Friday, May 18, 2018

Character Concepts: Planescape pt 1

The following character concepts may be of limited use outside of Planescape (or, at least, a campaign in the outer planes), but some could be adapted easily enough to prime material settings. I hope to provide one for each of Sigil's fifteen factions. Part 1 describes four such characters.

Athar

The Burned Lady (N/half-elf/ghost) - Believed to have been a priestess of Aoskar who burned to death during the Lady of Pain's destruction of the god of portals, Athar clerks claim to sometimes encounter this apparition deep in the book-filled catacombs of the Shattered Temple. She appears as a translucent figure in a tattered but elegant blue gown, wreathed in a perpetual, incorporeal flame that lights the dark passageways she wanders. 

Those who work the deep stacks claim to find tomes (always relating to legends of godslayers and their methods) pulled from the shelves--their text marked with corrections singed into the vellum pages. Factol Terrance believes that witnessing the death of her deity, seeing the suffering of her fellow worshipers, and losing her own life on account of her faith, instilled in her a deep and abiding bitterness toward the lying gods. According to him, she shares her supernatural knowledge in the hope that it will help the enemies of the gods to expose or even destroy them.

Believers of the Source

Padmini Singh (NG/human/bard) - Singh is a philosopher from the prime who stumbled into Sigil quite by accident. She found the city immediately intoxicating for its richness of thought; a place where even the lowest untouchable spent their free time wrestling for purpose and meaning with a sophistication and sharpness and passion that rivaled even the greatest of her colleagues back home. Encountering the various factions, Padmini struggled between the Dustmen and the Godsmen--the former for their ascetic beliefs, and the latter for their emphasis on transcendence through philosophy.

She ultimately found the Dustmen's notion of True Death too distasteful, and joined the Godsmen... albeit with her own ascetic interpretation of their teachings. Unlike most members of her faction, Padmini believes that a spirit's progression through the stages of existence leads not from the lowest grub to the highest of gods, but the other way around. Through divesting one's self of emotion, desire, and worldly concerns, Padmini believes that a being can shed the complexities of mortal life and be reincarnated in a simpler, more pure, more naturally peaceful form. She sees the innocence of so-called "lesser" creatures as a manifestation of calm and wisdom--a release from the rigors of superfluous need and want, and from the constant struggle to *know* one's purpose.

Bleak Cabal

Echelaos (CG/aasimon/fallen proxy) - Once a proxy of Zeus, Echelaos' empathy was a constant whisper of doubt when following the orders of his vengeful and seemingly petty master. The task which troubled him most was being sent to observe the defeated enemies of the Olympians and confirm their continuing punishments were sufficiently cruel.

During one such excursion, Echelaos felt compelled to show some small kindness to a poor soul named Sisyphus, who the gods had condemned to repeatedly push a boulder up a mountain slope only to watch it roll down again, and again, for all eternity. He joined the damned man for a time, putting his own shoulder into the stone to ease the load, and during the climb the two spoke. To his surprise, Echelaos discovered that Sisyphus was not only resigned to his fate, but genuinely content. The former king explained that his entire life had been a struggle--against rivals, plotters, sycophants, and ultimately the gods and death itself. He said that while he first found his fate truly and deeply gruesome, eventually his bitterness began to fade away into mere memories from a part of his existence that was now centuries past. Sisyphus, it seemed to Echelaos, had been liberated from the drive to find purpose. He had realized that all the seemingly important matters that plagued him were ultimately no less futile than his current work. Freedom from hope brought with it an end to all agonizing fixations on what could someday be, leaving him, for once and all, to dwell in *this* moment alone.

Echelaos never returned to Olympus. Instead, he came to Sigil. Now his empathy is invested in caring for the sick and elderly at one of the Cabal's many hostels. He seeks to learn how to embrace the ephemeral relationships that he builds with people who soon will pass away. Most of all, he drinks.

Doomguard

Crumbling Jayk (CE/tiefling/fighter) - The particular manifestations of Jayk's plane-touched ancestry are perhaps poetic for an acolyte of entropy. The tiefling's very touch is corrosive to metal (equivalent to a rust monster). Instead of sweat, Jayk excretes a dry rust that stains his clothing and hair--the whites of his eyes, his teeth, the grime beneath his fingernails... all are tinged with the reddish hue of a cast-off bit of iron left unloved in the rain. He feels a kinship with rust monsters, and keeps two of them (Nail-Biter and Hungry Hacksaw) as beloved pets.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Adventure 1: "No Show" Trabo


This short AD&D adventure is intended for four characters of levels 1-3. The encounter details and accompanying art are free for personal use. I personally like the look of hand-drawn maps and tokens on VTT programs like Roll20, but feel free to remake the map to your taste or simply loot the key for ideas. If you use the encounter, I'd love to hear how it goes. If you convert it to another system or edition, I'd love to see your changes.

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Background

The city of Iriaebor in the Western Heartlands region of the Forgotten Realms rests upon a staggered bluff on the north bank of the River Chionthar. Once a wretched hive of scum and villainy, its native injustice and inequality has been largely eradicated via revolution. The newly crowned Lord Bron (LN/hm/F10) has done a fine job driving corruption from the city, but one tenacious criminal organization has proven difficult to root out: The Night Skulls.

The Skulls survive in part through their organization into discreet cells which function essentially like independent gangs. Each gang is led by an apprentice of the mad illusionist, Nathlar (CE/hm/I13), who secretly serves the Zhentarim and uses the Night Skulls as unwitting dupes in that organization's plots to destabilize Iriaebor's new regime.

In this short adventure, the PCs discover the lair of a Night Skulls cell known as The Candle Street Skulls, and presumably put an end to their operation. Doing so will earn them the favor of Lord Bron (as well as other folk around town) and the enmity of Nathlar and his many apprentices.

Starting the Adventure

The party are on their way through the area as caravan guards under contract to a merchant named Trabo (N/hm/T2). He passes this way frequently, and is well known to the locals--he's greeted by name at the gates, and stopped several times on the street by fellow traders and local business owners.

The party has received a small stipend of 10 gold pieces each, and are looking forward to a big pay day of 100 gold pieces upon arrival at their ultimate destination. In the meantime, Trabo rewards their good service by paying for their room and board at an inn called The Black Boar. Its amenities are limited, but you can't argue with free. For his own part, Trabo heads to the High City for better (and more expensive) accommodations. After a raucous night and a well-earned rest, the PCs head out to the market district to meet back up with their employer at a pre-determined time and location. If they have an interest in purchasing gear, they are free to go a little early and check out the various stalls and shops. Most items are sold at standard prices, but Iriaebor is known for horses. PCs looking for a mount can find fine specimens here at 3/4 the standard price.

"No Show" Trabo

Unfortunately, the PCs have been duped by their employer. In fact, Iriaebor was the merchant's final destination, and the rest of the route he described was just a ruse to get him out of having to follow through on the promised 100 gold pieces for each PC at the end of the journey. Trabo never shows up at the rendezvous, likely causing the PCs to suspect that he's gotten himself into trouble and compelling them to investigate. If they check the caravan yards, they find no sign of Trabo's wagons or cargo, and none of the laborers there recall having seen a man by his description yesterday.

Observant players might recall that the gate guards and several shopkeepers seemed to know Trabo. If sought out, they all know that Trabo is a regular at the Silver Thistle in the High City. Less observant players might have to be tossed a few breadcrumbs. 

Rumors and Leads

Seeking out local rumors turns up that the young daughter of a local sage named Ahlimon (N/hm/F1/Sage: Undead) has gone missing. Her name is Emusette (NG/hf/W1). A local stonemason named Jelton (NE/dm/T3) has also disappeared, and his apprentices have pooled their meager resources to offer a 10 gold piece reward for anyone who can find him. By contrast, the wealthy Ahlimon insists that his daughter merely took an unexpected holiday, and that his initial concerns have been dispelled.

Jelton's apprentices (LN/d/F1) know a lot about their master's routine, including that he frequently gambles in a private card game at the Silver Thistle. They do not, however, know that this information is relevant and so don't bring it up unless the PCs ask questions that lead them to do so. In fact, Jelton was taken hostage by his hosts at the Thistle to be sent away to Zhentil Keep as a skilled slave for a prominent Zhent who needs a capable stone mason to oversee construction on a personal stronghold.

If the PCs visit Ahlimon's small library and office, they find a smashed window and the sage engaged in a scuffle with an assailant (NE/hm/T3). The two are wrestling over a dagger, and it's difficult to determine which is the aggressor and which is the sage--the PCs will have to figure it out. Provided they save Ahlimon, he explains that his daughter was taken hostage by the Night Skulls and that they demanded a ransom of information related to controlling mindless undead. (Kolaos, the leader of the Candle Street Skulls, was hoping to find a way to control their captured ogre zombie.) Ahlimon paid the ransom, surrendering the relevant texts a few days ago to a man that he recognized as one of the bouncers at the Silver Thistle. Despite having paid the ransom, his daughter Emusette has not been returned. Now that they've attempted to kill him, he is inclined to recognize that his continued silence isn't doing him any favors and he will tell the PCs all that he knows. If the thug that attacked him is captured alive, he can be convinced under threat of torture, promise of coin, or magical compulsion, to reveal the truth about the drainage grate on Candle Street.

The Silver Thistle and Candle Street

The Silver Thistle has the appearance of an upper-class inn and tavern, and indeed functions in that capacity, but is in fact a front for the Candle Street Skulls. It's a two-story structure with a large taproom, a pantry and cellar entrance behind the bar, and four sparsely appointed rooms upstairs. It's perched upon a craggy knot of a hill, and circled half-way around by Candle Street. The prices are high and the service poor--this is by design, to keep the place relatively empty and quiet. Weapons aren't allowed inside, and four bouncers (N/F1) menace visitors to make the atmosphere even more uncomfortable. PCs should be made to feel unwelcome and watched. The barkeep denies knowing anyone by the name of Trabo, and is curt and unhelpful in all ways.

Candle Street is a narrow avenue named for the several candle-makers whose businesses crowd around it. It's shaped a bit like a crescent moon, curling around the Silver Thistle to descend behind it where a vertical grate in the rock face drains rain as well as spilled animal fat, dyes, and perfumes from the candle-makers out from the dead end holler. The grate is made to look like it is set firmly in the rock, its well-oiled hinges and lock concealed by means of a permanent illusion. The lair of the Candle Street Gang lies beyond (area 8 on the DM map below). Another entrance to the lair is via a secret door (S) in the Silver Thistle's cellar (area 1). 

The Lair

By whatever means, the PCs should eventually act on their suspicions and invade the Candle Street Skulls' lair.
DM's Map of the Candle Street Skulls Lair
  1. The Cellar - This room is accessible via the stairs from a back room of the Silver Thistle. It contains some stored goods, but most are covered in dust and well past freshness. The barrel in the north-east corner of the room is fixed to the floor and filled with water, at the bottom of which a lever may be found that opens the secret door to room 2.
  2. Entry Chamber - This room is cut out from the surrounding rock, with a 7' ceiling supported by 1' thick timber beams. Characters with edged weapons who roll a 1 on an attack roll in this room accidentally lodge their weapons in one of the beams. A single thug is on watch here. There is a 30% chance that he has nodded off and is automatically surprised when the PCs enter. The room is lit by an oil lamp suspended from a beam in the center of the ceiling (which clever PCs might employ in their combat tactics). The door in the south wall is locked, and the key is worn on a leather cord tied around the thug's wrist.
  3. Kolaos' Room - This is where Nathlar's apprentice and the leader of this cell of the Night Skulls sleeps. It is lavishly appointed with a silk carpet (75gp value), comfortable bedding and pillows (30gp), and a 4'x3' painting of Kolaos striking a regal pose (50gp). A trunk against the north wall is locked and magically trapped (save vs spell or take 1d4 lightning damage). A key tucked under the mattress will open the chest without setting off the trap. Inside the trunk is Kolaos' spellbook, as well as his inks, quills, and extra spell components. The room is dimly lit by an oil lamp which is currently running low on fuel.
  4. Myredor's Room - This is the bedroom of Kolaos' lieutenant, Myredor. It holds only a bed, wardrobe, and currently empty torch sconce. The room is dark. Inside the wardrobe, Myredor keeps a longsword, whetstone, a field kit for armor repairs, several cloaks, and extra clothing. A pouch tucked among the clothes contains 35 gold pieces, three rose-red phenalope gems (worth 50gp each), and a golden cloak clasp in the shape of the Zhentarim symbol (worth 20gp).
  5. Trabo's Room - This sparsely appointed room is where Trabo rests for a few days after delivering contraband to the Skulls from his Zhent masters. He is present now, relaxing on the bed and eating oysters from a silver platter (10gp value) resting on his belly. When the PCs enter, Trabo is surprised to see them. He quickly gathers his composure, however, and pretends to be a captive. If the PCs buy the ruse, he will follow the group until given an opportunity to flee the scene. A dresser in the room contains clothing, as well as a sack of 45 gold pieces--Trabo's pay for the latest delivery. The room is lit by several candles.
  6. The Vault - The Candle Street Skulls keep their riches locked away in this low-ceiling room. The heavy, iron-banded door is held fast by two separate locks that must be opened at the same time (requiring two thieves if they are to be picked). If only one lock is opened, it magically re-locks a few seconds later and activates a magical alarm that draws the attention of anyone in areas 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7. The keys are possessed by Kalaos and Myredor. The vault's treasures include a large cask of Berduskan Dark (a valuable brandy worth 50gp), 12 short swords, 6 longswords, 4 light crossbows, 60 quarrels, 4 suits of studded leather, one suit of chainmail, 2 healing potions, a scroll of protection from poison, 100 gold pieces, 500 silver pieces, 650 copper pieces, Emusette's Spellbook (see below) and 13 books on necromantic magic and undead (these were the ransom paid by Ahlimon, and are detailed below).
  7. Meeting Room - This room contains a heavy oak table and six chairs. Kolaos and Myredor can be found here, along with 1d4 thugs. They are currently plotting the robbery of a local temple of Eldath. Naturally, they respond to the PCs' incursion with violence. The room is lit by an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling. The door to the south is not locked.
  8. Candle Street Entrance - This tall-ceiling, natural cavern is the entrance most often used by the Night Skulls. The floor is slick with oily moisture from the drainage, and the room is lit by a single torch on the south wall. Trabo's wagons and pack animals are kept here, and the grain sacks and other goods he was carrying have been torn into and discarded in favor of the hidden weapons he was delivering. The air smells of rot from the caged zombie ogre. A thief sits on watch in the chair, just far enough away from the torch to give her the benefit of her hide in shadows skill (30% chance of success). She will either run for help or attempt a backstab, depending on how she judges her odds. A secret door to the north is opened by twisting a discolored stone on the wall.
  9. Barracks - The high ceiling of this room slopes down to the west until it's only 7' at the worked-stone section. Two thieves, plus 1d4 thugs are present--half are sleeping and half are playing cards at the table. A section in the north of the room has been sealed off with a thick iron gate, behind which a terrifying zombie ogre grunts and sways mindlessly. This creature was recently captured in a nearby ruin and Kalaos has been trying to find a way to make it a faithful bit of muscle for his operation. The gate can be opened via the lever on the south wall. The Skulls here are loathe to unleash the thing, but will do so and attempt to flee if the fight turns against them. The room is lit by torches in wall sconces and a fat candle on the table. Neither door in this room is locked.
  10. The Gaoler's Office - The Gaoler is seated behind his desk, dressed in a white frock with old, rust-colored bloodstains down the front. Two thugs are seated on the bench against the north wall. The barrels contain assorted foodstuffs (PCs can convert the contents into 10 iron rations, if so inclined), and a desk in the drawer holds a key ring with keys to the door in the north wall and the cells in area 11.
  11. Cells - This room is low and cramped, with a 4' ceiling that forces most occupants to crouch uncomfortably and suffer a -2 on any attack roll requiring more than a simple thrust (such as with a spear or rapier). There is no light in the room. One of the cells holds Ahlimon's daughter, Emusette. Another holds Jelton, the dwarven stonemason. Both are ready and willing to help fight against any remaining Night Skulls.

Completing the Adventure

Once the Candle Street Skulls are slain or driven out, the PCs are heralded as heroes by several of Iriaebor's citizens. Certainly, Lord Bron will want to reward them appropriately (allowing them to keep any wealth recovered from the lair, granting them a charter to operate as an official adventuring company in any region belonging to the Lords' Alliance, and offering them free use of the city's fleet of river barges for life, to travel safely anywhere they like along the River Chionthar. Ahlimon the Sage can make a valuable friend, providing his services for free (or as close to it as he can manage, depending on research costs). Jelton is likewise useful, both as a fence for any contraband the PCs might need to pawn, and as a skilled stonemason and engineer for any of them who have ambitions to build a stronghold in the future. If pressed for monetary rewards, any of the listed persons could be pressured to give as much as 100 gold pieces, but applying such pressure displays a mercenary outlook that sours future generosity from them.

If Kalaos escaped, he can give Nathlar a detailed description of the PCs, setting him up as a dangerous villain with a grudge. If Myredor survived, he will hide out in town until he can receive some money from his superiors back in Zhentil Keep to hire mercenaries to help him track down the party.

If the party is captured, they are stripped of their belongings (which are stored in area 6) and held in the cells for 1d4 days until Nathlar comes by to look them over. He will give the order to have them sent to Zhentil Keep as slaves, and Trabo will smuggle them out of the city and transport them there--possibly giving them a chance to escape at some point when the caravan is attacked by a wandering monster or discovered by a guard patrol from one of the cities they must travel past.

Special experience awards for this adventure should be granted for saving the captives (50 xp each), slaying or capturing both Kalaos and Myredor (100 xp), and slaying or capturing Trabo (50 xp), discovering the secret doors (25 xp each). Experience from combat is granted by HD, as normal.

Additional Details

Kalaos - Apprentice of Nathlar and leader of the Candle Street Skulls cell of the Night Skulls.
NE, human mage, lvl 4. AC 6 (Armor spell); MV 12; THAC0 19; #AT 3 (darts) 1d3 dmg.
Spells: 1- Burning Hands, Hold Portal; 2- Blindness, Hypnotic Pattern.
Possessions: Darts (6), dagger, spell components, vault key 1.

Myredor - Zhent soldier appointed to guard Kalaos.
LE, human fighter, lvl 3. AC 4 (Scale Mail, Shield); MV 12; THAC0 18; #AT 3/2 (longsword, specialized) +1 to hit, 1d8+2 dmg.
Possessions: scale mail, shield, longsword, 29 gold pieces, potion of healing, vault key 2.

The Gaoler - A dwarf with a taste for violence, restrained from harming the current prisoners only for their monetary value to Kalaos.
LE, dwarf fighter, lvl 2. AC 10; MV 6; THAC0 19; #AT 3/2 (hand axe, specialized, Str bonus) +2 to hit, 1d6+2.
Possessions: hand axe.

Thieves - NE, thief, lvl 1. AC 8 (leather armor); MV by race; THAC0 20, #AT 1 (dagger) 1d4.
MS 35%, HS 30%, Backstab x2
Possessions: Dagger, leather armor, 1d6 silver pieces, 1d12 copper pieces.

Thugs - NE, fighter, lvl 1. AC 6 (studded leather, shield); MV by race; THAC0 20; #AT 1 (shortsword) 1d6.
Possessions: Studded leather armor, shield, shortsword, 1d6 silver pieces, 1d12 copper pieces.

Zombie Ogre - N, monster zombie, HD 6. AC 6; MV 9; THAC0 15; #AT 1 (slam) 4d4 damage.

Emusette - Ahlimon's daughter and fledgling wizard.
NG, human, mage 1. AC 10; MV 12; THAC0 20; #AT 1 (by weapon)

Jelton - Dwarven stonemason, fence, and irresponsible gambler.
LE, dwarf, thief 3. AC 10; MV 6; THAC0 19; #AT 1 (by weapon)

Ahlimon's Books - These thirteen volumes cover a variety of details on mindless undead such as zombies and skeletons. Information on such creatures (such as special defenses, weaknesses, etc) can be discovered at a base chance of 50%, minus 10% for each HD of the creature being studied. Additionally, wizards with access to these tomes gain a +5% bonus on their chance to learn spells when attempting to learn or research a spell from the Necromancy school.

Kalaos' Spellbook - 1- Armor, Burning Hands, Detect Magic, Hold Portal, Read Magic; 2- Blindness, Detect Invisibility, Hypnotic Pattern, Knock.

Emusette's Spellbook - 1- Detect Magic, Identify, Magic Missile, Read Magic.


Unlabeled Lair Map for VTT Use

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Modular System: Image-Based Content Generator

Time to make use of that little folder you keep on your computer. You know the one. It's full to bursting with fantasy art that you have every intention of using as play aids, inspiration, character portraits, etc. Or maybe you're a psychologically healthy human being who doesn't compulsively hoard gig upon gig of monsters, swords, and monsters with swords. In that case, google "Fantasy Art" and go nuts.

First, create some folders for your top-level table. Give them descriptive names with numbered prefixes, like "1-People," "2-Places," "3-Things" and "4-Events." Yeah, I expect you're way ahead of me now, but let's continue. 

Within each of those folders you'll create more specific categories, also numbered--and you can nest as deep and get as specific as you like. Maybe you just want to separate character portraits from monsters, or maybe you want to get super granular. You do you, buddy. Once you're satisfied, sort your collection of images into the appropriate folders, then go in and rename each with a numbered prefix and you're all set.

Roll for (or choose) which folder to open. Repeat as necessary, depending on how deeply you nested your folders. Use a dice app that lets you input a whatever-sided die, and roll for a random image. Look at that image and pull something from it that you can build on. Roll multiple times if you like.

Using mine to fill in a hex, I started by rolling a d4 to see how many images I would try to incorporate, and I got a 3. First roll pulls up a monastery-like structure. Second roll is a skeleton in crusader armor. Third is a set of thieves' tools. One thing I like is the opportunity to do some free-association, both because it's fun, and because it's good practice for improvisation at the table. So, thinking on my pictures, I stock the hex with a secluded cult that raises skeletons that can use thief skills, which they send out to rob rival temples.

And that's it. Let me know if you make use of it, and how it works out.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Dynamic Combat Rules, part 1

Forgoing all fanfare and explanation, here are the combat rules I've been hammering out for the past few months, as modified following some heavy playtesting over the holidays. All numbers subject to change. Your thoughts and analysis are, of course, invited and welcome.


Initiative

Traditional initiative is abandoned to compensate for the complexity of additional dice rolling, as well as for streamlining the DM's organizational obligations during play. Instead (and excepting a surprise round if any), combat is resolved starting with the player at the DM's left and continuing clockwise around the table. NPCs act last each round (although acting out-of-turn could be a good vector for unique monster abilities). 


Weapon Speed

Each character has a "combat speed" attribute which begins at 6 and improves slowly by level depending on character class. Each weapon has a "weapon speed" which is defined as a type of die (d4, d6, d8, d10). On each player's turn, they roll their weapon speed die as many times as possible without exceeding their character's combat speed. This determines the number of attacks (to a minimum of one) they are allowed to make with the chosen weapon. A character may forgo the opportunity for additional attacks to instead use their speed die as additional damage on a single attack. As you'll see below, the opportunity to make additional attacks is frequently a currency for purchasing special conditions (fighting defensively, making attacks of opportunity, etc).

The benefit here is that it includes an exciting element of luck, tactical considerations, and meaningful choices for the player which are influenced by their class and weapon choices. The barbarian with the greataxe is encouraged (but not required) to hit slow and heavy. The thief with the dagger is encouraged (but not required) to get in there and shank away (picture the prison assassination scene from Breaking Bad). It's trivial to come up with conditions in which the obvious tendency would be subverted, as in the above barbarian being mobbed by low-hp kobolds, or the thief making the most of his surprise backstab. It also builds additional, but situational and optional, de facto competence into the fighter via the following mechanics, due to his tendency toward slower weapons with higher damage making multiple attacks less likely (and therefore less valuable) at lower levels.

Defensive Fighting: A character may choose to forgo the possibility of additional attacks to instead fight with care for his own defense, gaining a +4 to AC until his next action.

Attacks of Opportunity: A character may choose to forgo the possibility of additional attacks to instead gain a free attack on any and all opponents who enter or exit his threat range (or otherwise open themselves up to attack) until his next action. This allows the fighter to control the battlefield somewhat, preventing opponents from reaching his companions, for example.


Movement

Each character has a "movement speed" (default of 6 for humans), which translates into 5' per point of speed. A character chooses at the beginning of their turn whether to move, attack, cast a spell, use an item, etc--but it is possible to move and act at the same time by taking a -2 penalty to Armor Class. Moving in a straight line and attacking qualifies as a charge, granting +2 to hit.

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So that's the basic system. In part 2 and beyond we'll cover some non-traditional combat options, such as unarmed fighting, grappling, spell-casting, and non-lethal damage. I'm curious to hear your thoughts so far though.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Placebo Effect and Unidentified Magic Items

As I continue in designing a set of low magic rules for play in the pre-Christian Ireland analog of my Remnants of Rema setting, I've begun to wonder about the identification of magic items. I've always encouraged experimentation, but the existence of an easy (if a bit expensive at low level) Identify spell has had the historical effect of new and exciting treasures getting stuffed in a sack for later instead of being wondered about and played with in the moment. The discovery is cheapened, in my opinion, when the item is simply stowed away--and the grand reveal of its powers relegated to the notekeeping segment at the end of the adventure. I've therefore decided to remove Identify from the game, at least to start with. I may end up putting it back in, although certainly at reduced efficacy.

Another notable feature of this corner of my campaign world is a scarcity of metal weapons. Although many clan leaders keep swords passed down from their ancestors from before the great cataclysm that drove the world into an extended dark age, and many buried crypts are home to assorted weapons from that age, they won't generally be available for starting characters. A PC's first iron or steel blade should therefore make for an exciting find, and I predict it may put players under the preconception that the item is magical.

Now, for a long time I've avoided the problem of running combat for a pile of PCs who don't know the bonuses of their unidentified magic weapons and armor by allowing simple experimentation to reveal those numerical elements. A fighter who picks up a +1 sword can swing it around a bit and get enough of a feel for its balance and so on that he can pretty accurately estimate that... but it won't reveal that it's +3 vs Air Elementals until such an encounter takes place and the effect can be revealed. Likewise, he won't know that a magic word will ignite the blade or that it can hit incorporeal creatures, etc.

Thinking on these two components, I've decided to make the latter rely on a Wisdom check rolled secretly behind the screen. On a failure, a magic item seems to behave like any non-magical one of its type--but a non-magical item may seem to provide a +1 bonus. The interesting thing here is that the bonus will be real, as a reflection of the character's increased confidence in his special weapon: a placebo effect. This effect will remain in place unless and until the character stops believing in it (as when it fails to harm a creature that can only be harmed by magical weapons).

Does this sound like a good idea? Have you tried anything similar? And for that matter, how do you handle unidentified magic in your campaign?

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Socialist-Selfless vs Libertarian-Solipsistic: A Descriptivist Approach to Alignment

Alignment can be a tricky nut to crack, but it can be a very rewarding sort of symbolic language and a good system for tracking (rather than dictating) characters' moral and ethical inclinations. It therefore can serve as both a predictive tool for the DM in creating adventures that will appeal to the players and their characters, as well as a shorthand for determining concrete effects on characters (per Detect Evil or whether an evil artifact damages the PC who picks it up). Below is my write-up for descriptive rather than prescriptive alignment, as laid out in the Player's Handbook I'm assembling for my hexcrawl. Let me know what you think!

*Apologies for the formatting. This was written to be part of a document rather than a blog post.


Alignment


A character's alignment is his basic moral and ethical ideology. Alignment is very fluid and is likely to change over the course of play, and so effects (primarily spells) that target specific alignments may impact you on one occasion and not the next.

Alignment is a strictly meta concept. Characters in the world have no awareness of alignment and do not define morality in these terms. For most players, a character's alignment can be treated as merely a guide to their general proclivities. It need not be treated as a strait-jacket to contain your choice as a player. Indeed, alignment is fluid precisely because it describes the actions you tend to take rather than prescribing what options are available to you.

Alignment is best visualized as a graph with a Law/Chaos axis and a Good/Evil axis. The intersection of the two axes is Neutral. Your character's alignment is categorized by proximity to the edge of the graph on each axis, so it may be described in two words, such as "Neutral Good," "Lawful Evil," or "Chaotic Neutral." When a character is Neutral on both axes, she is "True Neutral."

Law/Chaos
The Law/Chaos axis is best understood in terms of a conflict between the necessity of the social contract (Lawful) and one's personal liberty (Chaotic). A common misunderstanding is that a Lawful character is obligated to obey the law and a Chaotic character is not, but this is not the case. All things being equal, a Lawful character may be more inclined to follow the law in a given situation, but he is under no special compulsion to do so. In fact, a Lawful character is likely to despise and combat a law which is arbitrary or unfounded. Lawful characters will happily throw their lot in with a revolution against a fickle king or autocrat, but their intention will most likely be to replace the facade of order with the genuine article. A Lawful character therefore believes in an underlying and pervasive structure to the universe--or feels the need to facilitate or create one where it is absent.

In contrast, a Chaotic character is primarily concerned with individual liberty and the freedom to stand on her own with neither the protections or the obligations of a society to hinder or help. She is under no special compulsion to violate a law (although it may humor her to do so if she is particularly fickle), but neither is she inclined to obey it simply because it exists. On the Good spectrum, a Chaotic character believes in freedom for all. On the Evil side, she cares only for her own liberty and feels entitled to oppress others as an expression of her own freedom to do as she pleases.

A neutral character can approach this axis in one of two ways: indifference or conflict. The indifferent character does not particularly favor one situation over the other and simply takes the world as it comes. Such a character is a moderate, and is likely to believe a reconciliation and synthesis of the two attitudes is possible and preferable. The conflicted character can see the strengths of both sides of the axis, but has not settled on one or the other. He wrestles internally with the philosophical problems inherent to the question; sometimes behaving as Lawful, and sometimes as Chaotic. As a result, he tends to "balance out" on the axis, orbiting the middle.

Good/Evil
The Good/Evil axis is somewhat more clear, but it is important to bear in mind that the vast majority of characters see themselves as the protagonist in their own story. People very seldom consider themselves evil, and instead justify their actions as means to a good end. The Evil alignment therefore is separate from simply "being a bad person." The two are often related, but they are not isomorphic.

In the simplest terms, Good characters endeavor to be honest, upright, and fair. They worry over the welfare of others, and are frequently spurred to action by unselfish motives. Evil characters, on the other hand, are largely motivated by self-interest and tend to view other people as chess pieces to move about in an attempt to achieve their personal ambitions. Evil characters are seldom openly malicious or simply out to hurt others, but neither do they agonize over the eggs they break in the process of making an omelet.

A character who is neutral on this axis may fit into one of several types. First, the character may lack the capacity to make moral judgments, as is the case with animals, small children, and people with certain psychological or developmental disabilities or disorders. Second, a character may be actively neutral--inclined to disregard both the virtues and the vices, usually in favor of some conception of internal peace or balance. Finally, a character may be struggling against his nature, upbringing, or other limitations. A fresh recruit to a mercenary company who works to steel his heart and swallow his guilt after a bloody job is a good example. Another might be a reformed criminal attempting to settle down and resist the temptation to return for one last job.

A character's alignment can have a number of effects. As mentioned above, there are many spells, supernatural powers, and magical items that might interact with characters of different alignments in interesting ways. For some characters, class abilities or membership in certain organizations may depend upon maintaining a particular alignment. Although the player chooses the starting alignment for his character, he is thereafter incapable of knowing where he stands on the chart (barring special circumstances), and can only reap whatever results come of his actions in play.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Ecology of the Fantasy Name

Names are obviously a pretty overwhelming obstacle to a believable world--particularly in a medieval setting where occupants of a region rarely travel beyond the familiar and every ridge, stream, and meadow has been named by the denizens and is used for giving directions more readily than are cardinal directions. It's particularly difficult if you need to cover multiple cultures, where each might have their own names for various landmarks, and even when not, each name needs to fit into the linguistic aesthetic of that culture.

One thing to remember about these names is that much of the exotic-sounding names we hear of foreign lands are considerably less exotic to those who live there. To the Slavic peoples who founded it, Berlin just means Swamp Town. Tenochtitlan in the language of the Aztecs was "Cactus Rock." Pyongyang in Korean is Flat Land. We can see then how English place names (Oxford, Kingston, Stow-on-the-Wold, etc) are actually pretty par-for-the-course. If your adventurers are locals, then the place names needn't sound any more exotic than "Greenville" or "South Home."

That said, a name can carry a certain pathos evocative of wonder or despair, and that can shoulder a lot of the weight in making your world seem exciting, alive, and rich with history and culture. Drawing from one's own well for these kinds of names can leave you dry pretty quick, but this is also one place where inspiration is easy to come by. Lately, I've been turning to singer-songwriters for poetic and descriptive names to steal, ahem, pay homage. For example, I've placed a lake in the high mountains that is known as "The Diamond in the Valley's Hand," per the Josh Ritter song "Thin Blue Flame." Townes Van Zandt's "Our Mother the Mountain" album title has become a god in my game.

The sad language of the Handsome Family is an excellent resource: Broken Road, The Silver Shore, The Door Across the Fire (a road linking oases in a vast desert?), Waving Trees. Gram Parsons gives us the Grievous Angel (whether a fallen seraph or a poet-haunted tavern is anyone's guess). The Mountain Goats are boundless for our purposes: Near North, Altar Keep, The Jungle of Martyrs (a vine-choked field of statuary?), History's Bruise (a famous battlefield where great wizards dueled, now uninhabitable from magical damage and psychic trauma?).

What about you? Where do you go to plunder names?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Hit Points in the Fiction

This isn't a new idea, but it's one that I've been trying to integrate into my descriptions at the table.

Basically, getting stabbed is deadly. Getting shot by an arrow is deadly. When that happens, there's a good chance it's game over no matter how many experience points you've pulled out of goblin corpses. For this reason, I've stopped describing hits in combat as literal hits, but instead treat hit points as a sort of player currency that is spent to negate hits. When someone rolls a miss, that's pretty straight forward. But if they roll a hit and you have HP remaining, you manage to block or dodge or absorb the blow. HP, I think, should be treated more as a stamina meter. You emerge from the battle bloody and bruised, but not with open sword wounds and half your liver lying on the ground.

This approach does require some sprucing up, but I think the added verisimilitude is worth the cost of a little brain power and rules complication. As we build our milieu, we are constantly tempted to tack on more and more systems rather than strip them out, so those that we do should be kept pretty simple if we can help it.

"I'll be good to go again next week."
The first question is, what are healing spells? I think it's fair enough to say they bestow rejuvenating energy on the exhausted, bruised, and aching characters who just came out of a life-or-death battle with wrenched joints and scratches and black eyes and busted shield arms and so on. For a magic-light setting, this is a pretty big boost. No more arrows popping out of the wounded fighter as the cleric performs a literal miracle before the eyes of the gathering crowd! Onlookers may even attribute the rejuvenated warrior's recovery to a placebo effect, or simple prodding of faith.

The next two questions are: If HP represent stamina, should we be more generous with natural healing? And what about grievous wounds that nevertheless don't kill? I haven't hammered out the specifics, but I feel like this is a case of counter-balancing. We can consider a certain percentage of HP to be actual wounds, and the rest to be stamina. 10%, say. Or your first hit die. Or your final 10 hp. Damage that soaks into that region represents an actual hit, and may stay with you awhile and require proper bandaging and treatment after the battle. Stamina may recover much faster than HP in the standard rules, but actual wounds may take a long time and prevent stamina recovery until they're taken care of. There's also room to let a player describe his new permanent scar any time he's knocked down to this level.

Yet another benefit is that it recovers some of the lost verisimilitude of a higher level fighter being able to get stabbed more times before dying, or for a 12 damage wound being deadly to one guy, but trivial to another. It's much easier to imagine that a high level warrior is simply better at blocking and dodging than his low level counterpart, and so is able to deflect more of the blows that would kill a less skilled combatant.

I remember playing in a friend's homebrew game many years ago, for which he made a very interesting armor system. Instead of dexterity and armor contributing to the same number and making you harder to hit, that was exclusively the role of dexterity. Armor was worth additional hit points, and damage went to the armor first. This made the Armorer proficiency very valuable! It also made those suits of armor found in armory of the slavers' fort a much better treasure. Players typically gloss over any armor less than what they currently have--but when your plate mail is dinged up and on its last legs, that suit of chain on the rack is suddenly quite attractive.  As a system, it's a little too fiddly for what I'm looking to do here, but it stuck with me as an interesting answer to a difficult problem.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Method 1.1

As you may have noticed from my long absence, I've stalled out a bit on the magic system front. The sum of available spells is daunting, and so I'm going to take it on from another direction. We'll see how it goes.

In the meantime, I've been thinking a lot about my love (and most of my players' hate) for Method I character generation--that's the 3d6 in order method. My advocacy for it is based partly on my preference for the inherently unbalanced style of old school D&D. I like that a Paladin and a Ranger are better than a Fighter. I like that they are special, hard-to-come-by character options, which a player is lucky to ever get to have. I like how it makes such characters valuable and exciting.

On the other hand, I don't have a problem with someone wanting to play a thief type character, as opposed to a warrior or magic-user. It's the rarity of the special classes that I want to preserve. To that end, I've settled on what I call Method 1.1 for character creation. It's very simple: Roll 3d6 in order, from Strength on down the list. Any attribute of 13 or higher is locked in place where it was rolled. Any attribute of 12 or lower may be swapped with another attribute of 12 or lower. This allows a player some control over the broad type of character he or she wants to play without giving away the store.

For example, consider a character with the following attributes:

Str 7
Dex 12
Con 15
Int 9
Wis 8
Cha 13

Under Method 1.1, this character's Constitution and Charisma scores are locked and cannot be moved. The others can. Under Method 1, we're looking at a Thief. Under Method 1.1, we're looking at a character who qualifies for any of the basic classes after moving that 12 where it's needed.

An additional benefit is that it mitigates the frustration of almost getting a special class. So you rolled a Str 14, Wis 13, and Cha 17? Too bad about that darn 8 on Con. A 9 would've got you a Paladin. In Method 1.1, that 8 can be swapped with the 11 you got for Dex. I figure if you can net the difficult requirements, the little ones can be fudged a little.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Side Trek: Monty Haul Campaign

Took a trip to New Orleans (by way of Mobile) and scored quite a lot of nice stuff. What should I read first?


If you're ever in the area, I recommend Gamers N Geeks in Mobile, AL, and 2nd & Charles in Covington, LA.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Wizard & the Cleric: Dissociating Class and Fiction (pt 2)

In my first post on this topic, we discussed the unnecessary association of a character's class with his or her profession or place in the fiction. In this one, we're going to specifically focus on the Wizard and the Cleric. A 9th level Thief has the same Thac0 as a 5th level Fighter (and slightly more hit points, all things being equal). Provided we aren't chasing the newer editions into scaling our world for the level of the PCs, there's very little in the way of jobs for a 5th level Fighter which a 9th level Thief can't manage to do perfectly well, if not better. There's no reason that anyone meeting the Captain of the Guard should be able to determine that he isn't a 5th level Fighter, but rather a 9th level Thief. In fact, even the Thief himself may not recognize this, and may consider himself a Fighter with a natural talent for locks and moving quietly. Some work needs to be done to build some symmetry into that, but it's pretty trivial to think of several ways to approach making the opposite true as well.

The Wizard and Cleric classes stand out however, because their defining abilities are closely tied to the mechanical elements of the game. They make the rules visible to characters in the fiction, due to objective and observable and quantifiable abilities within the system. Only a Cleric can cast Cure Light Wounds. A Wizard's level can be determined with objective certainty by asking him how many spells he can cast. If we're going to continue the work of dissociating character class from fiction, then we're going to need to blur a lot of these lines.

For this purpose, I found inspiration in a passage from Douglas Hofstadter's excellent book on the origin of the self, I am a Strange Loop. In it, he uses a thought exercise to discuss ethics through a lens of souledness, or degrees of soul in various living things, including people. (Don't worry--it's not nearly the apologism for eugenics that this short summary makes it look like.) So let's blur the line between the Cleric and the Wizard by dictating that all magic is intrinsically spiritual, fueled by some kind of divine energy. Now, I rather like the academic and independent nature of the Wizard, so that's where "souledness" comes in. "Soul" is the divine fuel, and it can be provided by one's own spiritual energy. Let us suppose that a spell's level doubles as the prerequisite level of souledness necessary to cast it. Let us also assume that the average human has a souledness of 2. An animal has a 1, an elf has a 3, etc. Ergo, any human with sufficient training and talent in magic is capable of casting up to 2nd level spells on his own power. (And bear in mind that these numbers are just some quick calculations in the margins--they can be hammered out later.) Let us further imagine that it is possible to bestow souledness of your own onto individuals of lesser souledness, for purposes of allowing them to cast spells of higher levels. This mechanically facilitates the concept of gods granting spells to their clerics, and also of the old image of the witch and warlock working black arts in pacts with pagan gods, nature spirits, and demons. A human wizard with 3rd level spell slots therefore needs to track down some entity of higher souledness who is willing to power his spells (probably in exchange for some sacrifice or other bargain), or seek some method of increasing his own souledness, or possibly uncover ley lines or attune to places of great magical power, or possibly even trap the souls of victims to expand his reserves! There can be lots of methods for achieving this need, is the point--and they cover a lot of our different concepts of magic. Runes, crystals, circle-magic, etc.

Obviously, gods under this system will possess tremendous souledness. We can define the boundaries between gods, demigods, ancestor spirits, saints, etc. We can determine a degree of souledness that permits the apotheosis of a mortal into godhood. We also recognize that it is possible to interact with this system without knowing about it in the fiction. A cleric dedicated to a god is bestowed with necessary souledness as a matter of course, and his part of the bargain is just engaging in the sorts of things a cleric already does. It also explains why a cleric who changes his alignment loses access to his spells--the god cuts him off, not in some abstract sense, but materially and mechanically. There's no need for Atonement spells or anything of the sort. The god (or a rival deity or power) just has to be convinced to bestow souledness again. 

As a result of all of this, we facilitate monotheism in a world of multiple gods. As a priest or prophet or cleric, my perspective is that I perform these miracles in God's name and to His glory. The priests of the Pharoah and the witches of the barbarians make dark pacts with demons. They can turn staves into serpents all day long, but that doesn't make them right. The Mohammedon and Israelite are deceived by the devil into profaning the One True God. The pagan Norsemen haven't heard the good news of Christ, and we must bring the light of Jesus into those cold climes to show them the way to salvation.

Meanwhile, all those folks are looking at me like, "Bro, you just got a strong patron. That don't make you the good guy here."

Finally, we can dissociate the party role of the Cleric and Wizard from their representation in the fiction. Clerics and Wizards are merely different kinds of magic users. A Cleric can make a pact with a dryad or a dragon, or tap into the energies of the ley lines--he can build a tower on the outside of town and devote himself to arcane practices and experiments. The people in town are going to say, "Watch out for the old wizard who lives out there. He's an ornery sort. I heard he turns visitors into toads!" Meanwhile, as I said in the previous installment, a Wizard-class character can don the cassock and bear a holy symbol and have souledness bestowed upon him by a god. He might administer to a sick house, have a congregation, keep a reliquary, and protect his flock with miraculous displays of God's power (in the form of Magic Missile and Fireball). Crucially, under this system, he isn't necessarily a charlatan. He genuinely is granted his power by his god.

Going one step further, I am looking at merging the spell lists. After all, the role of the Cleric is to be a healer, sure, but also a pretty good stand in for a fighter. The Wizard is a pure caster, weak in melee, but potent at higher levels. There's nothing there that can't be shifted around a bit, though it will take long hours of hard thinking and a good bit of play testing, I'm sure. Right now it's just a thought, but we'll see.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Proficiencies Progress

I've been working for awhile to compile all the published non-weapon proficiencies from various 2nd Edition AD&D sources, and I think I'm mostly done. I'm sure a few more will turn up here and there as I research other elements of my build, but I've got enough to start cooking them down to a manageable number. I thought I'd share where I'm at in case anyone wants to do something similar while skipping the first exhausting step.

Going through the raw list was prohibitive due to size, so I sorted everything into smaller categories to better locate similarities that I'd want to merge. The categories here are arbitrary and probably won't appear in the final document--they were just organizational aids. Still, I thought I'd include them here for completeness I suppose. Sources are not included below, but if anyone has a question about a particular proficiency, leave a comment and I'll provide it.

The list here isn't in alphabetical order. Sorry about that. It's an artifact of going through the proficiencies themselves alphabetically and sorting them under new names. The term on the left is the new proficiency name (many of which are still working titles--suggestions welcome!), and the list right of each term contains the proficiencies that have been merged to make the new one. Also, you'll note that some were merged despite being different skills, due to similarity of purpose (such as Glass Blowing and Pottery). In the final rules, I will likely ask players to specify which element their character is skilled in. Some elements will also be stripped out depending on technology level. Likewise, where a previous proficiency appears twice on the list, its elements are being divided between the two new ones.

One final note: You may notice some omissions from this list. This is because I've changed Weapon and Non-Weapon Proficiencies into Combat and Non-Combat Proficiencies. Things like Blind Fighting have been transferred to the Combat Proficiencies list, which is not yet in a publishable state.

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Crafts & Skills
Metalworking - Armorer, Blacksmithing, Weaponsmithing
Woodworking - Boatwright, Carpentry, Bowyer/Fletcher
Papercrafts - Bookbinding, Papermaking
Finecrafts - Clockwork, Locksmithing, Gem Cutting
Glass & Ceramics - Glass Blowing, Pottery
Leatherworking - Cobbling, Leatherworking
Provender - Brewing, Cooking
Engineering - Engineering, Stone Masonry
Clothworking - Weaving, Seamstress
Scribe - Scribe, Forgery

Management
Seneschal - Administration, Stewardship
Politics - Bureaucracy, Diplomacy, Politics, Statecraft
Law
Leadership

Scholarship & Sciences
Medicine - Diagnostics, Healing, Herbalism, Anatomy
Military Science - Military Science, Tactics, Tactics of Magic
Theology - Ceremony, Religion
Thaumaturgy - Thaumaturgy, Tactics of Magic, Spellcraft, Arcanology
Alchemy
History - Ancient History, Local History
Weather Sense
Research
Reading/Writing
Philosophy - Philosophy, Oration/Rhetoric
Lore
Languages - Ancient Languages, Modern Languages
Heraldry - Heraldry, Geneology

Physical
Agility - Jumping, Tightrope Walking, Tumbling, Escape Artist
Stamina - Revelry, Rowing, Running, Endurance
Swimming

Social
Manipulation - Boasting, Fast Talking, Intimidation, Persuasion, Oratory
Performance - Artistic Expression / Dramatist, Dancing, Juggling, Musical Instrument, Singing
Etiquette

Outdoorsman
Farming - Agriculture, Animal Rendering
Seamanship - Boating, Seamanship, Rowing
Navigation - Cartography, Direction Sense, Distance Sense, Navigation
Survival - Survival, Animal Rendering, Fire Building, Fishing, Mountaineering, Foraging
Huntsman - Hunting, Animal Lore, Tracking, Set Snares
Animal Handling - Animal Handling, Animal Training, Riding (land based, air based, water based)
Ranging - Trail Marking, Trail Signs, Signaling
Prospecting - Mining, Dowsing

Money
Appraisal - Barter, Appraisal, Looting
Gaming

Thief
Chicanery - Chicanery, Prestidigitation, Somatic Concealment, Ventriloquism
Conceal - Disguise, Camouflage
Read Lips

Other
Fortune Telling - Omen Reading, Astrology
Preening - Grooming, Massage
Artistic Ability - Artistic Ability, Tattooing
Investigation - Observation, Information Gathering, Investigation

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I still need to go through the Masque of the Red Death boxed set, per Ripper X's recent post, and make some decisions about Thief Skills vs Proficiencies... but once I get the descriptions all merged together and typed up for the above, I think that will be enough to let me recharge my energy with a little work on another section of the rule set.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Dissociating Character Classes from the Fiction

So here's something that everyone knows but relatively few players manage to employ at the table: A character's class is an abstraction. It helps to quantify the abilities of the character within the fiction, but it is not itself a part of that fiction. In the comment section of a recent post on Delta's D&D Hotspot, there was a conversation about Robin Hood being classified as a Fighter rather than a Thief. I don't presume to know definitively what class Robin Hood should have, but I'd argue that a character needn't be a Thief in order to be a thief--if you'll pardon the deliberately muddled distinction.

A character in the fiction is incapable of knowing anything about class, level, attributes, weapon proficiency, or (at my table anyway) alignment. Certainly a character can speak very knowledgeably about his or her job, general competency, health and education, weapon skill, and moral outlook, but that's because these are the realities that the abstractions quantify. A skilled swordsman might be able to perceive some difference in method between two fighters with the same chance to hit, one due to better Thac0 and the other due to weapon specialization, but that doesn't make him aware of Thac0 and specialization as structures. There's nothing more immersion-breaking (in my humble opinion) than characters behaving as though they are aware of the abstractions in the system. This was a problem for me when playing with rule sets such as 3.5 (or worse, 4E), where a lack of optimization in either build or tactic was met with scorn by many players.

"Don't forget to press X to access your inventory, kid!"

This distinction was not of much importance to Gygax either, of course (nor many of our gaming forebears), but even as modern sensibilities encourage verisimilitude, and elements like alignment languages and level/rank isomorphism fall from merely out-of-vogue to downright silly, many players still have trouble separating a character's class from her occupation. This is unfortunate because it limits the options of such a player to only those he's likely to intuit as viable under the given class identities, and because it prevents some interesting juxtaposition within a character between his talents and his ambitions. After all, who's to say that my 12 charisma fighter isn't a bard? Who in the fiction knows that, and how? 

"Oh, Sir Reginald! My hero!"
"Actually, I gained a level. I'm a swashbuckler now."
Consider a 5th level Thief-class character, as noble and brave as you please. If you called him a thief, he'd lay you right out with a sock to the nose for the insult. Ask him to pick a lock and you'll get an arched brow and a, "What, exactly do you mean to imply, sir?" Sure, he favors the short sword and leather armor, keeps quick on his feet, and has a talent for devastating opponents with his deadly flanking maneuvers (backstab multiplier!), but he's no thief! And what of Sir Tancred, 12th level fighter and favored of God, who can abide no evil and is ever compelled to lay down his life in service of a righteous cause? He's not a paladin in the eyes of his comrades, because he can't lay on hands and his Charisma is 16 instead of 17?

Okay, those are easy examples. But what about Clerics and Wizards? Is there some reason in the fiction that a pious Wizard can't don the cassock, brandish a holy symbol, and bless his flock with Protection From Evil spells? Why shouldn't there be a secularized Cleric in the secluded tower at the edge of town, brewing potions and wrestling with esoteric knowledge? At least in this case, there is a distinction implied mechanically and within the fiction, but it's very possible to strip our milieu of that justification and build something to better suit our needs.

In the next post, we'll look at a few ways to dissociate the Cleric and Wizard classes from their roles in the fiction. We'll also take a stab at the puzzle of reconciling monotheism with a setting where priests of other gods can also cast spells. Exciting stuff!