Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Gold vs. Abilities: Unintended Consequences

How much will it cost to make me smarter?
In my AD&D-ish game, characters roll 3d6 seven times in order for their abilities, the 7th being for Gold which is then multiplied by 10 to determine starting GPs.  However, before they do the multiplification, players may swap the Gold result with any one ability if they so choose; I call it the Gold Swap Rule.

The result has been most significant for fighters.  Not only have they taken a pay cut down from an average of 125 (50-200) GP to 105 (30-180), but they're going to trade a 6 Con for a 13 Gold every freakin' time.  As a consequence, PC fighters are wearing scale mail and wielding voulges and spetums for the first time in recorded history.

Gone are the mail-clad rookies bristling with armaments for every occasion, and I like it.  The penurious paladin in my recent Hommlet campaign couldn't afford a sword so he settled for a morning star as his sole armament; Nice!  And the elven archer often has to use that long bow he sprung for--really, why does anyone bring a long bow into a dungeon?--as a handheld weapon too, since his only other weapon is a dagger. The Swap does seem to make 1st level fighters a bit more vulnerable, which is maybe not something AD&D fighters really need to be.

Spellcasters have also been significantly affected because I've also enacted the Holmesian Scroll Rule--any MU can make a scroll for 100 GPs and a week in the library.  Now magicusers are doing anything in their power to get a Gold score of at least 11 so that they can have an extra sleep spell in their back pocket before they head into their first dungeon.  This is a 100% increase in a prestidigitator's spell capacity, but it can result in a lot of insolvent spellcasters.

Thieves seem to benefit the most, financially, from this system.  Not only do they get a substantial pay raise--up from 2d6x10 GPs per the PHB--but their low startup costs allow them to swap or not to swap their Gold score at their leisure.  The shakedown is that we're having some very well equipped thieves, which seems appropriate for a class whose purview is, nominally speaking, illicit commerce.

It also reinforces the notion of the thief as the expert treasure finder, because now s/he's pretty much expected to provide for any equipment necessary for the retrieval of treasure--including sacks and rope and the like, but also food, pack animals, and hirelings.  This allows the fighters and spellcasters to focus on their jobs and gives the thief a more administrative role.  Indeed, the thief is generally in charge of negotiating fees, procuring supplies, managing NPC personnel, and even finding the next gig, on top of his traditional duties such as opening the occasional lock or backstabbing the odd hobgoblin.  If the party were a band, the thief would be the bass player and the manager.

When I enacted the Gold Swap rule, I assumed it would eliminate some egregiously low ability scores from character sheets at the table, but never really considered what consequences the diminished seed money would have on party structure.  Starting fighters definitely look more like poorly armed beginners should in my mind, 1st level spellcasters have more to contribute, and thieves have shed their roguish image and become invested--literally--members of the party.  The surplus cash generally available to thieves has also introduced hirelings into the game in a way that I never anticipated--though my encumbrance rules also went a long way to encourage this; the stuff of a later post.

Of course, the reason we've had so much experience with starting characters--despite the sporadic playing time my gang manages--is that we're losing an awful lot of PCs; 2-3 per session.  Is this death toll exacerbated by our lightly armored fighters?  Probably.  But it has definitely encouraged the players to find other ways to survive encounters besides head-to-head combat.  Which is also not such a bad outcome. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Level Titles: Fighter

It has always bothered me that the level title for a first level fighter is “Veteran” considering that this is exactly what a 1st level fighter is not. I've never served in the military, but I do know that the term veteran is reserved for those who've actually seen some action. Sure, veteran isn't as awe-inspiring as terms like hero, champion or–ahem—Myrmidon, but it still deserves more respect than 1st level accords it. For that reason, until someone comes up with a better term I am doctoring my PHB to look like this:

That is all.

Friday, May 4, 2012

DMG Rogues Gallery: Gonzo, Ranger Knight

How Gonzo, Ranger Knight, came into possession of a suit of chainmail +2 is now the stuff of legend; the immortal saga is told on page 226 of the Dungeon Masters Guide.  But little is known about other aspects of his career; his origins, his other armaments, and whatever colleagues might have accompanied him on his quest for magic armor.  The only thing that fixes Gonzo's place in history is that majestic suit of chainmail.

In truth, Gonzo, as a character, barely coalesced in the gaming-verse.  He was the creation of Trevor, a rather insouciant 19 year old attending a smallish midwestern university.  Trevor, though an avid gamer throughout his youth, had not engaged in any gaming since matriculation.  Rather, the drunken pursuit of fornication had preempted his gaming ambitions for the time being. 

Early in the spring semester both of his interests--gaming and fornication--seemed to converge when his lab partner, a reasonably attractive sophomore named Jennifer, mentioned that she played in a regular Thursday night AD&D campaign.  So, on a frigid evening in February he found himself in the cramped dorm room of a plump, bearded junior named Vincent along with Jennifer and two male adventurers, Drew and Scott.

Two things were immediately obvious to Trevor:
  1. Vincent, despite effusive efforts to convey a good-natured image, was actually a pompous ass.   
  2. Neither Drew nor Scott was at all happy to have Trevor in the group.  Probably, he assumed, because reasonably-attractive Jennifer had asked him to join.
Based on these observations, Trevor deduced that this was likely to be his only session in Vincent's campaign. As such, he dedicated little energy to the characterization of his new, high-level ranger, nor did he put much effort into engaging his co-players--other than Jennifer--in any sort of banter; in-character or otherwise.

Introductions were made, a large pizza was ordered, and the gang got down to gaming.  Vincent, in the most patronizing fashion possible, directed Trevor to Appendix P of the DMG: Creating a Party, so that he could roll up and equip a character of adequate level to join the existing gang which included Jennifer's Master Thief Serena, Scodrick the Necromancer, and Drelfig the half-elven Champion/Prefect/Enchanter.  Seeing as the party was well stocked with spellcasters but lacked muscle, Trevor elected to run a ranger whom he gave the first name that popped into his head: Gonzo.

Anyone in possession of the ancient tomes can read about the succession of dice rolls that bestowed Gonzo the Ranger Knight with his suit of chainmail +2, but what goes unmentioned are the unwarranted sneers of Drew and Scott when Trevor announced his chosen class or the grimace of  revulsion that wracked Vincent's face when Trevor named his character after the crook-nosed oddball from the cast of the Muppets.

Though pretentious and overbearing, Vincent was undeniably an evenhanded DM and a courteous host; he steadfastly refused payment from the others for the pizza and Mountain Dew when it arrived, and even tipped the frostbitten delivery guy generously.  But Trevor's presence was obviously turning the party's chemistry into a volatile compound, and Vincent was unable to rectify the matter.  Only limited progress was made that evening, and witnesses of the event remember little that happened beyond the sardonic jabs Drew and Scott directed at Trevor and the hubbub that arose when the precariously placed pizza box slid off the gaming table, taking with it the map and a 16 oz. glass of chartreuse-colored soda pop.

From the viewpoint of Serena, Scodrick, and Drelfig, Gonzo was a man of ill-defined features who never seemed to take full form; like an earthbound cloud formation that just sorta' looked like a dude in +2 armor.  He seemed to have little understanding of where he was or what he was supposed to do, proved to be easily distracted, often professing interest in insignificant-seeming details of the dungeon.  Though in combat he proved an effective comrade, when the action fell off he tended to lose focus and, in these moments, often acted in direct opposition to the other party members.  Ultimately, he disappeared from the milieu as if he had lost his tenuous grip on the material plane and passed into another phase of existence.   

Scodrick and Drelfig both reported uncharacteristic feelings of disdain toward the ranger and felt compelled to needlessly obstruct him whenever such would not result in harm to themselves.    Meanwhile, Serena, a halfling, seemed to feel an unnatural attraction to this ethereal character.  After his abrupt departure from the adventure, she seemed to lose focus herself and grew detached from the campaign and quickly she, too, disappeared... for a while.  She returned some time later emanating a carefree attitude that was not reflected in her saddened eyes.  Though rumors were whispered that she had gone in pursuit of Gonzo, it was quietly agreed not to mention his name in her presence.  Soon, as seems appropriate when dealing with a luftmensch like Gonzo, he was forgotten entirely.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bestiaries vs. Statblocks: the Kobolds of Arx Varago

I totally dig bestiaries; reading about the crazy monsters dreamed up by those old-time loons like Pliny the Elder or whoever is great fun.  These real, live people trying to describe creatures that they might actually have believed to exist are fascinating in the extreme.  T.H. White's translation of a medieval Bestiary, as well as Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings totally deserve an Appendix NF post some day.  Huge credit to Frank Mentzer for including Borges in the Appendix N of his Basic Rules book, by the way.   

And yet, reading any tome of collected monsters which includes stat blocks for use in gaming just bores me to tears.  Sure I own the original Monster Manual and am very glad for its existence, but in all my collecting of old school books over the last 7 or 8 years, I have never bothered to re-acquire any of its offspring.  I think I've outgrown the need for tomes filled with codified monsters.

This extends, I'm sorry to say, to include your blog.  Though I generally find it to be well written, entertaining, and informative, if your newfangled monster description includes a stat block, I cannot bring myself to read further.  Nothing, in my opinion, saps the life out of a new monster description like a comprehensive statblock.    

So when I make a dungeon nowadays--and yes, much of my time away from the blog lately has been spent creating a megadungeon--actually I'm going for gigadungeon status--statblocks are nowhere to be seen; I'm going all analog.  If the orcs in room H4-13.46k (extensive encounter nomenclature is essential when you're keying a billion rooms) have lower than average hit points then I describe them as feeble, visibly wounded, sickly, wimpy, etc.  Generally, though, I don't bother with such trifles 'cuz that would take forever and I've still got 987 million rooms to go.

In fact, generic, codified monsters like orcs are pretty rare in my giga-lair.  Well, not rare.  More like uncommon.  Or, actually, maybe only marginally less common than is typical.  But when they do appear, they're vastly altered... somewhat.

Do I look like I delight in killing and torture?!
As a for-instance, I've got kobolds, but they're not the scaly puppy-men made famous in the MM.  Rather, they are servile-seeming domestic faerie types more reminiscent of the kobolds of Germanic folklore.*  Compulsive custodians; a kobold will wander into any cluttered room and set to cleaning it up no matter who resides in the chamber--or what combat is currently taking place in it.

*In my handwritten notes, I put an umlaut over the first "o" to accentuate their origin. Pretty clever, eh?

As they make little effort to flee and are virtually incapable of engaging in combat; the little dudes are easily enslaved. In this regard, they might be influenced a tad by the house elves of Harry Potter fame.  But they are hardly innocuous, obsequious Dobby-types.

When their domestic work is performed voluntarily they are glad for the opportunity to clean, cook, and mend things and do so in good cheer.  If enslaved--and all you need to do to "enslave" a kobold is acknowledge his presence while he cleans up your place--they will develop an increasingly sinister manner toward their "master".  At first this will manifest itself in minor pranks played on the master.   As time goes on, such pranks will grow in malignancy until... well, there will be explosives involved.  Did I mention that kobolds are also demolitions experts?  The burnt-out Gnoll lair on Tier 4 of Blue-Quadrant Delta, Level 8 of Arx Varago* remains abandoned as testament to the conflagrative-fury of these placid-seeming little buggers.

*one of several working titles for my gigadungeon. 

Their lairs are well hidden as a rule and are, as one might expect, extremely tidy.  They are often dominated by meticulously arranged laboratories which they use to produce their volatile compounds.

Even though these kobolds are a pretty serious departure from the MM version--I've given them the scientific name Domus inimicus to distinguish them from the dog-faced dino-tots of MM fame, who are of the species Canisaurus pusillus--nowhere have I bothered writing down their Hit Dice or AC or any other number that might be used to quantify any aspect of their life-force or combat capacity.  Instead, they're described as small and, though stealthy, not particularly quick.  They wear no armor and carry no conventional weapons; if someone wants to hack them, they might attempt to flee, but often they will accept a martyr's demise.  But beware, for their brethren will exact revenge.  And,  when such vengeance arrives, it will be unexpected, incendiary, and excessive. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Where Are They Now: Thigru Thorkisen, Magician

When last seen, Thigru Thorkisen, a Magician (6th Level MU) and henchman to Lord Olaf Blue Cheeks (10th Level F) had been approached by Halfdan the Necromancer (10th Level MU), a professional colleague of Olaf's, who desired access to Thigru's Suggestion spell [See DMG page 39 "Spells Beyond Those at Start"].  The author of the tome--a one E. Gary Gygax--advises that Thigru, as an NPC, should "ABSOLUTELY REFUSE to co-operate freely with player characters, even their own master or mistress."  Certainly the property of an NPC should be respected; but EGG goes on to advise thusly:
"If Halfdan has been at least civil to the magician, Thigru will ask for nothing more than a third-level spell in return, plus another spell, plus some minor magic item such as a set of 3 potions, a scroll of 3 spells or a ring of invisibility."  

From a more experienced magic user?  For a suggestion spell?  On what planet would this not be considered highway robbery?  And, assuming Thigru and Halfdan are to maintain further relations as members of the same adventuring party, isn't this a self-defeating policy?  Presumably Thigru will one day want access to Halfdan's more advanced spellbook, no?

Anyway, during my recent absence from the blogosphere I came across the full story of the event, which has come to be known as the Thorkisen-Halfdan Summit.  If you're interested in the fallout of Thigru's extortionary demands, please read on:

Naively taking the advice of the immortal sage Gygax, Thigru chose to eschew common sense, demanding two third-level spells, a scroll of Dispel Magic, a potion of polymorphing, and Halfdan's ring of protection +2 in exchange for his Suggestion spell.  Halfdan was, of course, insulted at the outrageous terms offered him--by a lesser spellcaster no less.  So offended was he that he cast magic jar on Thigru and, whilst occupying the magician's corporeal form, ravished Olaf Blue Cheek's teenaged daughter Helgina.

Olaf, on learning of the lechery of his supposed henchman, requisitioned Thigru's head for pike-decorating duty.  Thigru's family was expelled from the castle with nothing but the clothes on their backs and banished forever from the realm.  All of the erstwhile magician's possessions were reclaimed by his Lordship--except his spell books, which Olaf offered as a gift to his trusted adventuring companion Halfdan.  Halfdan, in an act of unadulterated spite, tore out the pages for the Suggestion spell and, without ever reading them, set them afire at the base of Thigru's pike.