RPG Mechanic Round-Up #7

Meta-Round-Up

Progress and Drama

In the game text, instead of listing the result of a passed test in a resolution mechanic as “success”, describe it as “progress.” That is, progress is made toward whatever your goal was, or toward winning what was at stake. In parallel, instead of listing a failed test in your resolution mechanic as “failure”, call it “drama”, in that the dramatic tension increases in the scene or in the story. This could almost be the only change in how a system is written, but I think it opens up results in interesting ways.

Let’s say your D&D player does the classic thing and makes an absurd proficiency check – then they roll a 20, and even though there isn’t a “natural 20” rule in 5E for proficiency checks, they still expect something big from their absurd plan (seduce the dragon, pick the lock with mage hand, lie to the Inevitable’s face, etc.). So if passing the test equals “progress” rather than “success”, you can just describe how their absurd plan gets them closer to their goal. Similarly, for all of those proficiency checks where failure just means the story stops, if it is “drama” (or “tension” perhaps, or “threat”) instead of “failure” for a failed test, the attempt can be technically successful, moving things ahead, but they are now worse than they were.

Theme Music

Each player chooses a theme song for their character and queue’s it up on their phone. At any time during the session, they can hit play for the song, play a bit of it, and their character automatically succeeds on whatever it is they are doing. Maybe instead of Inspiration, players can gain bonus uses of their theme music during the session. Similarly, the DM can queue up theme songs for any Big Bads they’ll face, and those enable them to use a legendary save ability to choose to save on a failed saving throw, or to resist death for a round after being reduced to 0 hit points, etc.

Big and Small Advantages with Percentile Dice

This is a layer of complexity that one might not choose, but it occurred to me while listening (and enjoying) another How We Roll actual play of Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition. In CoC 7E there is an advantage mechanic, where you roll the 10s digit die more than once and take the worse of the two rolls. I thought that this made sense for big advantages and disadvantages, but for smaller advantages and disadvantages it would make sense to roll the 1s digit die twice and take the better or worse of the two rolls. This gives you an approximately 1 in 10 change of barely making, or barely missing, the roll, and isn’t a big deal, but could be an interesting tweak, maybe for when the player thinks they should have advantage but the Keeper disagrees. “Yes, but…”

Percentile Auto-Success

Rolling is not always fun. Games usually have some kind of hand-wavey rule about “only roll when it is interesting” or “only roll when there is danger involved” but even in games where that is spelled out enforcement is sporadic. It occurred to me, in particular in a percentile system, that it could be simpler and also more interesting to give each character a number of auto-successes equal to the tens digit of the applicable skill. So, again looking at Call of Cthulhu, your investigator with a Credit Rating of 57 could just have 5 automatic successes on Credit Rating rolls during the scenario (intended to be more than one session). The downside is that you don’t get any chance to advance when using one of these auto-successes, nor can you get a critical success of any kind. Maybe one could ignore this rule in combat, and of course the Keeper would be able to say that it doesn’t apply in a certain situation (like a Sanity roll, or a situation where the danger of failure is really interesting), but I like it as a rule.

Final Fantasy Action Selector

Remember old school Final Fantasy where you had the action selector when each character’s turn came up? It looked something vaguely like this:

  • Fight / Run
  • Magic
  • Drink
  • Item

I was thinking about something like this for new players. Frequently, players at my table forget all of the various things their character can do when it is their turn, especially at higher levels. What if new players had something like this, printed up by the DM, with their abilities on it? Something for a Druid might look like this:

  • Melee Attack
  • Missile Attack
  • Shapechange

And one for a Rogue more like this:

  • Melee Attack
  • Missile Attack
  • Dash
  • Disengage
  • Hide

Of course, the player can put whatever is interesting on the selector, and can always do things not listed, but it might be helpful to just have that at a glance. I’ve seen a lot of new players stare glassy-eyed at their complex character sheet when their turn comes when really they only have two or three viable and interesting options. The problem is that it takes significant system mastery for one to know what those few viable and interesting options are.

 

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #6

D&D Firearms Fix

The way that 5E D&D handles firearms doesn’t make much sense. You can look at videos of a bullet striking a breastplate and compare them to videos of an arrow striking a breastplate and see the difference. So I reworked firearms for D&D. Against a gun all medium creatures are AC 10 – your studded leather armor will have no impact on that bullet, which will also go through chain and plate armor. Small creatures are AC 11. Large creatures are AC 9, and so on up. Firearms also do double the dice in damage that’s listed in the DMG. Adamantine and mithril armor still counts against firearms, as long as it is solid (mithril chain won’t help). Shields grant +1 armor. 

To balance things out, and for some slight realism, one-handed firearms take 2 full rounds to reload and two-handed firearms take 3 full rounds to reload. That’s still quicker than people can actually reload black powder weapons, but it’s a balance between that and D&D. It means that firearms will be more like what they are in, say, the Three Musketeers or Pirates of the Caribbean – good for a deadly opening volley, and then you close and fight.

I like this hack because it makes firearms more interesting than other weapons. Firearms should be scary. As an alternate rule, you could say that any plate armor can grant its AC bonus against flintlock firearms if the armor was built by people familiar with flintlock weapons. Breastplates during the early age of gunpowder were able to deflect bullets, though these weapons quickly outdistanced armor.

An Initiative Mod: Act First or Act Last

In a system where an initiative roll determines action order, have the option of declaring that you act first or you act last in the round. The benefit for acting first is that you get advantage on your action, or another kind of appropriate bonus (+2 in Pathfinder, etc.), but you have disadvantage on all defenses for the rest of the round (or your attackers have advantage or a bonus on their attacks against you). You throw yourself into the fray at the cost of safety.

Conversely, you can declare that you are acting last, hanging back and seeing how things play out before you act. This choice gives you advantage on all of your defenses for the round, or an appropriate bonus, as you see things coming.

If more than one character declares they are going first or going last, they all receive the same bonus and/or penalty, and still act in the order of rolled initiative compared to each other. So, with initiative rolls of 12, 11, 9, 7 and 6, where 9 and 7 both say they are acting first, 9 and 7 move to the top of the initiative list, both get advantage on their attack, and both have disadvantage on all defenses for the round. 9 still goes before 7.

Alignment

For any game with an alignment system, you can use the so-called Five Moral Foundations (with a sixth one added during research on the Five due to feedback). Those moral foundations are: compassion, fairness, liberty, loyalty, purity, and tradition.

  • Compassion: define the circle of compassion, and then the DM can push that. Who is most deserving?
  • Fairness:  what is unfair that needs to be made right? Push: what will you give up in order to be fair?
  • Liberty: your own, and others. Who needs to be set free?
  • Loyalty: to whom or what are you loyal? What about when you’re asked to do something wrong? What about dissent?
  • Purity: what, or who, is disgusting? What is the poison that must be cleansed?
  • Tradition:  what traditions do you hold dear? Push: how will you deal with innovation and change? What about corrupt authorities? 

Villains and heroes have the same alignment system, because it is easy (and interesting) to imagine a villain rooted in each of these six moral alignments. Most people on both sides of every war in history has felt loyalty to their cause. Many genocides are driven by an out-of-control drive to remain pure, and purity language is found movements like Nazism for example. Compassion is hard to make the core of a villain, but could easily lead a person not to act decisively when they need to, in order to prevent more harm.

This hack also makes “know alignment” style spells and abilities more interesting. You detect a villain’s alignment, and get “Liberty.” This doesn’t tell you that they are “evil”, but it does tell you something about what they want and believe, which could be important in defeating them, or even converting them to your side.

Any cool hacks you want to share? Leave a comment!

10th Level Spells in D&D 5E

Five D&D Magic Items Every Adventurer Should Own

The Forgotten Realms, of course, has spells up to 12th level in previous setting material – but then again, Faerun is a place where you hire the neighbor kid to shovel the Rods of Wonder out of your driveway every morning (h/t my college friend Courtney). There is plenty of history of spells above the usual limit of 9th level in other settings as well, but it’s always fun to pick on Fogotten Realms. Fun for me at least.

I’ve been thinking about 10th level spells, though, and I think I have an interesting and not too overpowered way to handle them in a D&D game. What I have in mind is a set of design principles for coming up with 10th level spells that I think will balance them out but still make them interesting and valuable as something other than power-creep.

  1. 10th level spells affect the setting in some ongoing way – they are a way for powerful casters to affect the world around them
  2. 10th level spells must be found, or researched, as part of a quest
  3. A 10th level spell can be cast only once, and then it is lost. The capacity is burned out of the caster, or the gods withhold the power, or however you’d like to account for it in game
  4. 10th level spells are the way you account for magical effects in the world that aren’t otherwise accounted for in the rules.
    1. Examples: the flying citadels in Krynn used during the War of the Lance; casters who create their own demi-planes or shard realms; special, more-powerful animal companions or familiars; the wish spell, without having to worry as much about limitations because it can only ever be cast once by a particular caster; and so on.

I think these principles for 10th level spells will work well, and solve a lot of problems, including what to do with the wish spell. They also provide an explanation for magical effects that aren’t otherwise accounted for in the rules – not because everything needs a rule, but rather so that players can accomplish the things they see in the world if they become powerful enough.

What are your thoughts on 10th level spells? Is there a better way to address these questions left open in D&D 5E’s design?

Fixing Alignment in D&D

Image result for batman as every D&D alignment

It isn’t so much that alignment is broken, but that I’m not sure alignment as it is expressed in the 5E Player’s Handbook is all that helpful. It is an element of D&D that has always, and still, provokes a lot of discussion and disagreement, as well as podcast episodes and blog posts trying to explain it and account for it.

The original idea for alignment came, according to Gary Gygax, from the stories of Michael Moorcock and Poul Anderson – in the first case, a self-conscious reaction to what was seen as the good and evil binary presented by writers like Tolkien. There were only three alignments: lawful, neutral, and chaotic. The good/evil axis was added later in 1977’s Basic Set, went back and forth a bit, but has remained consistent pretty much since then.

The problem that I encounter is that this alignment system is, in brief, that it is too vague. Does “evil” mean finger-steepling, sinister and malicious intent at all times? What about a well-meaning villain? What about the idea that most villains see themselves as heroic, if not outright good? Look at Thanos – is he evil because he plans on killing trillions, or is he lawful because he wants to do so in the most fair way possible, or good because he is willing to make personal sacrifices for what he sees as the greater good, or chaotic because his plans would cause the collapse of civilizations, at least temporarily, or perhaps neutral because he seeks balance in the universe (or says he does)?

The fix for alignment, in my view, is to literally “fix” the ideas of an alignment system to more specific terms so that they are clear and can also be flexible by culture. I ran into this challenge planning for a Ragnarok campaign, called Twilight of the Gods, set in mythic dark ages Scandinavia. The Norse clearly had moral ideas, but they aren’t my moral ideas – “good” for a Norse person is quite different from “good” from my point of view and the likely points of view for the players. Killing someone because you want their silver is not “evil” for the Norse, unless you kill them through treachery or poison.

What I did for Twilight of the Gods I described in a previous post, but I’ve since taken this same idea and applied it to Dragonblade, my medieval Asia setting, and Alaam, my elemental setting inspired by Islam and Zoroastrianism. I think the best way to explain my thinking is to show where I ended up – and I’m now quite convinced that more specific alignment terms are the way to go.

Twilight of the Gods (Mythic Dark Ages/Norse)

Rather than good or evil, characters are honest or treacherous. This reflects the fact that violence was not seen as evil – the greatest moral failings included deceit and cowardice for the Norse. Honesty implies keeping promises, including promises of vengeance or oaths of support, and reinforces the idea of boasting being motivation for great deeds in order to fulfill one’s own words.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are civilized or wild. This follows pretty closely to the idea of law and chaos in original D&D, but lets me highlight a theme of the setting and campaign, which was between the old gods, who are closer to the land, and independent life that is bound to the cycles of nature, compared to the Christianizing/urbanizing influence coming up from the south. It also takes the “Chaotic Asshole” alignment off the table, where players choose to be Chaotic Neutral because they want to be assholes and behave randomly. Both civilization and wilderness imply a strong set of values, both of which are rational and interesting.

Dragonblade (Heroic Medieval China/South-East Asia)

Rather than good or evil, characters are benevolent or selfish. These ideas align relatively well with my own idea of good and evil, which I think is widely shared in my culture, but are drawn more directly from the philosophies that were influential during the medieval period in China – Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Mohism and so on. The highest good is often seen as being entirely self-giving and self-negating, and the deepest evil is often seen as arising from a focus on the self above all else. This also gives roleplaying clues that are more clear, I think, than “good” or “evil.” What concerns characters in this setting is a particular kind of good or evil.

Rather than lawful or chaotic, characters are legalistic or free (committed to freedom). Like the take on good and evil above, this is similar to what is described in the Player’s Handbook, but actually quite different from what was in original D&D’s Law and Chaos. Again, these ideas are drawn directly from the philosophies in China at the time, in particular those of Laozi (Daoism) and Confucius.

Another way of looking at this alignment system is that the good/evil axis is rooted in Buddhism, and the law/chaos axis is rooted in Confucianism and Daoism. Since those are three of the most powerful influences on Chinese culture, I thought it was a pretty good fit. I also felt that whatever replaced “law” and “chaos” had to be two positive choices with a moral underpinning. I realize that boiling down Confucianism to “legalism” and Daoism to “freedom” is stupidly reductive, but hopefully the idea comes across. I’m actually not entirely satisfied with the term “legalism”, but it’s the best I have for the moment.

I like how mundane the alignments become. Chaotic Evil sounds like a lot to live up to – you have to go full Joker and watch the whole world burn. In Dragonblade, this would be Selfish Freedom, which seems a lot more common and easy to understand. Someone committed to Selfish Freedom could even be part of an adventuring party without a lot of trouble, in contrast to someone who was Chaotic Evil.

Alaam (Inspired by Arabian Nights/Islam/Zoroastrianism)

Instead of good or evil, characters are kind or cruel. Here I went with a simple, direct moral description of how one treats other people, rather than the inner morality that is more of a focus for Dragonblade above. These descriptors also fit well with the almost-fairy-tale sense I wanted to evoke of 1001 Arabian Nights. At the very least, it avoids the “But what is evil, really?” kind of question that plagues conversations about D&D’s standard alignment. (Thanos, to take my example from the beginning of this post, is clearly cruel.)

Instead of lawful or chaotic, characters are obedient or rebellious. In this case, I am drawing more from Islam, where obedience is a very high virtue. The Middle-East is also a part of the world that has had strong central authorities for a very long time – thousands of years in the real world. This alignment axis assumes that the law, that authority, makes demands on you, and you have to respond one way or another. This fits with a strong theme for Alaam, which is that of the authority of the genies who created the world, and how characters respond to that authority.

Specific Is Best

My advice to other writers and designers in the area of alignment is almost always to make it more specific. Root your alignment system in the questions you want to ask in your campaign. Fix the alignment axes to the strong themes of your setting. Alignment is often the source of disagreement, but it has a great potential to highlight aspects of a setting right from the beginning. If you want to play a Lawful Good paladin, I think that it is a distinct experience to create a character who is Honest and Civilized, or Benevolent and Legalistic, or Kind and Obedient. Those are all, to me, much more interesting than Lawful Good.

To pick another crappy alignment trope – I am of course suspicious of any player who wants to play a Chaotic Evil character. But what about Treacherous and Wild? That’s at least really interesting. Or Selfish and Free – that’s not even necessarily “evil” in the villainous sense. (Heck, that could be a Libertarian) Or Cruel and Rebellious – the option most similar to Chaotic Evil, perhaps, but still easier to understand and portray. It clearly states a relationship to other people and to whatever authorities exist in your world, and that’s a big step ahead of Chaotic Evil in my book. Or, in my games at least.

What do you think about this take on alignment? What do you think the alignment could be for your favorite setting: Middle-Earth, Westeros, Krynn, etc? 

Rethinking Small Creatures in 5E D&D

Image result for D&D size comparison 5e

I recently posted some thoughts on handling large-sized characters in 5th Edition D&D. I was also thinking about small-sized characters (and tiny, and so on). I’m certain that the decision was made for the purpose of simplicity and balance, but reading through the 5E rules I did think that too little was made of the advantages, and disadvantages, of being small. Especially small in a D&D sense, where you are shorter than 4 feet and weight maybe 50 lbs. Most halflings, and many gnomes, are smaller than my 6 year old daughter. Different build, more lean muscle mass, and so on, but still. She is not large.

In the rules as written, small creatures take up the same area on the battle map, have the same class hit dice if they have a class, etc. Small creatures with no character class have hit dice one die type smaller than medium creatures. I know that small creatures can use Acrobatics to move through the space occupied by a large creature, which is cool, and they have some weapon restrictions. They are also able to theoretically squeeze through a tiny space, whereas a medium creature can only squeeze through a small space.

Now, if I wanted much more detailed rules on size, I would just go back to 3.5 or Pathfinder. And no worries there, both are great games I’ve played many times. But what I would like are a couple of small changes that make the choice to play a small race more meaningful.

Hit Dice

I’ll start with what is likely my least popular idea – I think that PCs should follow the rule of monsters and small races’ class dice should be downgraded one step. I think that the actual effect of this would be mitigated in a number of ways. First, any PC casters who are a small race will often have one primary stat and then can easily put their second highest score into Constitution – this is especially true of sorcerers and wizards. Bards and clerics have more to worry about, on average, but can still be quite tough if they wish to be.

Stealth

I think that in general, size should be taken into account when rolling Dexterity (Stealth) – one size difference granting someone advantage on the roll. This would mean that small characters sneaking up on medium characters or larger would automatically have advantage, and it would add a house rule that would make it easier for all PCs to sneak up on ogres and giants and the like.

Cost of living

It makes sense to me to cut the cost of living for a small PC in half. They can get along with less living space, much less food, less water, and so on. Their clothes take up half the material or less, and all of their tools are small-sized, or can be. This makes a small difference, but makes sense to me.

Armor Class

Here  I’m going to just steal from Pathfinder/3.X and give small PCs a +1 to their Armor Class. They have about half the surface area to aim at, can more easily take cover, etc. This also helps do a little to balance out the loss of 1 hit point per level, on average.

Tiny PCs

This got me thinking about tiny PCs, like player-character pixies and sprites and quicklings, which sound cool. For them, I would reduce their hit dice by yet another step, also reduce their weapon damage by one die type while keeping the restrictions for small characters (being stabbed by an inch-long knife is just not that scary). I would divide their cost of living by 4 and give them advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) rolls to sneak up on small or larger creatures. Tiny intelligent creatures are also often balanced out by having super-speed or the ability to fly, like the examples above, and perhaps more innate magic than is normal. I’d want to see this in a game (someone playing a pixie, sprite, quickling, etc.) but I’d be open to the idea. They would also get an additional +1 to their AC.

Curious what I had to say about large-sized PCs? Check out that post here.

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Flat Damage for GURPS

One of the things about GURPS that can be confusing is how damage is calculated. Unlike other systems where your attribute provides a bonus or penalty and the weapon provides the dice you roll, in GURPS your attribute provides the dice you roll and the weapon provides a bonus or penalty. Not a huge difference, but I’ve seen it derail new players. I wanted to put together a couple of tables to use if you want to run GURPS with flat damage – no dice rolls. This is obviously simpler, and also more predictable, but by removing the swingy results from damage results, you also remove the chance that you’ll roll to penetrate an opponents Damage Resistance if it is higher than your average roll.

I’d get through this in a couple of ways. One is to keep either the random hit location table, or allow called shots, or ideally both. This way, a low-strength attacker can still get past armor if they are accurate, or lucky. Also, damage types retain their multipliers – cutting damage times 1.5 after armor, and impaling damage times 2.

For our purposes, 1d6 is going to equal 4 and 2d6 is going to equal 7. I only adapted ST 3-20, and then took the weapon table from GURPS Lite 4E and adapted those basic weapons. Once the ST table is changed over, though, the weapon table doesn’t have to change. It’s just here for reference.

Strength Thrust damage Swing damage
3 -1 0
4 -1 0
5 0 1
6 0 1
7 1 2
8 1 2
9 2 3
10 2 4
11 3 5
12 3 6
13 4 6
14 4 7
15 5 8
16 5 9
17 6 9
18 6 10
19 6 11
20 6 12

 

Weapon (GURPS Lite 4e) Thrust Swing
Axe +2 cut
Mace +3 crush
Punch -1 crush
Kick +0 crush
Brass knuckles +0 crush
Broadsword +1 crush +1 cut
Thrusting broadsword +2 imp +1 cut
Large knife +0 imp -2 cut
Poleaxe +2 cut or +2 crush
Rapier +1 imp
Shortsword +0 imp +0 cut
Spear +2 imp
2H Spear +3 imp
Quarterstaff +2 crush +2 crush
Thrusting greatsword +3 imp +3 cut

 

“Cursed” Items in D&D

Image result for cursed items d&d

This post arose from a conversation on social media a few weeks ago on the topic of cursed items in D&D. I don’t think I’ve used a cursed item in any of my games for 20 years or more, not since I first started playing AD&D in ancient times. The reason is that I just don’t like how cursed items work in D&D – they’re merely a “gotcha.” They’re a way to ensure that players never experiment with mysterious objects, wondering what they do – they quarantine them until someone can find a 100gp pearl and let the Wizard sit down and identify them.

And that simply isn’t fun, at least not for me.

The cursed items that come to mind for me impose some kind of disadvantage or unwanted change on a character, and are of course always difficult to remove, requiring a remove curse spell or something equivalent. There’s just nothing interesting about that, in the game or in the story. As DM, I have innumerable ways to challenge or inconvenience the PCs without having to resort to a Girdle of Gender Change or a helmet you can’t take off.

So it got me thinking, and talking, and I came up with two categories of cursed items that are interesting: cursed items that tempt, and cursed items for evil characters.

Tempting Cursed Items

Why would an item have a curse on it? Presumably because a powerful evil spellcaster put the curse on it, or because the item was used to do something heinous and this event left a stain of some sort on it. Here I’m thinking of dragon-gold in Middle-Earth causing dragon-sickness, or the Spear of Longinus. In either case, the curse has a purpose aside from inconveniencing and frustrating the person who finds the item.

My favorite example of an item that is cursed in an interesting way is also a trope – the sword that cannot be sheathed until it draws blood. This is a good cursed item because it encourages a certain kind of behavior. You could easily imagine a sword used to betray a brother, for example, that now thirsts for blood. This is interesting to me because it provides a mechanical bonus – it is still a magical sword, and maybe even deals bonus damage – but it also tempts the character to behave in morally questionable ways. Maybe she draws the sword to threaten someone during a tense scene, and then realizes that she now has to wound someone before she can sheathe it.

“Cursed” Items for Evil Characters

This kind of cursed item simply comes from a reversal of assumptions, using the same principle above. An evil blackguard finds a healing potion that refills itself, but only when he makes a donation and receives a blessing at a shrine of the God of Healing. Or maybe he finds a shield that makes him impervious to arrows, but only if he has no weapon in his hand and deals no damage.

In this case, the magic item is still useful, which is key, but the ‘cost’ of using it is engaging in benevolent, or at least restrained, behavior. These could even be holy artifacts never meant to be carried by the evil folks who now have them, and so the beneficial effects built into the items are glitches for their new owner. From the examples above, the shield could have originally been the Shield of Reconciliation, created to enable diplomats and negotiators to safely cross a battlefield without being shot so that they could try to end the battle with diplomacy.

At Cross Purposes

As a thought experiment to get you mind running, imagine holy artifacts and benevolent magic items that would cause problems when used by evil characters. Perhaps the item only grants a benefit when defending someone else, or it has to be recharged by some benevolent action. Think of something that would be useful for a good person, but limit an evil person’s choices.

From the other side, imagine evil artifacts that would cause moral quandaries for a wielder who is neutral or good. Perhaps a weapon that always deals bonus poison damage, but therefore cannot be used to deal non-lethal damage, or a bow that always seeks out a target’s vitals, meaning if the archer critically fails, she’s likely to shoot an ally in the heart.

Feel free to comment with your ideas for “cursed” items in D&D.