Wednesday 10 March 2010

Promised Tinkerage (minor)

Further to the vague waffling, havering and dancing around the damn point of a couple of days ago, here is the promised "more to follow", straight from my House Rules booklet:

Fighter Weapon Options
Weapon ChoiceFormer RuleUpdated
Shield+1-2 AC/sacrifice+1-2 AC/sacrifice
Dual Wield+1 TH+1 TH
2-handed wpm2k1 damage+1 damage die, drop lowest

Superhero HAET Kobold, and all Kobold's buddies too!
Fighter: +1 damage die for every 3, 5, 7 levels by which char exceeds HD of strongest engaged melee opponent.
Dorf: +1 damage die for every 5, 10 levels by which ditto.
Extra dice are divided as preferred among engaged enemies as whole dice, not point-by-point.

{Eg: vs 1HD foes a F7 rolls 3 damage dice, this drops to 2d vs 2-3HD, and to 1d vs 3+1HD or better.}
As you can see I do horrible things to the exquisitely balanced simplicity of the B/X-LL system. But then I don't - and never did - ascribe to the pernicious "fighters are for noobs" meme.

I regularly play with people who still inhabit the wide-eyed "What do I roll?" stage where this glorious game of ours still has the shiny newness sheen on it. If one of these players wants to do something other than roll to-hit > roll damage round after round I'll try to keep them happy, ideally without putting added strain on their brain. All I have to do with the above is let the player pick their preferred style, explain to them the benefits ("roll 2, keep 1" is hardly (Role/Hack)master), and trust that they'll further explore the mechanical aspects of the game ("I want to wrestle him to the deck. What do I roll?") as and when they feel comfortable doing so.

And, no, my players won't object to this shifting of the goalposts on them. Strangely enough, they don't seem to object to rules modifications they feel are in their favour. Whether they actually are or not is another matter...

"We don't need no steekin' mathematical analysis!"

edit: What? It can't all be Netherworksian exhortations to expand our reference pool and embrace the haut weird around here. I'm just a magpie with opinions. :p

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Illumination, the Observer Effect, and the Room That Isn't There

It's commonplace of our hobby that illumination is a big deal in dungeon crawls. Perhaps too big a deal for some tastes. A certain school of gamers consider the traditional requirement to take a light source into the underworld with you as no more than a nuisance, and require that their dungeons be pre-illuminated, either by the traditional torch-in-sconce, or by luminescent fungi, glowing walls, or pure handwavium. These filthy oiks even claim that such luminaries of fantasy as Terry Pratchett and A.A.Merritt support their blasphemy!

"Dungeons with built-in lighting. Whatever next? A set number of encounters per day? Poppycock!"
*harrumph, bristles moustache, rustles Times*

To a true adventurer that flickering torch/lantern/gnome-on-a-stick, or (for the especially fortunate) the tireless eldritch glow of a magical sword, is the last ward protecting your character from the merciless stygian darkness wherein lurk Grues (by which you are likely to be eaten) and other such horrors. If you can see it, you can kill it; if you can't, it can kill you first.

However bad things are; it's worse in the dark.

The fact it that if you cannot see, then you can't adventure. You can't move safely, or fight effectively, or explore in any meaningful way. I've racked my brains trying to think of a single famous explorer, navigator or surveyor who was blind (No! Mark Pollack doesn't count. Hiking to the South Pole 100 years after Amundsen got there isn't exploration, it's just masochism). Dungeoneering isn't simply a glorified form of fumbling about in the dark; it's the illumination of the unknown by the surface dwellers. Yes, demihuman party members might have their nightvision (by whatever name) to fall back on, but that just leaves them acting as seeing eye dogs for an otherwise crippled party. And relying on the goodwill of the mythic underworld to provide you with light (or white sticks) is simply offering up hostages to Fortuna, or to that infinitely less forgiving deity, the DM.

You know, it might even be possible to have a little fun with the wrongbadthinkers who know not the importance of carrying one's own light, and who comprehend not that mastery of light-making is the very foundation and hallmark of civilisation.

Take as a starting point the indie game Closure, a platformer with an interesting design conceit. To whit: "if it isn't illuminated, it ain't there". Here's a video of what I'm talking about:

How about applying something like the above to a section of megadungeon? Call it something cheesy but evocative, like the Chambers of Devouring Night, throw in rumours of a huge cache of adventurer catnip (aka: treasure) somewhere in there, and mark down on your notes something obscure about the observer effect being an actual reified thing in this part of the underworld. What does that mean? See above.

How do the players find this out? Hopefully the hard way when one of the party steps beyond the light, and all that is heard of them is a descending scream. Congratulations folks! You've just wandered into a part of the dungeon where if a thing isn't illuminated and beheld, it simply isn't there (and, yes, that includes the floor).

Now, a proper (i.e.: mean) DM will add to the nerve-fraying tension of keeping to the light by adding in strange noises in the dark, errant gusts of wind, semi-occluded hazardous terrain, and hostile creatures (Grues, Shadows, Vashta Nerada, Hadean sharkbats, or Shutai) who hate the light and want to restore their home to its accustomed darkness. What was that? How do the natives maintain their existence in the absence of light? Echolocation, and they're sick of the sound of one another. Now shut up and roll!

A place where that usually disregarded or hand waved circle of light is the only thing that exists, and the enemy want to snuff it out. Suddenly who has the torch isn't a matter of boring, unfun simulationism; it's a matter of life and death. Suddenly the party are torn between husbanding precious resources, and burning anything they can lay their hands on. Light: sometimes it really is that big a deal in the hostile under-realms.

Heh, I think I'm going to have fun with this.

Thoughts? Opinions? Reasons I should shut up and watch such-and-such a film first?

Thanks to:

Monday 8 March 2010

High Level Fighters and "It's my Tekumel now Dave."

Priest of Sárku under a negative image filter, yesterday

It may just be that I'm impressionable and prone to becoming hypnotised by the latest thing on which my, ooh shiny...

Retry. My name is Chris, and I am a neophile. I love finding, getting and playing about with new and interesting stuff. In fact I'm such a neophile that I can even get my neophilia fix from stuff that I've forgotten about and am refamiliarising myself with (see also Easter 2009 post on the Red Box), and even on really, really old stuff that I'm just now looking into. Case in point: Empire of the Petal Throne.

Alright, I know. This is a bit like getting off the plane in Orlando and having a whole Keatsian "Chapman's Homer" moment over something that's been there - and well publicised - all along. My gaff, my rules. I'll squee over a new discovery if I want to.

The thing is, I've long been a fan of Tekumel, mainly for the baroque exoticism of the setting (a richness of invention which makes the vast majority of wannabe exotique settings - Barsaive, Talislanta, Athas - soil themselves in inadequacy). But until the other day I'd never actually read the original Empire of the Petal Throne RPG. Sure, the novels. Sure, the content on And, sure, the Guardians of Order 2005 RPG. But the original source I knew only be repute.

Having now skimmed the original text (and kudos to Victor Raymond for his excellent work in keeping the pdfs in distro) I'm been struck anew by a sense of the potentialities inherent in our hobby, what Mullah Jim refers to as walking the road not taken. I think Empire of the Petal Throne has been for me what the OD&D box is for a lot of the OSR; that one thing that brings you to the realisation that "Of course, that's what I was trying to say all along. How clever of this guy to capture what I was thinking, decades before I actually thought of it."

Despite the reverence in which M.A.R.Barker's particular vision of Tekumel is held by its hardcore fandom (a devotion to canon which sometimes exceeds the creators' own), I get the same iconoclastic vibe - or at least something that resonates at the same frequency - from Empire of the Petal Throne that I do from soaking up Encounter Critical, or Mazes and Minotaurs, or from the wilder-eyed thoughts of such exemplars of gonzo as Sifu Jeff or Aaron Nuttall. For all the deference surrounding it this particular 'artefact from a parallel gaming world' seems to positively invite dissent and sedition. The design decisions, the setting content, even the units of measure used by the game (tsan, kaitars, etc.), imply that all the orthodoxies of the hobby are - and always have been - up for grabs.

This is a book from a time before the pastures in which the sacred cows of our hobby feed were cleared. Yet lo! it is still entirely in keeping with what we know and love.

Mindphuk! (as they say on the electrowebs)

Case in point (and a vague whiffle in the direction of the actual point of this post): I've wrestled for ages with the whole high-level fighter multiple attacks thing. I've always wanted mid/high level D&D combat that feels something that feels like the Chris Achilleos cover to KEW's Nightwinds looks (pic related).

Yeah, that.

Sure, our favourite game gave nods to the bloody wreck of arms, but there was always a little something begrudging about it.

Back when I played AD&D the sops thrown to the high-level fighters seemed a bit *meh*. The 1 HD limit on attacks = level seemed arbitrary to me (what can I say, I knew not Chainmail and it's subtle, entirely genre-appropriate distinction between heroic and non-heroic combat), and the "3/2, 5/2 rounds" attack routines just seemed nitpicky, especially when Unearthed Arcana came along and the Barbarian and Cavalier stole the pure Fighter's thunder.

Similarly, the BECMI multiple attacks at 15th, 20th and 25th level seemed tight-fisted. You're a weapon master, a warlord, teabagger of monsters and wielder of mighty magics, but you can't attack twice in a round without the aid of a haste spell. Sucks to be you. I appreciate that the grudging attack progression was an artifact of the 4 successive boxes release format; but even Aaron Ralston's Rules Compendium reprint/tune-up didn't fix the short-changing of the fighter.

3E's multiple attacks per round mechanic, and the Cleave feat chain, were (IMO) steps in the right direction; albeit a couple of drunken, wobbly steps on an extended journey to another destination entirely. "So I can go into a hackfrenzy now right?" "Kinda..." The problem was that you had to attend Monte Cook's system mastery clown school, then jump through a bunch of character creation hoops, and then balance content from a bunch of extra books(!) on your head to gain access to the various Ginsu Master of Death prestige classes that allowed you to make a mechanically decent multiple attacks fighter. Using Keith and Frank's fanwork Tome Series modifications assuaged my unease for a while, but ultimately 3E did nothing for me. There was this whole extra 'develop the right build pre-game' minigame. Was this really how D&D was meant to be? In my mind you "build" a house or a business, you play an RPG character.

For all that it was a homecoming, going back to Labyrinth Lord didn't much cheer the part of my soul that yearns for Tasmanian Devil fighters. Dan Proctor - for good and logical reason - retained the "multiple attacks at level 15" rule from the BECMI ruleset. Incorporating Dave Arneson's classic "drop an enemy, attack again" rule scratched the itch slightly, but I still wasn't getting my fill of full-on butchery.

And then, while reading a pdf reproduction of an odd, eccentric OD&D-derived game originally published in 1975, I beheld this (reproduced without permission):

The EPT "Lunatic Overkill" High Level Damage Rule

Attacker HD Defender's HD

Those numbers represent d6s for damage, versus OD&D-style d6 HD (in effect, one hit, one kill) done with a single to-hit roll. And you can divide them up between your opponents as you choose (or as randomised by die roll). There's no arbitrary "only usable for beating up mooks" tomfoolery, and it scales in a way you can actually remember easily enough to use in play. No more "3 attacks every 2 rounds, the last attack coming at the end of the second round" nitpickery, and no more "you do get extra attacks, but not at a bonus that matters" fake utility. Clever, ain't it?

Lord Slashstab can reap through the no-name peons (or administer solo overkill so hard that the poor schmuck's next of kin feel it), but gradually slows down as the opposition gets tougher, up until he's fighting on an even footing (Flynn style nicks and cuts) with his mirror universe counterpart Lord Batshsals. If he goes up against an enemy more skilled than he in combat, it gets to play him into walking into sword blows.

Q: Where was this 15 years ago when I needed it?
A: Out of print and out of fashion, AFAIK. :(

How to adapt this cleverness of days past to my current preferred LL hack? Well, at the moment I'm using a "+1 attack/round at levels 4, 8, 12" progression for fighters (and at levels 6, 12 for Dwarves) semi-nicked from OD&D. Mayhap the Tekumel rules will tie in with that nicely.

Here's a draft for the next edit of my Nagoh House Rules booklet:

Superhero HAET Kobold, and all Kobold's buddies too!
Fighter: +1 damage die for every 3, 5, 7 levels by which the fighter exceeds the HD of his strongest engaged melee opponent.
Dwarf: +1 damage die for every 5, 10 levels by which the dwarf exceeds the HD of his strongest engaged melee opponent.
These extra dice are divided as preferred among engaged enemies.
Eg: vs 1HD foes a F7 rolls 3 damage dice, this drops to 2d vs 2-3HD, and to 1d vs 3+1HD or better.
{Keeps rolling to-hit to a minimum, but allows the fighter player to feel big in the pants even if they're not doing double damage with a lance right now. It also nods back to the Chainmail distinction between Heroic and Non-Heroic combat.}

How to tie this in with my existing dual-wielding and two-handed weapon rules? More to follow.

Sunday 7 March 2010

Glass Cannons and Meat Walls

(Some half-formed thoughts on variable monster HD)

Normally I'm a devoted adherent of the hp as combat fatigue school of thunk. Coming from a WFRP background the idea that you only need to land one mortal blow just seems intuitive to me. But what about the worldview that deems hp to be a measure of tissue damage? I was thinking about this in the light of some recent musings on the old Monster Manual II ("All storks, all the time"), flavoured with some idle speculation about Tao of D&D Alexius' ideas on why whales are unkillable unless already beached (that whole pre-modern whaling industry; never happened), and on Jo Bloch's currently-in-development labour of love Gygaxian AD&D 3E speculato-clone Emprise (huh, I thought we already had Hackmaster? :) ).

I'll come to my main point via a digression if I may.

In the beginning was OD&D, and OD&D gave us the unified damage mechanic. Weapons all did d6 damage, all hit dice were d6. And, for a time, it was good.

Then came Greyhawk, and in its train came variable weapon damage, d8 hit dice, and x+y notations for HD (you know, roll so many HD, and add a flat number to the total. Enhances survivability, and bumps the beastie up a row on the hit matrix). All good stuff, for a given value of good. x+y HD notations are fine and logical for something like a bugbear (3+1HD), and, sure, what's wrong with a Balor having 8+8 HD? That's +1hp/HD on what should be a proverbially hardy monster; where's the harm in it? A Con of 13 gets you the same...

And again, for a time, it was good.

However, by the time AD&D was in its pomp, use of the x+y HD notation was getting a bit OTT (as things are oft wont to do when excess is not curbed by punkish iconoclasm). By the time the FF & MM2 were published something downright odd was going on. Hit Dice had become divorced from both monster power (special attacks, SLAs, monsters as casters, etc.), and from durability in a 'knock down, drag out' fight. Hp boosts were being used as a 'virtual HD' mechanic, giving a bonus to survivability against hp damage that didn't boost attack matrix placement and saves out of whack. Fine, except that sometimes these bonus hp almost outweighed the hp derived from HD.

Presented for your consideration, a few choice examples of the phenomenon:

+1 hp/HD
Hollyphant 9+9
Yagnodaemon 13+13
Shedu, Greater 14+14
Verme: 18+18
Shadow Dragon N+n (on top of their screwy dragon hp figuring rules)
Elemental Grues (all bar one) N+n
Heirarch Modrons (all) N+n
Foo Creatures N+n
Pedipalps, Scorpions, Solifugids (all) N+n

+2 hp/HD
Swan 1+2
Elfin Cat 3+6
Taer 3+6
Saltwater Troll 6+12
Moon Dog 8+16
Derghodaemon 11+22
Ultrodaemon 14+28

+3 hp/HD

Nycadaemon 12+36
Arcanadaemon 13+39

+4 hp/HD
Tri-Frond Flower 2+8
Ju-Ju Zombie 3+12
Deva (all) N+4n
Hydrodaemon 9+36
Mezzodaemon: 10+40 HD

No longer could you glance at a single number and see that this beastie would have - at least on average - so many more hit points than that one, or that these two nHD monsters might both be equivalently dangerous to the party. The clear correlation between hit points and damage (one sword hit = one hit die) had been entirely lost. A fundamental part of the primary purpose of the HD system, and a useful DM tool, discarded thanks to system bloat.

And it got odder. Some monsters appeared to have had pointless additional hp doled out to them for no good reason at all. I'm trying to imagine exactly what had made the writers so adverse to having to write a single lonely number in the HD row of the monster entry. There was just no perceptible rhyme or reason to it.

  • I mean, would it really have destroyed the conceptual integrity of the Behemoth (a big mundane hippo) to change it's HD notation from 10+5 to 11? Or the Polar bear from 8+8 to 9HD?
  • Likewise with the Firbolg and Fomorian giants. What earthly use is an extra +1-3hp to a 13 HD melee monster? A simple +1, yes. That bumps a monster up the hit die matrix. But +1-3?
  • Similarly, if someone can explain to me how a Drelb is at all enhanced in any meaningful way by having 5+3HD, rather than 5+1, I will put one thing of their choice into my mouth.
  • The bizarro rolls on with a Giant Firefly by having 1+4 HD. ("Pourquoi?" "Parce que! Silence!")
  • Ditto the Twilight Bloom with its lolrandom, but oh so Barrier Peaksy 3+8HD.
  • As for the Giant Dragonfly: 8+1-8HD. The logic entirely escapes me. To any non-Martian that should just be 9HD.
  • When a typo omits the '+' you get the nigh-unkillable 43 HD pyrochicken (hat-tip: Jeff Rients).
  • And the Alu-demon write-up. Well that's just a mess: 6+2 to 6+6 (4-24 for Con bonus, if applicable). "Hurh? Rhot the ruk Shaggy?"
All this fiddly madness, seemingly just to preserve the sacred cow that monster hit dice must only ever be d8s. An orthodoxy that has a notable exception within the very book that offers up most of this strangeness: the Yochlol, d10 hit dice.


(deep breath)

That refreshing little rant about the deficiences of an excessively baroque system aside, we come to the actual substance of this post. Variable monster HD in Labyrinth Lord, and why the very idea is not a catastrophic blasphemy that'll bring it all crashing down around us.

There's Gygaxian precedent for it, so this is hardly filthy 3E-infected innovation for the sake of it. According to our esteemed Greyhawk Grognard EGG's own wishlist for a Gygaxian 3E included variable monster hit dice. I imagine these would have worked in a not-dissimilar fashion to the ones eventually b0rked into existence for WOTC's 3E: base HD by type, plus additional hp per HD based on creature type, physiology and whatnot.

The relevant quote is:
I say that as barbarians get d12 for HPs, then clearly extrapolation of the same principle must apply to large and vigorous creatures. This mitigates the potential increase in PC prowess. As a matter of fact, adult critters were assigned 7-12 HPs per HD in my AD&D campaign--have been given the same in what I have designed for the C&C game system. Also, with increase in damage due to Strength, all large and powerful monsters, including ogres and giants, gain a damage bonus equal to their number of HD.

Admittedly, this is not in the UA work, but it logically follows, and would have been included in the revised edition of AD&D that I was planning.

“Actually I planned to go through the monsters' roster and re-assign HD types--d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12. While doing that in regards to the HPs of each type, the monsters' chance to hit based on number of HD would not be affected.

As too often "weak" monsters were randomly generated, I also planned to have robust adults possess HP totals of something over 50% of the possible maximum by using a HP generation system such as 3-4, 4-6, 6-10, 7-12 using the appropriate die to determine the actual number generated--d2, d3, d5, d6. Non-robust--immature, old, sick, injured, or even non-physically active sorts such as spell caster--monsters would have the obverse HP range using the same type of die without addition.

(source: AD&D's Lost Second Edition)

Hmmm. You know, that makes a little more sense of the HD oddities in the MM2. If only Uncle Gary had taken the time to explain the shift in his reasoning. A simple footnote in the introductory section of the book would have done. Oh well...

Some purists might rage and fulminate against any hit die that isn't a d8 (or a d6 if you're an OD&D arch-purist), but ~if~ hp are read as tissue damage I can't see why variable hit dice types (sans the full-on "and us too" madness of "HD: N+eleventy-three-and-a-half") mightn't work. A large, burly monster should be able to shrug off more bashy-bashy damage than a small one, that's just intuitive. Problem is, just adding more HD in D&D also boosts "not directly related to withstanding pummelling" stuff like hit probability and saves. So, between the AC system and fixed HD, there can be no big-but-clumsy meat wall monsters, no fragile-but-slippery glass cannons.

Here's my modest proposal.

1. Base HD are determined by monster size.

Easily done. There are notes on how big beasties are in their descriptions, and AD&D 2E had a handy little monster size chart that divided creatures up by degree of HUEG.

T (less than 1')1hp/HDPoxie, housecat
S (1'-4')d4 (av 2.5)Kobold, giant shrew
M (4'-7')d6 (av 3.5)Human, black bear
L (7'-12')d8 (av 4.5)Ogre, horse, cave bear
H (12'-25')d10 (av 5.5)Elephant, giant
G (25'+)d12 (av 6.5)Dinosaur, whale, purple worm, roc

2. Base HD are modified by the type of monster, or by character class.

Swarm/yard trash monster= -1 shift
Spindleshanked Fairy Race= -1 shift
Barbaric or predator race= +1 shift
Harder than meat (made of wood/stone/iron)= +1 shift
Demon/Dragon*= +1 shift
Arcane Caster (W, E)= -1 shift
Warrior Class (Dw, E, F, 1/2) = +1 shift

* Dragons get an additional fillip to their HD type because, well come on, they're still the iconic antagonists of the setting. Even a dinky little St. George ganks a half-grown crocodile dragon should be as tough as old boots and require substantial tenderising. Ditto demons. Unnatural vitality, rock star villain status, and all that...

Worked examples

  • Giant leeches (small-sized yard trash) have 6d4 HD, rather than the 6d8 that currently makes them as tough as a rhino, a tiger, an orca, or a 20' long crocodile. (No, really. IANMTU.)
  • Halflings (small-sized, but a warrior race) have d6 (d4 > d6), as do imps (small + demon).
  • A normal human will have d6 HD. Fighters and hardy warrior race humanoids will have d8 (albeit for different reasons).
  • A large animal, like a horse or cow, will have d8 HD. A large predator like a polar bear, or warmongering and flesh-guzzling big humanoids like Ogres and Trolls, will have d10 HD.
  • Huge animals, like elephants or brontotheriums, will have d10 HD. Huge "I smell the blood of an Englishman!" brutes, like giants and treants, get d12 HD (d10 for size + being hardcore/carnivore bonus).
  • Gigantic "Leg it lads!" stuff - dholes, purple worms, T-Rexes and the like - will have d12 HD across the board.
This should take little or no extra time, either in prep or at the table. Simply roll/decide hp for the type of monster as you would normally, only with different dice. You're a DM, you have dice in abundance, right?

Some example monsters

Monster (Size)LL HD (av hp)Mod HD (av hp)
Purple Worm (G)15d8 (av 67hp)15d12 (+2/HD = av 97hp)
Triceratops (G)11d8 (av 49hp)11d12 (+2/HD = av 71hp)
Elephant (H)9d8 (av 40hp)9d10 (+1/HD = av 49hp)
Cave Bear (H)7d8 (av 31hp)7d10 (+1/HD = av 38hp)
Fighting Dog (S)2+2 (av 11hp)2d6+2 (-1/HD = av 9hp)

This variant would allow all the PC classes, and most of the iconic monsters, to retain their normal HD, but it also gives you proper meatwall monsters (rocs, dinosaurs, whales, etc.) which don't have insane combat skills or beefcake saves. It also offers the option of including spindly-boned glass cannons - like middling HD faerie creatures - which (IMO) ought to have decent saves and hit chances to go with their sneaky tricks, but should squish good and proper when you finally manage to lay a glove on them.

I know, I know. This is the antithesis of the elegant simplicity of OD&D/EPT, where both hit and damage dice were *always* d6 and the world makes clear sense. But when you've already got variable damage by weapon size (as in LL), why not go the whole (demon)hog and have variable monster HD?

Thoughts? Objections? Reasons I should have my fingers broken for tinkering with the exquisite balance of the B/X-LL mechanics?
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