Archive for February, 2010


Don’t Roll Your Hit Points Until You’re Hurt

One of the notable house rules in the White Sandbox campaign is that hit points are rolled only as necessary to absorb a PC’s wounds, making it hard to gauge how much damage a character can or can’t take until their luck is put to the test. I find it easier to show how this works than to explain it. At the table I talk people through each step the first time they’re hit, like so:

Lotur the Scurrilous Cur is 3rd level, so he has three hit dice. We imagine each of these as representing a different aspect of his ability to stave off death: mental, spiritual, and physical. Because he was fully healed since his last adventure, we don’t know how many hit points he gets from each dice.

Not five feet into the dungeon, Lotur is hit by a gnoll’s arrow and takes six points of damage. The player notes on Lotur’s sheet that he has taken 6 points of wounds, and starts rolling his hit dice to see if he can absorb the blow.

If Lotur rolls a 6 on his first (mental) hit dice, it absorbs the wound fully. He crosses out that hit dice – we imagine that he’s run out of plans for dealing with gnoll ambush – and leaves the other two untouched and unknown. Unfortunately, he only rolls a 2. He crosses out his mental hit dice, and has four points of incoming damage left to absorb. He rolls a 1 with his second (spiritual) hit dice: he crosses it out. We imagine that he is demoralized, and still has three points of incoming damage.

For his last (physical) hit dice, Lotur rolls a six! He subtracts the three points of incoming damage, and notes that he has three hit points left on this dice. However, at this point we imagine that he is actually bleeding and has an arrow sticking out of him.

Oops, here comes another arrow! This one rolls a 2 for damage. We already know that Lotur has three physical hit points left, so he doesn’t need to roll any hit dice. His player crosses off two of the hit points remaining on Lotur’s physical hit dice, and increases his total wounds taken from 6 to 8.

Salvation arrives in the form of a cleric. Each point of healing delivered by the cure spell will subtract one from Lotur’s wound total. If the cleric rolls eight or more points of healing, all Lotur’s wounds are erased and all three of his hit dice are reset. However, the cleric only rolls a 3, so Lotur increases the hit points remaining on his physical hit dice from 1 to 4, and decreases his total wounds from 8 to 5.

Note that poisoned arrows have to get through to the physical hit dice to be effective, so there’s a benefit of having that dice untouched; and some kinds of healing will add to your spiritual or physical hit dice, but won’t work if those dice have been crossed off.

To answer some questions that tend to come up:

– When a character has more or fewer levels than they do physical/spiritual/mental hit dice, we assign extra or missing hit dice to one of the three categories depending on class. A fighter gets an extra physical at L4, a cleric an extra spiritual, etc. Then spread out until at L6 all classes have two of each.

– Once a character’s hit points have all been rolled, these rolls are kept only as long as they have wounds. When all wounds are removed, hit dice reset to unknown.

– High constitution provides a buffer after you run out of hit dice. Characters that are tough get 1 HP per hit die of buffer; exceptionally tough characters get 2 per die. So if a 3rd level PC rolled 12 for their HP, a tough one could actually take 15, and an exceptionally tough one 18, before collapsing.

This idea was inspired by Zulgyan’s method of rolling monster HD, and realizing that most of the d6’s I have are either red, green, or white, which I assigned to physical, spiritual, and mental.

I like this approach because it makes taking damage an exciting dice-roll contest between player and monster. As per Gary’s house rules we’ve started with third level characters, so when a PC is hit by a lizardman spear for 6 damage, there’s a dramatic sequence of rolls: does their knowledge of fencing techniques cover this? No, they roll a 2 for their mental hit dice, so there’s 4 points of damage remaining, and their plan for survival is in shambles. Is their esprit de corps sufficient for them to simply knock the spear aside? No, they roll a 2 for their spiritual hit dice, so there’s still 2 points of incoming damage and they’re demoralized. OK, are they hale enough for them to survive this thrust? No, they roll a 2 for their physical hit dice and die!

I also like the way that doing this helps imagine what different states of being wounded are; it helps systematize the idea that hit points represent divine favor and luck as well as sheer toughness.

In play it does take a little longer to resolve PCs taking damage than if players were just subtracting a number from the HP written on their sheet. It did mean that the math involved was a lot easier – take the # of damage dealt, subtract from 1 to 6, repeat. Plus, I feel like the risk of a player dying is worth spending extra spotlight time attending to, and I like how not knowing what your hit points are before they’re tested means that every wound carries the possibility of death. If a 3rd level character rolled a string of 1’s for their hit dice and was going to be stuck with that forever, I’d certainly let them re-roll, but this approach means that although such bad luck might mean your character gets sent to the graveyard, it doesn’t mean that you might as well roll up a new one even before they start adventuring.


Fantasy Maps: How I Built My Own Glantri

Maps are among the best props you can add to a fantasy game. They provide perspective. When your players look at a map, instead of trying to puzzle out your spoken directions—or simply tuning you out until they hear the words “at the dungeon entrance”—they can see for themselves what’s where and make meaningful decisions about where to go next.

Of course, not all of us have the proper artistic skills to create a good map. If, like me, you can barely draw a recognizable stick figure, you’ll need some help to make maps that will wow your players.

Obviously, one route is to get your maps from somewhere else. You can buy them, find them for free online or cajole a talented friend to draw one for you. The upside is that you’ll get a better product than you could turn out on your own. The downside is that you don’t have much control over the final product!

One great way to put a map together is to design it with a computer graphics program. I’ve been using Adobe Illustrator for this purpose. It’s especially useful because it relies on vector graphics. Instead of creating an image composed of specific pixels, you’ll create a skeleton of shapes that you can apply colors and textures to at your leisure. This means that if you don’t get something quite right, you don’t have to redo it from scratch; you can simply alter the curves of the lines or apply new textures until it looks the way you want.

My map of Glantri took about two hours to make, but most of that time was spent futzing about with fonts and trying to come up with a good way to draw mountains; the map proper came together in less than an hour. The textured background came off a disk that a co-worker lent me, but a quick web search should turn up any number of free textures online. The mountains are just strokes with an angled calligraphic brush. A rough art brush provided the forest borders, while a smoother art brush made the rivers.

The best part is that at no point did pen or pencil touch paper! Illustrator’s brush tool turns even the jerkiest movements of the mouse into smooth strokes, allowing even a clumsy fellow like me to “draw” clean, smooth lines. And there’s no need to scan the map into the computer, as it was on the computer to start with, where it can be modified, copied and mailed endlessly with no effort and no degradation of the image.

It doesn’t hold a candle to professional efforts, of course. But who’d expect it to? As long as the players like it, nothing else matters.


Just Talking: Communicating Your Character

Over at Ars Ludi, Ben Robbins brings up some interesting points about sharing one’s character’s point of view.

I think it’s very important to note that good roleplaying isn’t something that just happens, nor does it happen in a vacuum. If you want your character’s personality and backstory to feature prominently in play, you have to put something on the table. No one’s going to drag your character’s secrets out of you!

This has come up a lot in White Wolf games I’ve played in, especially LARPs, but I’ve seen it in other games as well, including old-school D&D. Someone designs their character with dark secrets—drug addictions, broken families, betrayed masters, forbidden loves, and so forth—then works so hard to cover their tracks that no one ever finds out about those dark secrets. At which point they’re puzzled and disappointed, because the whole point of having all this cool stuff in your backstory is to have it come out in play!

The point is, if it’s important to you for your character to have a Big Reveal in which Stuff Is Found Out—or even if you just want them to notice the little things about your character’s behavior and persona—you have to arrange it out-of-character. You can’t depend on people noticing your in-character clues. After all, they’re all busy with their own business, not to mention whatever the referee is throwing at the group!

Hell, I’ve done it myself, playing taciturn characters who never let anyone past their guard. But if no one else at the table knows what’s going on inside your character’s head, how important is it?

There are a number of useful expository techniques for sharing a character’s inner life with the group. These include:

  1. Monologuing: This is where you turn the old adage of “Show, don’t tell” on its arse and tell the group what’s going on in your character’s thoughts. This can be a first-person or third-person monologue. If you do this, keep it short. Non-interactive presentations on the table get boring much faster than you might think!
  2. Blue-booking: This is where you write your monologue down and share it with the group between sessions. This can be a brief excerpt or a full-on short story. Unlike a monologue, you can be as verbose as you want because you’re not stealing spotlight time at the table.
  3. Staged scene: Here you work with your fellow players and the referee to set up a scene in the game that showcases your character’s issues. This may be best accomplished troupe-style, with other players running relevant NPCs—your character’s friends, family, rivals, etc—as appropriate to the needs of the scene.

The one thing I don’t recommend is running long solo staged scenes. No matter how cool your character is and no matter how masterful a thespian you are, a two-hour scene with just you and the referee is likely to bore everyone else to tears. Solo scenes are useful, but keep them short and snappy!

Lastly, it’s important for referees to remember that if a player presents a secret in their character’s backstory, that’s a red flag indicating a point of conflict. Secrets are there to be revealed! You shouldn’t expose it directly without the player’s permission, but you should threaten its exposure on a semi-regular basis. It’s a good way to up the tension, and it offers a good avenue for giving the player a meaningful choice.


By the Book: Movement Rates and the Chain Mail Problem

According to the Red Box rules, an unarmored character moves at a rate of 40’/round, one in leather armor moves at 30’/round, and one in metal armor moves at 20’/round—or a mere 10’/round if also carrying treasure. But how fast is that?

A round is ten seconds, so an unencumbered man walks at a rate of four feet per second. Running triples one’s movement rate, albeit at the cost of temporary fatigue (-2 to attack and damage rolls and to AC), so an unencumbered man runs at a rate of twelve feet per second. These are reasonably accurate numbers, all things considered. (Sure, some people will walk or run faster than others, and there’s jogging and sprinting and so forth, but this is Basic D&D; we’re not going to fret the details.

How about a character in metal armor? Halved movement speed is pretty extreme. Personally, I don’t have much—or, in fact, any—experience with moving around in plate mail. A bit of casual internet research (and we know how accurate that is!) suggests that heavy armor doesn’t slow one down significantly; the main effects are an increased demand on the wearer’s stamina from hauling around the excess weight.

But let’s face it: sometimes we deliberately ignore realism to keep gameplay simple and to produce interesting tactical or strategic choices. The movement rules may not reflect reality terribly well, but they’re simple and they work. Want to move fast? Wear light armor or none at all, or run in armor and accept the resulting penalties. Want to hang tough on the front line? Wear heavy armor. Can you make it out of the dungeon laden with treasure? Let’s find out!

And here we encounter the one fly in the ointment: chain mail. By the book, there’s little reason for player characters to ever choose to wear chain mail. It costs only 20gp less than plate (a trivial savings) and weighs only 100 coins less than plate (allowing one to bring out a little more treasure), while providing significantly less protection in battle.

My solution has been to house-rule the movement table. In my game, characters in plate move 20’/round, characters in chain move 30’/round and characters in leather or no armor move 40’/round. Accurate? Unlikely. Playable? Definitely! Chainmail suddenly becomes a viable choice, as the character wearing it gives up protection to gain significantly increased mobility. (My players had an example of this last session, where the plate-wearers slogged slowly through a storm of arrow-fire to reach their opponents.)

Other solutions are certainly viable. One could use AD&D-style tables indicating which weapons are best against which types of armor, or one could modify the exhaustion-from-running rules to impose greater penalties on plate-wearers. I’m curious to see what approaches individual referees have taken in their own campaigns!


Parlez-vous Glantrian?: Dialects and Alignment Languages

“You spoke of the Elephant Tower,” said the stranger, speaking Zamorian with an alien accent. “I’ve heard much of this tower; what is its secret?”

—Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant”

I’m not happy with old-school D&D’s language rules. They’re fine for dungeon crawls in which their sole purpose is dealing with the gribblies that may want to eat you. But the moment you try to simulate the world outside the dungeon, the language system fails.

Like the real world, many classic sword & sorcery settings are full of languages spoken by their predominantly human inhabitants. In classic D&D, however, each intelligent race has its own tongue—including humans, who have the “common tongue.” In addition, each character knows an “alignment language” based on their beliefs.

The conceit of a “common tongue” is fine by me; there have been quite a few such broadly-used languages in real-world history, from Latin under the Roman Empire to English today. The rules tacitly acknowledge the existence of other human languages: “The ‘common tongue’ . . . is spoken by most humans, dwarves, elves and halflings” (Moldvay Basic, p. B13; emphasis mine). But no information is provided on the use of such languages in game, and the default mode of gameplay discriminates against spending one’s precious language slots on foreign human languages when you could instead learn to talk to orcs, dragons, minotaurs and other wealthy, dangerous residents of the dungeon.

Where characters should have native tongues, they receive “alignment languages” instead. Alignments themselves are troublesome things (see this excellent Grognardia post, for example), and the presence of alignment languages doesn’t make it any better. How does one justify alignment as a descriptor of one’s personality, rather than as an immutable trait, if your alignment determines what language you know? What happens if you change alignments—do you forget your old alignment tongue and magically acquire a new one?

“You read Carsultyal, I see.”

“Haltingly,” Lord Dribeck acknowledged. “I’ve taken instruction in the six great languages. …”

—Karl Edward Wagner, “Bloodstone”

My solution thus far has been to replace each starting character’s “alignment language” slot with a single additional human language of the player’s choice. This may be the local language—in my campaign’s case, Glantrian—or the language of their home culture. This allows for private conversations between characters, as well as avenues for communication with NPCs who might not know the common tongue.

The common tongue itself is the trade tongue of the fallen merchant empire of the South, of which several nations on the shores of the Great Ocean speak modern dialects. Outside of those nations, it’s used by traders, scholars and diplomats as a lingua franca. No matter where you go, someone’s likely to speak it, especially the merchants that PCs deal with in their travels.

As to alignment languages, I’ve repurposed them as ecclesiastical languages akin to Church Latin, Aramaic or Sanskrit. The “Old Tongue” was spoken by the ancient empire of Chaos that ruled the world at the dawn of recorded history, and is still spoken by cultists of the Chaos gods. The “High Tongue” was the language of the worshipers of Law who overthrew that Chaos empire; it is still used in the rituals of many gods of Law.

Fafhrd neither answered nor frowned at that shrewd question. Instead he asked, “How many languages can you speak—besides this pidgin-Lankhmarese?”

She smiled at last. “What a question! Why, I speak—though not too well—Mingol, Kvarchish, High and Low Lankhmarese, Quarmallian, Old Ghoulish, Desert-talk and three Eastern tongues.”

—Fritz Leiber, “The Snow Women”

Meanwhile, the biggest flaw in the language system is the heavily restricted number of languages a character can learn. In Basic D&D, a character of average intelligence knows two languages, while one with 18 Intelligence may know as many as five. AD&D characters are more competent, with average intelligence allowing four languages and 18 Intelligence allowing up to nine. Meanwhile, in the real world, polyglot speakers may know literally dozens of languages. Far-traveled sword and sorcery characters like Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser likewise know far more tongues than the rules would allow, and continue to pick up more languages in their travels.

I’m still working on rules for handling new language acquisition. Such a system should be easy enough to permit the PCs to communicate in foreign lands, while remaining hard enough to allow for interesting complications. I’m interested in learning what you, gentle readers, have done in this regard!


Serious Play: The Ministry of Silly Names

After years of relatively serious D&D campaigns set in a well-developed milieu, it’s come as a splash of cold water to see just how wacky a gonzo old-school game can get. A recent session writeup at Carter’s Cartopia—home of such worthies as the PCs Uncle Junkal, Innominus and Barbarella, aided by NPCs like Porkins and Val Kilmer—reminds me of an ongoing peeve of mine: silly names.

There have been a lot of weird names in my Red Box game and in Tavis’ White Box game, and some of them are much more agreeable to me than others. I’m still trying to put my finger on why a fighter named Monterey Jack is fine by me while an elf named Broccoli Cabbage pushes all my buttons, or why I’m bothered more by a pulchritudinous magic-user named Sosexia than a politically correct druid named Obamabiden.

Intellectually, I’d expect to be more troubled by topical real-world references, but in practice they seem to blend into the background pretty easily. It’s the puns that actually get under my skin; they have a deliberately jokey quality that punctures my suspension of disbelief far more than call-outs to the modern world.

Some referees react to this sort of thing with draconian fervor, refusing to allow PCs with silly names in their games. Others take it in stride. Me, I’m looking for a middle way, one that lets me dial down the silliness without eliminating it altogether or making my players feel bad for goofing around. Like everything else, it’s a work in progress.


How to Keep your Vancian Spells Happy

Over at the OD&D boards, jcstephens wrote: “What if spells were ‘alive’, in the same way as magic swords? Maybe there’d be several different versions, with Egos and alignments and goals. Possibly, they might even have rivalries and grudges.”

As a hopefully useful by-product of my addiction to the surreality of random dice rolls, I present the following table for determining the goals of a magic-user’s spells:

  1. Spell wants a spellbook all to itself. If this already true, it wants the spellbook illuminated, re-bound, gilded, etc. at a cost of 1d6 x spell level x 10 gp.
  2. Spell feels its current position in your brain & your possessions is insecure, and demands to be scribed onto a scroll that is given to a M-U who leads a less dangerous lifestyle.
  3. Spell falls in love with another randomly determined spell in the M-U’s repertoire. It will only be scribed into a spellbook or scroll that also contains its beloved, and will only be memorized when its beloved is also memorized.
  4. Spell hates another spell and will not co-exist with it in a spellbook, scroll, or M-U’s brain.
  5. Spell wants its M-U to go on a quest: spells cast on a target want to be cast on a particular kind of target (roll as if for a wandering monster), illusion spells want to view the reality of some obscure thing they can emulate, etc.
  6. Spell chooses a new, fancier name for itself and will refuse to be cast, memorized, or scribed for 1d6 days following any incidence of being referred to by its older and less grandiose name.

If I were to use these in a game, I’d probably roll for a spells’ goal at the point where it was acquired, and likely wouldn’t do so for every spell (maybe roll 3d6 for the spell’s drive, and worry about its goals only if the total equals or exceeds the magic-user’s wisdom).

I’d provide a stick to make the consequences of failing to cater to your spells’ whims (like introducing your favorite set of magical fumble rules, or increasing the likelihood of fumbles if you’re already using them), but balance it out with a carrot. This might be the nature of the spell itself – perhaps only the most useful and desirable spells have goals – or it might be giving ordinary spells an advantage, like a penalty to the saving throw against a spell that’s fulfilled in its desires.

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2010
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