Archive for October 13th, 2009


Encouraging Spell Research

In old-school D&D, a magic-user’s ability to gain new spells differs based not only on which edition you’re playing, but on the DM’s whim. For instance, Holmes Basic allows you to learn new spells from scrolls and other magic-users, but it gives the DM carte blanche to decide what spells you’ll run across. One DM might provide stacks of scrolls and armies of friendly mentors, while another’s game may have no scrolls or mentors at all! Moldvay Basic is even stricter; not only does it restrict magic-user spell acquisition to leveling up and spell research, but even then it explicitly allows the DM to decide what spells you start with. He may let you choose a powerhouse spell like Sleep as your starting spell, or he may stick you with Hold Portal or Shield.

Spell research is available as an option by which you can individualize your magic-user’s spell selection, but it’s also very difficult to pull off. Not only is it expensive and risky, but it takes the magic-user out of play for weeks at a time, a severe penalty for a class that’s already slow to level up.

To encourage spell research rather than discourage it, I’m experimenting with some changes to the Moldvay rules:

1) Since we’re using Carousing rules (in which PCs gain experience points from frivolous expenditures of gold), I’ve ruled that gold spent on research counts as carousing, and thus is a good way to cash in your gold for XP, especially if it bypasses the usual caps on how much gold you can spend in one go.

2) I’m greatly reducing the time required to research new spells. Two weeks for a first level spell will take a magic-user PC out of play for several sessions, and it only gets worse from there! Halving that is a good start, and I’ll halve it again when researching a spell that’s similar to one that the magic-user already knows; this should encourage themed spell research akin to the suite of Bigby’s Hand spells.

3) Attempting to learn a spell from a teacher, captured spellbook or scroll will have a chance of failure, and failing to learn the spell precludes another attempt until the magic-user gains a level. Researching a variant of the spell in question should prove a viable alternative to waiting to level up.

How these rules will work in practice is anybody’s guess. If the party’s magic-users continue to die off at their customarily swift rate, it may never come up…


Morale Remembers What You Do

I’ve been using the Red Box morale system for the White Sandbox campaign, because I like the way it makes the outcome of combat unpredictable and leads to all kinds of decision points and types of action that wouldn’t come up if I followed my own lead in running a combat instead of the dice’s. I enjoy how morale makes me figure things out like the monsters have surrendered, what information will they give up when interrogated, and gives the players choices like do we pursue our fleeing foes into the unknown, or fortify our position here in case they come back with reinforcements?.

Moldvay’s morale rules work well for me, but neither Caverns of Thracia nor my LBB’s list a morale stat for each monster the way the Red Box does. I’ve been too lazy to go through and write them in throughout the text, and it’s a pain to look them up in Moldvay each time, so in practice I usually set it at 7 or 8 – which means that, give or take whatever situational modifiers I decide should apply, my morale rolls boil down to “look at 2d6 and see if it’s low or high, and flee accordingly.”

My new plan is to track morale for each faction of monsters in the dungeon as a whole and update it in response to events in play. For example, the Thracian worshippers of the Dark One might have started at 6, reflecting that they had been beaten down by gnoll raids before the PCs arrive. That score would have risen to 9 when Mariano and his catapult helped drive off the hated beast-men, and then fallen again with each encounter in which the party defeated the Thracians. The idea is that the morale score of any individual groups of Thracians will reflect the overall morale of their faction, which in turn dynamically reflects actions by players (or other forces) in the campaign.

Random wilderness encounters in OD&D are very likely to be something like 30-300 bandits, which poses the question of how our average party of 6-12 adventurers will fight all those dudes. One great old-school strategy is a guerilla war of attrition. As a player in A2: Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade, my friend Brian craftily lured groups of the fort’s personnel beyond the walls, fell on them from ambush, and left a few survivors to return to the fort with demoralizing tales of defeat at the hands of superior forces. Tracking morale dynamically seems to me like a great way to model this. At the first encounter with any of those 300 bandits, the dice will likely tell them to fight confidently to the death, but as the players progressively chip away at their forces, each bandit encounter will be more likely to see them flee in fear of the PC’s growing reputation.

I’m thinking that the first time a specific kind of creature is encountered, I’ll determine the initial morale for its kind by 4d6, discarding the highest and lowest value to get something around the mean. Unusually high or low results might suggest a story about the background to this encounter; perhaps the monster is fresh from a victory elsewhere, or fleeing another creature. If the PCs vanquish this particular creature, the morale score for the rest of its kind will fall by 1; if the PCs flee from it, it and others like it will have a morale score increased by 1 when next encountered. Specific PC actions (leaving terrified survivors, putting heads on stakes; or, if things go otherwise, leaving their dead behind, or executing a disorganized retreat) might amplify the effect on morale. As a referee I’ll decide whether or not future other creatures of the same type would be part of the same group or would otherwise be affected by the previous encounters (did they hear about the defeats from their kindred, or are these guys new in the area?).

Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2009
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