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.


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.


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.


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.


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."

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.

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.


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

Seneschal - Administration, Stewardship
Politics - Bureaucracy, Diplomacy, Politics, Statecraft

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
History - Ancient History, Local History
Weather Sense
Philosophy - Philosophy, Oration/Rhetoric
Languages - Ancient Languages, Modern Languages
Heraldry - Heraldry, Geneology

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

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

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

Appraisal - Barter, Appraisal, Looting

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

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


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!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Side Trek: The Three Great Horrors

(CW: elements of horror fiction which may trigger sensitivities around trauma, anxiety, and mental health)

I'm not really a fan of horror movies or games that are just spooky-scary werewolf bat mitzfah flavor fare. When a DM says, "You see a ghost," it doesn't feel substantively different than seeing any other monster with hit dice and a thac0. I don't mind it, and I can play up my character's response to that experience, but it isn't going to effect me. That said, I am a big fan of great, unmanageable, existential terror--stuff that leaves you anxious and fretting over real emotions, either churning up the higher functions of our reasoning (Roko's Basilisk, anyone?) or drilling deep down into the lizard brain to shake us up (there's a thing outside my shelter and it wants to get inside and eat me).

I have a standing tradition around Halloween of running a one-shot "ghost story" for some friends who don't really play RPGs, and I occasionally think about breaking out Call of Cthulhu and trying my hand at weaving something really chilling, to unnerve a bunch of players who are familiar enough with gaming that even great old ones are just another Big Bad Evil Guy to try and thwart. I've managed a few real winners, and there is a common thread between what has worked for me as a game master creating horror tales over various systems, and what has worked in film to fill me with that good, gloomy despair that I so enjoy. I call this thread the Three Great Horrors, and I have found that one or more of them is always present in anything genuinely scary. They are as follows...

1) The compulsive hedonism of biological hungers, unchecked by reason or taboo, reducing people to a biomaterial resource that satiates some grotesquely base need. Particularly when the emulation of love or sexual attraction is bait employed passively by an emotionless or mindless creature for purposes of ensnaring and consuming or otherwise using and discarding a person. Often such a predator exploits the prey's own baser hungers, but just as often it simply overpowers, immobilizes, and uses its victim. (Alien, The Blob, spiders, vampires, venus fly traps, angler fish, sexual cannibalism as per the Praying Mantis. Begotten.)

2) The existentially terrifying implications of a god, an afterlife, and/or spiritual world that doesn't value us--particularly when the truth has parallels to our traditions that suggest that our entire history has been shaped by some kind of glancing and accidental contact with a higher being that didn't notice and wouldn't care, or one whose motives are suspect and whose values and desires are hopelessly and incomprehensibly alien. Also, the suggestion that the spiritual world is not for us and will be hostile, painful, frightening, or psychologically confusing. (Lovecraft mythos, Event Horizon, The Messenger (the Jean d'Arc one), Begotten, Hellraiser, The subway scene from Ghost. Heaven as depicted in Preacher. The afterlife for suicides in What Dreams May Come.)

3) Finally, the condition of being trapped in a trajectory toward some miserable outcome or dreadful eternity, with the ability to fully understand and fear what is happening, while being powerless to change it. Being conscious and aware in the body after death, particularly leading up to the autopsy or embalming; being buried alive; trapped on a spacecraft gone adrift, or in a water-safe cabin on a sinking ship; being paralyzed or restrained on the beach as the tide comes in, or where vultures or other animals can eat you. Being aware of one's own mental deterioration, particularly violent madness and the looming inevitability of your harming or killing a loved one. (Black Mirror's "White Christmas" episode; Twilight Zone's "Time Enough At Last" episode; Star Trek Voyager's "The Thaw" episode; The Babadook; 2001: A Space Odyssey; the pig scene from Hannibal; On the Beach. Pandorum.)

In short, any great piece of horror provokes our anxieties about sex; the shame of our bodily functions and the filthiness of our sweaty, mucous-dripping, eternally consumptive biomass contrasted against the elegance of the inert and lifeless; our cosmic smallness; aggressive, malicious meaninglessness; existential isolation; and helplessness in the face of dread or agony. If you want to scare someone, either as a writer of fiction or as a master of dungeons, you can't go far wrong stirring up these elements in different combinations.

It should go without saying, but games that do this probably merit a content warning for players who might have psychological trauma, and who come to the game for escapism rather than exposure therapy.

Did I miss anything? Can you think of other examples where these elements were used to great effect? Can you think of other base building blocks of horror that you would add to the list?

Monday, June 19, 2017

Elves & Ethnocentrism

I've written at length (a lot) about decisions I've already made about my world and rule set. We're finally catching up on the work that still lies ahead of me. This one falls under the "Isolated Cultures" element of design principle #1. How do we simulate both the objective truth of the setting, and the subjective biases of individual cultures?

I have a good bit of experience doing one or the other. Objective truth is a fairly standard presence in D&D, particularly in the Gygaxian spirit in which characters know and talk about their alignments, but also generally as in the spirit of players develop a sense of the DM's approach to certain questions. Orcs always being evil is a good example of an objective truth situation, but so is the inverse that orcs aren't always evil--in either case, one of these is defined as true by the DM and players can figure out which one.

Good? Bad? I'm just the lady with the
shadow that cuts people to ribbons.
Subjective truth is more rare, but certainly no one who has run a game of Planescape for any length of time is going to be too uncomfortable with it. Essentially, these are matters where the DM doesn't make a choice about what's true and players develop a sense of what they believe to be rather than what is--most often without actually realizing that it is merely a belief. The Lady of Pain's identity and motives are a good example of this. The DM doesn't know the answer (or shouldn't, anyway), and that can be empowering or frustrating for players, depending on taste.

It's also possible to approach subjective truth from a position of not knowing the answer to a question *yet*. Looking to a video game example, whatever became of the Dwemer in the Elder Scrolls setting is an example. It's likely that the setting's writers don't know what happened exactly--but it's also likely that they will eventually decide on an answer and reveal it. In this case, an objective truth is born from a theory within a subjective module being selected.

My conundrum though, is that I want to achieve both of these at once, not merely transition from one to the other. Specifically, my game is going to begin in a Celt-Irish milieu which, over time and as a result of player exploration, will open other cultural milieus both as things to interact with as visiting explorers *and* as sources from which to draw future characters. To achieve the latter in such a way that the systems which govern character options, magic systems, etc, can be ready-to-go upon being discovered, certain concrete facts have to be there. I have to answer a lot of questions about these places so that I can populate the hexes before the players walk into them.

The initial area in which our Celt-Irish PCs will explore is most closely bordered by a small civilization of elves, which is initially great because elves feature prominently in Celtic mythology and have an important place in setting the experiential tone of the setting in play. Except... the elves that Celts know about are Sidhe--nature spirits of dubious motives, full of mystery and pregnant with implications of what is and isn't true about other planes (Tir nan Og, for example). The Viking milieu on the far side of the elves have their own notions about the Alfr and their mystical realm (Alfheim). And the elves themselves are ideally to be of a Tolkien model--aloof and wise beings who are now retreating from the mortal realm (to the campaign's analogue of the Gray Havens or Valinor).

Are these the same creatures, or are Sidhe, Alfr, and Elves different? I think it's more elegant and interesting if these are three views of the same beings, and that leads to an objective conclusion that they are Elves in the Tolkien sense, and our Celts and Vikings are merely wrong about them. But then what is a beansidhe (banshee)? Do the Leanansidhe steal men's souls and wither them to husks, or are these the fanciful stories of broken-hearted Celts whose Elven lovers abandoned them? Are the Firbolg and Jotnar likewise just different names for the Giants, about whom there is also an objective, concrete answer?

Each of these questions is pretty trivial to answer on its own (frex: the banshee is an undead spirit that the Celt people wrongly consider to be a type of elf, as they do any supernatural being), but it's pretty easy to see that these answers satisfy our pre-game narrative considerations while being imminently difficult to keep mysterious during actual play, provided player agency and a DM who doesn't want to arbitrarily lie about what the characters experience, misleading them to the culturally relevant but factually wrong conclusions. Players stand, in other words, to immediately puncture the milieu, which can hardly be expected to survive the very first encounter with an elf. The Sidhe immediately become a myth, preventing right away many of the sorts of adventures that evoke the experience of the culture.

It's a difficult question, and I've been wrestling with it for awhile. I will likely continue to wrestle with it going forward, but I eventually need to have an answer. Have you ever dealt with this in a way that was satisfying, either as a player or DM? How did it work? How long were you able to maintain the mystery?

There's also the matter of having both polytheism and monotheism present in a world where priests can cast spells, although I have come up with an answer for that one that, if I might pat myself on the back, is worthy of its own future post.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Building the World (pt 2) - The Region

In part 1, we built a fairly low-resolution image of the globe, using icosahedral projection and 150-mile hex scale. We also zoomed in on a region (ie. one triangular face of the 20-sided polygon) to take a look at the 30-mile hex scale. You can see the hand-drawn results here. As you can see, one region takes up six sheets of 8.5x11 hex paper. And it ain't pretty, but that's ok--this map is just for organization, not showing to players. You just need to be able to look at your map with your own eyes and understand clearly what everything means.

The great thing about working in multiple scales is that each has its own functionality. At 150m, you're managing geology: continents, oceans, and analogues to the Rocky Mountains or Himalayas. You're painting with a thick brush. 30m scale still has geographical functionality, of course. This is where you place your major rivers, lakes, foothills, canyons, and so on. You break into the edges of those grand mountain ranges ever-so-slightly to reveal great valleys when you drill down to 6m later. But this is also the scale where you start placing major nations (mine are visible on the region map if you look closely--they're the red-bordered areas). Note that a nation isn't necessarily a formal concept, depending on the era and the cultures involved. A nation in this sense can be merely a sense of shared cultural identity, as in the warring clans of Ireland and Scotland, or the tribes of Mongolia prior to unification. In the case of my map, some of those nations represent no more than a single great dragon, possibly its mate and young, and the range of its demesne and hunting grounds. We'll explore this stage in greater detail in the future, particularly regarding how to populate your world with its intelligent and monster races, but for now it's sufficient to say that I used the tables provided in the excellent World Builder's Guidebook to lay down some basics.

It's always a good idea when building a campaign to rely on random tables here and there, because they help you break up the ruts of your creativity by introducing elements you wouldn't have thought of, which you now can integrate into the parts that you have. Of course, you don't have to obey the tables--they're just there to get the juices flowing. For example, the dragon-ranges-as-nations bit I mentioned above was a fluke of randomness that I immediately fell in love with. We tend to create with an eye toward the logical, but the real world is full of weird, unpredictable bits that are difficult to emulate without some degree of random input in the process.

Using those World Builder Guidebook tables, I came up with two dominant races. I made one of them human and rolled for the other, which is where I got dragons. I further rolled for distinct cultures and got five for humans and five for dragons (which I interpreted as five dragon types. Within each culture or type, I rolled for a defining attribute and a number of independent nations, then for the nations I rolled a number of occupied hexes.

A similar process governed my major races (halfling, orc, goblin, dwarf), minor races (aarakocra, urd kobold, standard kobold, giant, forest gnome, ogre, troll, and elf), marine races (merman, triton, aquatic elf, sahuagin, koalinth), and subterranean races (drow, duergar, myconid). A lot of these will be reskinned or replaced to suit my milieu as it comes into clearer focus, but these are the basic nation-building races of the region.

Speaking of milieu, now's a good time to look at my human cultures and their characteristics, zoom in on one of them, and start building an ethnocentric concept of the surrounding region from their perspective. This will serve to create a timeline, names for monsters and other intelligent races, and religions. I put some options that were floating around in my head out to my pool of players to hear their thoughts on what sounded fun, and we settled on a Celtic-style starting area.

Good thing I've got the Celts Campaign Sourcebook on hand to help me along.