22 May 2013

Better Monsters, Part Two

See, the problem is that the built-in combat system just plain doesn't work. And it was never meant to. It was a copy of the man-to-man system in Chainmail, polished and tweaked, and that system was meant for foes of roughly equal size and capability to fight each other. It's legacy code, if you will, and it's currently being used for things it was never meant to do.

So what would I do?

I'd use a completely different system. Because you're not "in combat" with giant godlings as much as you endure and trick them. You "fight" them as much as you "fight" a trap in a dungeon. You either outsmart it and live, or you fall prey to it and die.

If you've ever played God of War, you know what I'm talking about. Kratos doesn't swing his chain sword things at Ares or Gaia or whatever, he has himself a Quick-Time Event and climbs their faces and stabs them in the eyeball. In Dragon's Dogma, if you want to beat the Griffon, it helps if you cling to it and try to pin its wings down so it can't fly away (although that never worked for me).

So why can't you do that in a tabletop game?

So here's this guy. He's like a hundred feet tall, or something. He has trees growing into his back. His stat block is like "HP: 2,000 AC:22, #AT:2 DMG: 6d6+30". If you get swatted by that bigass hammer, you are going to be a dead man, and if you stand there and beat him up, well, see you in the afterlife.

So what do you do?

You make it part of the world. You make him vulnerable to a certain sword, or artifact, or spear. L'lurgohd up there, turns out he's vulnerable to a spear made of solidified light, dipped in the blood of a demigod's heart. So the adventurers go off and have themselves a badass quest where, after a difficult and painful struggle, manage to attain the Spear of Vengeance, and give it to the burliest fighter. Here's their plan: They need to distract the beast so they can plunge it into the roof of the beast's mouth, peircing its brain.

If you're using a system with lots of skill systems, you could make it pretty easy: Let them use their appropriate skills to study ways to bind, trap, or confuse the monster so that the burly warrior can get in there. Maybe their plan is to lure the beast towards a ballista attached to a rope, so they can pull the thing down before it notices, and then once it's down, they stun it with the potent Ritual of Elnor'Yorgo, a spell the party cleric and wizard had been working on for two months. The ballista works, but the spell fails (bad spellcasting check), so the beast gets up. What will they do?

They get desperate, and the fighter leaps on to the monster's chest, while the party desperately distracts it by stabbing at its toes, casting spells on its eyeballs or its hands, creating illusions, anything they can do to make it not notice the tiny man climbing its body.

In game terms, what you're doing is a lot like skill challenges in 4th edition, in a way nobody thought of it. You let the players use all their skills to make things happen, and they're going to need to make more checks than they fail. Their Dungeoneering skill might not be useful when fighting L'lurgohd, but their Religion skill is (recalling the ritual). A good check gives a bonus on the spellcasting attempt (Arcana, and the cleric is Aiding Another while the wizard casts), and if that succeeds, it  gives a massive bonus to the fighter's Athletics check to climb the beast.

But you throw in a wrinkle- a skill challenge within a skill challenge. The beast noticed, and so everybody's doing what they can to help out the fighter. Mechanically, it's all the same as an Assist Another check, but give bonuses to the roll if it is more helpful. Rogue aiming at its eyeballs? Paladin going back to the ballista for another shot? Wizard summoning tentacles from hell to grab its toes?

And here's the fun part- once you realize the possibilities, you can do a lot of things with it. You can bring in the "knock them down and then bash them in the head" by just having the players make skill checks. Now it's prone and its relatively unarmored head is only 15 AC, and also it takes double damage because that's it's weak spot.

I mean, honestly, I'm surprised this isn't a thing yet. There's got to be somebody out there who's done a better job at exactly this sort of thing than me.

21 May 2013

Better Monsters, Part One

This is related to my post about Six Health Classes and Hit Point Creep, because it's something that's been bothering me for a long time: it's poor monster design.

In early editions, monsters required careful planning because of the relative fragility of both monsters and players. When you have three hit points and a sword does from 1-6 (and it hits roughly half the time), you are not taking any chances with swords or arrows. Combats tended to revolve around surprise, traps, and ambushes. You snuck up on them and got your bonus round, or else you made sure there was more of you then of them. In this, fighting looked a lot like real life- as damned unfair as either side could get it.

Monster design was necessarily pretty brief, because you weren't really fighting them for long. You could describe them in a single line, because the only part of the game the rules really touched was the fighting, and the fighting didn't last too long. Or occur too often. You bashed in a skull or two, licked your wounds, and tried not to encounter too many wandering monsters, because, again, any given encounter could spell death. (This was the earliest, and probably most effective, deterrent of the famous "fifteen minute adventuring day", by the way.)
Pictured: a daring ambush by two skilled adventurers

But as the editions progressed, as this chart handily shows, it quickly becomes less necessary to skulk and hide and fight. You're a hero, suddenly, and you're able to single-handedly beat the crap out of seven goblins. And you notice that, at nearly exactly the same time, killing monsters becomes the focus of how you gain experience. Since players are going to be gravitating towards the things that give them the most reward (and wouldn't you?) suddenly you have a game that revolves around killing monsters, with their stuff being the reward for killing them, instead of being the main goal.

19 May 2013

Skeleton Puncher: First Session Postmortem

I played online with a new group last night. The game: D&D IV.

Here are a couple of things I noticed (as well as some things I need to work on).

  1. They aren't used to being self-motivated: One of my favorite techniques is to let the players decide where they're going based on their characters' motivations, as well as their personal preferences. If they want to seek out a death-filled crypt, then that's cool, or if they want to find work with the town guard, that's neat too. But, none of them knew. The thief wanted to pick pockets, the cleric was hanging out at his Inn, the sorcerer was silent (and the fighter was having connection problems.) Only the Bard, with whom I've played before and who knows my style, was actively looking for adventure. I'd gotten spoiled playing with my brother (and wife) who generally have fairly strong opinions on what sorts of adventures they like to be on, and who are not afraid to get highly engaged.
  2. Don't be afraid to be ham-handed: When your players won't engage with the hook (but want to) there's no reason not to make something happen. This is really more of a new-player thing; I could feel that they all wanted something to happen, but didn't know how to make it happen. So I made it happen for them. Problem solved, and everybody's happy now.
  3. Give them a direction: Next time I'll probably tell them what they're doing and have them start there. I'll make it clear in advance what their group is bound by; maybe they're all dungeon plungers, maybe they're bodyguards, or mercenaries, or fugitives, or whatever. I was toying with the idea, but I didn't want to impinge on my players' creativity.
  4. Don't be afraid to shout: One of my players in particular has a very strong authoritarian streak. He also is the youngest. Luckily, my military background means that I am both tolerant of people in general and I am firm when people fuck around. A firm "stop doing that" is generally enough, especially when you combine it with a constant friendly tone. I'll have to watch to make sure that he doesn't overtake other players with his domineering, but I'm completely unworried, as it stands.
  5. Get some minis: It's a pain not to have cool minis in advance. Since it's digital, it just means that I have to hoard them on my computer. One of my players is very into the traditional "here's your mini, here's the map" thing, which is fine. It's 4th edition, after all, and that's kind of the assumption. I'll make sure to have a small stockpile and also doodle up some maps in advance, probably using geomorphs if they go into a dungeon.
  6. Have fun! : This is the easy part. Everybody enjoyed playing, when we actually got to playing. Luckily, we stopped in a place where it's easy to start up again without too much kibitzing, and I've got some real fun stuff planned for in the future. Like, the immediate future.
All in all, I'd say it's fun, and next week can't come soon enough. Now that I've got an idea of how the flow of the game works with Roll20 (and the personalities of the players), everything's going to be a lot easier.

14 May 2013

Six Health Classes

This is related to yesterday's post. It's like right there, so check it out if you haven't.

Alright cool, back to me.

Here's the idea: Every class has six health. The vast majority of humans have six health. Some have a couple more, some a couple less.

Weapons in general do 1d6 damage. This is enough to kill a guy if he gets hit wrong. To cushion the blow a little bit, I like to have zero hit points be "incapacitated but probably dying," the better to let the players drag each other to safety and have fighting be dangerous but less so. (Death occurs when your hit points are at your negative constitution score- so if you have 10 CON you'd die at -10. If you're incapped you "bleed" a hit point every round until you're finally dead.)

Fighters get +1 to their attack  every level. If you're using THAC0, that lowers by one every level. They get +1 to their Armor Class every other level (so levels 1,3,5,7,9) as long as they're "ready." This basically means that they don't get their AC bonus if they're being ambushed or sucker punched- this bonus AC is from them being able to dodge, parry, and roll with the punches.

Non-fighters don't get anything special. Sorry guys. Everybody does still get their normal saving throws.  I prefer the ones from Sword and Wizardry ( a single "saving throw" that gets better with levels) but I don't know if it really makes a difference which ones you use.

Magic users still cast spells, and at the same rate. They can use whatever weapon they want, because they're not going to be very good at it anyways.

Same with Clerics. Specific clerics might have specific strictures (no sharp weapons being a common one for clerics of a peaceful religion), but they otherwise can wear any armor and use any weapon. No attack bonus here, so clerics are less frontline fighter and more armored wizard.

Thieves, if you choose to include them, are relatively unchanged, except for the lack of attack scaling. You can give them a +1 at first level if you like, to let them do something, but considering that their main use is out-of-combat anyways (and that they tend to ambush more than fight fair anyways) you probably won't notice anything.

This variant means that the focus is off the infamous "You hit the orc for 4. The orc hits you for 3. You hit the orc for 2. It dies." that inflated hit point combat kind of feels like. It does mean that fighting men have a more limited lifespan at higher levels  but you know, honestly, I can deal with that. Punching dragons in the snoot is generally a bad idea; at the very least you should take your magic sword and stab them in the eyeball or something, and that's the sort of thing that is simulated in the fiction extremely badly by combat rules. You don't "fight" a twenty foot long serpent, you encounter it and are going to need to figure out how you're going to stop it.

I move five feet towards it and attack with my axe. 

And that's kind of that.

It's a smallish tweak that I'd play in a heartbeat.

13 May 2013

Hit Point Creep

First, real quick: I'm not talking about the increase of hit points by edition. I actually like that the starting pool is bigger in, say, 4e, and that this is going to feed into one of my fundamental dissatisfactions with the old editions.

In old editions, you'd get roughly 1d6 hit points per level. Which just so happens to be the default amount of damage a weapon deals. Which is neat. One hit can equal one kill, just like in real life, or maybe it takes two or three solid chops with an axe. Good, right?

But why, then, do you get another 1d6 hit points at second level? And another at third? It bugs me, because now you're asking me to believe that a person is able to be chopped in the body parts between two and twelve times. And then three and eighteen. Even if you assume that you roll average hit points and always get average damage rolls when you get hit, you're still taking twice as many hits, on average, to be slain by the same sword. And that's really weird.

I know that hit points, according to the books, represent "luck and chance" and stuff, but you also recover this "luck" at one point per night of rest and getting hit in the face by a sword apparently reduces this "luck" so let us call a spade a spade and say: Yes, these adventurers are absurdly tough. At the highest levels (9) even the frailest wizard is capable of taking six average stabs to the chest. You know that scene in Conan where dude cuts the head off of Thulsa Doom? Imagine if it took him a couple of whacks instead. Not so exciting.

Probably a better way to do things would be to boost everybody's hit points up to 6 or so, and then have them stay there. Then, when characters gain levels, instead of having them get more hit points, have them get more defense. You could probably restrict this to fighters or whatever your closest warrior equivalent would be in your game of choice and nobody's really notice. This way hit points narratively go back to being what they were supposed to be in the first place (a mechanical description of toughness) and you have warriors who actually learn how to defend instead of just learning how to slash things better. Two birds with one stone.

One last thing it does: It makes monsters scarier. When you fight an ogre now, one of its main traits is being goddamn tough, which makes sense, given that it's a really, really big monster. And when it hits you for 2d6, well, that's a problem if you get hit, so you need to make sure that's a thing that doesn't happen. You should bring a shield and some armor, or else use a big to make sure it doesn't get the chance to hit you before you disembowel it, or nail it with some arrows.

You can leave the other things player characters get alone. Those things are fine the way they are, I feel.

Except the cleric.

But I've been trying to "fix" the cleric for years now and I just don't think he's a good fit.

10 May 2013


Magic is a primeval force, the one true elemental force in the world. And it is stored in human beings.

The most powerful wizards are the ones that have the most mana-slaves. The most powerful wizards fight amongst themselves, fight for prestige, for power, and for slaves. In a world of CAVEMEN WIZARD LORDS, only one Wizard Lord can reign supreme!

This entire idea came from a friend talking about "what if people could be mana batteries", and "what if magic has always been there?" And now we know what'd happen. Who would have time for science or for development of agriculture if the most powerful resource in the world is people themselves?

Looking Back

They say that if you don't look back at who who were from a year ago and cringe that you haven't grown enough. What if I look back f...