of cash to spend, the Reaper ones are good and you have a few options for PCs. Genies aren't hard to find either. But if you want camels (dromedary, not bactrian), river crocodiles and hippos, less pirate-y corsairs, and appropriate monsters (yak-men anyone?) you have to look around a bit. There's a good variety of human warriors for various war games though, so less-heroic fighters are relatively simple to find, even mounted ones.
  • Legend of the Sands. Reaper makes a fair number of Arabian themed minis, and this is a good collected set. Reaper is generally top tier.
  • There was a company called megaminis that made a good little variety of Arabian minis, though they are smaller scale (25mm?) than is the fashion these days (28+mm). I'm not sure the sculpt quality was up to today's standards (more like the 90s minis) but they're eminently useable.
  • As always, the second hand market for D&D minis and pathfinder ones is invaluable, but its best to keep up semi-regularly (once a year or so) to get them while they're reasonably priced. Some of the D&D minis from 10 years ago are ridiculously expensive for what they are. Then again, for less than $2 you can pick and choose, and a lot of the monsters are even appropriate for the setting. I've had good luck ordering singles from a bunch of different places. Sometimes you can shop for the best price, but with shipping its usually just easier to order from one pace.
  • I'm not sure how Hero Forge stacks up yet, but its likely you can build some decent options.
  • Shieldwolf Minis has a few "Araves" which are obviously Arabian-themed minis. 4 Genies plus a few heros and a Roc monster. They currently have a kickstarter where you can pick them up for a bit cheaper. These look pretty good, but I haven't ordered any yet. Possibly on-par with Reaper.
  • Perry Miniatures has some Muslim Crusaders which looks like it has a couple worthwhile minis. Specifically Muslim Civilians and Emir's Court. Worth a look but I haven't spent for them.
  • Black Tree Design has a number of saracens and warriors of Islam, including flying carpets and camel riders. 
  • There's also a set of saracens for Hell Dorado. They seem on the pricier side.
  • Harwood Hobbies has a Sinbad line. 
  • Steve Barber has some in a 25mm Arabian line, they look on-par with the now-defunct MegaMinis.
  • West Wind has some "The Mummy" figures. A few of the less 1920s looking one have guns though.
  • Artizan has a number of dark ages moors.
  • Gripping Beast likewise has moors.
  • Monolith's Conan board game will have a Stygia expansion that could have some good minis.
I guess the message is don't be afraid to use those old timey racist-sounding orientalist terms in your search. Also, there's a lot of miniatures out there for war games that could easily be repurposed for RPGs as long as you want a bunch of similar-looking men with spears.

Arabian Nights Texts:

The absolute best and most readable translations of the Nights are The Arabian Nights by Hussain Haddawy. And there's even a kindle edition. I don't think it matters which edition you pick up as long as he's the translator though. His Arabian Nights only covers some of the oldest portions, but he's also got a companion volume with Sindbad, Ali Baba, and Aladdin (no Kindle version yet though, so I haven't read it).  This isn't a victorian translation, but modern and readable. It looks like these are republished versions of the 1990s editions, so I doubt you'll miss much by getting an older, used copy.

RPG things I haven't looked at yet:

[Updated: Added a bunch of minis and formatting. 7March2015: And also notes on the actual Nights stories themselves.]

Friday, February 13, 2015

Morale and the Old School Magic-User

Since I've been reading up on some old school AD&D lately (and perhaps reading the first edition DMG for the first time?!?) I've noticed that the morale system (which I like) interacts oddly with magic use.

Basically, magic use has a couple ways to force morale checks, sometimes at a penalty. Using 2nd edition morale, the goblins fighting the party will have a -2 penalty to their morale if the PCs have an obvious magic user and the goblins do not. Furthermore, if "an ally is slain by magic" that forces a morale check. Given that morale rolls are done by adding 2d10, that -2 penalty adds up. Furthermore, each time an ally is slain by magic that could force a morale check.

That gives a bit of a different perspective on the low-level mage: that magic missile spell not only will automatically hit the kobold, but has a reasonable chance to scare the group off it it kills it. If it doesn't kill the kobold, the magic user can still attempt to force morale checks again by offering a chance to surrender. If you can kill the leader with magic, so much the better.

This might seem like min-maxing the morale rules, and maybe it is. But its a very different take from later editions, where wizards suddenly have a small pool of cantrips it not outright at-will spells they can constantly blast. And now 5e where every single class can select an option to get spells of some sort, even if only in a very limited way.

[Edit: I should note that the D&D Rules Cyclopedia isn't quite as generous as AD&D 2nd, but the magic effects on morale are there. First edition is such a mess I'm either not seeing magic effecting morale, or its not there. Hard to tell with that DMG.]

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Cleric, but not a priest

In the D&D 5e game I'm currently playing in (that may or may not be winding down as the DM may be leaving the country in the near future), I'm playing a gnome trickster cleric, but I'm not a priest. This has caused mostly consternation for the other players and DM.

The other folks in the group don't seem to understand the concept. Which I get, but it's not how 5e classes are set up anymore. I don't have the religion skill. I don't lead mass. I don't administrate for a temple. I don't read the oracles and omens. I don't even wander and spread the good news of Garl Glittergold. I just happen to have access to his powers.

So the DM thinks I'm just dicking around a bit, I think, and causing a bit of trouble. But really he didn't ask for much background info and I thought I had explained myself: I was a troubled youth who found solace in Garl and then was chosen by him to wield his powers for some inscrutable reason. Yeah, its a 4e Invoker or Pathfinder Oracle. I'd run him as a prophet if the DM had let me. Alas.

So, woe is me and all. But this is an issue. 5e has tried to divorce classes from background and skill and not entirely succeeded. How can you be a wizard (intelligence-based caster) and not have any Arcane knowledge? I'm not sure about that one. You can do a cleric as a prophet or oracle, chosen by the got but not part of the hierarchy of worship and avoid taking religion knowledge. You can't quite do a bard without music, as the bard is trained in 3 instruments. I see a lot of wandering monks who seem to know nothing about their temples/history/religion. A fighter really should have some background knowledge about fighting and military orders, but that leaves out the hometown hero who should mostly have local knowledge.

Regardless, this is why I really am liking the 13th Age style backgrounds-as-skills a bit more. I think they're a bit story-focused and gonzo for some games. Or can be, maybe giving people examples or example sentences to fill in would be good: "I was trained as a pewterer by my father, but abandoned the trade because of my wanderlust."

The old AD&D secondary skills are somewhat similar. Granted, the DM decides when they apply and there's probably little principled rolling, but you just assume people can do the relevant things and they run into problems the few times they wouldn't know something. I was looking at the old Proficiencies of AD&D 2nd as well, and I think one of the flaws with them (and 3.5/Pathfinder) is you're not required to take a proficiency/skill that would actually reflect your background. It might lead to a lot of wandering healers (trained by their parents), mapmakers, blacksmiths/armorers or the like, but a lot of the crazy system abuse comes when people ignore character backstory and pick all the good options. Its a simple thing to switch things so the backstory (or some element of it) is real and meaningful.

Which brings us back to the cleric who isn't a priest. Its an odd thing back in the era of AD&D. Becomes more plausible in 3.5 or 4e, where specific classes (favored soul, invoker, oracle) exist to handle the cleric-but-not-priest type of prophet or divine champion. Even roles like inquisitor-priests and the like end up being folded into their own classes (and increasingly the Paladin, it seems). But the plain old cleric is still shoehorned into the priest role. Which is a shame, then, in 5e because the only reasonable backgrounds are mostly Acolyte. Sure, you could be a convict or a sailor or a noble who joined the church, but then you're still a priest, no?

In my dreams of a AD&D 2nd game, I'm contemplating using the Spells and Magic rules to bust cleric into two sub-classes: hierarchy priests who use ritual prayer, and free priests who use conditional magic. Which would give the actual priests distinct magic from the prophets and mystics. But would anyone care about the distinction besides me?

Its hard to get through stereotypes, I suppose.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Back to the 13th Age

Back to running 13th Age online for a few of my oldest Bros. This time I opted to try one of the modules for organized play that seemed like it would fit where we are in the story. Without too much fiddling, it seemed to work. But there's an odd aspect to it that I didn't realize at first: the 13th Age adventure suggested making it very indie by having the players constantly suggest what they expected.

Now, I decided to go along with this, even though its not quite what I think of as my 'style'. Though I didn't really let go and run with it right away. Also the players maybe weren't aware of what I was vaguely hinting at in the beginning, but I tried to run with their choices. Then we got into the dungeon. The adventure suggests just doing a montage over most of the exploration to get right to the encounters. I kinda see the point there. It feels very 4th edition to me though. But I can also attest to how trying to visualize a poorly defined map and many branching passageways can lead to a whole lot of no fun. So, whatever, I figured I might give this hokey technique a shot.

I kinda liked it. Playing online, the players can't see me smiling as they suggest what sort of troubles they had on in the dungeon and then suggest how they overcame them. And after re-reading some of the examples in the module I had to throw one of my own in to raise the gonzo stakes a bit. But I kinda enjoyed it.

I'm not sure I'd like to do that all the time, or as much as they kinda suggest in this adventure. Maybe the others don't involve quite as much: I'll have to skim another one or two in a bit. I did like it as a quick way to get back to the action. Though the combats didn't challenge the PCs much, in part because the second one was just a big ambush and the PCs can both deal some pretty serious damage.

Another issue with this collaborative montage is in TSR D&D, part of the point of travel was to wear down the party's resources a bit. The montage didn't really do that. Maybe I could have asked for a skill check or something to see how well they fared. Swinging across a pit, or topping a column into a stream were fairly easy ways across the obstacles, but a failed check could have still cost a recovery or dealt a little damage. Or even expended a spell or power. Fail forward and all. Though that wouldn't showcase the party's awesomeness, which is what the adventure suggested the montage would/should do...

As I keep thinking about an Al-Qadim game I'd like to run, I'm wondering how I could incorporate some more collaborative world- and story-building into it. I want to run it a bit as an old-school style: here's the world, you explore it and carve out your new kingdom. But maybe I could (in the hypothetical world where I run it) let the players help define their backstories more. Their families, their home villages, their temples, or their sorcerous masters. That's not too hard. Maybe they can also suggest some ideas for the types of adventures they might go on. And maybe I could get the action moving now and then with a good collaborative montage scene.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

...In the details.

Every once in a while I come across some idea that I want to remember to add into my games on occasion. So I'm going to add just a tiny list here and maybe it'll grow.

  1. Graffiti. I wrote about this before, but it is worth keeping in mind. It signals that you're not the first one there. It may be useful (warnings about what is ahead, arrows pointing towards an exit) or useless (Thomas was here). It's likely to be mundane or even vulgar.
  2. Inscriptions. Same as graffiti, but higher in register. Kings pay for tombs and towers and bridges and there's no reason they won't try to get it known as their bridge or wouldn't leave a record of who built it, when, and why.
  3. Occupations. If we're playing in a pseudo-medieval setting, most characters ought to have a pretty specialized occupation they know. Maybe they didn't follow in mom or dad's footsteps, but they probably know how to make a pewter mug or plate. And only a pewterer would know that shit. 2nd Edition DMG Table 60: NPC professions is a gold mine for odd little artisan backgrounds. Obviously country farmers may have a broader set of skills, but city folk are likely a bit specialized.
  4. News travels by word of mouth. Travelers are a great source of information. In a world where news travels at the speed of merchants and horses or ships, it should not at all be uncommon for an innkeeper to ask about the news on the road. In the same way the PCs should be able to ask about the town. Wizards with sending spells are hugely valuable to any large government or group.
  5. Wandering monsters. There's a few reasons to use random encounters (somewhat synonymous with wandering monsters), and one is to keep the action going. Sure it may seem like you're slowing things down with another combat, but even if the PCs are hiding in a dungeon room, the locked doors may draw the attention of a wanderer. And if its the right kind, one group of goblins can bring all hell down (or at least the rest of the goblins) on the PCs. Just make them reasonable: goblins patrol their encampment or just get drunk and need a piss (or a fuck?).

Sunday, February 1, 2015

D&D 5e: Combat & Tactics inspired weapon properties

Here's a little draft of what I was thinking of in my previous post.  I've just taken the combat stuff from the basic rules and added in a few bits in red. The formatting is pretty janky, but eff that. You can see the basics, despite any typos.

I'm calling this System I, the most complex system of properties. System I uses the most weapon properties, including a number of +1 bonuses or penalties. It is more detailed than the simpler system II or basic system, but may be less efficient in play. The DM must broadly describe the physical appearance of humanoid opponents so players know when they can apply these bonuses or penalties. These minor bonuses or penalties may make some weapons more or less desirable in certain situations, so a well-armed warrior will want to switch weapons based on his opponents. Given this, the DM should have few qualms about sundering equipment, and the mending cantrip may see much more use. If mending cannot fix a magic weapon, you may rule that a magic weapon can only be sundered by a more powerful magic weapon (i.e. a rare +2 could sunder an uncommon +1), choose a different piece of equipment to sunder (reducing the effectiveness of non-magic armor or damaging a backpack) or rule an item which ought to be sundered–but cannot be–is instead disarmed. Or some other alternate effect.

Name                          Cost           Damage                                    Weight      Properties
Simple Melee Weapons
Club                             1 sp            1d4 bludgeoning                       2 lb.           Light
Dagger                        2 gp           1d4 piercing                             1 lb.           Close-quarters, finesse, focus (Arcane), light, thrown (range 20/60), quick
Parrying Dagger      5gp           1d4 piercing                         1 lb.          Close-quarters, finesse, light, defensive, quick
Greatclub                    2 sp            1d8 bludgeoning                       10 lb.         Two-handed
Handaxe                      5 gp           1d6 slashing                              2 lb.           Light, thrown (range 20/60)
Javelin                         5 sp            1d6 piercing                             2 lb.           Close-quarters, thrown (range 30/120)
Light hammer            2 gp           1d4 bludgeoning                       2 lb.           Light, thrown (range 20/60)
Mace                           5 gp           1d6 bludgeoning                       4 lb.           Armor-piercing (medium)
Quarterstaff                2 sp            1d6 bludgeoning                       4 lb.           Focus (Arcane, Druidic), ineffective (heavy), versatile (1d8)
Sap                              1 sp          1d6 bludgeoning                  1 lb.          Finesse, light, subduing
Sickle                          1 gp           1d4 slashing                              2 lb.           Focus (Druidic), Light
Spear                           1 gp           1d6 piercing                             3 lb.           Close-quarters, set-for-charge, thrown (range 20/60), versatile (1d8)
Unarmed strike                        1 bludgeoning                                        

Simple Ranged Weapons
Crossbow, light           25 gp         1d8 piercing                             5 lb.           Ammunition (range 80/320), loading, two-handed
Dart                             5 cp           1d4 piercing                             1/4 lb.       Finesse, thrown (range 20/60)
Shortbow                    25 gp         1d6 piercing                             2 lb.           Ammunition (range 80/320), two-handed
Sling                            1 sp            1d4 bludgeoning                                     Ammunition (range 30/120)

Martial Melee Weapons
Battleaxe                    10 gp         1d8 slashing                              4 lb.           Sundering, versatile (1d10)
Estoc                          30 gp        1d8 piercing                         3 lb.          Close-quarters, finesse, armor-piercing (heavy, medium)
Flail                             10 gp         1d8 bludgeoning                       2 lb.           Disarming, tripping, wrap-around
Guisarme                  20 gp        1d8 piercing                         6 lb.          Close-quarters, heavy, reach, set-for-charge, tripping, two-handed
Glaive                          20 gp         1d10 slashing                            6 lb.           Heavy, reach, set-for-charge, two-handed
Greataxe                     30 gp         1d12 slashing                            7 lb.           Heavy, sundering, two-handed
Greatsword                 50 gp         2d6 slashing                              6 lb.           Armor-piercing (heavy, medium), heavy, two-handed
Halberd                       20 gp         1d10 slashing or piercing     6 lb.           Armor-piercing (heavy, medium), heavy, reach, set-for-charge, two-handed
Lance                          10 gp         1d12 piercing                           6 lb.           Reach, special
Longsword                  15 gp         1d8 slashing or piercing       3 lb.           Versatile (1d10)
Maul                            10 gp         2d6 bludgeoning                       10 lb.         Heavy, two-handed
Morningstar                15 gp         1d8 piercing                             4 lb.           Armor-piercing (heavy)
Pike                             5 gp           1d10 piercing                           18 lb.         Close-quarters, heavy, reach, set-for-charge, two-handed
Rapier                         25 gp         1d8 piercing                             2 lb.           Close-quarters, finesse, ineffective (heavy)
Ranseur                     X gp          1d8 piercing                         10 lb.        Close-quarters, defensive, heavy, reach, set-for-charge, two-handed
Scimitar                      25 gp         1d6 slashing                              3 lb.           Finesse, light
Scourge                     5 gp          1d6 slashing                          2 lb.          Disarming, finesse, ineffective (heavy, medium), wrap-around
Shortsword                 10 gp         1d6 piercing                             2 lb.           Close-quarters, finesse, light
Trident                        5 gp           1d6 piercing                             4 lb.           Close-quarters, thrown (range 20/60), versatile (1d8)
War pick                     5 gp           1d8 piercing                             2 lb.           Armor-piercing (heavy)
Warhammer               15 gp         1d8 bludgeoning                       2 lb.           Versatile (1d10)
Whip                            2 gp           1d4 slashing                              3 lb.           Disarming, ineffective (heavy, medium), finesse, reach, tripping, wrap-around

Martial Ranged Weapons
Blowgun                      10 gp         1 piercing                                 1 lb.           Ammunition (range 25/100), ineffective (heavy, medium), loading
Crossbow, hand          75 gp         1d6 piercing                             3 lb.           Ammunition (range 30/120), light, loading
Crossbow, heavy        50 gp         1d10 piercing                           18 lb.         Ammunition (range 100/400), armor-piercing (heavy), heavy, loading, two-handed
Longbow                     50 gp         1d8 piercing                             2 lb.           Ammunition (range 150/600), heavy, two-handed
Net                              1 gp                                                         3 lb.           special, thrown (range 5/15)

New Properties:
Armor-piercing. This weapon provides a +1 bonus to hit opponents wearing the apropriate class of armor (heavy, medium, or light).

Close-quarters. This weapon can be used without penalty in tight spaces, underwater, or in close formation.

Defensive. This weapon provides a +1 bonus to your armor class as though it were a shield when it is wielded in your off hand (or two-handed). You can benefit from only one defensive weapon at a time, and cannot combine this bonus with a shield.

Disarming. This weapon provides a +1 bonus to rolls to disarm an opponent. Additionally, when you score a critical hit you may disarm your opponent in lieu of doing additional damage.

Focus. This weapon can be used as a focus for appropriate spellcasters (Arcane, Divine, Druidic).

Ineffective. This weapon has a -1 penalty to hit opponents wearing the appropriate class of armor (heavy, medium, or light).

Quick. When you are being grappled or a larger opponent otherwise moves into your space, you may use your reaction to make a free attack.

Set-for-charge. When you ready this weapon for an attack and an opponent moves at least 10 feet to within your reach, your readied attack is considered a critical hit if it hits.

Subduing. When you attack to subdue with this weapon, you knock the target out if they are reduced to less than two hit points for each of your levels (i.e. 6 hit points or less when you are level 3).

Sundering. This weapon provides a +1 bonus to rolls to break an opponents weapon or shield. On a critical hit, in lieu of dealing additional damage you may destroy an opponents shield.

Tripping. This weapon provides a +1 bonus to rolls to push an opponent, but only when pushing them prone. Additionally, when you score a critical hit you may push a two-legged opponent prone in lieu of doing additional damage.

Wrap-around. This weapon provides a +1 bonus to hit opponents using shields or behind cover.

So what about that System II? You get it by removing armor-piercing, ineffective, and wrap-around. System II abandons a few of the options that might drag down play in system I, notably the minor bonuses or penalties of weapon vs armor type. This should result in a slightly more detailed game than the basic rules, but may make weapon choice still a bit more exciting.

I'm still looking at a few of the consequences of this system. For example, you may see the Longsword now can also do piercing damage (but doesn't get the close-quarters property). This is because the otherwise identical axe now gets sundering. So its still a bit of an exercise in grid-filling and doing what you can to distinguish each weapon here. There's probably a couple other oddities that I didn't notice yet and probably should fix, but this is quite worked out compared to the previous musings. But the basic rules have this too: no point in choosing a sickle when you could have a hand-axe. Which made me think maybe a couple weapons could have the Arcane Focus, Divine Focus, or Druidic/Primal focus too, meaning a druid just might pick a sickle as a weapon. Its not much, but that's pretty much why the sickle is an option, no? So make it explicit in a few places. But there's probably a few more weapon pairs that could be distinguished a bit more.