Sunday, June 21, 2015

Vision and Light in Basic and Advanced D&D

After thinking about light in 5th edition, I went back a bit to see how earlier editions handled light. The results are a bit more varied than I expected. I'm primarily referencing the first and second edition AD&D books and Rules Cyclopedia for basic D&D here. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that things were different in other versions.

First off, what's immediately apparent is how much second edition really did organize things fairly well. First edition scatters things about and the Rules Cyclopedia was the worst for trying to find these things. Thank god for the digital version where I can actually search for all the terms you need (light, darnkess, blindness, infravision...). But second edition both the PHB and DMG have short chapters on vision and light, though you do need to reference both books to get the whole story.

Light Spell
The second noticeable thing is how the light spell itself differs. Clerics and wizards had different light spells. In AD&D, the cleric spell lasted 60 minutes + 10/level, while the wizard version only lasts 10min/level. That's a huge difference at low levels when torches really matter. In the Rules Cyclopedia, the cleric version just lasts a flat two hours while the wizard version is 60 minutes + 10min/level. So the wizard is eventually better at light than the cleric when the spell no longer matters much.  Interestingly, both the Rules Cyclopedia and second edition explicitly call out the ability to cast light on a creature's eyes to blind it, which is just implied in first edition AD&D.

Infravision (and Ultravision)
Most important are infravision and ultravision. These would later become darkvision and low-light vision in third edition and beyond, but back in the old days these were somewhat scientific. Infravision is sight in the infrared spectrum and largely heat-based. Ultravision (I'm not sure which creatures had it) was ultraviolet vision but apparently since only stars tend to give off this sort of light, it just means you can see outside at night fairly well. Apparently it didn't occur to Gary Gygax that Elves or Dwarves could have low-light vision just like dogs and cats. The first edition DMG makes it clear that there are, in fact, two types of infravision: 60' range and 90'+ range. The 90'+ range infravision is simply better. Generally restricted to underdark-only creatures, these creatures see their surroundings as though it were a bright, moon-lit night. With only 60' range, you see as though it were a dark night (with presumably some very dim light so you can make out rough shapes of your surroundings but few specifics).  The second edition AD&D books call out the meaning of infravision as option: you can do it as actual heat-vision or it just means you can see in the dark. Obviously this is where third edition ran with things. The Rules Cyclopedia mentions infravision as specifically heat-vision and explicitly calls out that it is hard to recognize individuals and also that reading is impossible. So fighting a bunch of goblins using only infravision is easy because you can tell what's a goblin and what isn't. Dwarves fighting Derro or Deurgar however... an interesting option.

So infravision is pretty clearly useful, it even penetrates normal darkness spells (i.e. reversed light, available only to clerics), but infravision has some clear limits. Not even mentioning that fire can spoil the use of infravision. It is obvious that, as originally written, infravision alone (at least the PC version of infravision for the basic races in the books) is not a primary method of dungeon exploration. Its a neat trick, but unless you're a party of Drow you still want other sources of light. And even creatures like enemy drow using infravision will be messed up by your torch. As far as I can tell, the drow archers 120' away should be able to target whoever is holding a light source but take a -4 attack penalty because they can't actually see the character. It isn't spelled out very clearly in the rules though.

It is also relatively interesting how some aspects of the game are written to be real-world accurate and others aren't. In a few descriptions of infravision, for example, you may be able to track some creatures by their warm footprints. Presumably only warm-blooded creatures (or otherwise warm creatures?) and I'd imagine that wearing shoes of any kind would largely make humanoids immune to this. Also, the light spell is described as emitting light, whereas the reverse, darkness, must somehow magically dampen light in the radius? You can imagine a more magic version of light where no shadows are cast. But if the light spell does cast shadows, that gives us leeway to interpret the rules like Torchbearer where a light source on the ground only casts dim light (dim light not really being a concept in these older rule sets).

Another aspect that's come up about darkness is when you can't see, you can't move very fast. Blinded characters or characters in darkness can only move at one-third their normal rate. I haven't seen this in later editions of the game, but I like it.

Third edition reclassified vision into a lot of little categories, but its actually delightfully clear on many things. Low light vision still requires some form of light, and you can read using it. Darkvision is black and white and requires no light source at all, but you don't get color. Its not clear if you can read while using darkvision, but I'd assume you can't given that low-light vision specifically calls out that you can. Though in the race description, dwarves are said to be able to function just fine with no light at all. Then there's blindsight (sonic and non-sonic) and blindsense and tremorsense, which are cool but its not clear how useful these are as in older editions I don't think anyone would have automatically assigned oozes or slimes attack penalties for being blind. Though up until now it never occurred to me to target an ooze with a blindness spell or "cast light at its eyes".

How do the retro clones do it? Swords & Wizardry, an original edition clone, just defines darkvision as the ability to see in darkness, so that's either what was originally there or the S&W simplification. Basic Fantasy likewise lists darkvision as the ability to see in the dark without color but also notes you can't use it when there is other light around. Lamentations of the Flame Princess seems to just ignore infravision alltogether. OSRIC, a first edition AD&D clone, lists it as the ability to see in the dark but that it is not a help with making detailed investigations, so even orcs will often carry torches in the darkness.

What can we take out of this all? 
Light spells are a bit kooky, and the priest was the best source of light early on. Infravision is a bit mixed, and it seems that the interpretation of this rule would have huge consequences for how light sources were tracked. At least in later D&D, infravision wasn't intended to eliminate the need for light sources, except possibly for underdark dwelling creatures. It seems like it was a neat bonus that dwarves and elves got which would let them function a little bit when the lights went out, primarily in combat. A nice magic trick, but not a primary sense. But this gets lost in 3rd edition and later when we shift to darkvision, probably because that's how people were beginning to play it in 2nd edition. Infravision as heat vision was just kinda weird and maybe hard for people to describe. So you either just pretend it means you can see in the dark in the rare cases you assume the PCs actually need to because who was really counting torches back in the day? Well, its possible your interpretation of infravision leads to one play style or another. The grittier play style (more resource management at least) is the one in which infravision or darkvision are that little trick, not a primary sense.

I think infravision made for a more nuanced game. There's certainly more tricks you could use against the PCs, like having them fight skeletons (difficult to see until they start moving) or enemies of similar shape and girth (human bandits rather than orcs or goblins). You could use fire to distract the drow archers and ruin their sight temporarily, and maybe track a few foes by their heat signatures or discover a couple clues because of the temperature. Its maybe not quite worth it all though.

But in 5e, we can bring that back by altering Darkvision a bit maybe:

Option A: Say it isn't that you don't see the world in black and white, but you see no color at all. Its hard to make out differences in people other than gross body shape differences, you just have a sense of where walls and objects are. Fine detail is lost, so maybe you can make out large carved letters but the texture of walls are lost and you clearly can't read anything.

Option B: consider "darkvision" to be more like low-light vision, and it doesn't function in absolute darkness. A single candle or a bit of glowing moss would allow all the dwarves to use their darkvision though.

Option C: By the book. You have disadvantage on perception checks while you're in dim light, and with infravision darkness is dim light for you. You could still force perception checks to have people discern allies from enemies in darkness, and there's plenty of traps or missed secret doors (or just missed writing on the wall) that can be used to teach a party not to rely on darkvision. Heck, you could take another line from Torchbearer and force wisdom saves to avoid being scared for being in a dimly lit dungeon for too long, or just have the natural hazards causing people to trip in dim light.

I could see either option A or B, but option A is a bit more in-line with the rules and doesn't require a dramatic change. Though interpreting dim light as in option C might be just as good. What's really lacking with these is the protection that torches provided from infravision: that torch was super noticeable, but so overwhelmingly bright to infravision that its the only thing that could be seen, and firey spells could possibly blind infravision users for a round. A few underdark races are susceptible to bright light though, so you could make those rulings just for those cases.

I also really like the idea of penalties for moving too fast while blinded, so I'd imagine a DC 12 dexterity save or dexterity (acrobatics) check to remain on your feet might be the way to go. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Light in 5e

Inspired by Torchbearer, I've thinking about light and vision. I got a copy in an old Bundle of Holding, though I was very tempted to pick up a hard copy last winter before I realized I had the pdf in the a bundle. It looks complex, and I can barely comprehend how all the different resources get managed. But, obviously, light is an important one.

But I'm wondering, particularly based on a conversation with the Antagonizer, how one might deal with light in your garden variety 5e. Obviously light spells in 2nd edition or earlier existed, and can similarly replace a torch (and Continual Light makes tracking torches somewhat obsolete), but 5e is a bit of a different beast.

First off, Torchbearer. In Torchbearer you might have candles, torches, and lanterns. A candle provides light for one person for four turns, a torch provides light for 2 people for 2 turns, and a lantern provides light for 3 people for 3 turns. Each light source provides dim light for a similar number of people, and the turn is an abstract unit most similar to an encounter. I like the idea. It gets light down to about the same abstract categories of Close-Quarters / Melee / Missile type ranges (I think I first encountered this in the old Dragonlance SAGA rules), so its pretty good for its level of granularity. If you set a light source down, it only provides dim light (and whoever would be in dim light while the light source is raised is now in darkness). Torches might be extinguished at the whim of the GM when they're dropped or set down. The system is relatively simple, and being in dim light provides a penalty to most rolls. This, by and large, seems very portable.

Now, let's look at lighting in 5e. I was apparently mistaken about this when I first read. Darkness is heavily obscured, so sight is blocked and folks are effectively blinded. Dim light is lightly obscured, which provides disadvantage on wisdom (perception) checks. That's it, just disadvantage on perception checks, not attack rolls or anything. If you have darkvision, you can see in dim light as though it were bright light out to a certain radius, but you can't discern color. So there really isn't a great penalty for a party of Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Half Elves, Half Orcs, or Tieflings going around without a torch or any source of light at all. Well, except finding traps and secret doors, I suppose. But there's really no penalty in combat for that. Depending on your interpretation, it might not be easy/possible to read things while using darkvision or make out crucial aspects of artwork [Hat Tip: the Antagonizer for the comment.]. There's also color-specific plots you could use, but its not super relevant if one of the party doesn't have darkvision.

For spells, there's the ubiquitious light cantrip. Its hands-free and provides bright light in a 20' radius. All day long as needed. In Torchbearer terms, that's presumably enough light for 3 characters. Your run of the mill party will have at least one character with darkvision so there's really no problem here at all. The dancing lights cantrip, in comparison, requires concentration and provides four sources of dim light. Which is pretty shitty in comparison, and I'm not sure the versatility of the spell makes up for it. Produce flame isn't as readily available as the others, but likewise is a constant torch, though it does at least require a hand. Prestidigitation or Druidcraft might also be able to create a candle equivalent, but 5e isn't quite as open ended as to say that's certain. Continual flame, like in earlier editions, basically makes a flameless torch which can be covered up to conceal the light. So in any edition of D&D by 3rd or 5th level you're not tracking torches, and when you have cast continual light on a feather that you can stick in your cap you don't even need to worry about how many items you can wield in your hands. Unless your enemy has dispel magic.

So if we can imagine playing up the lighting issues in 5e for a dark dungeon, you get something like the following.

Exploring the dungeon, characters with darkvision have no real need of light at all, other than searching for things. So there's a danger that a party relying on darkvision will miss secret doors or fall into traps. There's some incentive for the scout to have a torch, even if they have darkvision. But not that much unless you really play up the trap angle. The light spell (and other light-providing cantrips) is basically one really nice torch, and continual flame spells will eliminate any need for counting torches or tracking their use really. Either could be dispelled by an enemy magician though.

In combat, there's really no penalty to relying on darkvision at all, unless someone goes invisible. Though there can be other sources of heavy obscurement such as fog clouds and the like. Technically illusions would still function just fine in the dark as far as I can tell. The one downside to relying on darkvision is if your enemy is more than 60' away from you while shooting at you. Any light source the party has would give your position away, and true underdark denizens (e.g. Drow) have plenty of range on your run-of-the-mill elves and dwarves for seeing underground. So there's one combat-related weakness.

What about some simple tweaks? I've been thinking through a couple:

1) Light Obscurement imposes disadvantage in combat. This means characters in dim light would suffer disadvantage on attack rolls. This is a huge change to parties relying on darkvision, namely that they'd need at least one source of light to function effectively. The elves or dwarves could still make an attempt at sneaking about or leading a blind party out of the dungeon, but it would be very hard to function well without some source of light for the party. Obviously one cantrip would do the trick though, and at 3rd level one continual flame spell would be plenty.

2) The light cantrip requires concentration. This would really make the cantrip virtually useless in most combats, because concentration spells are so goddamn useful. Dancing lights already requires it though, so it might not be crazy. A concentration-required light cantrip would still be quite useful for exploration. Produce flame doesn't need concentration, but does require a hand, so that's still one resource for light and its less light than the light cantrip. Ultimately once continual flame is available though, this is a big unnecessary.

3) Change light so it scales. Maybe at 1st level the light cantrip just is candle light, and at higher levels (scaling with damaging cantrips) it produces more/better light. You could also add a brief concentration rider on it, so a basic light spell is a candle, at 5th level its either a non-concentration candle or a concentration-required torch, and so on. I kinda like this option, but feel like it might mean you'd need to change some of the other cantrips to follow suit and also its still outclassed by continual flame.

4) Remove/modify continual flame. This option is a bit shitty, as surely a magic torch is one of the first items any party will be interested in if they could afford it. So keeping treasure low will make the first casting or three of this spell actually meaningful at least. Raising the cost per casting is another method, but also a little unsatisfying.

Ultimately I think, at the basic level, there is motivation for the party to be carrying one torch/lantern in 5e. Hit them with traps to show this, because they won't notice the secret doors unless its obvious at the end of the dungeon that they could have skipped some parts. Outside a dungeon, any scouting is still going to need a source of light, such as casing a house/castle or whatnot. Moonlight might be crucial, so the occasional new moon could also come into play. All of this is most applicable during the first 2 levels where the party is too fragile to do much of anything, much less explore the underdark. If you take option 1 and impose disadvantage on attack rolls in dim light, then there's definitely motivation for carrying one or more light sources, though it'll honestly just be one of the casters who is likely to have a free hand anyway. There's a lot of different spells that could reasonably produce some kind of light, and modifying them all is a rather large task.

Overall this seems a little unsatisfying, though I'm really wondering what the other consequences of option #1 are. If light isn't a constant threat though, you can still play it up in 5e. Traps will remind players that they need some light or risk missing a few important perception type rolls. A well placed dispel magic can eliminate their magic light sources on occasion, plunging the party into darkness. Likewise, a "dark" dungeon where light is dampened can easily be a thing to occasionally play up the need for light while you're exploring the unknown. Its no torchbearer game, but it might be enough for a little taste.

Edit: An Afterthought. There is, I suppose, an option 4 for modifying light rules slightly. This would be adopting the Torchbearer rule that anytime you set a light source down, it goes from shedding bright light to dim light. This is particularly relevant for the levels 3+ (the continual flame era) where hand economy is more important and parties are likely relying on a few magic light sources. Most light spells will be cast on helmets or shields or staves maybe, but even those can be knocked to the ground or otherwise disarmed by some clever kobolds or an enemy magician. Clever tactics are probably the hallmark of intelligent enemies, and kobolds probably know they can gain a nice advantage by getting rid of that magic light somehow. This is certainly a simple addition which could make light a little more interesting if the party isn't built around not needing light or combined with dim light imposing disadvantage.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Scimitars against the Dark and the magic in dream Al-Qadim campaign

I still have this dream Al-Qadim campaign I'd like to run, and reading through Spells & Magic lately, I've been thinking of any rules alterations I'd want to do. The key thing that sticks in my brain is those nifty alternate magic systems. Channelers, Witches & Warlocks, Alienists, Defilers & Preservers, Ritual Prayer, Conditional Magic... That could be game-changing stuff.

But I can't find any info on it online. Did anyone use these in play? Was one of the systems horribly broken or easy to abuse? Do they mix well in the same game?

The obvious first thing to do is assign different magic systems to different classes. Start with the priests:

Hierarchy Priests (Pragmatists, Ethoists, Moralists) - Ritual prayer. These folks follow the rules and gain their religion's power through rites and rituals. It may take longer to cast a spell if they do the right thing, but they can save some power by taking time to do it right and/or make a spell more potent with the right sacrifices or time.

Free Priests (Mystics and Kahins) - Conditional Magic. These free priests gain their power through investments and dedication. When they act in their deity's interest, their spells are quite potent. If they act against their deity's will, their spells are reduced.

Hakimas - Technically free priests, but neither of the previous magic systems seem appropriate. I'm leaning towards channelling, but it doesn't quite seem like they should be weakened by the cosmic insights they are granted. There's not a real established Hakima code to build conditional magic out of though, nor is there some Hakima rite to base ritual prayer off of. So I'm a little stumped.

Moving on to the wizards, its also nebulous here. I'm not sure if its unfair to have two types of priests use a different system than wizards, but there's baggage on a few of the ends.

First off, channelling seems reasonably appropriate, even if it were to be shared with the Hakima. I want to keep the Brotherhood of True Flame in the setting, others are so minor it's hardly important.

Second, either warlockry or alienism seems like it could be grand for the setting, but they don't fit with the Brotherhood of True Flame. They'd be great for a Scimitars Against The Dark type game though, and alienism fits the sungazer wizard kit in that Scimitars.. article in Dragon Magazine. But in a world where magic is gleaned from demons or the dark between the stars (or monsters that existed before time was?), where is the role for the Brotherhood? The sword-and-sorcery that I've read generally eschews wizards' guilds because wizards are power-hungry madmen, so maybe alienism isn't the worst. Warlockry kinda steps on the Sha'ir's feet though. Also, alienism really would force a Scimitars Against the Dark type game where I'm not 100% sure that's what I'd be into.

Speaking of the Sha'ir, even if Alienism is adopted for most wizards, alienism certainly doesn't fir the Sha'ir. Then again, the sha'ir also has a unique magic mechanism, so maybe an alteration there isn't needed after all. Though channelling would be fitting, it would just hinder the Sha'ir more: they're already pretty limited in terms of spells they get to cast, and channelling wouldn't really limit the Sha'ir much because they'd be resting a bit while their gen fetches a new spell anyway.

Then there's the Rawun. Bards are spellcasters in AD&D, so what's their magic system. And there's paladins and rangers too, but I suspect paladins could be ritual and rangers could be conditional no problem. But bards get a good number of spells. Should every rawun go bad from learning cosmic secrets? Probably not. So I'm tempted to give them channelling like the Hakima, but that seems crappy too.

Best case thus far, I'm just doing stuff for priests other than the Hakima. Maybe its not worth it after all. Or maybe channelling can be just used for the mages (not sha'ir), bard, paladin, ranger, and hakima. Alienism might really shake up the setting a bit (what if you eliminate non-free priests as spellcasting options?), but it might do too much.

The other major problem here is these variants are only applicable to an OSR or 2nd Edition game. This would majorly impact the balance of things in 5e. One reason, I suppose, why I like how older editions are still more customizeable.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Minicon Review

Minicon here in Fawaray, here's my review:

1) Fiasco - Colonials
This is a nice little game. Its strong in that its 100% communal, no GM needed, no prep needed, just a pretty good time. The weakness here was we had a few new players and people didn't really know one another. So the Aliens themed playbook was good but super open ended and we might have done better with a slightly more constrained setting. We did well, but if everyone was on the same page a bit more it might have helped at the beginning. But the point is really that things are open ended, I suppose.

The other issue is that since we didn't all know one another well, it was a bit akward trying to break in. I also felt a little like a 5th wheel because right away the married couple picked a relationship amongst themselves and the other two guys picked a relationship between themselves and I was the last chooser and 5th wheel. They picked a few things based on their previously established relationships then which left me with the two relationships I had initially chosen and one item that was out there. I felt like everyone else had 4-5 things related to their characters.

But, it was pretty good. The only other problems were related to people learning the game a bit (we kept continuing scenes rather than starting new ones, and it wasn't clear when other people can/should jump into scenes). Also we ended in 3 hours out of a four hour time slot. So we had to grab a beer. Boo hoo.

2) 5e Oriental Adventures
Not really OA proper, but an adventure based on a castle site the GM had visited on vacation. Oriental themed but mechanicaly just vanilla 5e. I liked the idea of using the castle, and actually used it when I ran the Githzerai Planescape game, where the Illithid's house in Sigil was basically the house I lived in while I was in Fez. That made it easy for me to keep things sorted during play and map things, but I'm not as sure if it helped the players. Though this guy was also able to show us pics of the various items we were dealing with which was cool, though he messaged them on our phones and I'm not sure that was the best delivery option.

The major problem with this game was it had too much in it. I had this problem last minicon as well with a game that had way too much to do and a GM who didn't do any star-wipes to move us forward. So we were 10th level 5e PCs, but didn't really use any rules other than casting a few spells and rolling a few skill checks. There was no combat. That's not a problem, but we spent a while picking spells (these could have been pre-selected) and there were a lot of things to track. The game could have been done with 5th level PCs and worked just as well if he had toned the likely enemies down a bit. As it was we never rolled initiative.

Another weakness was the Barbarian, and not just because the player was a little off. But the game was about 100% espionage (reading a scroll from the library, talking to 4 guardian spirits to gain their favor, rescuing a princess) and the barbarian didn't really have skills to help. Charisma was his dump stat, despite being the totem warrior, so people thought I was crazy to let him talk to the spirits. Bah. That was about the one thing I figured he should be able to do, but that version of the barbarian doesn't even have a grand ribbon about that. He can/should probably get commune or something at higher levels. But that's also where the 13th Age style backgrounds would be great: He's a fucking spirit-based character, just apply the prof bonus to interactions with spirits. Done and done.

I also found it odd that the players were, by and large, treating the Oriental Adventure much like a non-Oriental one. I was there for the honor and chambara-style conflicts between it and duty. We got a little bit of it at the beginning but they just wanted to spread rumors about the princess we were trying to save and I didn't quite get that. I suppose I could have been more forceful in my denouncements but I was more into solving the riddle of how we accomplish our goal than the roleplay of that.

The inflexibilty of the GM shone through at times too, we came up with some grand ideas to save the dying prince (which would thereby save the princess by default) but he had a bunch of combat encounters planned so he didn't let us go that way. Makes me yearn for 13th Age a little more, or at least that lazy GM style of play where you have an idea of the end but no railroad we're on to get there.

His style was also a bit jarring. He made us do the roleplay for each of the four spirits, despite the fact that we really couldn't fail. I saw that in the skill rolls too: there were no consequences for failure. Not even failing forward where someone takes a little damage for failing an athletics or acrobatics roll. There were no time constraints on our investigations so we had full access to lots of divination spells (and I obviously took a few and swapped more in as the game progressed since I was a cleric).

It really did bug me towards the end that the rules and the scenario didn't mesh well. I would have like it as a GUMSHOE or maybe Dungeonworld game or something. Simpler rules to fit what he wanted or planned. Or adjusting the scenario such that we had time constraints. I was happy to plan to send the bard in to case the library with Eagle's Splendor up to get in, then the thief and ninja in to steal the scroll with Cat's Grace up, but he had some huge magic library scene he wanted so the roleplayed that for about half an hour while 3 of us sat around. Given our unlimited spell use and no real possibility of failure, I'da just run a quick cut scene or montage and moved on to the combats.

I'm critical but I still had fun. And I've got some ideas for running more investigation-style games with 5e and I should pick up the Fiasco books. So nice.