Posts Tagged ‘mortality


Q&A with the 2nd Dungeon Master in Champaign-Urbana, 1974

Folks whose memories span several ages of creation may recall that my friend Nat Sims was a co-founder of Behemoth3, my first venture into RPG publishing. Nat went on to found the successful iPhone app developer Night & Day Studios, and although being its CEO keeps him pretty busy, over the last year I’ve had the pleasure of playing the card-based diplomatic wargame Here I Stand online with him and some members of his extended family.

The first cRPG, "The Dungeon" aka PEDIT5, may also be from Champaign-Urbana, written by Reginald "Rusty" Rutherford on a PLATO terminal at the University of Illinois. Click pic to learn more.

One of my first experiences on the road to the old-school renaissance was hearing Nat’s stories about playing D&D in the 70s with his parents. His mom was the DM for a group of players mostly made up of his dad’s graduate students in a drama program. What Nat remembered most clearly was impatiently waiting for the “grown-ups” to finish drinking wine and describing what their characters were wearing, hoping that at some point during the night they could kick down another door and kill something.

On one visit home, Nat picked up his old D&D stuff including a mimeographed set of rules and one of the dungeons that his mom used. At the time, I thought that the ruleset might have been some draft of proto-D&D; with the wisdom of hindsight I bet it was actually one of the re-typings that were popular at the time as a way to integrate houserules (and avoid buying multiple copies of the expensive D&D “white box”).

At some point I’ll tell the story of what Nat & I made of this ’70s dungeon, my first exposure to the wonderful improv challenge of trying to make sense of a funhouse on the fly – and doing it without any help. (It was the ’90s, so the Internet and OGL-based support system on which the old-school brain trust relies was just a glint in Mozilla and GNU’s respective eyes.) What I want to do now, however, is pass on some conversations I’ve had with the creator of that dungeon, Nat’s uncle Mike Metcalf.

My questions for Mike (presented henceforth in italics) began with:

I’ve been making a point of seeking out all the original D&Ders I can – most recently I met Michael Mornard, who was part of both Arneson’s gaming group in the Twin Cities and Gygax’s in Lake Geneva. I would love to pick your brain about those days! Do you still have any of your old maps and whatnot?

He replied:

I had the 2nd dungeon in Champaign-Urbana in 1974 and went on to be a dungeon master up at Gencon once. My Dungeon stuff is at Nat’s Moms (my sister) who borrowed the stuff once to copy etc.  Used that dungeon with the family once and ended up turning my Mother into a zucchini; great fun.  I think it is secreted away somewhere in their house.  But, I do have stories, experiences and ideas.

One of the things Gary Gygax did before Arneson introduced him to proto-D&D was to run a Diplomacy fanzine. It seems to me that part of why he latched onto roleplaying right away – it only took one session of Arneson DMing his Blackmoor game for Gary before he was ready to start DMing it himself (for his kids, the first Lake Geneva players!) using Dave’s fragmentary notes – was that the kind of writing as if you were a historical world leader that we do while playing Here I Stand and that people used to do in diplozines is much like pretending to be an elf.

 Does this ring true – did you have experience with Diplomacy zines or other correspondence-based kinds of writing-as-if-you-were-someone-else? Or were there “playing in character” aspects of board or wargames that you just brought over to D&D play?

The way I got into D&D was that a friend of mine had gone to GenCon and come back with a copy of the rules and a graph paper dungeon (#1 in the area).  Pretty basic stuff with a list of main character types and monster types etc.  Our group had played ‘Chain-mail’ miniatures and this was a partial take-off on that idea.  We just took to it.  Easy to get into character.  We had already done Diplomacy and, of course, had to play our character-states.  As we killed off character after character (never got to the points necessary for a level-2 – hard damned dungeon), we got into a flow.  I had the never-ending ‘Botnick’ brothers starting with Coors Botnick, Budweiser Botnick etc (down the list of bad beers).  I quickly made a dungeon (2nd in the area) and we played each dungeon in a revolving mode.  Didn’t have a ‘zine at the time – just those rules which were modified by each dungeon master as he saw fit.

I’ll tell you of my other Dungeon – where I tired of D&D being an open-ended game to one of fixed dimensions (meaning that it would end at some point – no possibility that it could continue).  After playing many a dungeon trip in many a dungeon and watching other people with more time (I was in veterinary school) make giant above ground (and below) fantasy realms etc., I realized that I was losing interest in the open-ended role playing genre. Yes, one’s character might eventually be killed off (though rarely after gaining a certain upper-levelness) but things just went on and on. I guess I was too much of a history-based gamer. So, years later, I concocted this idea of a Dungeon. I found 4 other D&D players who were interested. Each players tribe lived on an island having a causeway to the dungeon complex with no outside interaction with any other player/side. The dungeon was finite: geometrically 4-sided with a middle entrance level and one level above and below the middle. I stocked the dungeon with all the requisite treasures; once found and removed – no replacement. Monsters/traps were easier in the middle level and more diificult above/below.  As all 4 players and I were in the same room during the game session, I devised some fog-of-war.  Each player could enter the dungeon with 9 men (randomized characteristics but possible to improve).  Each player thought that their entrance into the dungeon was to their North.  In addition, I numbered each room with a color-number that was meaningless to them as to level etc.  Each player did a few moves, exploring, fighting, discovering then passing to the next player.  This was all being done game-time simultaneously so there was the chance that the parties within the dungeon might meet (and fight) each other was.  If one party got to a room previously sacked, they would see the results of the previous visit.  Since ‘North’ was different for each player, orientation of other players experiences was very difficult unless they could recognize the area of the dungeon being described.

A very enjoyable experience – everyone quite enjoyed it.

This evolution of play sounds like it’s coming from the sense of D&D as a “squadron-based war game, with a couple doses of light humor and the occasional funny accent” that James took away from Michael Mornard’s game. What’s interesting is that Nat’s memories suggest that, around the same time that Mike Metcalf was making D&D into a squad competition he found more compelling, his sister’s game was been moving in the direction of “the wacky imaginative, pretend to be a Cleric bullshitting drunk people to convert to your faith, stuff” that James thinks “wasn’t a strong part of the earliest playstyle; it seems to have been an opportunistic growth, like a lichen growing on a rock or something.” (Quoted from here.)

Got other questions for Champaign-Urbana’s second-ever DM? Let me know and I’ll pass them on!


Weird Tables: Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

Winter is nature’s way of saying, “Up yours.”
—Robert Byrne

Your humble reporter lives in New York City. This past weekend, while making real-world preparations for the arrival of Hurricane Irene, I was also making preparations for imaginary bad weather—the coming of winter in my Glantri game.

While the PCs were exploring Quasqueton at the end of January, the winter snows began in earnest. This typically shuts down all travel in the region until the spring thaw. Not wanting to spend the winter in a tiny border keep, some of the PCs decided that they’d set off through the deepening snows in hopes of reaching the capital before travel became impossible.

In order to resolve this dangerous choice, I created the


Roll 1d6 and apply your Constitution modifier, along with any other modifiers the DM deems appropriate.

Roll Result
0 or less DEATH: You die of exposure.
1 FALL: Your character slips on the ice and suffers a broken bone(s) or some other structural injury. Roll again with a cumulative -1 on all further rolls on this table. If you survive, you spend the rest of the winter recuperating from your injury.
2 WOLVES!: You are pursued by a pack of wolves. Roll (level + hit die size + prime requisite modifier) or less on a d20. If successful, you survive their onslaught; roll again. If you fail, you are devoured.
3 TAUNTAUN: Lost and without shelter, you are forced to take shelter for the winter inside the corpse of a large animal, such as a bear or elk. Save vs. spells or permanently lose one point of Wisdom due to body horror. Alternately, you may push on, getting a reroll at -2.
4 CAVE: You are forced to hole up in a cave for the rest of the winter. Save vs. poison or permanently lose one point of Constitution due to starvation. Alternately, you may push on, getting a reroll at -2.
5 HUT: You take shelter in an isolated farmstead. Pay the owner 50-100gp (or provide an equivalent amount of equipment) in exchange for sharing their limited winter stores of food. Alternately, you may push on, getting a reroll.
6 or more CITY: You successfully reach your destination.

Whereas many tables are solely for the use of the DM, this is one of those tables which players should view before rolling. Perhaps they’ll make the sensible decision and stay indoors!


Emergent Behaviors: Don’t Sacrifice That Hireling!

A year ago, I posted about how players try to ditch their hirelings in order to avoid giving them a share of treasure. While not exactly counter-intuitive, this is a situation that doesn’t always go hand in hand with the DM’s preferred style of play. But it’s an emergent behavior that comes out of the intersection between rules and player goals: if the aim is to acquire gold and XP, and hirelings bleed off gold and XP, then it’s in the PCs’ interest to ensure that the hirelings perish in the line of duty before they can get their share.

(It also leads to weird situations, such as when a PC becomes an NPC and the party decides to stop giving him a full share of treasure for no apparent in-game reason. Which is perfectly explicable from a player perspective but utterly silly from an in-game perspective!)

In the following year, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no reason not to twiddle the rules in order to create a more desirable outcome. So, how might one go about encouraging players to keep their hirelings alive — or at least not discouraging them from doing so? By tweaking the distribution of gold and XP.

1) Hirelings that demand a flat fee instead of (or in addition to) a share of the profits will spend or cache that money before going on an adventure. This avoids the ghoulish prospect of PCs looting their hirelings for their fees.

2) If the PCs give a share of treasure to a hireling, give the PCs some of the XP value of that share of treasure! Now, you probably don’t want to give the PCs full value here — hirelings already provide significant benefits in play, and you may not want the choice of whether to use (or betray!) hirelings to be a total no-brainer. But if the players know that their characters gain at least some XP from rewarding their hirelings, then those who want to play their characters as decent employers don’t have to feel like total chumps for doing so.


Improv Techniques Made Art Gallery Gaming Awesome


Ghastly spaghetti-stuffed pinata visible over my left shoulder.


Allegra LaViola’s blog notaboutart has pictures from the OD&D Tower of Gygax adventure I ran at her gallery last Thursday, as well as from the opening of the Doomslangers show on Friday. I had a great time at both, although I did have to explain to my son:

Not every art gallery opening lets you roll a dice to see if you die or get to swing a wooden sword to chop limbs off a giant animatronic undead pinata. In fact, that will probably never happen again; your peak gallery experience happened at age 8, it’s all downhill from here.

Here is a post I promised Tim Hutchings about what DM tricks I used that I think made the adventure I ran fun:

Ask questions. After the game, head Doomslanger Casey Smith – player in this game, DM for their epic campaign that’d climaxed the night before (pics also on the notabout art link above) – mentioned this as a really noticeable part of my style. “At first it caught us by surprise – why are you asking us about what was in the room we just ran away from? But after getting over the initial hesitation, the creative juices really started flowing and it became really fun to be put on the spot and asked to invent stuff on the fly.”

Asking questions is one of the commandments that the fantastic indie game Apocalypse World gives to its MCs (aka GMs), but don’t be misled into thinking this means it’s some kind of hippie thing; it works spectacularly for red-blooded beer-and-pretzel RPGs as well. The most common questions I asked were: “Please describe what happens when you deliver the killing blow to your enemy” and “Please describe your horrible death.”

Say yes. To get the players’ creative juices flowing, there needs to be the implicit assurance that however they answer a question is not going to be wrong. Part of what makes this work is that you’ve already set the tone; the players are going to reach for references that draw from what’s been established in the game and/or their well of D&D lore. Part of it is that you only ask questions you won’t need to negate. “Describe how you kill it” is awesome because when you ask the question you’re announcing “this opponent is all out of hit points and I now relinquish control over its fate.”

A similar kind of question I asked a lot was to introduce new PCs when a players’ old one died: “You were teleported here when you mis-cast a very complicated spell. What was that spell trying to do?” Here again the question contains the information I need to establish as GM: you’re here now. What the character is leaving behind can be as wild as the player wants; there’s no risk in saying yes, and a big payoff in that the newly introduced character arrives with a spontaneously created narrative that gives them personality and verve.

Reincorporate. Not everything the players invent needs to become part of the fabric of the game, but as GM it’s fun and satisfying to draw from the pool of answers the players have just given you when you do your own improvisation. At the very beginning of the game Allegra decided that their characters were fleeing a giant snake, so when I needed a wandering monster here it was, an enormous serpent with a venomous bite and corrosive blood. Another player decided that the reason a god had cursed his new PC by teleporting him here was that he had accidentally let his pet pig befoul the god’s backyard shrine, so when I was narrating a miss in combat I decided that the charred corpse of the pig got underfoot.

Let the players be awesome. This may seem at odds with the fact that the death toll in this game was 100%. Tim Hutchings’ character was the only one to survive the final zombapocalypse; since we were out of time I had him roll a saving throw to see if he made it out of the dungeon alive, and the answer was “no”.

I think it’s easy for the players to feel like their alter-egos are icons of coolness when all is going well. Having things go wrong is an important part of the game, but it’s more fun if you use a little DM technique to frame it as fantastically wrong instead of just a simultaneously lame and boring whiff. So sometimes, when a player missed their dice roll and I felt they could use a little more spotlight time, I’d ask them to narrate the failure: “Okay, your character is obviously a great and competent warrior, so something unexpected must have happened for you to miss like that. What was it?”

Likewise, when characters died, I’d make it an event by:

  • asking the player of the dead PC “What are your dying words?”; even if these are usually “Aaargh!” it always drew a laugh from the table and reinforced the idea that death is an especially fun & vivid part of play
  • instructing players to “describe your horrible death”. This isn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill slipping feebly into that good night; even if you were senselessly killed by a kobold, it will be a grisly senseless death worthy of an accursed hero (and as hammy an actor as you want to be)!
  • displaying my evident relish of killing the PC with a big grin on my face: this is fun for me at least, and in retrospect it’ll be memorable for you too, why not enjoy it now?
  • letting players roll up new characters as soon as they died and introduce them the next time it was that player’s turn so that losing a character didn’t mean missing out on the action

One of the nice things about letting the players narrate their own awesomeness, or at least the reasons that kept them from realizing their potential to be so, is that they’re better at hitting their own definition of awesome than you could ever be. When Tim’s character failed to make it out of the zombie-ridden dungeon, I would have said that he surrounded himself with a wall of dismembered corpses  until his protection from evil spell finally ran out and he died fighting. Tim’s narration was much better: “I grab the treasure and make for the exit, but on the way up the stairs I slip and accidentally crack my skull.”

P.S. At the opening the night after the game, I introduced my son: “Allegra, this is Javi; Javi, this is Allegra, I killed her cleric last night.” I wish to apologize for this grave injustice. In point of fact, her cleric died of willingly drinking from a poisoned fountain, a heroic sacrifice that proved to be the party’s (temporary) salvation.


Blood and Guts: A Red Box Death & Dismemberment Table

Several of my fellow OSR bloggers have designed injury tables that provide a range of possible results for when a PC drops to zero hit points. (Some examples are Robert Fisher’s, Trollsmyth’s and Norman Harman’s.

I like the idea in principle; it allows for non-lethal effects that keep beloved PCs alive, while simulating some of the ugly consequences to combat that can be found both in real life and in sword & sorcery fiction. But the versions I’ve seen include a number of ineffectual results where the target is unharmed, stunned for 1 round, gains bonus hit points from adrenaline, etc. That’s too forgiving for my taste! The PC is already in trouble; the table should indicate how much trouble results. So I’ve written my own table.

When a PC (or an important NPC, at the DM’s discretion) drops below 1 hit point, roll 1d8 and consult the following table. Reduce the die size to 1d6 or even 1d4 for relatively weak attacks, or increase to 1d10, 1d12 or even 1d20 for especially powerful, destructive attacks. When using a curative spell to deal with an injury from the table, the spell provides no other benefit; no hit points are regained.

Roll Result
1 Scarring: -1 to Charisma; drops to -2 with three scars, -3 with six scars, -4 with ten scars, etc
2 Broken bone (DM chooses or roll randomly): broken ribs/collarbone/etc give -2 to attack rolls, broken arm/leg gives penalties as per severed limb; heals in 3d4 weeks or with cure serious wounds; if attack is cutting/piercing and target is unarmored, use arterial bleeding instead
3 Arterial bleeding: die of blood loss in 3d6 rounds, preventable with cauterization (1d6 damage and scarring) or any healing spell; if attack is bludgeoning, use broken bone instead
4 Disabled part (DM chooses or roll randomly): Missing eye gives -1 to attack rolls, mangled/missing fingers give -2 to attack rolls using that hand, ruined larynx/shattered jaw impairs speech and prevents spellcasting; -1 to Charisma; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
5 Slow death (gutted, massive internal injuries, spine shattered, etc.): incapacitated, die in 1d6 days; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
6 Mortal wound (heart pierced, throat cut, neck broken, etc.): incapacitated, die in 1d6 rounds; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
7 Limb severed (DM chooses or roll randomly): die of blood loss in 1d6 rounds, preventable with tourniquet, cauterization (1d6 damage) or any curative spell cast; -1 to Charisma; missing arm can’t be used for weapon/shield, missing leg halves movement rate; cure serious wounds reduces this to scarring
8+ Instant death (decapitated, skull crushed, torn to shreds, etc.)

Have you used an injury table, whether a full-on death and dismemberment table or a broader critical hit table? If so, how has it worked for your game? What recommendations would you make for others who’d try that approach?


Alas, Poor Black Leaf

It gets worse, as is to be expected from Jack Chick.

Suicide in D&D is less about the fate of poor Black Leaf’s player than it is about drawing a bloody line between your old unwanted character and your shiny new one.

It’s a story as old as D&D itself. A player doesn’t like their character—these things happen!—and decides to play a new one. But instead of a pleasant retirement, the old character suffers a drastic and terminal end. Methods vary from self-inflicted injury to lurid player-narrated tales to the time-honored “death by goblin,” where the character is thrown into deadly situations until the dice take their grim toll.

Why suicide instead of peaceful retirement? There are, I think, three reasons:

1) The Reroll: By the book, if you don’t like your character’s stats, you can’t reroll. You have to play the character you rolled. Character death provides an end run around the problem! Just view your replacement character as your “reroll.”
2) Player Authority: In a world where the DM controls everything other than your character, you may feel that surrendering control of your character is anathema. Killing your character is a final gesture of defiance in the face of the DM’s implicit tyranny.
3) Closure. What’s the end of your character’s story? If the character recedes into the quiet mists of NPCdom, you may never find out! Better, perhaps, to write your own ending to the story while you still have authority to do so.

Personally, as a DM, I find it annoying when players casually kill off their PCs. Characters in which the group is emotionally invested are valuable assets to the DM, and I hate to see such assets tossed away thoughtlessly or inefficiently. On the other hand, I can see how players can find such an attitude grating. This tells me that this is one of those things that should be talked out between players and their DM.

The important thing is that if you’re going to wipe the slate clean of old characters, that you incorporate it into the story of play just as you would everything else. Adventuring is a ghastly profession. Does it drive people to suicide? Does it welcome those with a death wish? Is it a magnet for character-killing weirdness? Of course!


Should I have killed Martin “Le Black”?

In last night’s game, while the party was fleeing a horse-sized giant scorpion, stalwart party member Martin “le Black” held the back of the line to give the others time to flee up a stairway. His player asked me if he could get some bonuses to AC for fighting purely defensively, having the high ground, and being better able than the giant scorpion to maneuver through the close confines of the rubble-choked stair. “Sure,” I said. But it was late and I was tired, and I didn’t actually determine what the modifiers would be. I just rolled the dice.

The attack roll for the giant scorpion’s stinger was a 19. Was this a hit? I didn’t know. Probably it should have hit—almost certainly, really—but that was meaningless when I was deciding on the modifiers after the fact. If I’d chosen the modifiers beforehand, this would be letting the dice fall where they may. Now, however, it was pure DM fiat either way.

I thought for a moment. If the attack hit and Martin blew his poison save, I’d be killing a PC by fiat. If the attack missed, I’d be going soft on my players, and that’s a violation of social contract; the old school DM must be harsh but fair, and this would undermine that crucial harshness.

Man vs. Scorpion

The scorpion in our game? Bigger.

What did I do? I split the difference, sort of. I let the attack hit but without the poison save; the giant scorpion’s stinger missed, but smacked Martin upside the head on the backswing for a few points of damage. Not much of a compromise, really, as he had oodles of hit points to spare, though it could have made a difference if the scorpion had gotten another set of attacks off before Martin clambered out of range. (Those two d10 pincer attacks can be nasty!)

In retrospect, the best choice would have been to discard that attack roll, solidly establish the ad hoc modifiers, and then roll the attack again. But I’m not embarrassed by my choice. Strictness isn’t a goal in and of itself; it’s a means to an end, and its goal is a more enjoyable play experience at the table. Player characters should never die for ambiguous reasons. Killing Martin while I was playing loosey-goosey with the rules would not have made things more fun.

The lesson I’m taking away from this is not that I need to be harsher, or that I need to kill off a PC to make up for it. The lesson is that letting the dice fall where they may only works if you know what the roll means before you let the dice drop.


The Spirit of the Staircase

Here are two things the title of this post does not mean:

  1. A celebration of the  stairs, as well as the pits, ramps, and chutes, plus elevator rooms and often teleporters, that give old-school dungeons their awesome verticality. If this was that post, I’d note that many ways to go up and down is as much an essential element of a great dungeon’s  interesting-to-explore and meaningful-decision-generating spatial complexity as branching loops and hidden areas (and often creates vertical loops and searches to find a point of entry to something you know is above or below but presents no obvious way to get there). I’d trace the early history of verticality, which very rapidly goes from the organically evolved (1970-71’s Blackmoor Dungeon, where the connections between levels are many and complex but were likely created by Arneson superimposing the sheet of graph paper for each new level he was designing on top of the previous one and deciding which staircases would or wouldn’t exit on this level) to the highly designed (1976’s Dungeoneer adventures, where the rise and fall of elevations nestle on the same sheet of graph paper like origami before it’s folded, and were likely created by merging one’s consciousness with that of a being from a higher-dimensional space). And I’d theorize that this spirit of the staircase evolved from actual play as an immediate consequence of  the mythic underground idea that the treasure and danger increase the further away from the surface you get.
  2. A new kind of incorporeal monster which can perceive you only when you’re changing elevation, presumably because it comes from another plane where either horizontalness does not exist or its projection into our realm is strongly tied to the Z axis.

No, this post is about the French phrase l’esprit du escalier, which means the clever things you only think of saying after it’s too late to run back upstairs and deliver them. (This post will also not be about the many awesome things that implies about French culture and trying to invent similar phrases to express the essence of fantasy cultures).

In last night’s game, our heroes caught G’ruk the Fishfinder, shaman of the lizardmen tribe in the Caverns of Thracia, alone and whacked him. (I’d say with extreme prejudice except that Chrystos, who speaks Lizardman, went to such great lengths to protest any possible anti-reptile discrimination.) One of the many grace notes in Jaquay’s creation is a wonderfully evocative list of the things Gruk is carrying, from the mundane (18 gold pieces, a human jawbone) to the appropriate (sacred rocks, divination sticks) and straight through to the mysterious (a bag of alum?).

That pouch is the focus of my esprit du escalier. So there are four little bags within G’ruk’s big belt pouch, right? The text says one of them has alum. Two are unspecified – I said bone dust and dried river mud, but in a minor instance of e. du e. I wish I’d made one of them the ochre he’d used to draw his stick-figure of the Lizard God. And one is a virulent poison in the form of an airborne powder that G’ruk would have thrown at his attackers to create a deadly 10′ by 10′ cloud if he had survived long enough to get a single action.

Well, remember what happened last time the party found four mysterious bags within a bigger container and reached into one of them? The party sure does! (Hint: Fight Bag.) So John Fighter cautiously drags G’ruk’s corpse into another room where it won’t be discovered by his fellow lizardmen; cautiously loots his body; and, one by one, cautiously shakes out the content of the four little pouches…

Often, when I know some horrible fate is about to be sprung on the party, I go around and ask everyone what they’re doing. And usually, my emphasis on where exactly they’re doing it causes a mad rush to declare that, as James put it, “I’m further away than the person who’s furthest away.”

But in this case, the fact that John Fighter was about to cut short his own noble future and that of whichever PCs happened to be closest was an entirely unexpected treat. So my reflex was not to laboriously and tellingly establish locations, but rather to get right to making adventurers die.  Everyone was spread out and doing the kinds of wipe-off-my-sword-and-consult-the-map activities that traditionally follow lizardman slaughter, so I decided there was a flat 2 in 6 chance that any given PC was within the cloud of powdered save-or-die. The dice said Obscura, Lotur, and Arnold.

Sadly, James pointed out that he’d specified that the magic user formerly known as Zolobachai was doing something with the altar, and as this was more specific than the usual “didn’t I say I was visiting relatives on another plane?” I was happy to let him avoid the cloud. Fortunately, John, Obscura, and Lotur all rolled such crap that not even the +2 bonus to saving throws decreed by the merciful Mr. Jaquays could save them. “Okay,” I said, “you’ve all been killed.”

However, late last night I realized a better way I could have pinned down the PCs’ location. Asking people where they are is a give-away, but people are used to me saying “It sounds like there are lots of things people want to do; let’s go around the table to make sure everyone gets a turn.” (The earlier parts of the session, which often kept the spotlight on one or two players, would have benefited from this approach, but I felt it wasn’t feasible when only one person spoke Lizardman or when traveling en masse through the unknown made it advantageous for one caller to direct the group’s movement).

In hindsight I wished I’d used a clever bit of misdirection: “OK, John Fighter is shaking out the bags; what’s everyone else up to?” The reason I wish I’d done this is not that James felt guilty about talking his way out of being in the cloud, when previous statements implied that Lotur had also been over by the altar. Using the dice to determine who might be affected kept me from worrying about being out to get anyone in particular, and I knew I wasn’t favoring James; if Greengoat himself had reminded me about Lotur’s stated actions at the altar, I would have let him off the hook. (I suspect Greengoat didn’t speak up because accidental poison inhalation during looting is entirely fitting for a PC named Lotur the Scurrilous Cur, and much as I love the character of Lotur I respected his desire to go out with a whimper).

No, I wish I’d slyly duped the party into telling me where they were standing because:

1) starting the go-round with a description of  what John was doing might have caused more PCs to gravitate over to him on the suspicion that he was about to find something particularly awesome, increasing the number of potential targets for G’ruk’s unplanned but effective post-mortem revenge. (This would have worked better if John wasn’t so unimpeachably righteous and unlikely to snarf treasure for himself).

2) when the poison killed them, the fact that they had just heard me point out in a casual way that John is shaking out the bag, what are you doing would have driven home their own culpability in their death and given them their own midnight regrets: of course, I should have known that dumping out a bag is as lethal as reaching into one!

P.S. As it turned out, one of the things Ookla’s character sheet brought into the campaign from another era of creation was three doses of anti-venom. Everyone revived by these made their “will survive adversity” rolls, so no casualties were lasting. Still, we’ve had a long a phase of expansion in which the party got lots of cool things (or, in Ookla’s case, was allowed to re-activate them as everyone else caught up to his level of bling), and I am now delighted to be whittling away these resources, one platinum liger at a time. (Newly acquired levitating 30′ long battle-drinker worm, I’m coming for you!)


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.


The Paradox of Death’s Door

Like many DMs, I’ve implemented a house rule allowing PCs to survive when their hit points drop to zero. But does this really help the party?

The player base in my Red Box game has expanded significantly over the past few months, so we generally have 6-9 players per session. As I divide experience points evenly between all surviving PCs at the end of a session, lots of surviving PCs means only a few experience points each. Characters only tend to get sizable lumps of experience when most of their fellow PCs die, such as when the inimitable Hamish was the sole survivor of a trek into what has since been dubbed the Swamp of Death.

Last session, six PCs entered the dungeon, and two of them dropped to zero hit points but survived. The party received a total of 715 XP. Divided six ways, that’s 119 XP each. Had both of the incapacitated PCs simply died instead, the remaining four PCs would have received… 178 XP each. Hm. A piddly 59 XP is hardly a worthwhile gain for the survivors. Meanwhile, the two incapacitated PCs had 780 XP and 252 XP respectively; not a lot, but significantly more than that 59 XP differential.

The problem, it seems, is that the party is simply too large for its individual members to gain experience at a decent clip. Perhaps they need to face stronger opponents—foes who will kill enough PCs that the survivors will get bigger pieces of the experience point pie! Clearly this calls for experimentation…

Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2023

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