Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Status Effects as Choices

While riding my bike today it occurred to me that maybe combat status effects would be more interesting if they were always designed to offer players a choice. For example, instead of "Stunned: miss one round", you could have "Shaken: -2 to all rolls until you take one round to clear your head." That leaves the player with something to think about and do on each combat round.

Below is a table that cross-combines different negative effects to produce various choices.

Penalty to rolls
Drop an item
Miss a turn
Acid on you: Lose 1hp per round until you take a turn to brush it off.
Shaken: -2 to all rolls until you take a round to clear your head.
Pack torn: Drop a random item each round until you take a turn to tie it back up.
Weighed down: Weird heavy jelly stuck to you. Slowed by 30’ until you take a turn to wipe it off.

Sucking wound: Take action carefully (-2 to rolls) or forcefully (lose 1d4 hp). Effect continues until you take 10 minutes to bandage yourself.
Heat Metal: All metal items you carry grow red-hot. Drop them or take 1d4 damage per round.
Iron Brambles: You got iron brambles stuck all over you. Move slowly (30’ max) or take 1d6 damage. Take 10 minutes to carefully unwrap yourself.
Penalty to rolls

Wood Growth: All wooden items you carry begin growing green shots. Drop them or take -2 cumulative penalty to all rolls.
Inner Ear Disruption: Sonic attack has wrecked your sense of balance. You can move or you can take an action, but not both in the same round. Ends after 10 minutes of rest.
Drop an item

Heavy Metal: All metal items you carry become progressively heavier. Drop them or be slowed by 60’. (LotFP encumbrance: any regular-sized metal item becomes an oversized item; any oversized metal items add double to encumbrance.)

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

You Can't Force It

In my previous campaign, I told the players straight up that it was going to be a Magnificent Seven-inspired scenario, where they would have to protect an isolated village from a gang of bandits. I started the first session with them in the town, and pulled a few cheap tricks to try to get them attached to the villagers. It worked fine. The players' attitude was: "Sure. We have to protect these people because that's the premise of the story." But they never became very emotionally invested in the town.

In my new campaign, I started out with the PCs at the entrance to a dungeon they knew nothing about. I told them: "This system is more brutal than Dungeon World or 5e. There is a real risk you will die, so play carefully."

They entered the dungeon with trepidation and soon encountered some human-looking NPCs (the Guildless from Through Ultan's Door #1). The Guildless are all mute, so communication was difficult. They seemed wary of the PCs, but the players wanted to make friends. After some deliberation, the PCs laid down all their weapons and allowed themselves to be taken into custody as a show of good faith.

As they were led through the Guildless' outpost, the players were terrified they had made the wrong choice and were about to be killed. Their fears reached a peak when they arrived in a room full of bloodstains and butchering tools. They were very relieved when it finally became apparent that the Guildless weren't going to hurt them. Since then they have helped the Guildless several times and formed a strong attachment to them both in an out of character.

There are two lessons I'm taking away from this. The first is that you can't pre-determine which NPCs the players will become attached to, or which in-character goals they will want to pursue. You just have to let it develop naturally.

The second lesson is more specific to old-school play. The credible threat of death can obviously be used to evoke the emotion of fear. But I suspect that it also enhances other emotive reactions by association. The fact that the Guildless might have killed them made the players that much more relieved when it didn't come to pass.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Play Report: Through Ultan's Door - Session 2

We had another fun session of dungeon crawling in Through Ultan's Door #1. I can't recommend this module highly enough!

This session, the PCs got caught in a bear trap, found a one-shot Web item in a hidden drawer, fought a glistening dream-pudding, and eventually made their way back to the lair of the giggling white swine.

Player A: "I'll use Spider Climb to climb above the pigs and throw the web down on them."
Player B: "That's the perfect plan because pigs can't look up."
Me: "I... what?"

With some quick Googling, the players managed to convince me that pigs cannot, in fact, look up, and therefore could never see an enemy approaching from the ceiling. After some more research post-game, I think that this is basically a myth, but it was good enough to work in the moment.

So the PCs webbed the swine in their lair, then poured oil on the web, then set it all on fire and wiped out the swine completely. The only one left was the gigantic swine-mother, who has 90hp but no attacks of her own. She was helpless as the PCs summoned their friends from the last session (the mute Guildless of the city of Zyan) and together they butchered and cooked the sow queen.

One thing that came up in this session was the question of whom the enemy would attack each round. Specifically, it mattered a lot whether the Oneiric Pudding would keep on attacking the same PC, or shift to attacking a different PC who had just dealt it damage. This question made the difference between life and death, and I had no real 'objective' way of determining it. I decided to just roll a die, which worked out OK. Nevertheless it makes me think it could be useful to note down a monster's attack pattern along with its stats. Most patterns could be reduced to a few words:

"Attacks weakest"
"Attacks greatest perceived threat" (e.g. Magic-Users)
"Attacks nearest" (but who is 'nearest' is often pretty vague in my games)
"Attacks last attacker" (which might lead to the PCs juggling around their turn order to ensure optimal chance of survival. This doesn't seem like a bad thing necessarily)

Lastly, I've noticed that the way I'm running initiative now is: "The party rolls 1d6 and the enemy rolls 1d6. Whoever rolls highest gets to go first. If it's a tie then we'll reroll". This is functionally identical to a coin flip. Technically in LotFP's rules there is a chance of the combatants all acting simultaneously. But that just seems like a headache to run. So I'm thinking of paring it down to just a bag with a white stone and a black stone. Whichever side draws the white stone gets to go first this round. This would also help with another minor problem, which is that sometimes I forget when one round has ended and it's time to roll initiative again.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Race-as-Class vs. Race-as-Race, And a Proposed Synthesis

In D&D-like games, is it better to have Race-as-Class (the idea that non-human races each have their own character class that defines their abilities) or Race-as-Race (where Race is a separate axis to Class)?
Here I will lay out some arguments in favour of either approach and then propose a hybrid.


Ok, so first of all - the phrase "Race as Class" just makes me cringe every time I write it. It sounds like something you would read about on Stormfront. Most of my IRL players are not familiar with the history of D&D like I am, and I'm pretty sure that if I started talking to them about Race-as-Class then their first reaction would be: "Umm. What?"

Their second reaction probably wouldn't be that much better. The whole concept of Race-as-Class is basically a mechanically codified way of stereotyping the Other: Humans are a diverse group who can choose all kinds of different professions. Non-humans, on the other hand, are all fundamentally homogeneous. The fact that we're talking about wholly fictional 'races' softens the blow a bit, but it still feels wrong to me. And that's assuming your non-human races are wholly fictional and not just thin paint-overs of real world cultures.

Now, I think I can present a logically sound argument why Race-as-Class isn't (or doesn't have to be) stereotyping an entire race. It's like this: character generation is an inherently metafictional mechanic, and its primary concern is not realism but game balance. Race-as-Class is saying "All playable Dwarves are fundamentally the same", not "All Dwarves in this game world are fundamentally the same". If you think it's saying the latter, then by the same logic you would have to conclude that all humans in the game world are either Fighters, Clerics, Thieves or Magic-Users, which obviously isn't true.

So I can make a case for why it isn't racially insensitive, but that won't get rid of the initial gut reaction people are going to have.


However, there are a few arguments in favour of Race-as-Class which can explain why it has stuck around for so long.

Some people argue that it's necessary to ensure that most of the adventuring party is made up of humans, which is desirable for thematic reasons. I totally get this. D&D to me is fundamentally a game about journeying from the Normal World to a mythic Otherworld. That journey has less weight if all of your player characters are already natives of the Otherworld. But, people still want to play as Dwarves or Elves. Trying to limit the number of non-humans in the party is an attempt at compromise, but ultimately it's a pretty clunky one. A better solution is to make sure your playable non-humans are coded as native to the Normal World. Give them more human-like cultures and psychology. Limit their knowledge of, and power over, the Otherworld: playable Dwarves should have only a small understanding of the Underdark, playable Elves should have little connection to the Fae, and so on.

Also, it's totally fine to say a hard No to a character concept that is definitely going to impinge upon your game's Otherworld. "Can I play as a dragon?" "No - for the same reason you can't play as Yog-Sothoth in a Call of Cthulhu game."


Another reason to use Race-as-Class is for the sake of player character balance. Here's why:
When someone chooses to be a Elf, there's a good chance that they want 'Elf Stuff' to be a major part of their character. So you, as the GM/game designer, want to give them a mechanical package of Elf Stuff to enable that.

If Race is separate from Class in your game, then the Elf Stuff package will have to be balanced against the Human Stuff package. And Human Stuff tends to be fairly weak because humans are the baseline.

If you're using Race-as-Class, though, the Elf Stuff is balanced against Fighter Stuff and Magic-User Stuff. Now you can put a lot of mechanical juice into the role of Elf.

I think this is the clearest reason why Race-as-Class remains popular, and in particular why OSR bloggers have written approximately 10,000 homebrew Racial Classes but barely any homebrew Races-Separate-From-Class. It's a framework that gives the designer more room to play around.


But - there's also a class design reason to prefer Race-as-Race. Having two axes of character choice is a really smooth and easy way to create space for creativity. Four classes and three races creates a grid with twelve boxes to fill, some of them obvious (everyone can picture a Dwarf Fighter) some more mysterious (what exactly does an Elf Cleric look like?)

One of my earliest roleplaying memories is of fiddling around with the character builder app for D&D 4th edition, slotting together combinations of races and classes and trying to come up with a backstory that made sense. (The grid was a lot bigger in that game - probably 20x20 or larger.) There is something inherently appealing about the formula of "X + Y", and it's particularly desirable for OSR play because it makes the characters more distinct without adding very much time to the chargen process.


So those are the major arguments for and against Race-as-Class. With them in mind, I propose a synthesis that will hopefully provide the best of both worlds:
- At chargen, players choose their Race and then their Class.
- Certain Races, if they have powerful innate abilities, can be chosen as both a Race and a Class. Their Class features will then expand upon their racial abilities. In the fiction, this represents a character who has chosen to train their natural powers at the expense of learning any particular adventuring trade.
- If multiclassing is available in your game, then characters can potentially mix and match between a Class-Class and a Race-Class.
This means that PCs are not wholly defined by their race, but they can specialise into it if they want.

Here's a basic example:

1. Choose a race.
Human: You get +10% XP
Dwarf: You have darkvision.
Halfling: You can reroll one die per session.
Elf: You have one spell (from Wonder & Wickedness) that you can cast once per day.

2. Choose a class.
Fighter, Cleric, Specialist, Magic-User: Refer to LotFP corebook (or whatever text you're using)
Elf-as-Class: You may only choose this if your race is Elf. In addition to the spell you get for being an Elf, you gain one extra spell per level and one spell point per level, which you can spend to cast any of your known spells.

The whole 'casting with spell points' thing is untested and would need to be refined, but my aim is just to show how race and class interact mechanically. You can be an Elf Fighter, in which case your main thing is fighting but you also get one unique Elf spell. Or, if you want to lean harder into the Elf part of your character, you can level up as an Elf and get more Elf magic.

Lastly... I've typed the word 'Race' about fifty times in this blog post and it's made me realise that it rubs me the wrong way. In future I might try using a word like 'Kin' or 'Lineage' instead, even though they both sound somewhat clunky.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Play Report: Through Ultan's Door #1

I ran Through Ultan's Door #1 using Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The players were new to the system and to the concept of old-school dungeon crawls in general, but they seemed to grok the game immediately and had a lot of fun.

The PCs' first encounter was with the black-lipped Guildless. The players loved the idea of the Guildless communicating by flute music, and went to great lengths to make friends with them. To show good faith they left all their weapons at the door and allowed themselves to be taken prisoner. There were some great moments of tension as the players wondered if they were about to be butchered. They were horrified to find that the Guildless were apparently pickling barrels full of severed children's hands. But the players speculated: "Maybe they were some kind of evil children?" - which turned out not to be too far from the truth.

The Guildless shaman sent the party on a mission to kill the sinuous white swine. The party got into a big fight with a swarm of swine protecting their nest. They could very easily have been killed here, but the swine rolled poorly and the PCs managed to set their nest on fire, grab a bunch of gems and escape.

The module was a breeze to run. I didn't make any changes to it, but I did go through the text with a pencil and underlined the most obvious features of each room to help structure my narration. The room descriptions in the module are quite detailed, even florid, but I found them useful in play. For example, having the shaman offer to reward the PCs with "a pearl encrusted bandolier" was much more evocative than just saying "he'll give you 150gp".

The only thing I struggled with was running combat in a timely fashion. I started off trying to run it Theatre of the Mind style, but quickly realised I was losing track of everyone so I drew a quick map and broke out the minis. The OSR dream of running 4-6 combat scenes over the course of one session still seems unlikely, but it did move a bit quicker than Dungeon World and much quicker than D&D4e or 5e.

One thing that really struck me was how, despite my concerns, the players accepted all the old-school tropes without batting an eye. Nobody had any problem with simple initiative, rolling for stats, only getting four classes to choose from, or potentially dying from a single hit. I think I spend too much time reading the opinions of online people who are extremely picky about RPGs, which makes me forget that my real life friends don't know or care about any of that stuff.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Is There Logic Behind Old-School Saving Throw Tables?

In my last post I gave some reasons why I like the original D&D saving throws as a general concept. Wanting to make up my own setting-specific saves took me down the rabbit hole of looking over the old books and trying to figure out the logic behind the actual numbers that are given for different saves. I looked over my copies of the Rules Cyclopedia, the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

The short answer is that I think it's all basically arbitrary, though I'd be interested to hear if anyone wants to correct me.

The long answer is this:

How do the classes compare?

- In RC and LotFP, which use race-as-class, the demihuman classes all have superior saves to any of the human classes. I guess this makes sense in RC where the demihumans are sort of like rare Pokemon due to their stat requirements. It doesn't make that much sense in LotFP, but I imagine that Raggi just copied it over for the sake of tradition.
- Halflings have the best saves in the game in both RC and LotFP. This makes sense in the same way as Dungeon Crawl Classics giving special Luck bonuses to Halflings - the logic being, if Halflings aren't supernaturally lucky, then why aren't they all dead already?
- AD&D separates race from class, so it only has four saving throw tables for the four 'core' classes.

- In all three books, there is a common theme of Thieves/Specialists having the worst saves, Clerics being middling, and Fighters starting out poorly but gaining saves at a faster rate until they eventually overtake the other core classes.

How do the individual saves compare?
Mostly, the numbers for each save seem to have been picked more or less at random. There are a few points of intentionality that stick out:
- Breath Weapon is consistently the hardest saving throw to make, across all classes. I suppose this was to make dragons especially threatening.
- Magic-Users often have the best saving throw against spells, implying they have a chance to counter the magic with their own. Clerics have the best saves against Poison/Death Magic, which also seems thematic. I can't see any other places where one class is notably good at a particular save. And even in the case of the Cleric, it's probably going to make a difference of 20% at most, on a roll that is not going to come up all that often over the character's lifespan.

How do the different books compare to each other?
- LotFP has roughly the same numbers as the RC, but they're usually better by one or two points. Maybe that was Raggi's idea of giving his players a break?
- AD&D's numbers are totally different to the RC's. For example, a first level AD&D Fighter has a Poison save of 16, whereas the same save in RC is 12. What's more, AD&D Fighters improve their saves every two levels instead of every three.

It's at this point that I start to doubt that there was any real logic or maths happening behind the scenes when Gygax and other designers were choosing these numbers. I know that some people like to read into AD&D and find hidden nuggets of wisdom, but it seems just as likely to me that Gygax just made up a bunch of new numbers so he could say his game was different from Basic D&D.

Frankly, trying to wrap my head around all these tables feels like more cognitive effort than it's worth for the amount of impact it will have on gameplay. The complexity of the tables feels like a sham - an effort to keep the game's design mysterious by obscuring how banal and arbitrary it really is.

If I were going to write a new, setting-specific table of saving throws, I'd be inclined to just write one table that applies to all characters. However, I would take two lessons from my analysis of the old-school tables:
- You can emphasise a particular danger by making it a harder save (for example, dragon breath.)
- You can emphasise the 'luck' of a particular class by giving them a bonus to saving throws or a separate saving throw table. The latter is a bit more clunky, but I think it's worth it because it will make the player feel like their character is "breaking the game" in a cool way.

Review: Bone Marshes

This is a review based on a read-through, not a playtest. Bone Marshes is a 45-page sandbox setting for Knave. It focuses on a salt-ma...