Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Drunken Dragons #3: the Bard

For Christmas when I was 5 Santa brought me a big cardboarrd box covered with Marvel superheroes and it was filled with 100 random-as-hell Marvel comics, it was some kinds of Sears thing I think. In that box was a single issue of Groo. It took me a long time as a kid obsessed with Spider-Man and stuff before I made myself read Groo one bored afternoon but man am I glad I did. I love that crap and when I got older and rwad more of the stuff Groo was lampooning I loved it more.

Flash forward and I'm staying over at a friend's house watching movies and playing video games and crap. "We should plau Dungeons and Dragons." "Uhhhh okay.:"

Understand I was hesitant not because I thought the game itself would be immoral or endanger my soul but I went to a Christian school and THEY thought that and would expel me if they ever found out and I'm still naive enough to be paranoid about that so whatever. But I agree and he invites over another friend I've never meyt to be a thief.

"What do you wqnt to be?"
"What CAN I be?"
"Well there's like a barbarian, there's like a wizard, you could be a cleric which is like a priest and stuff"
"So it's all just midieval things?"
"Can I be a minstrel?" Because that was different and was something from mideval stuff I knew a little more about. I say that but my only point of reference was Danny Kaye and the above comic.

They looked at each other and said :Uhhhhh sure but there;s also all this..."
I considered their suggestions but played a bard anyway. So now we're character creating.

"This stat means this and this stat means this and this stat means this..."
"Every one of these is important, I can't put low numbers in any of them!"

I was a murderous minstrel. I bought a lot of throwing knives and a lute and built a compartment for another secret knife into my lute. The guys: "That might ruin the sound." "Yeah but it's a great idea so let's give him some xp for it." I'm winning!

Then I write down equipment. "Just write down 12 things from this list." I make sure I have rope some empty paper for making maps, some chalk for making maps, and a spyglass because making maps. I had the importance of maps impressed upon me.

I named him Farciat Edward. BTW character creation SEEMED to take forever and so did the DM's adventure prep but that may have just been my attention span for something I was reluctant to do.

The adventure found us wandering around the forest and encountering a bunch of gas spores. I fell down a lot and nearly died a lot and couldn't hit for shit but luckily each gas spore had a healing potion in it so yay me. Night and day passed and we kept getting more lost. My maps weren't helping either.

I did not understand this game. It was explained to me that it was a storytelling game so I encouraged them to write me out if I stopped being fun.

2 things kept happening: I kept marking trees with my chalk to help us navigate (they gave me xp for that idea) but the marks kept changing...they were still there but they were different and un-useful. Also once a night an old man with a lantern would appear and berate us for being in his woods. After three nights of this I told him off. I got XP for that.

For the complete picture of this understand that they had One Of TYhe Guys on mute on tv in the room so we could eventually see breasts. Or maybe that was the second time we played...? Anyway the game ended no second session. Like a year or two later when I was over we tried playing again and we found my old character sheet and I was him.  At one point the game stops for a "Holy shit seriously?" moment when my character had a spyglass on his sheet still. Didn't help me much.

That second time it was a house where it was day inside and night outside. Seasonal weather crap too. I got annoyed at the DM (the thief from befre) when he tried to herd me into the tavern early in the game when I said my guy wanbted to stay outside and keep watch. We got less done in that one.

This was my RPG experience until I did a little bit of Marvel SAGA on IRC, testing it out to see how it worked. We never pursued it but I was Cyclops and I didn't have a handle on the rules but let me tell you i played the CRAP out of Cyclops.

Anyhow takeaways from that experience:

-I wish I'd known enough about the game to know what I was getting into. Reading through the books would have been fun, or doing anything but just flipping through them a wee bit.
-Similarly I wish I'd listened to them and not been a bard because I bet I would have had more fun.
-I liked that they liked when I had good ideas. In some respects I look back and see a kid who plain did not get it but sometimes I think about those games and think I...."almost got it" to an extent that helped more than getting it just a little would have helped. If that makes sense.
-They were very forgiving and responsive and smart and engaging and permissive DMs, sometimes looking back things seem railroady but that's probably just the color of memory and my discomfort at the time worried about Jesus Police tearing down the wall.
-Breasts are cool.
-For gods sake do SOME prep beforehand...have some shit in your back pocket and a few quick prep tools you can rely on if nothing else...and let your players know their options but don't let them spend more time on their character than an SAT. Every minute you're worried as a player or gm about getting something RIGHT is a minute you're doing homework instead of playing when you sit down to play and that's WRONG.
-Be mostly open to new players and new things and new ideas and new everything because who knows where it will lead. Be inviting to these and give them ground to flourish.
-Gas spores are basically terrible. "There's this thing you don't know what it is because it's just a D&D thing, but it's the kind of thing that sounds like I made it up on the spot in like 3 seconds to screw with you, but it's actually super scary and not even a little silly. BUT THIS ISN'T THAT THING, this is a second thing you don't know or care about, and it's some kind of cancer pinata."

Monday, July 29, 2013

Treating Familiars As A Class

HD: d4
Save as: MU
Attack as: Thief
Advance as: MU
Restrictions: In Arcis Enumre, Elfs and Magic-Users wishing to begin play with a Familiar must sacrifice all their starting Gold. Elfs from the Coldquarter can create a Familiar for free. Crafting a Familiar requires special ingredients and a week of work.

However, generally, a Magic-User or Elf must have an Intelligence or Wisdom of 9 or better to craft a Familiar.

Familiars can wear no weapons or armor. Their AC begins at 9 and is improved by their own Dexterity bonus and their master’s Intelligence bonus. Their attacks have a magical potency and do 1d4 on a hit. A Familiar can strike an enemy unaware of their presence for double damage.

They cannot use magic items unless they were made for Familiars or animal use. Familiars may not have retainers themselves. They begin play with infravision and the ability to speak with their masters and to speak with other Familiars. It has a morale of 12, and permanently reduces its master’s maximum number of retainers by 1.

Any animal smaller than a Human with 1HD or less can be made into a Familiar, excluding Player Classes such as Dwarves, Gnomes, and Halflings. DMs have final say whether a creature may be a Familiar. Familiars use their master’s hit die (d4) and their own Constitution score to determine HP, unless their HD is modified on one of the tables below.

At time of creation, Magic-Users invest their Familiar with one random ability. Roll once on the Create Familiar table below:

1) You gain a spell slot, and your master can invest you with a spell from his spellbook
2) Improve your HD to d6
3) Improve your natural attack damage to d6
4) Speak Elf (or whatever the common tongue of the setting is)
5) Speak to all creatures of your kind
6) Your master can see through your eyes for 1 turn a number of times a day equal to the highest level spell he can cast.
7) Mutation: roll once on any table, add effect
8) Permanent magical effect: draw 1 card from loot deck, apply any

At first level and each time a Familiar levels, roll d100 once on the table below. The DM may ask you to reroll  duplicate results at his discretion.

1-20: Your saves improve by 1.
21-30: You gain a spell slot
31-35: Your HD improves by 1 step (d4 to d6, d6 to d8, etc)
36-40: Your natural attack damage increases by 1 step (d4 to d6 etc)
41: You learn a new spell, which you may share with your master.
42-44: Random mutation, roll on any mutant chart.
45-50: You can detect secret doors as an Elf.
51: Your size increases enough that you do +1 damage with your natural attack.
52: Your size decreases enough that you get a 1 point bonus to AC.
53-54: You can speak a language your master knows, in addition to any languages you speak already.
55: You can speak any one language, whether your master knows it or not.
56: Your appearance is frightening enough that enemy creatures take a -1 to saves.
57-59: Your base speed in all movement speeds increase by 10ft.
60: When you successfully hit with your natural attack, and are capable of casting spells, you may cast that spell upon hit as with the Muscle Wizard. If you are incapable of casting spells, roll again.
61-65: You can only be surprised on a roll of 1 on a d6, and may alert your master, who may alert her comrades.

66-67: You have a 20% chance of determining the nature of a magical item or potion after spending just a few moments with it.
68-69: 1d3 animals of your type, if they’re even around, begin following you, and will defend themselves if threatened directly.
70-72: You have a 20% chance of following scents or tracks.
73: You gain an additional natural attack per round.
74-75: You gain a Barrel Point.
76-85: You gain +1 to hit
86: You gain a breath weapon once per day. The target gets a save. If the save is successful, they are confused for a number of rounds equal to your master’s level. If they fail the save, they are charmed for a number of rounds equal to your master’s level. You may affect 2d4HD worth of creatures with this power.
87-89: You can detect traps as a Dwarf.
90-93: You can Move Silently as a Thief
94: You earn 5% bonus XP.
95: You earn 10% bonus XP.
96: Your master may cast any spell through you remotely.
97: You and your master gain 1d4 permanent hit points.
98: You gain a Fly speed of 120/30’, or your fly speed improves by 50%.
99: Enemies take a -2 to saves against spells cast by you or your master.
100: Your size increases to the point where you may be ridden like a mount by your master but gain no additional benefits.

Familiars can advance as far as 16th level but do not begin to gain experience until the first time their master levels after creating them. Familiars cannot be resurrected, but a Magic-User or Elf can get a new Familiar after the first one dies.

If a Familiar dies, there are consequences for its master. If a Familiar’s master dies, the Familiar dies and there are still some dire consequences left to deal with y’all.

So why am I doing this, and why this way? I've been thinking about retainers, and familiars, and the advice in the Basic rules on retainers that beginner players should just play an additional character to make their party robust when they're first starting out. I mean that's where we land with retainers, really, especially when the same book restricts them that they can't be higher level than the PC hiring them. It's just that I'm the one who stats them up. I also know that since I mentioned Arcis Enumre's Stray Parliament to my boss she's been interested in doing a game with them, an interest my players have already voiced as well. But I don't want to just make a magic animal class, do I? Actually, it seems to be the simplest way to do things. Well, saying "No" would be simplest but I don't want to.

So: you can't just create a Familiar. You can create an Elf or Magic-User, IF you get the rolls of course (3d6 in order kids!), and then elect to begin the game broke as a joke in order to have a Familiar. You throw all your gold away and with it your ability to hire normal retainers for a little while for the privilege of owning not just a second PC but a weird unusual mostly unique second PC whose life and mind are tied to yours. You can always opt in later, or even replace Familiars, although chances are you won't want to.

So I made 'em the NPC-class-that's-a-PC-class, sort of. Modeled them partly on the Labyrinth Lord-Compatible Mutant Future character generation rules (which btw players are all right by me for these games) and partly on  +Zak Smith's Random Wizard, as well as the work of James Young.

I don't know if anybody else can use them but if so here they are.

Friday, July 26, 2013

20 Questions for Doublecrossroads

  1. What is the deal with my cleric's religion? Folks back east got a few religions they argue about but out here even so-called civilized men worship weird old gods, monsters, nature and animal spirits, and freaky powers. They don't so much bicker as openly war with one another. You're a Holy Man in a strange town, best pretend you ain't, or convert real quick. Choose a god from an existing supply, or roll on the God Maker for Doublecrossroads.
  2. Where can we go to buy standard equipment? We got the bare essentials here: tack, oil, rope, food, alcohol, shovels and tools and such. Some items can be brought in special with the supply shipments. You got something particular you want, though, you best bring it in with you, else kill the fella who has it. The General Store is your lifeline in most places, though larger towns have a few fancy specialty shops. Traders, peddlers, and snake oil salesmen come and go frequently but cannot be relied upon.
  3. Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended? Not such a thing. In fact I'm plum close to getting rid of armor and armor class as an artifact of the hobby, just ain't pulled the trigger yet. Until then the local tanner or blacksmith would be your best bet.
  4. Who is the mightiest wizard in the land? The sand witches of Doublecrossroads, the three sisters of mourning, are, together, the most dreaded words in the West.
  5. Who is the greatest warrior in the land? The Coyote Chieftain of Coalblack Canyon or Friendly Bill Moonshine out of Shapestone.
  6. Who is the richest person in the land? Either Big Black Johnson, retired cattle baron, or Melitha Dambridge, newspaper maven and owner of a private police.
  7. Where can we go to get some magical healing? Well we have a dentist and a physician here in town, sure, but most folk stick to Viscount Vidalia's Sawbones-In-A-Bottle, which is 130 proof.
  8. Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath? The doc, the pastor, or the undertaker.
  9. Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells? In fact, conferring with other witches or finding secret spells out in the wilderness is the only way a witch can learn new spells. They are all scattered throughout the land but they do gather at Harvestmoon.
  10. Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC? If you're lucky a medicine show will set up in town, or a circus will come through, or someone who might fit that bill in their old life might be working in town under some new profession, as most folk now do.
  11. Where can I hire mercenaries? Form a posse? Ask around in town, particularly the saloon, or the sheriff's office.
  12. Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law? Don't get drunk in public. Don't use magic or arms on citizens. Don't talk to the skeletons. Don't play music at night. Don't bring your outside gods here, it gets the dander up of the clergy. Some towns have outlawed witches, or at least unlicensed witches.
  13. Which way to the nearest tavern? Center of town, can't miss it.
  14. What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous? You will never become famous, except amongst your own kind, the weekend warriors who keep the grinding mundanity of your shit-show workweek safe from creatures and spirits.
  15. Are there any wars brewing I could go fight? You could always join a company heading further west. Sometimes we're a waypoint for such journeys. The territories out there are like a war for survival themselves. There's always some jumped-up rich man who would be king starting his own private army in the territories...
  16. How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes? You could compete in the rodeo, there's even some bare-knuckle boxing.
  17. Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight? The coyote raiders are a constant concern. "Joining" will be messy. There are cults, covens, gangs, and brotherhoods aplenty.
  18. What is there to eat around here?We strain the Red River for an alcoholic blood that's mixed with the sand itself. Cheap peasant food is the order of the day, though there's some cactus and snake for big events.
  19. Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for? There's said to be, but no folk can agree on exactly where. The Mirage Jungle would be a safe bet, though. Looking for hidden treasure will quickly draw the attention and wrath of the men within the world, among others.
  20. Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure? Somewhere, out there in the wilderness, sometimes, on clear nights where the sound goes on forever, the town can hear a cry...and feel rattle of thunder when there ain't no clouds...The creatures may be nowhere, but it always seems like they're everywhere.

Visit Klort!

Before Klort Visits YOU!
As I've mentioned on here before, my party has, on more than one occasion, risked certain death, chosen to fight dragons, added days to their journey, outright abandoned quests (which, gee, sure won't ever come to haunt them), and done everything possible to avoid ever, ever going anywhere near Klort. This includes those players who never even had characters who went to Klort. It's the site of my first and so far only TPK.

The land of hide and smoke, Klort: less a kingdom, more a permanent barbarian camp that simply stretches out in different directions like an ameoba depending on who they feel like sacking or conquering that day. The Klort are basically at war with everyone all the time, the better to keep its population too busy to resort to infighting and power struggles.The Bone and Skull King, Bloodlord of Klort, personally eats through the bellies of those who might sire heirs to challenge him for the throne. He is an aged, withered monster, and spends his life nude surrounded by barbarian concubines.

Klort has one traditional structure, the wizard's tower, and all else is leathery buildings made from the tanned, stretched, and skeletal-supported remains of dead creatures. The entire 'kingdom' is dotted with enormous fires, with flame-bronzed youths using muscles like old battleships to haul and constant stream of firewood through the streets. The more they burn, the angrier the forests become, and the more they must burn, for the fires keep away the forest guardians, as well as the harpys and other monsters. The sting of smoke anywhere near the Tanglethorn means you're easily a day's ride closer to Klort than you wish to be.

Children are abandoned in the street shortly after they finish nursing, and run in packs like feral dogs. They are cannibals. Most Klort are, come to that, but the grown-ups usually have the discretion to eat their enemies instead of their siblings and parents.

Weapons are made in Klort, ugly blocky heavy swords axes and spears, uniform and deadly effective, no-nonsense pieces. They make no armor because they wear no armor. Klort smiths are far more fond, however, of using captured weapons, particularly those of Minumon ambersteel, because it looks like gold and holds a ridiculous edge.

Klort has no use for reading and writing or any education apart from that of warfare. They have no culinary traditions beyond burning food, which even that is considered just as good as raw most times. They have no history or oral storytelling traditions because talking about something someone else did instead of what you did is considered weak, cowardly, and childish. They have no fashion beyond "nude" and "barely un-nude,"  because again, they prefer their enormous fires for warmth and give no thought to protection.

Klort does have those among them who have learned how to use magic at the feet of the wizard whose tower they surround. The wizard himself can enlist Klort to do things for him but, usually, Klort and the Bloodlord are the ones who make the demands. The wizard is a prisoner in his own tower. The magic-users he trains are despised by other Klort and referred to as "Bookfuckers." Klort respect power and results, so a Bookfucker who helps kill a lot of people and helps the Klort sack a village or something has a bit of respect. Other Bookfuckers spend their days barely avoiding being challenged to the death at every turn.

Any Klort can challenge any other Klort to the Pit. Most crimes (including being born an outsider or being ugly or hiding loot) are punishable by the Pit. We won't talk about the Pit. We will talk about the Cave, a dungeon sealed behind a massive stone. Any Klort who commits a crime in the eyes of the Bloodlord has the worship to cry like an elf and beg for a sentence of Trial by Riddling Cricket, at which point they're sealed into the cave and left to their own devices. Klort don't respect Bookfuckers but they respect things that are good at killing and they covet the power of magical things, so they're big fans of the Cave. The wizard's forefather knew the secrets of the cave, but the Bloodlord uses his skull for a shitbucket.

Why Klort? I wanted one human kingdom of unrepentant badass motherfuckers in the world of Arcis Enumre, one of my players wanted to be a Muscle Wizard, and I randomly generated a puzzle dungeon five minutes before we sat down to play. I built a society that would produce spellcasters built like Sgt. Slaughter and still be as undesirable as possible to give these individuals as much reason to wander away and be adventurers as I could. The Klort themselves are a slightly tweaked, larger than normal, fleshed out horde of Berserkers from the Basic monster chapter. No fancy attacks, no deep wells of hit dice, no magical mumbo jumbo, no big twist. My players are most afraid of a scorched little county full of gold-hungry corpse-fucking steroid racists ruled by a 7HD geriatric.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Hack I'm Trying

A barrel of all my best ideas
I get skills and feats. I like them in some games and they can be a lot of fun and really let you put a personal touch on a character and squeeze a bit of extra awesome out of them. For that matter, I like some luck systems, or Oomph, or hell Fate Points, that kind of "I want to be extra badass here but know I don't get to do it unless I really sell it so let me make an investment!" I just don't like these things enough to build an extra system of skills and feats and fortune rolls for the game I'm playing or play a different game. It's a dirty secret of a lot of GMs that those extra 2 points you need on your roll, the ones you took a feat to get and now have to justify in role-playing by really describing a cool, signature action? We'd give you those. Yeah, we have no problem giving you a bonus if your idea is rad enough and has enough extra frosting, possible side-effects, and if you put a little extra work into making the whole thing real. You're doing your job AND taking some of the work off of us. If you want a bonus to hit because you taunted a guy and distracted him, or feint? Taunt. Feint. Don't take a thing that says "Taunting is cool sometimes" and then say "I taunt."

Just say, "I call the orc a wet elf poet and ask if he uses his axe to trim the stems on fresh daffodils every morning."

We will add penalties when things are hard and we will add bonuses when you are smart or skilled enough as a player to earn those bonuses in game. That's how this works. But a lot of players don't think like that because that's passive play from their perspective, something being done for them rather than something they're doing, even if the "something" in this case (setting and modifying difficulty) does fall well within my job, rather than theirs. Still, I'm flexible, and anything to draw players out and compel them to be more awesome.

Let's say I want something else. For a while I used a lucky number mechanic I half remember from either +Zak Smith or +Jeff Rients, where a second number 2-19 acts as a second crit number. I also tried a 2 point bonus to checks where certain skills like swimming or intimidation were concerned, 1 skill bonus of choice at 1st level and another every even level. People kept forgetting to do these, though, or they would pick skills that never came up, and I won't abide things cluttering up a sheet unused, not when the thing in question is an extraneous mechanic I can just drop.

Trying something new with the wild west game. Roll 1d4, add your Dexterity(read: Discipline) bonus. If you're a gnome, roll 1d4+1+Dexterity bonus. If you're a thief, you get a flat 4+Dexterity bonus. If you end up with 0 or a negative number because your Dexterity sucks then never mind, but otherwise write that number down somewhere next to a big B. B stands for Bonus, Boost, Benefit, Bangarang, whatever you like; it's just a quick signifier symbol not used on most normal B/X character sheets for stats.

In my game, it stands for Barrels. Barrels have a long tradition in fantasy rpgs and the video games that came after them, they make logical sense in a wild west setting like I'm using, and their goal is to make specific tasks like shooting fish in a Barrel so my players have a Barrel full of monkeys. It's also there because I own a shitload of Lego Barrels for reasons I won't get into, so it becomes a genre-appropriate physical resource to track at the table. Barrels also let me have fond memories of this thing but I'll be entirely honest for a moment. A big reason for Barrels is it lets me use game terminology my players are familiar with.

Yes this bad joke from tracking Fate points with my barrels has stuck and I can fight it or live with it. I'm electing the latter until it becomes a problem.

Barrel Points can be used to make Barrel Rolls. A maximum of 1 point may be spent per round and Barrel Points only refresh at the beginning of a session, as in ass-hits-chair. Barrel Points not spent in a session do not carry over to next session. You spend a point to improve a roll, specifically a to-hit roll, a damage roll, an ability check, a save, or a morale check for a character's retainers. They may also be used by a caster for rolls made for magical healing from spells, or on secret door checks. They may not be used for HD rolls, to improve AC, to improve HP, to improve a Reaction Roll, to modify Thief skills, Halfling stealth, spells memorized or spells per day, etc. In other words, if it's a core class feature or flat benefit and especially if it doesn't require a roll, you can't use Barrels for it. There are some gray areas but those will be dealt with as they arise.

Your Barrel Points do not improve over time.

If you want to spend a point to improve your roll or improve the range of your roll, you have to declare that you are doing so and describe how what you're doing is better now. You have to put more panache into your description, maybe include some possible consequences should you miss that I can exploit. (Hey, if you want my job for a turn you take more responsibility than just whether or not you hit the gnoll.) If you declare you're making a Barrel Roll, you're ineligible for any modifiers I might have applied on my own. You can take a chance that I will be fair and awesome to you and give you the chance to do something great, or you can ensure that you have a better chance to do something great but it will never be as great as it potentially could've been (being just a 1 point modifier).

So....not quite how things work in Feng Shui but the same spirit, then.

  • If you begin the game with something like basket weaving to make some extra money but then we spend all campaign in some cloud world, you don't feel bad for yourself.
  • The effect and benefits are super variable, conforming to the character class, Player's play style, and to the ever changing situation on the ground in game, which no feat list or skill list is exhaustive enough to cover.
  • It doesn't make skills and feats too big a part of the game, to the point where you're a special sub-game in being good at those things.
  • It afford you ample opportunity for those deftly-sidestep-a-combat-encounter things while also letting you be good in combat.
  • It affords a sense of specialization without having to pigeonhole you to the point where you basically do the same thing every fight (or round!).
  • The Barrels make use of the physical space of the game table in a way I enjoy.
  • By adding a new commodity a new level of strategy is added for most game situations, the economy of awesomeness.

  • One more thing for players to track, and may be confusing to new players.
  • Major NPCs will have this too, which is one more thing for ME to track, and which can work against the party big time.
  • Barrels sometimes roll AWAY and off the table all by themselves.
  • People with a low or negative B-score might feel left out altogether. 
Anyway, that's the plan.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Beautiful People Will Outlive Us All

Your level 11 cleric wishes her stats were this cool looking.
So a lot of times something comes up at the table that isn't covered under the normal rules for killing or searching or hiring or looting or saving and I want to have some gradient between simply Yes or No, and a nice ability roll solves that problem by introducing chance in the mix, so I use the old equal-to-or-under-ability-score-roll, with modifiers as they come in the game and situational adjustments made on the fly, normal boring stuff.

What isn't really codified is the "head-canon" (I apologize for the term) I use when someone comes up with something that doesn't cleanly fall into Hit It, Use It, Tough It Out, Think About It, Believe It, or Talk To It. Sometimes I want a few at-a-glance guides to let me know how the various PCs measure up in literal terms. Anyway, I've seen games out there with just a ton of stats, and while I can see the intent in that kind of micromanagement it slows down character creation and makes it easy to goof up what you want. They're also games that usually have point-buy, which I eschew when running my D&D game. But in looking at the default ability scores and how they're usually talked about in many of the official game products and talked about online and in person in terms of practical use, it seems that the classic six abilities model a wider swath of categories of ability scores. I categorize these as...

Strength- Plain old physical exertion, foot pounds of pressure, OHOTMU lifting and pressing, self explanatory.
Stamina- Endurance, and how long and frequently you can put in the level of physical exertion dungeon crawling demands.
Stature- Can just be how big of a dude you are but just as likely refers to the totality of the fitness of your physique, in a fight Club carved-from-wood kind of way. I guess it could also measure how cool people think your scars are.
Dexterity- The ability to manipulate your body in order to deftly manipulate objects, such as bows, slings, locks, and ropes.
Dodge- The lithe sidestepping and avoidance of the brunt of dangers which confers your Armor Class bonus.
Discipline- The hard work (or kung fu) that reflects your training and perseverance, be you Marine sharpshooter or Shaolin disciple.
Constitution- This is often modeled as an increasing pool of health or, in some monsters, sheer scale, but more often is described in the primary texts as simply a facility at dealing with injury; rookies have a harder time walking off shrapnel than grizzled veterans, sort of thing. Also applies to certain illnesses and such, along similar thinking.
Comeliness- A lot of folk build this into Charisma but to me being good looking and being attractive are two different things, not necessarily related, and I might as well put it here as anywhere.
Chi- Your literal life-force, the midichlorian energy possessed by all matter. Luminous beings are etc etc, this is what level drain affects.
Intellect- Learning and knowledge, problem solving, vocabulary, and impulse control.
Insight- Not just how to read those around you but, just as importantly, knowing when you can't and that you're missing something.
Intuition- Memory and forethought meet at instinct and reflex, and allow one to predict the outcome of an action...in theory.
Wisdom- Governs your faith and inner strength and how tuned in you are to the world and forces around you.
Wariness- How cautious you are and your sense of self preservation.
Willpower- Your mental health and general togetherness of your shit, and resistance to other, outside shit.
Charisma- How personable and persuasive and people-y you are; how good your management skills are.
Craft- Your ability at expressing yourself creatively through art or enterprise.
Cool- Your ability to maintain your composure and charm in the face of adversity, remaining clear-headed.

A few things are obvious looking at this:
  • It's a facile system that isn't very simulationy but is very gameable.
  • It's a system where some of these sub-abilities overlap, but I'm fine with that, because there should never be just one solution to a problem even mechanically; even the monster entry for Medusa suggests a few different ways to take her out apart from the one everyone is going to do.
  • Some of these abilities are categorized where they are not because it's the 100% best match but because they start with the right letter, which is as designed, so these rulings can be made at a glance. 
  • It has some unintended confluences like the one in the title of this post which are hilarious.
Now, do make my players write all that shit down? No, they don't need to track all that separately and it would slow down the "What are you guys doing?" to "I am now playing D&D and maybe enjoying myself" journey. Do I have a DM  screen with this chart of sub-abilities on it, or a set list of Comeliness DCs? No, because that would be boring and puts me and the players in a box before the situation even comes up.

Again, this line of thinking only exists to help with some on-the-spot rulings, and so far it does. With aplomb. It's also particularly useful when someone comes to me with a kind of character, be it normal class or some new race, that they want to play, because I can point out how that manner of character works well within the existing framework of classes/races and abilities. If they're adamant or they want something that works and feels deliberately differently, I can also use this line of thinking as a guide to constructing something new and cool, or use it to determine how someone else's hacked-together class or race will fit into my game.

And while I'm on the subject of ability scores, let me say something barely related on the subject of checks, something my players have by now picked up on. If you say something like "I want to roll a diplomacy check to talk to him" or "I want to make an Intelligence check to talk to him" then whatever check you're making gets a -2 penalty. At my table the player's job is to tell the GM what they want to do and how they want to do it narratively, as in "I want to get past the door by sneaking disguised as a hedge" or "I want to bluff my way past the door disguised as the President" or "ME BASH WAY THROUGH DOOR DISGUISED AS WALL OF AXE AND DEATH." When they do this, it becomes my job as the GM to say that they succeed, and how well they succeed, or fail, and how badly they fail, or to set any conditions for any variables such as a roll or any accompanying difficulty modifiers for all points in between, or in other words to set the Mechanical How (good name for Feng Shui character?) in those instances where the result isn't blindingly obvious. Players don't get to do my job by deciding THAT a check is required to determine success or failure, much less WHAT check will determine success or failure, and presuming to do so comes with a penalty. It's only a 2 point penalty though because I'm an a-hole but I'm not a huge a-hole.

Now saying "I make a Wisdom check" and rolling before I can get the words out to stop you or set conditions, or rolling and saying "OK that roll I just made was a Wisdom check," is a -10, because all I hear when you do that is you playing the game by yourself, which is a little disrespectful to the other players and kind of also disrespectful to whomever is running, because you're basically going "NEXT!" to whatever situation or problem has been presented to you.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

F--- You, Skeleton, a.k.a. There Ain't No Sanity Clause

Skeletons are fucking rad. Skulls are even radder, because if we didn't have skulls inside of us and you asked some brilliant graphic designer to express death, an enormous idea we can conceive of and talk about simply but which is actually expansive and terrible in its scale and mystery, in terms of a simple, easy-to-digest symbol, they might attempt such as a human face, a symbol so recognizable that we see it even in things that don't really materially exist like lens flares and shadows, and they would be hard pressed to do better than a skull. If skulls were not rad enough to exist they'd be rad enough that we'd have to invent them.

In old school D&D and its ilk skeletons do not get enough love. They're still great to use for every reason skeletons are rad but you don't get much life out of them, appropriately enough. What you certainly don't get out of them is fear.

Yes I can get some mileage out of my players early in the game, especially without a cleric present, emphasizing the macabre, alien intelligence and otherworldly power that a skeleton merely existing autonomously indicates, and the sheer horror of it having a will behind it to boot, the rage of the bones, and all that. But after a couple of skeletons the effect wears off, especially as they level, and especially if they have a cleric because shockingly quickly skeletons just start instantly exploding and where is the fun in that?

You can get a little bit of that "Oh shit" back with skeletons just like you do with goblins, in upper levels, by adding way more of them. But then the thing in question is rarely seen as anything but the abstract, a mass of Other which must be overcome. It's what the human brain does. An army of skeletons isn't an army of individual skeletons, and therefore 10,000 times as scary as one skeleton, it's one army, 1x as scary as the word "army," which is pretty scary but there's no scale to it. It becomes a swarm of bees, still deadly but when you can cast Turn Bees and you've got like three scrolls of fireball you stop caring unless it's close, like at the Super Bowl.

This problem isn't specific to skeletons. I already mentioned goblins, and the normal humanoids have a bit of this as well, but even dragons can suffer from this. "Seen it, let's blow up the cave entrance and starve it out for a while, ho hum."

So does Cthulhu really. Even Cthulhu AS a joke has BECOME a joke, that's how overexposed ol' octopus-puss is. But when you sit down to play Call of Cthulhu even though your team might be cyborgs or army rangers or pulp heroes or (HEY HERE'S A THOUGHT CTHULHU GAMERS) just dudes into weird shit, they're still dwarfed by the awesome spectacle of the horrible, and if they're not then you make them at least a little more terrified for their own characters' lives. That's what we're talking about really: when something becomes known it eventually becomes safe. This is also something the human brain does. But since Call of Cthulhu is a game about fake people with fake brains it can control those brains to endanger them and BY DOING SO constantly change the stakes and situation, meaning that each new skeleton encounter is a BRAND NEW skeleton encounter (because if you can't scare them with monsters, scare them with losing all their crap). It does this with Sanity Checks.

(Quick skeleton-specific aside: I play in a 4e game and my DM loves skeletons because he is a right and just person. 4e solves the problem of "ho hum another skeleton" by having about 800 different skeletons of increasing HP and all kinds of new abilities, even if some of the distinctions boil down to "skeleton with +5 sword" which I could have done that just fine without the whole new stat block guys. What gets less used in the 4e games I've played is what they call an undead template, which you can go through your MM with and use to turn every creature into a skeleton. Not doing this would be boring so of course this is one of the approaches I take with making skeletons in particular more rad. Here's a monster, but it's also a skeleton, describe how weird that is, oh and your cleric needs at least as many HD as the original monster to turn the monster skeleton as a normal level 1 cleric turns a normal skeleton. This would have come up in my current game more if the party stopped trying to kill themselves in new and exciting ways and just let me kill them like I had planned, but as indicated above that's KNOWN and therefore BORING and I might as well get something out of this evening, too.)

This is how I intend to use the back end of Ability Scores to do the same thing:

A character coming face to face with some big holy shit horror for the first time must make an Intelligence check to keep their composure in the face of terrible awful no-good very bad things. This makes sense because magic-users have high intelligence and dealing with horrible things is their job. Passing means he can proceed normally but failing means he gets 1 point of Shock. Points of Shock are cumulative and are only lost under very rare circumstances, like human memories, and can be recovered, like human memories, so even if you get a high level cleric to soothe you you can always have a Nam flashback and be right in the shit again. You have to make a second check when subject to a Fear effect.

A character taking a point of Shock records on the back of their sheet the specific trigger for that point of Shock. Extra xp for players who remember to play these key moments out later, because this is how real fear works. You eventually get to the point where your arachnophobia isn't so bad you can't even be around fake Halloween cobwebs, but they still skeeve you out and you worry a little bit every time you try to flush one that he'll get out of the toiler paper and take your whole hand off.

Characters who incur a number of Shock points equal to their Wisdom score take a permanent 1 point penalty to AC, to-hit, damage, and even HD rolls. This makes sense because clerics have high wisdom because they're more accustomed to fighting evil and horrible things as a job description and so can last longer before cracking from the pressure. When they finally do crack under the pressure, though, it's like a shell-shocked soldier, they're just going to be all-around less useful in the field from then on.

When a character's Shock exceeds their Wisdom score, when their "inner harmony" can no longer keep things together, they begin to go a bit peculiar. For each additional Shock point, they crack and go completely Froot Loops. Gain a permanent behavior disorder, or a disorder their already have gets one major magnitude worse. After 2 game sessions or 2d4 in game days, whichever is longer, Remove Curse can undo one of these effects, but doesn't reduce a character's Shock value. When a character's Shock value reaches 20, they're officially pantscrappingly crazy enough that they're not your PC any more. They're my NPC and we're going to have fun together.

This also means that when generating NPC parties of adventurers or key high level NPCs they all also have a Shock value rolled using 3d6 unmodified, with any appropriate penalties and new effects applied.

Now there are enough awesome insanity tables out there that I don't really need to provide one here...but I will. Roll equal to or under your current Shock value on this chart, re-rolling if necessary. If you end up with disorders that seem to contradict one another you suffer the potential of an Asimov's Law Breakdown, which is also my favorite electric banjo song. Save or be literally stuck arguing with yourself until someone snaps you out of it, giving you a Charisma save to stop acting like a lunatic for five minutes. Except where indicated all other madness saves are also Charisma based, using Charisma since you still may be crazy after the save but you need at least the ability to ACT sane for a short time.

1. Choose an animal. Character screams uncontrollably at that animal in its presence. Roll this result again and they react to any artwork or depiction of that animal. Roll this result again and even the name of that animal or words who sound like it get the same response.
2. Must compulsively steal something useless from every building they enter. Roll again and they do not even try to conceal their theft. Roll again and this applies to all outdoor and social situations as well.
3. Character dissociates and adopts a new identity. Roll again and character also things it's the opposite gender. Roll again and character also thinks it's another race entirely.
4. You agree with everything your friends tell you. Roll again and you agree with everything anybody other than your enemies and monsters tell you. Roll again and agree with anything anybody tells you.
5. You compulsively lie, except where self-interest and self-preservation are concerned. Roll again and you lie even if you lose out by lying and endanger yourself. Roll again and you lie on pain of death, to everyone, incapable of telling the truth.
6. You believe you're in a dream, but you still take effort to survive your dream. Roll again, you believe you're invincible in your dream. Roll again, you believe that you are PART of the dream and one known NPC of the GM's choice is the dreamer you must protect at all cost in order to survive.
7. You believe one innocuous item, animal, or person is in fact deadly. Roll again, you believe one dangerous item, animal, or person is in fact harmless. Roll again, make a dangerous selection and a safe selection; you can no longer distinguish between the two.
8. Lose a language you know, except your alignment language. Roll again, lose an additional language you know PLUS your alignment language. Roll again, you know no languages and have animal intelligence.
9.You only fight with an invisible weapon only you can see and feel. Roll again, you only fight with invisible, invulnerable armor only you can see and feel. Make sure you change the description of these each time. Roll again, not only do you not use other weapons or armor, you go out of the way to destroy other weapons and armor you could use.
10. You sing what you're doing. Roll again, you even sing everything you're thinking with no filter. Roll again, you can only sing, and sing in your sleep.
11. You light small fires whenever possible. Roll again, this extends to your party's stuff. Roll again, this extends to your other party members and to you.
12. General cowardice, and an additional -1 to hit. Roll again, save vs spells when confronted with anything scarier than mundane provincial life or run away as from Fear. Roll again, you get one additional Shock point and make another roll.
13. You become convinced you're actually a zombie. Roll again, you think you're a ghost. Roll again, you think you're a lich, aboog aboog aboog.
14. You kill small things in needlessly cruel ways like Renfield, and must do so whenever possible. Roll again, you feel compelled to hurt your friends, attacking them whenever possible but only doing 1 damage. Roll again, you're compelled to harm yourself, and will inflict 1 damage per attack against yourself as often as possible.
15. You begin worshiping a god nobody has heard of. Roll again, you declare yourself high priest and believe you have cleric abilities or the abilities of a cleric 5 levels higher. Roll again, you are this god made flesh, his only begotten son.
16. You have seething, boiling urges that constantly color your judgments. To begin with, you want to bang everything, party excluded. Roll again, you want to kill everything, party excluded. Roll again, you want to marry everything, party NOT excluded.
17. You see everyone who has ever died, anywhere, all around you, at all times, or think you do. Roll this again and you also hear them, always. Roll it again and you cannot distinguish the visions and voices of the dead from the living.
18. You're possessed by a demon with his own personality and agenda, and must save vs Spells to act in your best interests instead of the demon's. Also, roll again and add that result, too.
19. Roll three times and take each result.
20. Your madness has given you icy clarity to see through the veil of worlds and observe the cosmic underpinnings which lie beneath. Save vs Death or your heart stops or your brain trickles out your ears or something. If you successfully save, roll 1d6. 1-3: you become imbued with one level 9 magic-user spell which you can cast once per day. 4-5: you become a unicorn, retaining the better of your AC/HD/HP or the unicorn's default stats. 6: you're a god now, but not the good kind like you want, and suffer 1d10 mutations.

Now I'm not going to use this system universally but I will use it evenly. Nobody has to save when they see a horse, but everybody has to save when mummys show up, always, even if you sit down at the table with your 2hp and announce you're a world famous mummy slayer (So your PC is an enormous liar, interesting...). This is also a good way for me to put some mechanical meat on the metaphorical bones of how I handle ghosts, but that's other posts. And there'll be weird exceptions. In my Arcis Enumre game, for example, humans and dwarfs from outside this great city have to save the first time they meet a gnome, for example, because gnomes are fucking weird.

And you can bet twice and a half your own ass I'll be using this for some skeletons, monstrous or otherwise.