Monday, January 25, 2016

Water is a terrible element (yet its still my favorite despite being horribly suboptimal in D&D)

While nominally working on my Al-Qadim Church game (I was also tinkering with some 5e stuff for the Princes of the Apocalypse game I'm playing in and working on a secret project), I've been going through a lot of old and new D&D stuff looking at water spells. My conclusion: no one can write a decent water spell to save their lives.

First problem: what sort of damage does water do? You can't really have a water elementalist without enough water spells, but you also can't really have a water elementalist in 5e without those spells doing damage. The Elemental Evil Player's Companion addresses this a bit by adding some spells that do bludgeoning damage. That makes sense: you conjure a big pile of water and whump someone with it. There was an old water blast in Al-Qadim as well, which is just a big spray of water (generally to the face). Unlike fire, however, there's really only one or two big watery face-blasts you can get away with it seems. Thus far one of my favorites is called Cone of Teeth from 2nd edition, where your watery blast takes the form of shark's teeth and rends your enemies.

Second problem: If you're not conjuring water, you're restricted to natural bodies of water. So many spells involve letting things normally on land bypass or function under water. Maybe you need to float or swim or breathe or see in the water? There's a spell for that, and a water elementalist can surely cast it. Possibly a couple different versions of it.

Third problem: Mist/fog is water, but its also air. A lot of the fog spells are listed as both air and water, and its easy to see why. Rain and weather are a combo of the two elements. So, for better or for worse, air and water need to share some spells or you have to decide to try to limit your possibly spells by restricting things to one or the other element. Related: does waterbreathing fall under air or water, or should there be a distinction between water breathing and lasting breath spells?

Fourth problem: ships are both air and water, but also neither. Ship spells are another issue all together. A lot of water spells are found in ship/pirate type games and supplements because it makes sense that they'd be useful in the setting. But is a spell to conjure rigging really a water spell? What about one that strengthens or weakens a ship's hull? Some of the ship spells are even nonsensical if you consider a water-wizard or water-sorcerer to be a "sea" type. Sea things often include storms and ships, by why the heck would a storm-sorcerer have the power to weaken a hull or conjure rigging with their innate magic? Why would a sea wizard gain any benefit for casting those spells which seem like tangentally related spells?

Fifth problem: Ice. Ice is the easy way out. Sure it makes a little sense since water is actually ice, but not when a water elementalist's primary means of attack is doing cold damage with a frostbite spell or a cone of cold. I certainly don't think a pirate in an Arabian Adventure (or, honestly, pirates in general) should be using Ice Knife and Snilloc's Snowball Swarm as their primary offensive spells till they hit 5th level. Ice sure can make for a nicely thematic set of spells though, especially if you add in wind/weather (and maybe some enchantments and northern lights type spells).

Sixth problem: Conjuration or Transmutation (or Evocation)? Related to the second problem, you can easily make many a water spell a conjuration and then you have no ridiculous need to cast it in/near a body of water. This could be the case with so many spells that it blurs the artifical lines between the codified 8 schools of magic in D&D. In 5e I can really see why they remove a lot of those sorts of limits in spells so tidal wave and wall of water don't need to rely on the surrounding environment. Still, if the schools weren't such a big thing it might be nice for them to get a boost in power when cast in the right environment.

So, what's the verdict? Its hard to concoct some original water spells. I bet everyone could come up with about a 6-12 fairly distinct ones (depending on the granularity) but everyone will basically cover the same ground with their water spells (stay dry, go underwater, get over the water, blast of water, something ice, something fog, manipulate the current/flow...). So I'm left with a few different feelings on this. One can either stretch the definitions of water a bit (and if you do that, why not add in a scalding steam spell alongside a bit of ice and fog), or accept the fact that if a player wants a water elementalist its part of the DM's job to ensure the setting supports water (i.e. ships or rivers will be involved). The latter is a bit unsatisfying, so maybe there's a few more ways one can make spells which are thematically watery (a spell that smooths and polishes objects, or alternately bloats and cracks them; scrying in a pool of water) that can be used to expand the list a bit.

Side note: all the elements are a bit repetitive, but somehow air, earth, and fire ones don't seem quite as bad. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Homebrewing: Then and Now

Obviously, one thing I love about RPGs is the ability for the players to add to them. You can't just take a computer RPG and add new classes or spells or even new levels readily. Since time immemorial I've been finding cool things from Dragon Magazine to add to a game, or crafting new white necromancy for that old Giovanni larp. The rules need interpretations at times, and often minor fixes though it is easy to go overboard. Now we've got a glorious new SRD that lets anyone play with (most of) the 5e rules, and the Dungeon Master's Guild which lets you use all the rules and (for now) Forgotten Realms intellectual property to publish your own nonsense. So yesterday started a new golden era...

But new D&D is distinctly harder to homebrew than old D&D. And some of that is design philosophy.

When someone on the internet asks how to bring specialty priests back into Swords and Wizardry, my answer is simple: if you're not taking someone else's specialty priest options, just modify the spell list slightly. Remove 1-2 spells per spell level from the generic cleric list to get rid of all the non-generic miracles, then add a spell or two per level back to the list to make specialty priests unique. Steal the domain from 3rd edition and now your fire priest can cast burning hands and flame blade, no real need for special powers beyond that. But you could remove/alter turn undead if you really felt it was needed to make the class unique.

Making specialty priests for third edition was actually similarly simple: just a new domain as needed (similarly not 100% satisfying, but meh). But domains now are much more difficult. 4e required you to concoct two dozen powers to make a full class build, which is untenable. 13th Age is—lamentably—a bit similar in its complexity. I imagine the complexity of classes in 13th age is why the 13th Age in Glorantha has been delayed.  5e scales that back a little, but its still not necessarily easy to modify classes (races aren't as bad because they don't affect your character as much).

So the new homebrew takes a lot of work, unfortunately. Clerics don't just get a few bonus spells, but first, sixth, and 17th level granted powers and I've never played the game that high in level to really have a good idea what a 17th level granted power ought to do.

There's another aspect of homebrew that's weird with modern D&D, which is that we're finally homebrewing non-casters. I guess you can make a swashbuckler class for Swords & Wizardry, but the breadth of classes like fighter and thief/rogue make that a bit odd, whereas one can always dream up another wizard or priest option. This is why I really think that wizards and priests need a bit more work, as their rules really impact the game world. Until third edition, almost all spell casters in D&D cast their spells in exactly the same way. Sure, we can replace old school spell mechanics with something a bit different, like the Sha'ir method, Runecasters, or something from Spells & Magic, and that's great. Unfortunately, in 5e we cant easily change how spells work, and each class needs new abilities at each and every level (excepting when spellcasters gain a new spell level, that apparently counts as a noticeable power bump).

So what's this really mean?

Because I like rules to reflect the setting, particularly with magic, D&D needs a bit of houserules and homebrew to really make it shine. Things like channel divinity make it hard(er?) to use the cleric class to represent priests who don't serve deities, and spells on bards, paladins, and rangers make it harder to use those classes in a low-magic setting.

Old D&D is still the easiest to homebrew, meaning I like it a bit better. I think my ideal D&D would take some of the simplifications of basic D&D and 5e, mixing them with some of the dice technology of 13th Age and the audacity of 2nd Edition. Basically an AD&D 3rd edition. With the new SRD someone could, perhaps, make much of that happen. But I'm still excited for the new 5e stuff, which could help fix a few of my issues with the game and (hopefully) produce a lot of good content.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Fixing D&D 5th Editon

Things I want to fix in 5e – A minor rant / thought catalogue:

1) Barbarians. The class should be called berserker, because that's what it is. It also opens up a bit more space to make a religious dervish berserker option as well as fixing a few lackluster elements.

2) Clerics. This class works well for good deities, but I wish domain were separate from vocation, so we could have a crusader of Moradin, a theurge of Moradin, a prophet of Moradin, and an evangelist of Moradin.

3) Rogues. They need a feature that rewards dagger use or else we need to differentiate weapons better. A general +1 to hit with daggers might suffice, but every rogue wants a rapier and hand crossbow just because anything else is stupid. Alternately, daggers and short swords just need some crazy bonus properties and the like.

4) Sorcerer and Warlock. There should be a mechanism to reward these classes for sticking to thematic spells. I'm not sure what it would be, but if you're consciously restricting yourself to a very thematic list a bonus spell known might be a nice reward. I had considered: remove 50% of the spells from your class list at each level for one bonus first level spell, but I'm not quite sure that would be the best way to do it.

5) Useful ability scores. Intelligence is a shit score in this edition. The same can be said of strength, mostly. Strength, Intelligence, and Charisma are almost always a dump stat. Dexterity is still stupidly potent, wisdom and constitution are just generically useful for most characters, and constitution, at least, will seldom be dumped because no one wants a penalty to their HP.

6) Useless ribbons. The elf and dwarf racial weapon ribbons are almost useless. They don't help the warrior types at all (who already have the weapons) and any class that dumps strength (wizard, sorcerer) will find them next to useless as they'll go to great lengths to avoid using them. The only real exception are classes that fight with simple weapons, like the cleric or druid because they might possibly have the stats to use them in melee. Allowing the trained weapons to count as finesse weapons might help, as dexterity-based characters might use them, as well as opening up a few more options for rogues.

7) Spell leveling. A lot of spells need to level more, with simple duration increases, or possibly eliminating the need for concentration eventually (even if its just a slot of 6th level or higher). This is a great idea, just not quite universally applied (you find it always on combat spells, occasionally on utilities). I suspect its easier to have the formula for combat spells, and leaving it off of utilities makes things simpler and requires less space in the book.

8) Spell versatility. There's a good number of spells which can and will have creative uses, and I think a number of them are obvious. What if I ready create water for when an enemy casts a fire spell? Can calm emotions affect a barbarian's rage? Can I use featherfall on an boulder about to hit me? Some of these are relatively obvious, and once a DM makes a ruling there's a new use for that spell for the entire campaign. A few guidelines or basic rules might help make those rulings.

9) Working modular dials. Many of the DMG options for hacking the system seem half-baked (group initiative, removing skills, etc.). It would be nice to have at least one well-thought-out option for these, though reasonably speaking there's probably 2-3 ways to implement a lot of those things. Altering the rests/healing seems to be the best of the options, but there's not really things for lowering the level of magic or fantastic in the game.

10) Updates for previous settings. Sure, I can run old modules with 5th edition rules, but each of the old settings could use a few things to help out. Obviously each setting could have its own book, but a simple 16-32 page book of a few crunchy updates would really help. I'd pay for the print-on-demand softcover, probably multiple times.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Double Dungeon Reflections

So, the antagonizer and I recently ran a double dungeon: we agreed on sharing a map and populating it with two different groups. I ran a group of Dwarf PCs first, and he ran Drow PCs second. The goals for the two games was to do something wacky with the same dungeon map and also to show off some iconic elements of D&D. Overall I enjoyed both sessions, both running and playing.

The map. I liked what we chose. It was two pages from Dyson which were explicitly one level of a multi-part dungeon, so the two maps fit together well. We decided first on what each room would represent (more or less) and then populated them with furniture and such. There were two issues with the map. First, it was a little too big. I liked it, but it was hard to cut down, which meant there were a lot of empty-ish rooms to explore because we only had a solid 6 hours in each session. The second issue was that replaying the same map made it a little easy for me to picture where we were (as I was intimiately familiar with the map). Two other players played both, and it was a nice in-joke to re-explore the same ground, but it was lost on most of the players the second time. It was also hard to ignore what I knew already about the map. The fix for some future double dungeon is probably to pick a three-page map and share only one portion of it between each expedition. The real issue here is we could have done the double dungeon with the same players both times, but I wanted to play with a broader set of people, rather than the same group of 7 people twice.

The PCs.  For both drow and dwarves we put up a reduced list of thematic options. I liked it, as it kept most of the characters stereotypical. We each allowed a couple characters that stretched things a little. I kept my list a bit tighter, so there was one dwarven deep stalker ranger which worked fine (though I did talk the player out of a dwarven sorcerer slightly). The antagonizer had a broader list, but we still ended up with two deep stalker rangers, a female wizard, and neither priestess of Lolth was a cleric (Favored Soul of Evil and Underdark Circle of the Land druid). I think next time the way to do it would be to keep a pretty tight list of thematic characters (focusing on the main cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard options) and really explicitly suggest a few good concepts that you'd only want to see one of: a dwarven artificer wizard, deep stalker ranger, svirfneblin illusionist or abjurer ally, etc.  Also, we needed to have an option for pre-gen characters somehow. We didn't restrict backgrounds in any way and pretty much did things by the book, so we could have made some suggestions there. It might make things easier if we just requested players to pick a race, class (& archetype), and background and then have the DM actually assign the mechanics if the player doesn't make the character by a certain date. One good thing we did was allow a bit more flexibility for the drow by giving men a +1 to int and women a +1 to wisdom, this made men competent wizards and women competent priests. We also went back to the original sources and let drow swap darkness for levitation (self only), for a bit of variety. This is exactly the sort of options one needs for a single-race game.

Personality Traits. I used dwarven personality traits from the second edition Complete Book of Dwarves. I basically handed one out that I thought would be a reasonable fit for each PC, then had each player draw one personality trait randomly. It worked really well because there were about 8 good options and they were good fits for dwarves. We did an ad hoc guessing of who was playing each one that might have been nice to formalize a bit. For the drow, this wasn't such a tenable option. The Antagonizer made a list of about five personality traits to keep in mind while playing a drow, which I think was about the best we could do in the time frame (I had forgotten about personality traits and done the dwarf ones quite last-minute). So while it worked better for dwarves than drow, dwarves were also easier. I think that I overall had the easier time since drow are pretty one-dimensional whereas dwarves are much more fleshed out.

Goals. I don't think I'll ever run a one-shot without goals again. Each of the characters had a specific thing they were looking for or needed to do, and it made for some nice victory conditions. The whole idea comes from games like Battlestar Galactica and Dead of Winter, where you probably have an overall group victory condition and one or more individual ones. It is a nice and concrete way to create a little conflict within the party but maybe not too much. Again, I think it was easier for dwarves than for drow, but in the end we did have a great stand-off at the end where my character used a spell without any obvious components (thank you metamagic) to force a male to attack my rival priestess. It didn't quite work out, but definitely upped the tension and treachery at the end. I'm definitely interested in exploring goals more, and if there is a way to make more smaller goals, and what makes good goals in a one-shot type game. The goals I used could definitely have been tightened up. Perhaps this could be done by trying particular goals to backgrounds and giving the PCs a list of backgrounds to choose from.

Background info. Because of my dislike of skills and preference for failing forward a bit, I put the relevant background info onto a bunch of 5x8 notecards. This included "rumors" or information specific to a character's background and also to training in certain skills and tools. The antagonizer followed suit, but he didn't have much time to do it as extensively as I did since his session was two days after mine. I thought the approach worked well, because players could get important info in easily digestible half-page cards only when it was relevant. But, for my part, I was trying to put together a great riddle about the dwarven deities, so I ended up giving out a number of irrelevant cards (mostly to the cleric and paladin) that detailed D&D deities. I could have easily cut a few out. Also, in one or two situations I had cards that relied on a DC 15 intelligence check. I kinda wish I had done that a bit more, with the very basic info for anyone who is trained, and a few extras for the lucky/skilled. I really liked this approach, but its a bit difficult to implement when you don't know what the PCs will end up being (and ultimately I got someone to be trained in arcana just because I wanted that after making a bunch of "trained in arcana" cards). I also effed it up by missing one person who should have been getting things: the result of someone picking a bonus feat late and I didn't know they were trained in history. I'd definitely do this again.

The Adventure. I think both games went well, and the size of the map was both a benefit and a hinderance. Each was billed as an excursion, and the goal was not to kill everything possible. Both parties made it in and out without killing or even encountering everything, and that was good because we didn't have the time for that. It was difficult to cut things though, perhaps because the map was so awesome and loopy. I think the antagonizer did a better job of making some rooms less useable than I did by flooding some. It might have been better if we had solid story reasons and hints of where people could find what they needed. The encounters were a bit easy for the dwarves because they missed two of the hardest (the Derro swarm and troll spellcaster + her two-headed lover).

Mapping. The hard part of running an old school dungeon is mapping it. I was going to start out with room descriptions only, but quickly resorted to drawing things for the players. I wish I had done it the way the antagonizer did, however, which I don't think was entirely planned but worked well. Rather than drawing each complex of rooms attaching to one another, he drew them ad hoc on different spots on the mat. I only could have improved on that by drawing them with different orientations to confuse people about left, right, north, and south. I wish I would have had more solid room descriptions, and done them more as distinct sections of the dungeon, but that might necessitate doing the map oneself rather than just stealing it. For example, things could have been clearer as an office complex, the town square, the priest's quarters, the barracks, etc. As someone who has been getting into OSR stuff, this has been weighing on me lately, particularly with my own Al-Qadim game and how to use newer technology (or not) to make mapping meaningful and easy.

Flaws. The biggest flaw I think I had was spending too much time trying to detail the dwarven gods, because only two characters were trained in religion and I didn't end up making full use of all that info. Like, the troll and duergar religion cards were basically just in the way for sure. I ended up making a quick little riddle in the end which relied on one line that the trained-in-religion folks got, though everyone had a chance of figuring it out with the illusion hint. I had an idea for sacred ale too, but it didn't come out because no one actually choose brewer's supplies as their racial tool option. I think the next flaw was in room descriptions: they were a bit sparse and could have been better, but also I should have renumbered rooms on the map. I missed one room for sure, and had a few extraneous numberings which confused things a bit, and when I passed the map on it didn't have a few staircases erased. If there was a third flaw, it might have been in creating characters. We didn't really make a PC as the players would, so there were some choices (languages, bonus skills) that we didn't think to put in the character creation docs. Not knowing what was planned but not experienced for the Drow, its hard to say what might have been done a bit better. The only thing that comes to mind would have been a bit more care in keeping secrets for a treachery game. We could have used a werewolf or resistance-style heads-down thumbs-up when detect magic and detect poison were cast, and if we had agreed to use facebook chat to send covert messages (though that might run afoul of the desire to have less cell phone use at the table, but texts can suffer more delays it seems) it might have allowed for a bit more treachery (or more paranoia).

In total. I really enjoyed this, and I'm even motivated to revise this so it can be redone. I think the dwarves ended up being a little stronger than drow, but really only because it was easier to do dwarven PCs. I think both sessions accomplished the vague goals I had, which was to showcase some iconic elements of D&D (dwarves, drow, and their gods), reƫxplore the same dungeon, and test out some clear personality and goal options for the players to help in roleplaying.

For revision. For characters, just have players select the race, class, and background right away. Then if they don't make the character themselves by a pre-determined date its easy for the DM to crank it out as a pre-gen, and the players can even potentially ask for a change or two once they see the sheet. This would really help the DM to stat things up while giving players choices if they want them. Goals can be tied to this selection perhaps, and at any rate knowing a few details (race, class, background) will help the DM to assign goals earlier and background info. If the DM has a hand in making the characters its easier to ensure that one PC is trained in each of the 4 knowledge skills (GUMSHOE style). For the background info, this can easily be tightened up to remove some elements that didn't get used (or make it clearly optional with DC 15 checks since there's no drawback for not knowing the information) and possibly spreading some of the info out among the different skills. Goals, likewise, could have been tightened up a bit. Finally, the map needs to be more clearly annotated and the rooms need some fixing up; now that I'm running some old school modules I have a few ideas on what is helpful for map annotations and should implement some of those.  I'm definitely into seeing this baby run again in a 8-hour session. I wonder if it'd be possible to add a third or fourth excursion into the dungeon, perhaps svirfneblin or duergar, though they might have the same problems (or limitations) as drow did.