Monday, September 28, 2015

Long Arm of the Outlaw: Thief-a-palooza Continues

Look at the reach on that dude!  He can stand perfectly straight and scratch the back of his knee without bending.  He can pick a pocket from the other side of the street.  He can open a trapped chest from the next room.  Who needs to climb walls when you can just reach up and haul yourself over the parapet?

I always wondered though, what's the deal with that little ringlet around his right bicep? Is it the captain's armband for some thieving competition? The last remnant of his shirt--the rest of it having been lost, along with his shoes, in a game of dice?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Furthermore... It's Thief-a-palooza '15!

Following on yesterday's thief-related post, here are a few more of my thoughts on thievery in D&D:

I'm totally in line with Hill Canton's "bonus skill levels" as I understand them: rather than improving skills in all thief abilities uniformly with each new level--essentially all 5th level thieves are equally good at all thief abilities, before racial and/or dex adjustments--the player is allowed to allocate which thief abilities they want to improve and by how much.  So a 5th level thief might actually still pick locks as well as he did when he was a 1st level thief but be as stealthy as a mo fo and read languages with remarkable literacy.  HC and I differ in that whereas he doles out 2 Bonus Levels per thief level I'm handing 'em out at a rate of 6/level.  But then you consider that 1 bonus level for HC thieves represents +1 on a 6-sider for a 16.667% improvement while one level for Dice Chucker thieves reflects a mere 5% improvement.  We're looking at 2 x 16.667 = 33.3% vs. 6 x 5 = 30%, so, dang, I actually look kinda' stingy by comparison.

I'd actually take the process one step further allowing first level thieves to divvy up 6 levels amongst their abilities, meaning that some of their abilities are going to be 0-level (+0) to start.

Other oddities of Dice Chuckerian thieves:

Read Scrolls: Rather than being linked to the character's overall thief level, i.e., you can start reading scrolls at 9th level, reading scrolls would just be a Very Difficult read languages roll: you're rolling d20 + level against 6d6.  You can try it at first level--or even 0-level--just don't expect a good result.

Hear Noise and Detect Traps: While the PC may declare his or her intent to use one of these abilities as per usual, the DM should also roll automatically against these anytime a trap or noise is worth noticing, though the challenge should be bumped up a few dice. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thief Ability Redux: Piles of Dice

Riffing on Hill Canton's post on thieves yesterday (or whenever, given the incubation period of posts around here, it may well be December of 2176 before these pixels see the light of day) I decided to post my own rant on thief abilities.

What are the odds, buddy?
One of my many grievances with thief abilities is that success is almost never influenced by conditions. That is, no matter how well concealed the trap is or how alert/inert the guards are, your chance of detecting it or bypassing them remains the same.* Sure, the DM can modify a trap or lock and say "your -20 to open it" or whatever, but it's so specific and granular that it becomes a nuisance and only dickheads ever use this method except in the odd extreme circumstance.

In an ideal world, conditional difficulty should be part of the system so the DM doesn't feel like s/he's rewording the Old Testament just so that the lock to the crypt can be a little tougher to open than the lock on your sister's diary.  It should be easy for the DM to assess difficulty without taking a lot of time, rather than trying to decide whether it's a -22% penalty or a -24% penalty, it should be broad enough that the DM can make a decision quickly and we can all get to the matter at hand: slaughtering orcs and stealing their treasure.

Here's how it goes: the thief (or the Maestro del Dungionni, depending on the circumstances) rolls d20 and a pile of six-siders at the same time.  If the 20 sider + thief's level are equal to or greater than the total of the pile of 6'ers: Success! How many six siders in a pile, you ask? Good question: depends on how difficult the DM feels the challenge is. Here's a handy table to use as a guideline:

Table IX.A.2.d(17): Dice Piles and Difficulty of Thieving Abilities

Avg. Success Rate for a Thief of:
Dice Pile   Difficulty Rating  Description 1st Level 5th Level
1d6 Super easy  Fail this and you're out of the Guild  
92% 95%**
2d6  Easy Only a newb would screw this up 75% 92%
3d6 Modestly difficult   Still, you better succeed if you want  to earn your keep  58% 77%
4d6 Difficult   We have faith in you!  40% 60%
5d6 Pretty Difficult   You might as well give it a try...  24% 43%
6d6 Very Difficult  Better have a Plan B just in case  11% 26%
7d6 Fat Chance  Give us a minute to back up a ways before you try that  4%*** 13%

Pretty fancy, right?

Some guidelines on how I'd adjudicate this:****
Picking a lock on a typical dungeon door: 3d6
Picking a lock to the King's treasure room: 5-7d6, depending on the wealth of the king and his security measures
Sneaking past a guard who's chatting with his buddy about the Misfits show he went to last night: 2d6
Sneaking past a guard who's on high alert: 4d6
Sneaking past a guard who just saw you a minute ago and knows that you're trying to sneak past him: 6d6
Climbing a craggly wall with ample hand/foot holds: 1 or 2d6
Climbing a rough hewn yet slick wall: 3 or 4d6
Climbing a sheer, polished, monolithic wall: you're a thief not Spiderman.
... and so forth

Some of you who are more statistically gifted than I are probably thinking "Why not just tell the dudes they've got a 75% chance to defuse an Easy bomb or 40% chance of deciphering a Difficult language or whatever?" You could do this if you have a good idea of the odds of success for every thief ability under a wide variety of circumstances. I don't have that info handy, nor do I trust myself to make up reasonable odds for such on the fly.

The beauty of the Pile o' Dice system is that as a DM I don't have to think very granularly about the odds of success, I let the dice do the dirty work. Yes, on average a 1st level thief has a ~58% chance of hiding in a 3d6 shadow, fine.  But, as DM, I don't actually have to say that.  Instead, I'm saying "your odds are somewhere between 20% and 95%, but are most likely somewhere in the middle, so let's just see what happens here..." This is probably just my laziness but I find it much easier to assign a range of probability than a single, precise value.

* The exception here being picking pockets of leveled characters, of course. Which clearly was a reaction to those dickhead players who insist that it is their thief's moral obligation to steal from his colleagues mid-dungeon, yet get indignant when their moronic character finds himself hogtied and naked while his erstwhile colleagues offer his carcass to a band of gnolls in exchange for free passage through their domain.  
** Assumes 1 is a fumble, otherwise 100% chance of success
*** 5% if you abide by the 20 always succeeds rule.  I know, I'm being inconsistent here.
**** I loathe the word adjudicate as used by gamers--though I don't deny it's usefulness. Still, I hope you appreciate the personal pain I am subjecting myself to in order to deliver this post to you.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Emirikol the Neurotic: Through the Ages

Apropos of nothing, I've been perusing the pages of various Tomes of Guidance for Masters of Dungeons, Games, and Other Assorted Things Which Require Mastering.  You can't look at too many of these without noticing some similarities between the various rules, most notable being the presence of Emirikol the Chaotic.

We all know the scene: back in '79, the eponymous, deathray-wielding wizard aligned himself with chaos and blasted his way through the city streets, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake.  Fortunately, TSR's best crime-scene illustrator Dave "Tramp" Trampier was on hand to capture the event in ink; the result earned itself a full page in the original DMG.

Fast forward a couple of decades and all of a sudden people are feeling sentimental for a time when the city streets were rife with Chaotic madmen running amok.  Numerous retro-gaming publishers commissioned artists to provide tribute to Emirikol's last ride.  Or was it his first? Third? Does anyone know anything about this guy?*

Since the original there have been no less than four versions published in various fantasy gaming tomes.  While the details vary between iterations, what is constant is chaos surrounding a horseman racing through the city streets, an archway in the background, and various swordwielding do-gooders emerging from public establishments usually located on the right side (stage left) of the street.  Here's a rundown on the sequels, remakes, and knockoffs:

2001 Hackmaster: GameMaster's Guide. p. 153 In this version, Emerikol himself seems to be the victim, harassed as he is by a mob in close pursuit.  He appears to be out of death rays for the day, and indeed, a bystander has beaned him in the head with an apple [EDIT: obviously, it's a rock] while another appears to be dumping their slops on him from a window above. No respect. This mostly decent reinterpretation is somewhat marred by the bizarre method of rendering the swift movement of feet that the illustrator chose to utilize. Several short quick action strokes give the impression of rapid movement but it's as if the lower extremities of the horse and swordsman-exiting-the-tavern are vibrating back and forth, not racing to action.  Not sure what the illustrator was going for but it failed.

2010, C&C: Castle Keepers Guide. p. 97**  Peter Bradley's rendition of the fateful Flight Through the Archway has a gleefully buxom witch in the role of Emerikol, this time racing through the night-shrouded streets and tossing coins--or are they flower petals?--to... no one in particular.  There is a pedestrian lying in the street in the background, but he is clearly better off than the flaming corpse lying in the foreground of the original.  In further departures, the requisite samaritan who sticks his proboscis out the door on the right side of the street is bereft of a blade while the "public establishment" has moved across the street and is now a brothel named the Scarlet Pillow. This one is also unique for being in full color, cuz Bradley don't do black n' white.

2012, DCC RPG. p. 63  Emirikol--here renamed and re-aligned as "Lokerimon the Lawful"--has been forced to reign in his racing steed to avoid trodding on a conjured fiend summoned by the "samaritan" swordsman.  The tavern in this version is called the "Smoking Wyrm" and depicts a dragon who closely resembles Tramp's Wormy character of Dragon Mag fame. If one could view this image without the baggage of the original illustration, one might assume that the samaritan demon summoner is the protagonist of the scene, or perhaps even the demon itself, though the "Lawful" sobriquet doesn't support that.

* Until now I didn't even know how to spell his name; I've been spelling it Emerikol in my head for decades. As I will continue to do for the rest of this post.
** Sadly, a halfhearted inernet search yielded no useful image of this drawing.  Unless you're more ambitious than I--or have the tomes handy--you're stuck with my description.