I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

B/X character class: The Hopeless

My B/X retro-clone has 5 classes. Fighter, Magic-user, Thief, Cleric and this one. It functions differently in my game (all classes have the same HD and XP progression, for example), but here is a version you can use in B/X.

The idea is that you start the game very weak but can get more powerful if you survive long enough. Idea inspired by DCC RPG, this and thisThis is where I got the picture.

This assumes you're rolling 3d6 for each ability; if you're using 4d6-drop-lowest change the numbers accordingly (for example, the hopeless rolls 3d6 in order but gains 2 ability points per level until modifiers add to 9). In AD&D, you might let the hopeless change class at level 9 provided he meets the requirements!

Beware: this if for hardcore, advanced, fearless powergamers and min-maxers only!

The Hopeless
Hit dice: 1d4.
Requirements: you must roll a hopeless character (page B13) and choose to play it. If the sum of you ability modifiers is greater than zero, change all you abilities that are higher than 12 to 12.
Combat: 0-level human (B40).
Save As: normal man (B26).
Restriction: can only use simple or small weapons (d4 damage at most). Cannot wear armor or use shields. Start the game with no money.
Special abilities: after achieving 1,000 XP, the hopeless gets one ability point and must choose a class*, starting on level 1 with all abilities and restrictions from the new class.
For each new level until the sum of all ability modifiers is 3, the hopeless gets one additional ability point.

* You may choose to be an elf, dwarf, etc. Nobody had noticed that about you before. In fact, they had barely noticed you at all.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Of opposed rolls (and fixing 5e saving throws)

In my never-ending search of efficient (or elegant) mechanics for D&D, I keep going back to opposed rolls. Although this mechanic is very common in many RPGs (Shadow of the Demon Lord, my own Days of the Damned), it often feels a bit underused in my favorite forms of D&D (TSR/OSR and 5e).

In short, opposed rolls means just rolling for both sides and making the best roll the winner. You don't even need to roll for both; you can give a roll of 10 for one side and roll for the other, if you're using a d20, for example.

But, basically, any roll in which the possibility of success relies on both you skills and your opponents' skill can be thought of as an opposed rolls. Which is very common today, but NOT usually the case with old school D&D. Saving throws, moving silently, hear noise, etc., were often used without any regard for the opposition's capabilities. Traditionally, there is no "contest" between move silently and hear noise, for example; these abilities are "self referential", relying solely on the character attempting them.

There are some opposed rolls in old school D&D, but they are often disguised and made complicated for no apparent reason. For example, giving the thief a 5% penalty to pick pocket for each level of the victim beyond level 5 is identical to just adding +1 per level on a d20 roll after level 5. Turn Undead is also a opposed roll between the cleric's level and the undead's HD.

The lesson here, I think, is that because D&D is a "class & level" game, opposed rolls should always take level into consideration. Used in this way, opposed rolls reinforce the "class and level" aspect of the game in a way that "rolling under ability score" does not.

Anyway, I like the mechanic and I'm using it use it extensively in my rewrite of B/X.

And I'd say that  opposed rolls solve a number of issues.

For example, it makes it easier to steal from low-level chumps, and harder to save against a powerful wizard's spell, and it allows me to play with no "charts" for thieves' skills and Turn Undead.

Of course, the old school method has a few advantages. For example, you can have more dramatic high-level spells that circumvent HP if everyone has a better chance of resisting them despite you level.

Modern D&D uses of opposed rolls often as a default mechanic; but I think 5e could be improved by applying some of these ideas to saving throws.

One of my main gripes with 5e is saving throws.

Unlike all other editions of D&D, it is possible (and likely) that some of the saving throws will not improve at all during a character's career.

A 20th level wizard can easily survive a fall from 100 feet, but he is no better than a first level wizard at dealing with hunger (curiously enough, being proficient in Constitution saves will help you against dehydration, but not starvation).

Which makes absolutely no sense in my humble opinion.

But to save AGAINST a spell cast by a 20th level wizard is going to be considerably harder for a 20th level fighter if she is not proficient in the right saves.

This is the exact opposite of old school D&D, where saves always get better regardless of the level of the attacker.

You see, hit points, however you define them, are often used to measure resilience; and, since all high level characters have more HP, they should ALWAYS have better saving throws.

This is probably where 3e wizards went wrong, by the way: saving throws didn't scale fast enough, making hit points a terrible path to defeating a foe in high levels. A low level bard has no chance at taking a down a 150 HP Fighter... but a mind affecting spell will allow the fighter to be easily avoided. The iconic Fireball becomes useless with time.

As you can see, 5e uses a similar method, that is made even worse in some aspects, since some saving throws don't scale at all.

If you like characters to have better saves as they level up, just give everybody proficiency in all saves, and "expertise" (double proficiency) in two saves.

And ditch the whole idea of "save DC = 8 + ability modifier + proficiency bonus". Save DC is like passive perception DC: 10 + ability + bonus... like every other opposed roll.

BTW, I think D&D next started this way, but they changed it for some reason. Well, I'm breaking it again! But if you can see the reasoning behind this, let me know in the comments.

So, in conclusion... I am not sure I have a great conclusion for this one. Opposed rolls are extremely useful, but can also be misused. Character level is the main measure of competency in D&D, so most rolls should take that in consideration - for all parties involved.

In any case, this is what I'm using for my B/X house rules. Spell saving throws? Roll higher than the wizard, and you're saved. Grappling? Just roll attack and see if your foe can roll higher than you. Sneaking around? Roll your stealth against your opponents' perception.

But, in the end, this is a matter of taste and degree; no right or wrong here, choose whatever you find more fun.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Quick Guide to the OSR Extravaganza

DTRPG is holding an "OSR sale" with three different - and very interesting - bundles.

Here are a few quick notes about them.

First, it bears mentioning that if you ALREADY have some of the books in the sale, you get a discount for those, which is very cool. So "I got that already" is a not a good reason to pass on those; on the contrary.

Second, it seems that now old School D&D is officially part of the OSR... Funny, right? It is like classical Greek originals became a part of the Italian renaissance. Or, as James Raggi said on G+, it means "we won". Well, with all these books easily available I guess we did win... something. But let us talk about the sale.

Anyway, if you know this stuff already, you probably don't need my humble opinion. But if you want to buy something and you don't know what, this is what I think (BTW, I had to look some of it up; DTRPG has plenty of detailed information on each title, courtesy of Shannon Appelcline).

Known World Megabundle (BECMI) - Great system, classic setting

I like the RC over AD&D, so this is the best system in the bundle IMO. Although each gazetteer adds more rules (some are repeated in the RC), I find the core book to be a well-polished version of D&D, balancing detail and ease of use. B/X is still my favorite, but the RC adds plenty of useful detail and has an implicit 2d6 GM mechanic that inspired me to write some posts in this blog.

The Gazetteers are hit-and-miss, AFAIK; I don't know most of them, but most seem reminiscent of a "faux medieval" feel, although there is plenty of "weird" mixed in. If you want stuff to drop on your standard D&D campaign (assuming you're using weird medieval settings such as Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, etc.), it might be very useful.

AD&D Core Megabundle (1e) - Rules, monsters, more rules and more monsters!

I'm definitely not the greatest fan of the AD&D's PHB. Feels overly complicated when compared to my favorite version (B/X) and there are plenty of things that made no sense to me (such as the way the bard class works). The Survival Guides also seem too complicated for my tastes (one or two pages are often enough for me).

But I DO like reading many parts of the DMG. More books should teach GMs how bell curves work! And this bundle includes the original Monster Manuals, including the Fiend Folio (1e). I am a fan of Russ Nicholson's art (among other greats), and the monsters (create by Ian Livingstone and Charles Stross, among many others) include many classics such as the hook horror, the shadow demon and the death knight - and the weird/"planar" githzerai, githyanki and slaad, that went on to become quite important in Planescape.

Planescape Megabundle (2e) - The plain, the planar, and more monsters

2e (the system) is very different from Planescape (the setting).

2e seems to lack an unique, distinctive mark; it is an update AD&D and not necessarily better, although it does include some aspects that I like (such as better organization and its own skill system, unlike the 1e PHB; also, I DO think THAC0 is basically a good idea). The removal of assassins, demons and devils to make D&D more family-friendly after the satanic panic didn't help much.

Planescape, on the other hand, is very idiosyncratic. It has an unique flavor of cosmic high fantasy with many fans but little use in "standard" D&D campaigns. Also, it has a particular jargon (it often uses "in universe" slang) that can be aggravating at times. Tony DiTerlizzi's art is amazing, of course, but Planescape's visual identity bores me sometimes.

Now, if you like plane-hopping high fantasy - and I do - Planescape has innumerable cool factions, characters and ideas that you can use with settings such as Ravnica or, maybe, Ptolus.

And I MUST mention the Monstrous Manual, my favorite monster book. It might be nostalgia, it might be the size (384 pages according to DTRPG), or probably the colorful illustrations (DiTerlizzi has some awesome ones here too). It strikes a great balance between stat-blocks and interesting information (although the stats do include plenty of useless stuff).

Other stuff on sale

Plenty of good stuff 15% off too. Might was well take the chance if there is something in particular you've thinking of buying. The Bat in the Attic sale seems like a good deal too.

In conclusion... what should you buy?

To be honest, I'll probably buy the three bundles. There is too much good stuff to pass. But if I had to choose, I'd take Know World, then Planescape, then AD&D, in that order.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Fixing the Charisma problem

Charisma as a dump stat? No way! I'm talking old school D&D here - Charisma is TOO powerful, if anything.

But let's start from the beginning...

Yes, I'm still rewriting Moldvay Basic, one page at a time (and I hope you like that because there will be a few extra posts in the same vein before I finish...).

One things that retro-clones often do when rewriting Moldvay is "unifying" the Charisma 18 to +3 instead of +2 to get it in line with Strength, Intelligence, Constitution, etc. 

This is usually a bad idea, because Charisma is too important in Basic.

If you have a +3 bonus to add to reaction tables, you will seldom, if ever, encounter a hostile monster (less than 3% chance), and almost ALL your offers will be accepted by hirelings (well, you can always offer them LESS money to get a chance of failure, which is a good idea). But, basically, a +3 bonus wrecks the typical 2d6 table (below). In fact, even a +1 bonus to a 2d6 table can often destroy some interesting possibilites. Immediate attack can be fun from time to time!


2Immediate attack


6-8Uncertain, confused

9-11No attack, monster leaves

12Enthusiastic friendship

Not to mention retainers, or the fact that while some abilities may seem useless for some classes, Charisma can be useful for everybody. Always nice to have a few more fighters by your side!

But I kinda like "unified" stuff lately, and even big ability bonuses - as long as it works. How to fix this?

My current solution to this is that PC modifiers apply ONLY to d20 stuff (with the exception of weapon damage): attacks, AC, saving throws, etc. This allows me to use bigger modifiers (up to +5 for Strength 20, for example) while still leaving chance for failure (I'm currently using d20 skills).

2d6 tables are DM's tools: they define NPC reaction, weather, etc., but suffer no influence from PCs' stats.

What PCs can do is use their own actions (roleplaying) and (d20) skills to improve the results of the DM's roll. Thus, a Paladin with Charisma 18 (+3) and Persuasion +5 rolls 1d20, with a +8 bonus and a DC of 15 (for example), to turn a hostile creature uncertain, or to make and uncertain retainer accept an offer.

A similar check allows a warlord to rally the troops after they fail a morale check (I make retainers check morale once per combat, unlike Moldvay).

This is a nice way to use 2d6 tables in 5e without changing the system; use them as DM's tools.

(d)20 Reasons to start at level 3

Well, not that you should start on level 3. It's your game, do what you want. But 3rd level should be the norm in my opinion. 1st level is good for rookie PCs, character funnels, learning the game or practicing detachment from your character. In most old school editions, simply surviving a dungeon in level one should be viewed as a challenge, not something assumed as ordinary. Sure, everyone should face that challenge - just don't get attached or write a backstory until you get to 3.

Want to start on level 1? Okay, but make it level ONE: 3d6 in order, no special abilities, and keep a blank character sheet just in case. No half measures. You either die a victim or survive long enough to become an hero. And then die.

Want to start with a competent character? Start at level 3.

Well, anyway, it works for me. Here is why.

1. 1st level are victims. They are likely to die if they fight a couple of house cats or fall from a tree.
2. Everybody wants to be a hero. But what if we don't? If first level characters are heroes, we cannot play weaker characters because they barely exist.
3. Normal humans (Moldvay) have 1d4 HP. A blacksmith may have 4 HP and a young child, 1. They still fight like 1st level Fighters, and half a dozen children may kill the fighter in a couple rounds if they attack first.
4. HP inflation. Every gets one HD per level, right? But almost EVERY VERSION of D&D has some different rule why this shouldn't apply to level 1. Maximum HP at level 1, double hit dice at the beginning, starting HP equal to Constitution score, etc. Well, why not start on level 3 instead!
5. 1st level characters become too complex when you want them to be heroes. Take 5e, for example: you start with a background, two or three features from race or class, maybe a feat if you're a human, etc. Where do we go if we want to start simpler?
6. 5e wants you to get to level 3 soon, that is why so little XP is needed in the beginning. Well, if that is the case, why not let 1st level cahrachters be simpler so you make choices later on?
7. In fact, 5e DOES leave some choices to level 3. You cannot choose to be an assassin or thief until level 3, for example. So if you want to start as a thief, start on level 3.
8. Dark Sun did it. Or something like that, I think... And Dark Sun is awesome.
9. Gygax did it. 'Nuff said.
10. You cannot have meaningful single-digit characters and fractional skill unless you start on level 3.
11. If everyone starts on level 1 the Deprived Class loses its meaning.
12. I was reading the 5e Volo's guide the other day... An apprentice wizard has 2d8 HP. And he is a first level spell-caster. So your wizard is not even an apprentice on level 1.
13. Have you written a background? If you took the time to write one, maybe you should have a few extra HP so you don't die in the first round of combat.
14. Start on level 3 and now you level 10 character is only three or four times tougher, instead of ten times. Everything makes more sense, not only falling damage and the amount of arrows you can take before dying.
15. Most "modern" methods of rolling abilities (4d6 drop lowest, etc.) create heroic, strong, competent cahrachters... with about half a dozen HP. How come?
16. Granularity. If most heroes are level three, you can have a level 2 squire, a level 1 peasant, and a level 0 child, for example. A veteran would be level 4 instead of level 1. You could face a few - A FEW - goblins or kobolds at the beginning of the campaign and survive to tell the tale.
17. Arneson suggests HP are meant preserve characters because people get attached to them. If I must spend more than 10 minutes creating a character, he should have a few extra HP and probably some skill to go with it.
18. Also, first level characters were meant for Chainmail. Once we zoom in on the PCs instead of looking at the battlefield, more HP is obviously useful.
19. A first level wizard in Basic may have the same amount of HP as a young child if the GM isn't using optional rules. First level thieves are really bad at skills. First level clerics don't even have cleric spells.
20. In fact, the Basic fighter doesn't even get an attack bonus until level 4. Maybe we should start on level 4 instead? Nah, that is obviously too much!

Yes, some of them emphasize or contradict the others. This is "roll 1d20" table, not "read my arguments carefully and make an informed decision"!

Next post: why you should start at level 0 and why level 1 characters are for self-entitled weaklings! Or something.

(note: I had to republish this to make LinkWithin work as intended; hope it does the trick).

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Languages, alignment or otherwise

Still analyzing and rewriting Moldvay basic. No new page today, sorry. Just some random thoughts about language in Basic D&D.

B13 has a list of languages that is not specially interesting - you've got languages for elves, dwarves, lizard men, etc. It makes sense that every creature would have their own language; in fact, if D&D-world is anything like the real world, each species might have thousands of languages that are mostly incomprehensible to speakers of other languages. This is not particularly useful when running a game. so we get a "common" language that 20% of people speak, thus avoiding to deal with language barriers all the time (still too often, probably), while at the same time having a few extra languages that can give you an edge in one interaction or another.

Works fine, I guess, but I haven't got much to contribute, so there is no point in writing my version of this part of  B13. Unless I use it as a world-building tool - if lizard people speak "Low Snake-speech" instead of "lizard men language", or if dwarves and elves share a common language,  it tells you something about the history of the world.

Modern D&D does something like that, while reducing the number of languages and alphabets to more manageable levels - maybe goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears all speak the same language, for example. Again, works well, but feels a bit artificial and it's not something I feel particularly interested in.

Now, alignment language. It certainly has its fans, but it has plenty of haters and has been mostly abandoned in modern D&D, as it makes little sense unless you see alignment as factions. The main inspiration for the concept is probably Black Speech.

Another problem with alignment languages is that, in theory, it could be used to identify anyone's alignment in seconds, making some interesting interactions impossible.

It is not hard to make SOME sense of alignment language; it might be like Latin for the catholic church, a secret language shared among members of the same team, a gift from the gods to their followers (which fits the idea that you forget it if you change alignment), body language that reveals a character's true attitude, etc. But any people prefer to avoid the concept altogether.

My attempt to make languages interesting include giving each language a special "power" or twist, without going too far into etymology, culture and world-building, and avoiding the most obvious pitfalls. Here are some examples:

Darkspeak: the spoken/written language of demons and the mightiest inhabitants of the Abyss. Only chaotic characters can learn it without a significant risk of going mad, and even them will avoid using it unless they are also demons.

Bastard tongue: the gutural, often unpleasant spoken language of goblins, orcs, minor demons and beings that associate with chaos.

Devani: the spoken/written language of Elysium. Learning this language for any character that isn't lawful is like looking directly into the sun, and many will not survive the experience. Every mortal uses this language with reverence and awe and avoid speaking it out loud - even if they can understand it when it comes form the mouth of an angel.

Prisca: the spoken/written language of the fallen Empire, specially common in religious (lawful) texts and legal documents.

Fae: the spoken (sung) language of fairies and the spirits of the wild. Anyone can learn it, but characters that are not Neutral are suffer greater risk of being charmed by sylvan spirits if they understand their words.

Vulgi: the widespread spoken/written language used by different peoples of the realm, specially travelers and merchants, that allow people from different places to talk to each other.

Thieves’ Cant: the secret language spoken by many criminals and beggars. It can be discretely inserted in regular conversation to pass hidden messages along.

Rún: the written language of magic-user’s spells. Anyone can learn to read it phonetically, but speaking the words out loud is very dangerous for people that are not versed in magic.

Trail signs: the symbolic language of rangers, druids and wilderness explorers marked on trees and stones to identify dangers, pathways, etc. People from different backgrounds often use similar signs, but even when they don't the variations are quickly memorized by the ones that are familiar with the language.

Dialect: each people, tribe, region, etc. has its own dialect. There are thousands of them, but there is a good chance that nearby dialects are similar enough to allow free communication. The more the distance, the smaller the chance of being understood.
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