Archive for April, 2012

Death on the Borderlands

Yesterday marked the 5th game (and conclusion of the second expedition) to the Caves of Chaos. Unfortunately, the costs of this past expedition were quite high. Three PCs found themselves on the wrong end of a hobgoblin weapon and felt the cold grip of death. The party hauled bodies and what little loot they could back to town, and ran into a generous GM. As much as I warned my players in the beginning that death was a real possibility, I decided to be somewhat generous with some raise dead availability. The players were able to scrounge up a scroll of raise dead from the Curate for 2,000 gp, and two more on “loan” from the priest living in the apartments, at a price of 1,800 gp each.

According to the Labyrinth Lord rules, scrolls that duplicate spells should cost around 1 week + 500GP per spell level. With Raise Dead being a 5th level spell, adding in a profit/other cost, I figured that a raise dead scroll from the local clergy might run around 3000 gp. Additionally, I decided that the word of the player’s activities had gone round and that the Curate and the traveling priest would both offer the player’s discounts on those scrolls due to the service they were providing the keep by cleaning out the caves. The players just happened to get really lucky on some die rolls, in addition to the rolls providing such steep discounts, the players also managed to sell the quality equipment they brought back to the keep blacksmith for a whopping 90% of the sale price. So a combination of generous GMing and a bit of luck on the players part, they were able to raise their dead compatriots for a mere 5,600 gp, and in-debting themselves to the jovial traveling priest, who has quite helpfully offered to have himself and his acolytes accompany the remaining players back to the caves to recover some more gear and treasure to help pay off that debt, while the other PCs recover from being raised.

Unfortunately from the players, I believe that will be about the most luck they will have for quite some time. Raise Dead might be something the churches would provide their members with, but that doesn’t mean there’s an unlimited supply, and it will likely be months before another raise dead scroll is available.

In handling this, I did come across a slight quirk of the LL rules. Raise dead is a 5th level cleric spell, and according to LL, clerics get their first 5th level spell at level 9. The spell description, on the other hand, states that a 7th level cleric can raise someone dead no longer than 2 days, with an additional 4 days time per level above that. So I did some digging, and it appears that in the original Expert rules of D&D, clerics got their first 5th level spell at level 7. Of course, they didn’t get spells at first level. However, it appears that for every edition since then, and in all the retro clones, Raise Dead doesn’t appear in a cleric’s repertoire until level 9 or 10.

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Lessons Learned on Combat Systems

Yesterday was the 3rd session of Keep on the Borderlands, and I tried something new. While I had been running with the Labyrinth Lord rule set, I was using a grid and mini’s map more appropriate for 4th Edition D&D. Previously I was running with a modified version of the move/minor/action combat that 4th edition uses in conjunction with that map. I did this because it’s pretty much the only combat system I’ve had experience with, and it just came naturally, and because my early experiences as a player were similar systems. As I mentioned in Ten Minute Rounds, I’d run a couple of rounds using the LL system, but hadn’t used it for a full session. Last night I did.

As a refresher, in Labyrinth Lord, a combat round is Declare Actions, Roll (Group) Initiative, Move, Missile, Magic, Melee, Repeat the M’s for losing initiative. In practice, this can lead to some lightning fast combat, but playing in last night also bogged the combat down. The combat didn’t flow nicely from round to round, there were starts and stops and sometimes things just got lost. So why is that so? Why after all my griping about 4th edition’s combat systems did I find using the LL combat system to be almost as bogged down when used for an entire session?

I think that mostly, LL (and old D&D’s) combat system doesn’t work for detailed mini’s maps. It was designed to work with the old “Theater of the Mind” combat that defined early edition combat, and it compliments it nicely. When the GM says “You enter the room, it’s about 10’x20′ and there are three goblins across the room from you, one behind the others”, the LL combat system really flows naturally into the reactions from the players “Blackleaf and Tristram will hang back and shoot at them with their bows while Binwin and Purehart charge the goblins”. When looking and thinking about the combat situation in that manner, it’s really easy to see how the LL system works: Initiative is rolled, Binwin and Purehart start charging, Blackleaf and Tristram loose their arrows (roll, roll), and Binwin and Purehart swing (roll, roll).

But when running this with minis, this can get awkward. Binwin and Purehart move their tokens forward and stop at the lead goblins because they can’t move past them to get to the third one (1 mini per 5 foot square). Blackleaf and Tristram roll for attacks, and happen to kill one of the lead goblins, great so now Binwin can move forward a bit more to get at the rear goblin right? Well, no because we’re past the movement stage. So then Purehart rolls, kills the goblin in front of him, and Binwin can’t do anything because both front goblins are dead, and he can’t move. Now as a GM, you can always handwave this stuff away either that the arrows actually fly while movement is happening so Binwin can adjust his movement, or that everything happens so fast that Binwin doesn’t have time to adjust which is why he can’t move. Equally, you could do what you would likely do in the TOM version which is hold off on declaring the results of the attacks until the end, so that Binwin swings and no one knows for sure whether it was his axe or the arrow that took down the goblin in question, but doing that with minis just feels out of place. Either by shuffling action orders until you’re almost running a move/minor/action system anyway, or by feeling really restrictive as the tactical situation changes on the map, but the players can’t react to it until the next round

On the other hand, 4e’s combat system (and individual initiative) works wonderfully with mini’s. Blackleaf fires, hits and decides not to move, Tristram does the same, killing a goblin, Purehart moves up, swings and kills the second goblin, now Binwin, reacting to the changing tactical situation moves up to the third goblin, stepping over his dead counterparts and swings for a hit. As you can see, that sort of system makes sense as mini’s move around the map. Conversely, it doesn’t work very well for a TOM combat, simply because you have to keep track of each character’s particular movements and actions individually.

Looking at it from this perspective, I can also see why so many people found the 2e AD&D combat system so clunky and cumbersome. Obviously it had it’s other flaws, but it was attempting to apply a combat system more suited for mini’s play (with individual initiatives, and segments and so on) to a game which was still heavily a TOM type game.

So which system is better? What will I be using in the future? Well, I’m not sure. I want to eventually move away from having to rely on a map and mini’s, which means that I’d like to use more TOM and LL combat, but for any mini / map based combat, I’ll have to make do with a modified move/minor/action system, perhaps only requiring that spells be declared upfront.

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PAX East D&D Next Panel

If you haven’t seen it already, you should watch it now, I know it didn’t give hope to the neogrognards at the PA forums, but I certainly like what I’m hearing.

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On Awesome Things

So, if you haven’t read Zak’s blog, you should, the guy has a lot of fantastic ideas. So fantastic that apparently WOTC decided to hire him to help with D&D Next, which is awesome. He wrote some posts a while back about how you could combine multiple D&D rule sets together that would make D&D Next work great. If the folks over an WOTC take his advice to heart, this could work out really well.

In addition he recently wrote an awesome post on a new way to handle called shots and other fancy attacks. Rather than simply taking negatives to hit, allow players to choose their critical range for the shot, and the shot succeeds within that range. The trade off is that for every increase in the critical range, the fumble range is also increased. So if you want your called shot to succeed on a 15 – 20, it will also fail on a 1-5. It is awesome, and I’m stealing it, with some modifications. The attack must still normally hit, so if you need a 15 to hit anyway, even if you extend your range to 13-20, you won’t succeed on a 13, though you won’t fumble either. Also you can only increase your range by half your level, round up.

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Choose Your Own Adventure Modules

Two blogposts inspired this idea today, so you should probably read them first, The Hickman Revolution and How Dragonlance Ruined Everything. One of the major themes that runs through those posts (and similar ones) is that the railroading involved in module like the Dragonlance modules and subsequent “big story” adventures runs contrary to a game where encounters and even the very dungeons themselves were supposed to be randomly generated. Even worse, a big story adventure like Dragonlance requires that, if players kill certain key NPCs, GMs must twist themselves into pretzels to come up with a reason why that NPC is alive and well 3 “chapters” later.

Still, so many players (and GMs) love a story, and so the story campaign is both alive and well and continues to sell modules. So what if adventure module series were written like a choose your own adventure book? Rather than a giant 30+ page module or series with a single continuous plot, what if each module was a smaller 5 – 10 page one or two session adventure, which had one or two major plot devices which depending on the outcome determined which module in the series you should pick up next? In module 1, your players might encounter the standard goblin camp raiding the local town. Did your players destroy the camp? Pick up module 2A next. Did they parley and negotiate? Grab module 2B. Did they instead turn on the town? Kill the sherif or set fire to the inn? Grab 2c.

Obviously there’s still some degree of railroading going on here if you’re going to stick to the written modules, since the written module can’t account for every single possibility your players might engage in. But if the story forks are broad enough, the should be able to cover a lot of ground, while remaining flexible for the GM to add in their own brand of flavor.

What do you think? Did I miss some huge problem?

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An Updated Link

One of the awesome RPG links on the sidebar has changed. “Djeryv” has decided to step away from the blogging world to spend more time on other projects, but he has moved some of his tools to a new site. So what used to be at Djeryv’s Dungeon is now here at WizzarDawn.

Edit 2017: The link has moved again, and can now be found here

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A New Link

If you haven’t found this already, there’s a fantastic blog discussing RPGs in general, and Pathfinder is particular to be found over at Papers and Pencils. Go there and enjoy the wisdom to be found.

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10 Minute Rounds

First off, I’m finally back into a game. Currently running B2: Keep on the Borderlands using Labyrinth Lord as the rules system. Two sessions in and things are interesting. Goblins and an ogre died in a fantastic couple of combats, but at the loss of a couple of mercenaries and the near death of a cleric and thief.

Once again reading the Penny Arcade forums turns up more blog fodder, this time in the form of this post, wherein user Forar laments the results of missing in a combat round in 4e:

It can be highly frustrating, especially in a larger group, where it might take 10 min or more to get back to your turn, only to have some spectacularly bad rolls mean you whiff and spend another 10-20-30+ minutes staring at the map, hoping your next daring plan isn’t foiled by an inexcusable number of 1’s rolled.

This is one of the things which has bothered me greatly about the 4e campaigns I’ve played in, and certainly doesn’t seem to be a rare complaint. With how tactical and crunchy 4e combat is, it really can take 10 minutes or longer to go though all the player turns in a single combat round. Obviously this really does make missing on your turn one of the worst things that can happen. What’s more problematic than missing, however, is that 10 minute round. Part of the reason why a combat round might take 10 minutes is the crunch of 4e, but part of it is the way new RPGs run their combat rounds as well. Even in my LL sessions, you can drag a combat round out to minutes per round by dealing with each player independently, especially as each successive player reacts to the changing landscape of the battle as molded by previous players. But that’s not how you’re supposed to run combat in LL, by the book a combat round is handled as so:

  1. Declare Actions
  2. Roll Initiative
  3. Winning side goes first
  4. Move
  5. Missiles
  6. Spells
  7. Melee
  8. Losing side goes through steps 4-7
  9. End of the combat round

Notice something missing? No talk about walking through the player actions one player at a time, the whole side acts as a whole. So does this eliminate the 10 minute round? Not necessarily, but it does do one thing very well, it keeps all the players involved in the round through most of it. So how is it better? Well I’ve run a few combat rounds in this manner, in particular the fight in which the party took down the ogre, and it they were to my mind the most fantastic combat rounds. The whole party spends the first bit of the round discussing their tactic for the round, and then the individual actions in each step are performed in rapid succession around the table. Each player is disengaged from the action for perhaps 30 seconds at a time, and everyone seems to stay more involved. Even if the whole round takes a full 10 minutes (which they usually don’t) players can’t zone out for 9 minutes of that time. In this combat system, missing on your combat roll may suck for the party as a whole, but you’re not sitting around “staring at the map, hoping your next daring plan isn’t foiled” because the actions are flowing by too quickly.

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