Friday, June 27, 2008

RC Hacks and House Rules: Page 249 - Artifacts!

Flipping to the randomly generated page 249, here we have a sample Artifact: Mask of Bachraeus. Somewhat strangely, I haven’t been able to locate any additional information on Bachraeus in my Mystara material, and some digging around online seems to confirm that here, tucked in the Treasure chapter of the Rules Cyclopedia of all places, we’re given a new Immortal in the sphere of Entropy, from the flavor text, we can determine that Bachraeus is the patron of Medusae. Oh, the ideas...

I’m tempted to hook this into that bit at the end of B2 and turn the Keep into the first stop on an arching artifact-based adventure path. Who could forget that shapely prisoner imprisoned in the Caves of Chaos? With WoAdWriMo rapidly approaching, I'm being bombarded with ideas from every direction. Hopefully I can stick with one long enough to contribute this year.

As an aside: I’ve always had a soft spot for Medusae, but I definitely tend to portray them as much more classical, breathtakingly beautiful and sinister foes in my games. I really prefer this to the depiction they were given for 3rd (and carried over for 4th, unsurprisingly) edition.

Exhibit A: Bad Medusa.

I like to go with the "cursed by the gods" for their beauty and hubris angle a little more I suppose. Here you have an amazingly gorgeous woman, and a mere glance at her will turn you to stone. Avoid the gaze, and you've still got the copperhead coiffure to contend with. Granted, it's really hard to argue with the awesome-ness of the serpentine Medusa from Clash of the Titans, and I also did enjoy Jeff’s Medusae (adapted from Marvel Comics), but when I think about Medusae, my brain instantly links to Caravaggio's depiction.

But back to our sheep, the system of Handicaps and Penalties outlined here is an interesting guideline, although I must confess, I'm pretty prone to shoving tiny magical quirks on virtually any magical item that my player's get their grubby hands on. This helps reinforce the idea that magic is unpredictable, and honestly, no two plus two swords should really be identical. The Handicaps associated with artifacts look pretty brutal, but the Penalty-per-use seems like a pretty way to balance an effectively limit-less spell casting item. I think in most cases, owning the artifact is enough of a problem as it is, and in the case of the Mask of Bachraeus, the players would probably have to contend with a rather perturbed nest of Medusae1, eager to get their precious artifact back.

ars ludi recently touched on making treasure special, and the artifact creation rules within the RC definitely seem to encourage this. By tying an epic history to an artifact, you can subtly encourage higher-level players to follow up on all those wonderful plot hooks and ideas that you've been itching to try out. In fact on the page there’s this lovely tidbit:
This artifact will shatter irrevocably if its gaze is ever reflected by the Golden Mirror of Ka. The wearer of the mask will be immediately stunned for a full turn and will remember nothing of what he did while wearing the mask, but he will be otherwise unharmed.
Aspiring DMs are given a springboard for the creation of their first artifact, within the description of the sample artifact! Golden Mirror of Ka you say? The one that was lost when Milenia was sacked and razed by the Bogdashkan Orcs?

Anyone care to take a crack at stat-ing the Golden Mirror of Ka in the comments? If you do, feel free to also provide a page number of the RC for me to tackle next!

1. Medusae need a collective noun. In searching for a suitably snake-y noun, I did come across a rhumba of rattlesnakes, which is great.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mentzer Basic Set III

The Gygax Memorial transcript, continued from Part One Here and Part Two Here...

Wherein, our mighty adventurers agree to enter the Golden Gate and ascend several flights of stairs.

Magic-User: “About how long have we been climbing?”

DM: “As a Magic-User, you’re good with numbers and recognizing patterns, so I’ll say you’ve been counting steps this entire time. By now the party has almost twice as high as the previous set of stairs.”

Magic-User: “We must be getting closer to the surface! Maybe this is another way out!”

Fighter: “Using the 10 foot pole I’m going to prod along the steps ahead and make sure there aren’t any traps.”

DM: “So far so good, the steps finally end at a large 30 by 30 landing, there’s a rusty iron door barely hanging on its hinges in the center of the northern wall. The room is very dusty, and the rotting remains of a table and a few chairs are stacked in front of the door next to the short humanoid skeleton in corroded metal armor.”

Fighter: “30 by 30? Got it!”

Cleric: “Can I identify what race the skeleton is using my training as a Cleric of Lawful?”

DM: “It appears to be the skeleton of a Dwarf. Easily dead for a hundred years.”

Magic-User: “I’m going to try and search the room.”

Fighter: “Me too.”

Fighter: “And me! Watching out for traps.”


Fighter: “I got a one!”

(Still no wandering monsters)

DM: “Awesome Fighter! Beneath the skeletal hand of the dwarf you find a small piece of parchment, miraculously untouched by age and covered in thick silver runes.”

Fighter: “Magic-User! Magic-User! I think I found another Scroll!”

Magic-User: “I speak Dwarven, let me have a look at the runes.”

DM: “I’ll get back to you in just a moment Magic-User, Cleric what have you been doing all this time?”

Cleric: “While they’re searching the room, I’m going to say a prayer for the fallen Dwarf and take out the Wand that we found in the Kobold room. Is there anything on the wand that gives a hint about how it works or what it does?”

DM: “The wand appears to be made of finely carved ivory, potentially from the horn or tusk of some giant beast. It’s hollow and one end is decorated with a stylized eye carved out of a blue gem. Small shiny brass axes are inlaid on the “handle” and form the wand’s grip.”

Cleric: “Brass Axes. Like the Brazen-Axe clan? I bet this wand is dwarven.”

DM: “Magic-User, the runes on the parchment do not appear to be magical in nature, but it does contain a message. I can read it out loud and just assume that you’re translating it for everyone. OK?

Magic-User: “That’s fine.

DM: The parchment says: “Hid axe and wand where those barking buggers will never find ‘em. Groma if you find this, use the wand to find the supplies by Lawful, we’ll need ‘em against the mother. Gasses getting heavier. Seeping in. Forgefather protect us! I have failed you my King!”

Magic-User: “Bummer.”

Fighter: “I HAVE FOUND THE AXE! I guess that makes me smarter than the kobolds!”

Cleric: “And this wand is probably the wand in the message that we need to use to find the supplies. Magic-User can you tell me anything else about it.”

Magic-User: “I don’t know, can I?”

DM: “You can definitely tell that it is magical, probably not of an arcane nature though, and you know from your training that most wands need a command word to operate.”

Cleric: “What’s the Dwarven word for Lawful?”

Magic-User: “Dwawful

Cleric: “I hold the wand out and point it away from everyone and say “Dwawful” in a firm even voice.”

DM: “The tip of the wand glows brightly, illuminating the room in a pale blue light. The light seems concentrated on the flagstone beneath the dead dwarf.”

Fighter: “I MOVE THE DWARF!”

DM: “The blue light outlines the dusty flagstone.”

Cleric: “Awesome. Wand of Secret Door Detection or Find Traps. Be Careful!”

Fighter: “Using the 10 foot pole, I try to pry up the stone.”

DM: “It slides uneasily out of the way, revealing a dark opening.”

Magic-User: “I approach with my torch, what’s do we see.”

DM: “Your torchlight glimmers off of what appears to be a cache of fragile glass vials, filled with liquids.”

Fighter: “POTIONS! Magic-User!”

Magic-User: “I know. I’m on it. Do any of them look similar to the amber one that I gave to Fighter after his run in with the skeleton?”


DM: “Yes. Four of them appear to be remarkably similar to the amber potion. There are two more that are different though.”

Magic-User: “What color are they?”

DM: “Both are sort of a pale green color and slightly fizzy. Kind of like this...”

DM gestures to the Mountain Dew on the table.

Magic-User: “Mountain Dew? Seriously!?”

DM: “Ancient Dwarven Secret. Dew from the Mountains!”

Magic-User: “Is it Magical Dew?”

DM: “Could be. Who wants to test it?”

Fighter: “I HAVE ONLY 1 HIT POINT. STAND BY WITH AMBER POTION! I take a small sip of the Mountain Dew.”

DM: “Even though it is a small sip, you feel invigorated and full of vim and vigor…”

Fighter: “So it’s just plain Mountain Dew then?”

DM: “The ache in your muscles seems to vanish, Fighter, as do the circles under your eyes. The tiny cuts from your battle with the skeletons completely disappear.”

Cleric: “Looks like some kind of Super Healing Potion.”

Fighter: “Works like Mountain Dew!”

Magic-User: “We should definitely divvy these up. Everyone take an Amber Potion. Cleric and I will take a Mountain Dew a piece.”

DM: “I’ve created a monster… So what now?”

Fighter: “Is there anything else in the alcove?”

DM: “The potions appear to be resting on something metallic, but it’s difficult to identify with all the cobwebs.”

Fighter: “Magic-User, can I use your torch to burn away these webs?”

Magic-User: “Yes, but be careful. There may be scrolls in there.”

Fighter: “I carefully use the torch to clear away some of the webs in the hole, and use the extra light to get a better look at the metallic object.”

DM: “It appears to be a shield of some sort. There’s an inscription on it.”

Fighter: “OK, I’m going to reach in and pull out the shield. Can I read the inscription?”

DM: “It’s in Elven script but the words are Dwarven. Magic-User translates “To Groma, adventurer and ally to the end! I hope you return soon with help from your Elves!”

Cleric: “The concept of the relationship between the languages on this makes my brain hurt.”


Fighter: “I put on the Shield. How does it feel?”

DM: “Surprisingly light on your arm. You have a feeling that it may be magical.”

Fighter: “Magic-User? Oh, nevermind.”

Magic-User: “Yep. I can’t identify anything yet.”

Fighter: “Oh well, I’ll wear it.”

DM: “Great, there doesn’t appear to be anything else in the niche, and the room seems devoid of anything else interesting. What are you going to do, Caller?”

Magic-User: “If it’s cool with everyone, let’s get in order and try the door.”

Cools all the way around.

DM: “The door is very rusty and barely seems to be hanging in it’s frame. Who wants to open it?”


DM: “Great! It swings open slowly into a well lit cavernous room. As your eyes adjust to the light, you notice that the floor of the cavern seems littered with thick Purple Fungus.”

Cleric: “Everybody stop! This could be bad news.”

DM: “In the distance you hear a low roar.”

Magic-User: “Is it like the roar before?”

DM: “Very similar.”

Magic-User: “Great. Everyone watch out, I think we just found a back door into the waterfall room. Here be dragon.”


Fighter: “I’m going to poke some of the fungus with the 10 foot pole.”

DM: “ The fungus exudes some sickly looking violet spores. I need a Save vs. Paralysis from everyone.”

Party: “Crap.”

(I hadn't actually planned to have the spores have a negative game affect, but what can I say, it’s always fun to see them squirm.)


Magic-User: “Sixteen.”

Cleric: “18.”

Fighter: “It landed on a corner. But I think it’s supposed to be a fourteen.”

DM: “Awesome. Everyone manages to bring a free hand up to their faces quickly enough to prevent themselves from inhaling the strange purple spores. The cavernous room looms ahead full of stalactites and stalagmites.”

Magic-User: “Stalactites are on the ceiling. The C is for Ceiling. The G in Stalagmite is for ground.”

Cleric: “Do I recognize any of this fungus?”

DM: “You have a feeling that it might be useful somehow. Probably for the clearing the lungs. You’re not really sure.”

Cleric: “Don't spores usually do the opposite? Better not risk it. Is there a way to get across the room without disturbing the Lungus.”

DM: “It seems to clump around the bases of some of the larger Stalagmites. So it should be possible to navigate through it if you move slooowly.”

Magic-User: “Slooowly guys. Let’s go.”

Fighter: “How big is the room?”

DM: “Whoops. It’s large. Uneven. The ceiling is probably about thirty feet high, the room itself is a cavern, roughly a hundred feet wide. The Roaring sound comes from the north.”

Fighter: “I hate mapping caverns.”

Magic-User: “Waterfall is north. Everyone try to be extra quiet and careful. Last time we saw a waterfall, there was a dragon.”

Fighter: “A green horse dragon.”

DM: “A dragon as big as a warhorse. You creep slowly and carefully through the fields of fungus, drawing nearer to the roaring sound of the waterfall. Soon you reach a ledge that overlooks the dragon sleeping atop its hoard. The ledge is about 50 feet high. The roar of the waterfall means that there’s little chance that you’ll be overheard.”

Magic-User: “Alright guys, looks like we’re fighting this dragon whether we want to or not. We should probably get a strategy together…”

To be continued further...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Rules Cyclopedia Hacks and House Rules: Thief Special Abilities

Rules Cyclopedia: Chapter 2: The Character Classes, Page 22.

Oh, I was hoping I would have a few more of these under my belt before tackling this, but the random number generator has spoken. Page 22 consists mostly of tables relating to the Thief character class, specifically, the Experience Table, Saving Throws, and of course, the Thief Special Abilities Table.

Gentle reader, versed in the ways of Classic D&D, I’m sure you can sense the reasons for my trepidation here, for there are a few features of the Thief Special Abilities Table that seem somewhat out of place among an otherwise light rules set.

I’ve made several attempts over the years to find a solution for what I see as the key problems with this particular Table. Problems may be too strong a word, bugbear is better.

Ktrey's Key Bugbears:

  1. Percentile Based Resolution – Other than the Woodland Abilities of the Halfling, virtually none of the Special Abilities for other classes are tied to the success of a roll on a d%. I understand that the d% produces much more granulation than the other dice, but it still seems out of place for D&D PCs. After all, we’re not playing RuneQuest.

  2. Six of the Eight Thief abilities, when tested by player, can lead to awkward game-play situations.

    1st level Thief Player: “I check for Traps” (rolls 52%)
    DM: “You don’t find any.”
    (Player knows that he rolled above his Find Traps, so there could still be traps and perhaps proceeds a bit more cautiously. Quite a classic quandary.)

    1st level Thief Player: “I try to Move Silently” (rolls 45%) “Crap.”

    Before you cry “player problem,” please entertain the inconsistency here, although failure at a task should always be a possibility for players, only a few other classes have built in thresholds like this (the Cleric's Turning Chart comes to mind). Fighter can swing his sword against a foe and the outcome is unknown until it is compared to the AC of the defender (which the Fighter can guess, based on the foe's armor, etc, but this is not a sure-fire way to determine the difficulty). Magic-User's get their spells off, and the Saving Throw determines success or failure (what does an Owl Bear save as again?). Thieves are first hand witnesses to their failure, in real time.

    The previous page in the Rules Cyclopedia (p. 21) has some text that addresses this with the following:
    “at the DM's discretion, either the player or the DM will roll percentile dice (d%).”
    I tend to automatically dislike anything that takes the dice out of the player’s hand, doubly so when it is tied to their character’s success or failure at a task.

    The Rules Cyclopedia also continues by mentioning circumstantial bonuses and penalties that can be applied to the chances in order to further obfuscate potential success and failure. A rusty lock granting a 40% bonus to Open Locks, etc.

    With the addition of these two caveats, percentage based abilities work a little better, but still just don’t seem to fit in with the understated elegance of the rest of the rules.

  3. Poor 1st level Thieves begin play with the following percentages:
    Open Locks 15%
    Find Traps 10%
    Remove Traps 10%
    Climb Walls 87%
    Move Silently 20%
    Hide In Shadows 10%
    Pick Pockets 20%
    Hear Noise 30%
    These aren’t terrible odds on paper, with most of the abilities increasing by five each level for the first eight levels, but in actual play, lower level thieves simply can’t shine without hefty “circumstantial help” from the DM or incredibly consistent luck.
In the past, I’ve done some rather strange things to address these issues. Some proved more popular than others, and as with any of my Rules Cyclopedia House Rules, these can be taken, left, or adapted to fit. If anything I hope to promote more discussion about polishing an already shiny system that is perfectly playable as-is.

So without further ado, I present some Hacks and House Rules for Page 22 of the Rules Cyclopedia:

To address Key Bugbear 3 (Poor 1st Level Thieves) I’ve occassionally let players add ability score based amounts to their Thief Abilities:

Ability Option One: DEX x 5
This gives beginning thieves anywhere from 15 to 90 points to spread out among their Thief abilities. Allowing for a great deal of customization (to fit backstory, or character concept). To limit this somewhat, I recommend that players adhere to certain restrictions; no thief ability can be raised above what it would be for a 5th level thief, or no ability can receive more than 20 points this way. Like most Point-Buy additions, this option does result in more book-keeping, as players need to keep track of their bonus points and actual level percentage separately. In play, it also tends to make for some pretty darn competent thieves, which is generally only ideal for a short campaign.

This option is very hackable to boot. Consider trying DEX x 4, or 3, or 2, or even 1 depending on personal preference and the power-level you promote. It's just a little extra-oomph for the Thief who fancies themselves a master locksmith, but would never dream of picking a pocket.

Ability Option Two: Ability Based Bonuses.
This option ties different stats to the different thief abilities. Then, either the ability score, or more stingily, any ability score bonus is applied to the Thief Ability in question.
Open Locks - DEX
Find Traps - WIS
Remove Traps - INT
Climb Walls - STR
Move Silently - DEX
Hide In Shadows - DEX
Pick Pockets – DEX (Possibly CHR?)
Hear Noise – WIS
Dexterity is arguably one of the best of the six ability scores in Classic D&D, providing that much needed Armor Class boost at lower levels, as well as the bonus to hit with missile weapons. This option takes some of the bite and power out of the attribute, and may lead to more careful ability score selection.

While the above ideas primarily seem to address the power level of thieves, some of the options outlined below also work wonders for this. This section outlines some ideas for dealing with Key Bugbear #1: Those Pesky Percentages!

Pesky Percentages Option 1 or D6 Forever!
Some other intrepid House Rulers have worked to convert the Thief Abilities into tasks that can be resolved with a d6. Their rather impressive work on this subject can be found on this page: Thieves and Rakes: A Variety Of Class Options. While I haven’t had the chance to playtest these rules, they do seem to strike me as sound. And I especially like that the rules dovetail nicely with the extant “find secret doors” and “listen” rules for demihumans.

Pesky Percentages Option 2 or Task Difficulty as Armor Class
Give Thieves the Fighter’s Attack Progression for attempting their Thief Abilities, and give their obstacles an Armor Class based on difficulty. Decide whether or not you would like to allow Dexterity bonus (or even other ability bonuses) to figure into this roll. The Thief then simply writes a THAC0 next to each of his abilities and task resolution is handled with the roll of a d20 against the DM determined AC of the obstacle. As a handy hint, this Obstacle AC can decrease as the character descends deeper into a dungeon.

This Option also helps bring back some of that “mystery” to thief abilities, as the player will likely never know the difficulty of the obstacle they are trying to overcome, and therefore won’t automatically be tempted to assume failure or meta-game (see: Ktrey's Key Bugbear 2). Unless a One is rolled and there are provisions for automatic-failure. I have in mind an upcoming article on one of the more venerable (second perhaps only to the Critical Hit?) house rules: The Fumble. The “Joys of Fumbling” will provide some advice on how to handle these 1s.

Pesky Percentages Option 3 or Convert Thief Abilities to General Skills
Since Stealth (choose terrain) is already a General Skill, some Dungeon Masters may be tempted to simply convert the other thief abilities into Rules Cyclopedia General Skills. These General Skills can use Dexterity, or for more variety, the optional ability scores above. While this does mean that Thieves will start off with 8 more General Skills than the rest of the character classes, and may be spending all of their skill slots improving these abilities rather than taking on new General Skills, they are Thieves after all, and this is only a method of representing their specialized training and niche. For this very reason, limiting or disallowing other classes to take these skills is highly recommended to keep the Thief special. One could even give Thieves another “Thievery Skill Slot” every few levels (I’ve had success with adapting the Weapon Mastery table for this) to encourage them to use their normal slots to take other skills.

Caveat: With high ability scores the chance of success for thief abilities converted in this manner increases dramatically, so liberal application of those “circumstantial modifiers” might be needed. On the flip side, a set of +1 Lock Picks, or Boots of Silent Step +2, become wonderful treasures that fall in line with the Fighter's ubiquitous +1 Longsword. (Lock Picks +10%? Please.)

Or, if you prefer to not deal with the headaches of “circumstantial modifiers”, give each of the Thief General skills a flat base. Say, 8-10 (or cruelly roll randomly! Yikes!) and allow them to be improved normally with slots via advancement. With this method it might be better to use the “growing d6” method for resolution (helm tip to Sham’s Grog n’ Blog for highlighting this niftiness). Simple tasks are resolved using 2d6, standard tasks are resolved using 3d6, for more difficult tasks, increase the number of d6s and ring in the bell curve.

Pesky Percentages Option 4
Slot Based Thief Abilities or When Things Just Get Weird.
This one is rather radical, but was fairly fun for the players. Thieves use the Magic-User’s spell progression for their “Thief Slots.”

Glancing over the Spell Lists for the respective Spell Casting Classes, let’s look at some Thief Abilities and their Magical counterparts.
Find Traps – 2nd level Cleric Spell – Find Traps)
Open Locks – 2nd level Magic-User Spell – Knock)
Remove Traps – 3rd level Magic-User Spell - Dispel Magic?)
Move Silently – 2nd level Cleric Spell – Silence 15’ Radius)
Hide In Shadows – 1st level Magic-User Spell - Darkness, or 2nd level Invisibility)
Climb Walls – 2nd level Magic-User Spell – Levitate?)
Pick Pockets – 1st level Magic-User Spell – Charm Person?)
Hear Noise – 1st level Cleric Spell – Detect Evil?)
Some are less than perfect fits I agree, but bear with me. For the most part, Thieves will use the standard method in your game for Thief Special Ability resolution, but giving the Thief a limited number of Daily “auto-success” for their abilities could considerably improve their chances to shine.

Some interesting questions crop up: Do they meditate on any of these techniques every night and pick a new one from their “Thief Slot List” each day (like Clerics)? Do they begin with access to only one to study nightly, and then “learn” them from other, more experienced thieves or musty manuals of thievery (Magic-User)? Are there new and exciting Thief techniques that can be learned? Are the game mechanics of these “Thief Slots” identical to the spell effect (modified to have Magic read as Traps in the case of Dispel Magic)? These are some thought-provoking questions for the DM brave enough to attempt or adapt this hack, and are tragically beyond the scope of this installment.

At roughly the equivalent level for Clerics, and exactly for Magic-Users, the spell casting classes already have the ability to perform these tasks, edging in on the territory of the Thief while simultaneously tying up a precious spell slot. I find it helps to keep in mind that Thieves tend to advance much quicker than the other classes, but this advancement doesn’t really seem as rewarding as the others (and only produces a lot of erasures beneath their “Thief Abilities” section on their sheet).

What about the 7th level Thief and their first 4th level “Thief Slot” you ask? Well a quick glance at the spell lists reveals some potential candidates:
4th level: (Cleric Spell - Neutralize Poison (“I've spent years building up an immunity to Black Dougal’s Bane”)
For dastardly thieves, its reverse Poison could also be neat.
4th level: (Magic-User – Polymorph Self) Disguise anyone?
By turning creativity up, it becomes pretty difficult to place a limit on which spell effects Thieves could potentially replicate as one of their “Thief Slots.”

Be warned however, this option is straying very far out of the stalwart Keep of house-rule territory and closer to woolly woods and chaotic caves of “System Revision.” In fact, it seems that something very similar was tried previously with the old Warlock RPG as one of the first attempts to “fix” D&D:

Warlock RPG - Thief Special Ability Charts

Some good ideas here for “Thief Slots,” but again, this is dangerously close to rewriting the game. Using these, I’d be tempted to start writing up some “Fighter Slots” and then I might as well be fiddling with another Edition.

Which of these Hacks/House Rules do I use in my games? Well, currently I don’t have a Classic D&D game running (although I’m looking to rectify this soon), but one of my last games with Thieves used the Task Difficulty as Armor Class option with a surprising degree of success. Almost to the point of me adopting the progression across the board, with each class using the Fighter progression for various Class related tasks, but that, I’m afraid, will need to wait for another post...

Bah. Who am I kidding? For my next game, I'm just as likely to play completely by the book with my Thieves. The Rules Cyclopedia just plain rules, and the above could just be considered a lengthy thought exercise. But do let me know if you find anything interesting, useful, or unclear.

Dedicated to the memory of Luven Lightfinger, Apprentice extraordinaire (Str 13, Int 14, Wis 9, Con 12, Dex 16, Cha 13) who lost his life “In Search of the Unknown” along with his party’s Elf due to rolling poorly versus a portcullis trap:

If all attempts to escape fail, the persons trapped will be doomed to their fate.

Thank you Mr. Carr and B1.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The House Rules Cyclopedia (Part One)

This will be the first of my (weekly? Bi-weekly?) installments regarding the wonderful Rules Cyclopedia. Some entries will focus on House Rules, and others will revolve around some of the RC hacks I’ve used in the past.

Not including the Appendices and Contents/Credits sections, the Rules Cyclopedia contains around 263 pages. But, instead of wading through in order, I’m going to be using this Handy Custom Random Number Generator to generate a page number between 5 and 267. This will let me tackle the contents of the book rather haphazardly, and I embraced randomness long ago. Besides, I’m firmly convinced that a potential Hack or House Rule lurks on virtually every page of this book.

First result: Page 98. (Any readers should feel free to follow along at home)

Here, tucked away in Chapter 7: Encounters and Evasion we have a rather remarkable table (Subtable: 11. City Encounters). By combining the roll of a d8 with a d20, any of 160 people and professions are at your disposal to give that “Human” result from the previous tables a little more punch. Or one could use it to add a little more spice to the randomly encountered city denizen.

However, I have a feeling that this table is eminently more hack-able.

I'll be using this nifty online dice tool to help me take this table through the paces, and Yafnag is great for the occasional random name.

Subtable: 11. City Encounters (Page 98) Hacks:

Random Character Backstory:
These days, characters are rarely born in a vacuum, and some players just love fleshing out their character’s history and backstory for you. But this table can be used to give others a springboard, and the results can provide some excellent adventure seeds as well.

So, father was a Gambler (4.4) and your brother is a respectable Wheelwright (8.17). If father’s still alive, maybe he owes money to a (7.17) Tavernkeeper. Maybe your sister ran off with a (4.12) Guardsman. Childhood sweetheart: son of a (4.11) Graveyard Keeper. Best Friend: (7.5) Indentured Servant.

Even More Backstory?
What did your character do before becoming an adventurer?

Maybe you aspired to be a (8.10) Vigilante.
Who committed the crime? (4.5) A Gemcutter. Against who? (3.10) A Druid Adventurer.

Continuing the theme of living, breathing characters, I’ve always been tempted to use this table to help tie players to a particular place by letting them begin the game with a few “friends.” Sometimes a character’s contacts can also be brimming with interesting story, hooks, and/or seeds.

I smell a House Rule:

Characters start the game with d4+Charaisma Bonus Contacts. Either randomly roll (my personal favorite) or choose some “contacts” from Subtable: 11. City Encounters. These “contacts” are people that your character knows and who are automatically considered “friendly” for the purposes of NPC Reactions. Remember that Armorsmith in the sample adventure from the Mentzer Basic Player’s Handbook who let your character trade his chain for plate? These NPCs are people have known your character long enough to do you the odd favor or two, and likewise if they needed help from you, you’d be hard pressed to refuse.

Artan the Fighter has 3 Contacts:
(1.16) Bazaar Merchant
(4.1) Freighter
(2.12) Carter
Need to stowaway somewhere? Looking for rare goods? Need help smuggling something through the city? There you go. Randomness sometimes produces results that go together like peas in a pod. This is one of those examples. Looks like Artan might have been a Caravan Guard or a Marine/Sailor at some point.

General Skills
Do you use General Skills? Need something for those pesky Profession (choose type) and Craft (choose type) skills?

How about Craft (4.8 – Glassblower) or Profession (8.20 – Woodcutter)? This table can really help characters fill in some blanks.

Retainers, Hirelings, Henchmen
Who doesn’t like Retainers (or Hirelings, or Henchmen)? Chapter 12: Strongholds and Dominions specifically refers to this table on page 138 in regards to retainers. The RC seems to have phased out the use of the term Hirelings (although the Retainers section does state that the two are interchangeable).

Hirelings weren’t always necessarily mercenaries for hire, why the extra sword-arm and treasure-porter you managed to hire might actually be a former (4.10) Government Official. Better yet, what if she still is?

I’ve even used Subtable: 11 City Encounters in the past as a springboard for urban adventure.

First I use the table to make a few NPCs
(8.14) Winemaker
(5.1) Jailor
(6.11) Politician
(1.8) Astrologer

Then I embrace randomness, and try to string them together:
A superstitious Politician needs the adventurers help to get information from a local Winemaker about an alcoholic Jailor that he suspects of being susceptible to bribes. Along the way, the PCs will need to solicit the help of a greedy Astrologer.

Heck. Even a dungeon hook one-liner can work sometimes:
Go to the dungeon and rescue a prominent (5.14) Madame from the clutches of the goblins that waylaid her carriage as she was traveling between cities.

Urban Design/World Building
So you’ve mapped out that city/village/hamlet but what are all those buildings? How does this town relate to others economically?

Well, the small rectangular building belongs to a (8.4) Town Hall Employee, who also works as the town’s (7.14) Weaver. Another quick roll and (7.1 – School Teacher) tells us that that the building by the river is a School, while (4.19 - Hunter) can be interpreted to tell us that this town’s chief export might just be furs and skins. The (6.19) Taxidermist will tell you that most of the town’s imports consist of (3.4 – Diary Worker) dairy goods from another nearby village.

When coupled with a little bit of creativity, this table is positively brimming with ideas and has many more uses than just your standard “Encounter Table.”

Have you ever found a use for it in another interesting way?

Friday, June 20, 2008

My girlfriend is incredibly interesting.

So I was blathering on and on about how much I enjoy the combat mechanics of The Riddle Of Steel today as my girlfriend Candace was practicing on her ukulele when she provided a pretty nifty 4e House Rule.

See, she was thinking a little bit more about the 4e Combat System of Powers and their usage constraints. We played a really sloppy and quick combat session on Tuesday with the usual group and sure enough, Candace the RPG Combat HaterTM actually enjoyed what her Tiefling Wizard could do to control the battlefield.

Without further ado, I present a paraphrasing of her neat idea:

"I was thinking about the powers in 4e combat. You get your at-will, your encounter, and your daily powers, but what about a per-level power. An awesome, sort of David vs. Goliath thing for Clerics for instance."

Wow that sounds all kinds of cool. The economy of action in 4e virtually guarantees that players will be siphoning off their Encounter Powers toward the end of the battle, or their Dailies if an Extended Rest is eminent. But players only really have a rough idea of when they are actually going to level, so this might be something special that they want to hold on to "Just In Case."

I'm personally thinking about allowing this "Level" power to be chosen from the next level of Powers (daily, encounter, at-will, whatever is applicable to the situation). As a bonus it'll also help players get familiar with what they have to look forward to next level.

I've been blogging a bit 4e-centric lately, but don't worry, I haven't drank the flavor-aid just yet. I'll be returning to form very soon with a weekly "Rules Cyclopedia House Rules" column.

Monday, June 16, 2008

4e and Life Expectancy

Candace was casually thumbing through the Fourth Edition Players Handbook the other day at my request when she spotted something a little odd.

I needed her to give the book a glance because she's a set of relatively fresh eyes as far as Role Playing and Dungeons & Dragons are concerned. My reading of Fourth Edition materials tend to leave me either crumpled in a corner whimpering or foaming at the mouth and gnashing my teeth. Her perspective would have to be closest I could get to an unbiased view until I actually have a chance to play/run it.

She noticed that oddly, the life expectancies for virtually all of the pre-existing races had been reduced rather drastically. This wasn't too unusual really, as Fourth Edition seems to be more geared for "Heroic" play that centers on characters retiring at 30th level as challenging encounters dry up (granted, this could be rectified with future Paragon/Epic Tier Splats), so living to a ripe-old age is pretty out of the question.

However she did notice that Tieflings did not have a life-expectancy listed. This will probably be clarified and Errata'd into oblivion but it did get my gears turning after a fashion. Is it being tacitly implied that Tieflings are immortal barring hazard?


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Back and Fourth

I wonder if anyone is contemplating an OD&D conversion of H1: Keep on the Shadowfell.

On the various blogs and boards that I frequent, there seems to be a remarkable lack of understanding between the grognards (self-styled or otherwise) and the unaffectionately dubbed 4ons (before this, it was 3etards, which also got a giggle from me). I think some of this friction could be due to the lack of a shared vernacular when it comes down to what each edition contributed to the style of play.

Ask a grognard about "shifting" or "feats" and the best you'll get is a blank stare.

Ask a fan of fourth edition about re-rolling hit points at every level, or the concept of "Race as Class" and you'll be met with the same reaction.

Many of the conversations are one-sided, with the OD&D gamers sounding suitably venerable and crotchety (with frenetic exclamations that often begin with "back in my day") while the newer 4th Edition gamers who have migrated from a crunchier 3.5 are busy drooling over potential synergistic exploits and cool factor.

For instance, after the "shift" to Third Edition, character optimization became character concept. I fail to see anything really wrong with that. My OD&D players optimized the heck out of their characters whenever they were given the chance, and as a DM (a mantle that when worn, does not give you the game-given right to be an ass) I encouraged this. The magical sword found in the crypt in Chandlerwood, the musty tome of forgotten fire magics found in an abandoned monastery near the Lavafalls, a set of Gnomish Thieves Tools that when commanded would be wielded by small spectral gnomes who actually climbed into the lock to pick it, the players loved these things because they made the characters more awesome. I know, "These goodies were handed out based on DM fiat" you protest! "Players had no where near the control that they have now!" Wrong. The only thing limiting player control is the DM, and as "bringer of fun" it's your job to insure this happens, not to tell your story. Seriously, your story is only mildly interesting at best.

But back to our sheep, what would be nice, however daunting, would be some transcripts of Actual Play for each of the editions, for the same adventure. This would do wonders to eliminate some of the fluffiness that causes the veterans to weep and the greenhorns to cheer. The crunch is what could serve as a universal language, the much-maligned "Common Tongue." Even though OD&D didn't have rules for governing some of the things that the newer editions do, gamers and game masters everywhere still have the same baseline of creativity. All D&D games edition-neutered can be just as fun and memorable as each other, but very few have attempted to accept the challenge of dissecting why. Less rules in OD&D served as a springboard for creativity and house rules, but people are house-ruling things in 4e right out of the box. Why is this? The reasons seem to revolve around either More Balance or More Fun. The problem is Balance can be an enchantment applied to a FunBane sword. Just as Fun spells counter Balance.

A first level Mentzer Dwarf could Cleave as a critical hit house-rule (on a natural 20 naturally) with the approval of a non-adversarial referee. Is this balance, or is this fun? It is highly likely that 4th Edition is no more fun or balanced.

I think we all forget that there is no wrong way to have fun, and that D&D has been about fun since its conception. It is not now, nor will it ever be, "more fun." Rules and mechanics simply don't do that. Instead, rules and mechanics are there to tell you "how" and "when" and "where" a predetermined amount of fun can take place. While certain groups and play-styles may lend themselves to certain editions, they do not limit.

My initial reactionary thoughts on my WoAdWriMo contribution for this month were as follows:

A Chaotic Evil Dragonman Wizard and his Neutral Evil half-devil henchmen are disenchanting magical items across the land and systematically destroying the economy, it is up to our intrepid band of Neutral Good gnomish PCs to stop him.

Instead, I might try to eviscerate as much fluff and IP from H1 (a dangerous task, all things considered, as the last thing I want is to cleave through a swarm of legal minions). As purely a thought exercise, I believe that that Fellshadow Fortress is just begging to be a rollicking OD&D romp.

Or better yet, design an adventure that can be run in any version of D&D, so that my dreams of uniting players from all editions under a common banner may someday be realized, or at the very least, help to bridge the chasm of incredulity that players on both sides of Edition Canyon seem to be camped on.

Perhaps even better, an OD&D adventure with 4e feel and vice versa. Hmm.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Taking the Initiative

Some notes on Initiative:

Index Cards have been wonderful for tracking initiative.

As a self-admitted Index Card junkie, I have literally thousands of them lying around at any given time. When I discovered that my venerable printer could print on them, I began to print cards with enemy statistics for ease of reference. Once initiative has been determined I can scrawl this on a card and stack them in order to keep track of the order.

Possible ways to improve:

Currently, I only ask for the player’s Armor Class and Initiative score to place them in the pile. Noting Hit Points on the card seems like it would result in too much redundant bookkeeping. Perceptions skills, ranges, and other tactical tidbits could be useful though.

For Monster cards, the borders or backs of the cards could be used to store random numbers. d20 along the top and bottom, maybe damage dice along the sides. If these factored in bonuses as well, that would be snazzy. Even just damage would eliminate some of the rolls and quick math, shaving seconds off of resolution.

Pre-rolling Initiative for enemies has also been great.

I must remember to group enemies together though. This heightens the pace and can be really evocative for conveying the “horde” or “swarm” mentality of minor opponents.

Rolling Initiative at the beginning of the Session works wonders for communicating a sense of anticipation for combat or a tactical encounter during the session, and also makes adjudicating Surprise that much more Surprising. Rolling Initiative for the next encounter at the end of an encounter is also handy.

An idea: with any type of sequential combat tracking system, instead of turning to the player on their turn and asking for an action, solicit this action by narrating a shift in focus. Describe the perceptions or actions directed against the player whose turn it is to indicate their turn.

Example: Krycon Narssisimar and a Lutzel the Low are toe-to-toe at the beginning of Krycon’s turn. Instead of asking Krycon what he wants to do, get in the habit of describing what Lutzel is trying to do to him, turning Krycon’s action into a reaction to the narrative.