Archive for category OSR

S&W Appreciation Day – Son of S&W Appreciation Day

When I first ran an S&W game, I did so using a bookmarked copy of the 4th printing of Swords and Wizardry, the Stickies application on my computer and a whole lot of flying by my pants. While it went well, and the book marks made jumping from chart to information very easy, I quickly found myself wishing I had a GM screen for Swords and Wizardry. Ultimately, I didn’t stick with the S&W game I started long enough for that desire to turn into a desire to make one myself. Eventually I did make one for Labyrinth Lord (which I should post some time) which worked out pretty well, but I never made one for Swords and Wizardry. For todays festivities I’ve decided to correct that failing, so without further ado I present a Swords and Wizardry GM screen:

GM Screen

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S&W Appreciation Day – Part the First

Welcome to the Swords and Wizardry Appreciation Day at iDungeon Crawl. In case you wandered here without knowing what’s going on, today across the OSR community we’re showing our appreciation for Swords and Wizardry, a retro clone published by Mythmere Games. If you don’t have it yet, you can download a free copy of the core rules from the previous link. You can also find more information about what S&W is, but the short version is S&W is a cleaned up clone of an early version of D&D. S&W and other retro clones can exist legally due to the existence of the OGL and some various functions of copyright law. More reading on the OSR in general, and retro-clones in particular can be found elsewhere on the web, but are outside the scope of today’s events. For more Swords and Wizardry appreciation today check the list of participating blogs over at Tenkar’s Tavern.

Swords and Wizardry was the very first game that brought the OSR and it’s related community to my attention. Some years ago (2009 if the timestamp on the file is any indication), I was browsing the web searching for information about the older editions of D&D. I’m not entirely sure why or what path led me there, though it might have had something to do with the death of D&D creators Gary Gygax (2008) and Dave Arneson (2009). Regardless I soon stumbled upon the Swords and Wizardry core rules, which had just had their 3rd printing. Here was a chance for me to play original D&D and give it a try without dropping a bundle of hard earned cash on some books from a collector. Ultimately, the core rules make some (very handy) changes to the original rules that made it “less pure” than I was aiming for at the time, and that “impurity” sent me on a hunt through out the rest of the OSR in search of more “pure” versions. This caused me to discover such great games as Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Dark Dungeons and many of the blogs and links listed in the side bar. I still had though a soft spot for S&W and eventually returned to it (in its 4th printing, with my custom bookmarks) as my go to game for my first attempt at DMing a game.

Unfortunately, there was one thing that appeared in that 3rd printing of the rules that were subsequently eliminated from the 4th printing, which were the race-as-class versions of the Dwarf and Elf classes. While I’m generally ambivalent about race-as-class, I very much enjoyed the 3rd printing S&W interpretation of the Elf, which was a dual classed fighter / magic user that could switch classes each day as the need arose. A similar version of the class is preserved in the Whitebox version of the S&W rules, but I still liked the original. So to kick off today’s festivities, here’s the advancement chart for the elf variant as it appeared in the 3rd printing:

3rd Printing Swords and Wizardry Elf

3rd Printing Swords and Wizardry Elf

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Pre-Swords and Wizardry Appreciation Day

If you haven’t heard about it yet, Erik over at Tenkar’s Tavern is putting together an Appreciation Day for Swords and Wizardry on the 17th of this month. In anticipation of that day, I decided to post some revisits to some of my older swords and wizardry related posts:

The Corpse Crow post introduces a new monster. Looking back on it now, I notice that it’s a very Stirge like monster, which leads me to wonder if I might have over estimated its CL. The stirge is listed as a CL 1 monster, though if you follow the monster creation guidelines, it appears that it should be a CL 2 monster (1HD + Auto Damage). The corpse crow works in a very similar way, attacking and then dealing auto damage, though the crow then gains the ability to possess the corpse of its victim. The question is, does that possession ability make the crow 3-4 challenge levels tougher? I’m honestly not sure.

My post on the Repeating Crossbow introduced a new weapon that on reflection I think I did poorly. The basic concept is fine, but I think it might do too much damage. A user of a repeating crossbow gets 4 chances to hit per round, and each does damage and a chance to inflict poison even with the +4 save. Were I doing this again, I think I might say that a repeating cross bow user has two choices of ammunition. The first is the ordinary 1d3 bolt. The second choice is poisoned, but rather than doing damage and poison, I think I would say that a hit deals poison damage only (no save) and that the effect of the poison damage is 1/2 hp (or even 1hp) per round cumulative.

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In Defense of “3d6 (or 4d6-) in Order” Stat Rolls

Over and Papers and Pencils, LS has a post up with an incredibly awesome and useful stat rolling system that bakes in racial ability modifiers. It’s a very neat little thing that wraps racial modifiers into a nice simple package, so go read and enjoy, then come back.

Are you back? Good. Did you see the most important (IMHO) paragraph in that post? If you blinked you probably missed it, and it’s so subtle I doubt even he saw the genius in it. Allow me to quote:

Typically, the first thing I ask my players to do is to roll their ability scores. Which means that their first glimpse of the game is “Roll these dice, record the resulting sum. Repeat this task five more times, then assign one score to each of these six abilities, the functions of which you probably don’t fully understand yet.”

Generations of D&D players have chafed at the original proscription that ability scores should be rolled 3d6 in order. Gary Gygax himself appeared to prefer 4d6, drop the lowest and arrange to taste. Other systems use point buy, or more lenient rolling systems and it all sort of culminated in 3.5/Pathfinder and 4e with the “standard array”, eliminating the randomness entirely for pure calculated consistency. And for experienced TTRPG players, this is perfectly fine and acceptable. When you know what you want in the game or from your character, there’s no reason that the rules need to prevent you from playing the character you want.

But take a moment, gentle reader, and consider the humble new player. The beginner. The n00b. Imagine you are brand new to the game, you don’t know what AC is, THAC0 sounds to you like a brand of potato chips and the last +1 anything you saw was a social networking button on a web page. You sit down at the table ready to roll up a new character and your DM starts throwing numbers and jargon at you and tells you to assign the scores to these “attributes” which makes only a small amount of sense in that you know what each word means on its own. Sure the GM tries to help, but really, how important is it for your character that they have a 14 DEX vs that 13 that you rolled? No one knows until your character is fully fleshed out, but this assignment is the first thing you need to do (or perhaps the second after you made a bewildering whirlwind tour through the list of races and classes).

Now, gentle reader, imagine instead you sit down at the table and your GM tells you “OK, roll 3d6 6 times and write the numbers down one after the other. Those are your attributes, don’t worry about what they mean right now, we’ll get to that later. Now based on your scores, here are 2 or 3 classes you’re eligible to play with this character, pick the one that sounds coolest to you.” Suddenly character creation is a lot easier, a lot quicker and ultimately a lot less intimidating, and because you didn’t get blasted with learning a whole bunch of jargon and attributes and classes and races and how they all relate together so that you can make an informed decision, you’ll feel much more comfortable with the idea of “simply” rolling up a new character if you don’t like this one.

Ladies and gentlemen, looking at it from this perspective, the seemingly restrictive and punitive character creation system in OD&D was a thing of simple elegance and genius. It was a simple and un-intimidating way to approach what is in reality (and certainly as the generations have worn on) a complex and interlocking system with plenty of room to experiment and grow. In a world without optimization forums, character builders or in many cases even an experienced DM to show you the ropes, the original character creation method was a brilliantly simple device that allowed players to jump right in by hiding complexity and flattening the learning curve. Even better, unlike a pregen character, it allows a small amount personal choice, just enough to invest you in your character without requiring you to understand everything first.

Going forward I think I’ll require all of my new players to generate their character randomly and in order. Let them get to the good stuff first, and then if they want to change things around later, once they have a feel for things, they’re free to do so. They can discover the character creation mini game later, for now, it’s time to buckle some swash.

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On Female Dwarves

So it’s been a little while since I last wrote anything hasn’t it? Mostly that’s because nothing particularly new has been going on around here. The two campaigns that I was running found themselves on temporary hiatus while the craziness of summer wrapped everyone up. Luckily things are winding down and should be back to normal. I the meantime however, hopefully you’re all enjoying the new play test packet from WotC. I’m certainly excited about the possibilities that the fighter combat superiority dice bring to the table, and the new magic classes look interesting so far.

So about that post title… A few years back, I came across a blog post, or perhaps a forum post that I can no longer find. I would love to finding again and link to and credit the original author, but so far my google-fu has been weak. The post came to mind for me the other day while thinking about various fantasy race tropes and stereotypes and it was a brilliant and imaginative way to handle the “female dwarves with beards” bit that shows up every now and then. What follows is my hazy recollection of that post, if for no other reason than to preserve the idea. If anyone can recall the original author, please let me know.

Many a traveler through the wilds and the world will have noted that dwarves women are a rare sight. Indeed, aside from children, no one is really ever sure if they’ve seen one, leading most people to assume that they must have, and therefore that dwarves women must have beards, which is why you never seem to be able to tell them apart from the men. The truth my friends, is even stranger still. You see, it is well known that the dwarves have a love of mining, and a love of gold and shiny rocks. It is equally well known that they are master craftsmen when it comes to stone, building grand halls and caverns the likes of which even the giants would feel small inside. Perhaps even more well known is the ill temper of the average adventuring dwarf, but why should this be so? What drive possesses dwarves to produce monumental caverns? What need does a dwarf have for a cavern a hundred dwarves tall? Similarly, why the lust for gold and gems? Surely there are enough dwarves miners that others could set themselves to another task? And really, why are so many adventuring dwarves so grumpy? My friends, I tell you it is all for their women. To understand, you must first understand a bit about dwarven love. Dwarven children are often kept away from the outside world, kept safe in dwarven cities under the mountains until one day, the males begin to set off on their adventures, or set off for a life in the mines. But what of the girls? During their younger years, when a male and female dwarf fall in love, they will be married in a grand ceremony, to commemorate the marriage, and the male’s new eternal purpose, for you see, every male quests for his bride. To find her the treasures she adores, the room she needs to grow and blossom into her beautiful self. And what might that beautiful self be? Ask yourself my friend, what other creature do you know that seeks large caverns underground and massive amounts of gold and gems? Yes my friend, the great secret of the dwarves is that as they age, their females slowly change from the figure that we recognize as dwarf, to an altogether more awesome sight, that of a dragon. Her husband spends his life accumulating treasure for her to make her nest upon, to live comfortably. I assure you friend I am not joking, for this explains so much of the world. It explains the ongoing quest of every dwarf to find more treasure and gems. It explains the great halls and caverns, and it explains how so often when an adventurer encounters a dragon, they are at the bottom of some great dungeon, whose halls the creature could not have fit through, and with a pile of treasure that would have taken a dwarf a lifetime to move.

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40 Kobolds

It probably won’t surprise many people that Room 6 of the Caves of Chaos in the 5e playtest materials has set some hair on end. By the book description, room 6 can have up to 40 kobolds in it. Needless to say, this has offended the sensibilities of people who believe all encounters in roll playing games should be “balanced”. What hope does a group of 5 PCs have against a horde of 40 kobolds (incidentally, the original module also had 40 kobolds in this room, 17 male, 23 female). The answer of course is: “Without very careful planning and consideration, very little.” Which is as it should be.

It seems to me that when people these days talk about “balanced” encounters, what they really mean is “weighted in such a way that the PCs have a roughly 60-75% chance of being successful, unless it’s a BBEG battle, in which case it’s more acceptable for the chances of success to be between 50-60%, and under no circumstances should it ever dip below 50% unless there is a story reason for the PCs to be defeated.” That’s not a balanced encounter. That’s a rigged encounter in favor of the PCs. If we want to talk about a balanced encounter, we would be talking about encounters where 50% of the time, the PC’s will lose. Honestly, that’s not all that fun in a game where combat is expected (if not outright encouraged), so even in the deadliest forms of early D&D, encounters were weighted such that in most of them, the PCs had a > 50% chance of wining if they weren’t actively self destructive. But older editions believed in a larger balance, one across the entire world, or dungeon, wherein while the PCs might for the sake of game have the upper hand most of the time in the right sections, sometimes you came across encounters you just couldn’t win at your level, or with your skills. Sometimes you retreat and try again. There’s nothing wrong with this.

And if the PCs decide to rush headlong into the room of 40 kobolds without preparation. Well, then honestly, they deserve everything that’s coming to them.

 

Now there is one problem with the 40 kobold room as it relates to the current designs of D&D games. You only get experience for killing or otherwise defeating monsters. In old D&D, the bulk of your XP came from treasure, which honestly I think they should bring back.

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D&D Next Public Playtest: First Thoughts

So the D&D Next (5e, Type V whatever you want to call it) play test is out. Let the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. I made it a point to avoid any commentary on the playtest before I had a chance to download and review the material myself, and I have to say I’m glad I did. There’s a interesting split in the commentary, where almost all the fans of 3.5 or earlier D&D range between excited to cautiously optimistic to indifferent, and the 4e fans who all appear to view this as the coming apocalypse. Although it’s somewhat telling I think that the few comments I’ve been able to find from non experienced D&D players are generally favorable.

I thought I’d get some of my initial thoughts out of the way here. The terms of the beta forbid me from excerpting any of the material, so I highly recommend that if you haven’t, you sign up and download the materials for yourself. First things first, the supplied materials are very basic. If WotC were ever to release a “rules lite” version of D&D this would probably be most of it. No character creation rules yet, nor theme, background, class or race rules. A few low level spells, information about ability scores, generating HP and some copy / paste equipment lists. The rules as presented are clearly inspired by 2e and 3.5e, with mechanics that should be familiar to any D&D player, but most familiar to players of those editions. Reading though the character sheets provide some hints of the modules to come which will presumably bring in more of the 4e feel if that’s what you want. Certainly, if you ignore the inflated HP and attacks, I can see how you could use this core set of rules to emulate just about everything from 0e to 3.5e, and that appears to be something WotC wants you to see, since the included sample adventure is the Caves of Chaos from B2 Keep on the Borderlands. I have not had a chance to read though the included one to see if it’s a verbatim copy , or a modified one.

On to the highlights:

Advantages / Disadvantages

This is an interesting and new mechanic to D&D. In addition to basic +/- 2 modifiers to rolls, certain conditions will grant an attacker an advantage or disadvantage. The basic idea is that depending on which you have, when you roll your attack, or check, or save, you roll two d20 and take the highest or lowest of the two rolls depending on whether you have an advantage or disadvantage respectively. For example, instead of opportunity attacks against ranged characters who attack while in melee range, the character now takes a disadvantage. Ranged characters also take a disadvantage for firing at long range. At first read, I like this idea, though I wonder how it will play out in long term play.

Disrupted Spell Casting

If a Wizard (and thus far from the play test documents, only a wizard) takes damage they become “disrupted” on their next turn. Effectively this means that the wizard must make a DC 10 Constitution save if they want to cast a spell, or the spell will fizzle, but not be lost. A nod of sorts to the 0e days when being hit while spell casting lost your spell.

Ability Scores as Saving Throws

In this playtest, ability scores (or more accurately their modifiers) dictate your saving throws, so rather than Save vs Poison or Staves or Wands a la 0e/1e, or Fort/Ref/Will saves a la 3.5e or defenses a la 4e, the playtest has essentially 6 saves, one for each stat. Save DCs are determined by the DM as in 3.5, and are d20 + ability mod +/- other factors. I personally like having multiple saving throws in the game. While I appreciate the simplicity of a single throw a la Swords and Wizardry, it leads to writing down tons of extra exceptions, that are often more easily handled with multiple throws. And since I’m sort of in the school of “Rolling Dice is Fun!” I prefer the saving throws to 4e’s defenses and 50/50 saving throw.

Move + Action = Turn

I have no preference one way or the other between move/action systems of 2e and before or the Move/Minor/Standard system of 4e, other than to say that having an explicit minor action did add some interesting spell and power effects to 4e. On the other hand, more often than not, I found myself and my fellow players skipping over the minor action, unless there was an explicit need for it as outlined in a power, so the lack of a minor action in the playtest doesn’t bother me in the slightest. The places where it would have been called out in 4e are still called out, they just imply a minor action rather than calling it that.

Standing From Prone is no Longer a Full Movement

In addition to the elimination of “Minor Actions”, the play test documents also make a change that standing from a prone position now only consumes 5 ft of movement rather than your entire movement. This to my mind is a great, if small change. I absolutely hate that getting up from prone consumes one’s entire movement in 4e. I fully buy into the idea that standing up isn’t “free” , and should cost you some of your movement. I can even buy that it should cost you more than a mere 5 ft of movement, but I have never been able to justify in my head that it would cost your entire movement. In addition, reloading a crossbow no longer consumes your movement if you want to load and fire on the same turn, it now gives you a disadvantage.

Dying

The playtest documents include a dying mechanic that is something between the 4e “three strikes” mechanic and 3.5e -10 mechanic. In the playtest rules, starting on the round after you reach 0 hp, you begin making death saving throws. Each saving throw you fail causes you to lose 1d6 additional HP. If you successfully make 3 (not necessarily consecutive) saving throws, you stabilize. Otherwise, once you reach -(CON + Level) hp you’re D-E-D dead.

EP Returns

For those of you that started with 4e, ep was a coin denomination worth 5sp or 1/2 gp. Other than it being a nice throw back to the old editions, I have no preference one way or the other about it, but I do find the wailing and gnashing of teeth over its existence to be amusing.

Armor Needs More Information

Given the relatively easy to get attribute modifiers (anything over 11 gives you at least +1), I can’t see a reason why anyone would want to choose heavy armor. In addition to costing more, the heavy armor classes reduce your speed, weigh more and at least as far as the current rules are concerned give you no benefits at all, over a a light armor with your dex mods. Of course this runs counter to my previous post on it being perfectly OK to run a character that doesn’t take the optimal path, but still, it would be nice to see some reason to choose heavy armor other than flavor, if only perhaps to appease the munchkins.

Welcome Back Flavor

Oh, how much I’ve enjoyed reading some of the spell and monster descriptions in this material. Flavor is back with a passion, including random tidbits like what sort of weapons or treasure a given monster prefers, and spells. I know this had caused some great consternation among some 4e fans who see this as extraneous and are confused as to what purpose it serves, especially since it’s not included for every monster, but honestly, I like it. One of the great things about reading early D&D material is how everything is given a bit of personality and monsters and spells are more than just their stat blocks. I do however agree with the 4e fans that spells and monsters need a standardized and simple stat block for quick in game reference which most of the monsters do, but most of the spells do not. They may not need to be included right next to the fluff (though all the information should be in the fluff part, after all fluff is rules), but perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad thing to include condensed stat block appendices.

All that said, I don’t like the re-introduction of PC attributes for all monsters. I get that with saves being attribute based it’s somewhat necessary, but I’ve always been OK with NPCs/Monsters being created and acting differently than PCs, and would rather have a simpler or even single save system for monsters and basic NPCs. Additionally, I would love to see a section on building or modifying your own mosters a la 4e  or Swords and Wizardry.

4e Mechanics Without 4e Vocabulary

If there is one thing that has possibly raised the hackles of 4e fans more than anything, it is the use of 4e and 4e like mechanics while dropping 4e vocabulary. Distances are once again in feet rather than squares, no more explicit “minor actions” and the new “mundane healing” which I will get to next, as opposed to “healing surges”. Well, I hate to tell 4e fans this, but 4e’s vocabulary is a large reason why people say it feels too much like a video game, and why it doesn’t feel like D&D, and whether you believe that to be a problem or not, WotC (and a certain number of ex players) certainly seem to think it is. The RPG hobby as a whole, and D&D in particular has developed a vocabulary of its own. When you say PC, NPC, Monster, Class, Race, Saving Throw IC, OOC, XP, HP, MP, AC, STR, DEX, INT, WIS, CHA, and CON, even non D&D players generally know what you’re talking about, and most successful games that attempt to emulate or be the next D&D use that common language, and where they deviate from the common language, they usually do so either for copyright purposes, or for a compelling new mechanic. After TSR and before he died, Gary Gygax went on to produce another RPG line called “Lejendary Adventures”, which though I haven’t read, I understand was actually quite good, and was a lot of what Gygax would have done with D&D had he continued with it. But for copyright, and I think for distance reasons, LA deviated significantly from the D&D vocabulary. While there are a number of reasons LA failed, many gamers found the odd vocabulary (sometimes for no reason than to be different) off putting. 4e is something of the same thing. While it is D&D and uses plenty of the D&D language, it has its own vocabulary, significantly different from any edition before it. In theory, the vocabulary shouldn’t matter, as long as the idea is being conveyed, but the language used goes a lot towards the feel of something.

Mundane Healing

5e also introduces mundane healing wich is something of a bastardized version of healing surges from 4e. In 4e, healing surges work as something of a “how long before the party needs to rest” gauge, and as free non-magical healing. In practice this means that your HP in 4e is really a measure of how much of a beating you can take in a single combat, and your healing surges are a measure of how much you can take in a day. Because healing surges in 4e are mostly used outside of battle, and when used outside of battle can be used freely, most DMs apparently use them to measure off individual encounters, and assume that the party will be at at least 3/4 HP for each new encounter. The new 5e “mundane healing” attempts to do something similar. In the playtest, your character has a number of hit dice, apparently equal to their level with a die type related to their class (d4 for wizards, d12 for fighters and so on). With “mundane healing” players outside of battle can use a “healing kit charge” to bandage or patch themselves up, rolling as many of their hit dice as they want to see how much they gain back. And unlike 4e, magical healing doesn’t use your hit dice up.

I like non magical healing, and in fact, allowing 1d3 (but no more than the amount lost in the last battle) of minor healing after a combat is one of my LL house rules. I was never a big fan of 4e’s healing surges, but I’m not so sure I like this mechanic either. Since starting HP is CON + 1HD, mundane healing especially at low levels is basically a daily use to potentially only get back 1 HP. I have a distinct feeling this will be more frustrating than not. I think I would rather either a larger number of HD available at low levels (say starting with 4 or 5) or have a guaranteed return on HD (such as the full die value). If, as they stated leading up to this play test, WotC wanted to keep the cleric from having to play as a heal bot (something I should talk about in another post), then they didn’t accomplish their goal here.

Weird HP Scalling

Speaking of HP, it appears that they’ve tried to combine some version of 4e HP generation with 0e random generation. As I mentioned before, each PC gets starting HP of CON + 1 HD which is akin to how its done in 4e, with the exception that 4e isn’t random at all. But then, unlike 4e where each level generates a predictable increase in HP, you roll another HD and add that, much like old editions. As a result, if you are a fighter with a 15 CON, at 5th level you could either have 25 HP (because minimum additional HP is your CON modifier), or 75 HP, with most fighters probably falling somewhere around 45. Personally, I like random, it makes things interesting, but with how much HP scores (and consequently damage) have inflated over the years (compare to LL where a 5th level fighter with 15 CON will have  between 10 and 45 HP with the average falling in at 25), I think there either needs to be less random, or a higher minimum floor.

Random is Back

Speaking of random, dice rolls are back with a vengeance. Once again, this appears to vex 4e fans who very much love the complete predictability of just about everything in 4e, but for fans of older editions, where consulting a random chart was common place, you will find plenty of random, from HP generation, to how many of each monster carries what weapon to how much damage you avoid while drunk. Again, vexing to 4e fans, but in my mind, rolling dice is fun.

 

So on the whole I find myself fairly optimistic about this new version. It feels more like D&D used to, and it looks like it might streamline a lot of the insanity that was choice and option overload in 3e and 4e while reducing the inconsistent design of earlier editions. Whether or not they can pull off something that throws a bone to everyone and is still fun to play with a D&D soul remains to be seen, but with the caveat that this is a very rough core mechanics play test, they seem to be off to an OK start. Actual play test report pending in about 2 weeks when I can sit the group down for a session.

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On Mechanics, Fluff, Tone and the Influence Thereof

Once again, I troll the Penny Arcade forums for content. This time I’m a bit late to the party, but I wanted to generate some visual aids. Some weeks ago, the user Vaguard made what I thought was a rather innocuous and reasonable claim, that the D&D 4e system exchanged flavor for a unified mechanic that simplifies building encounters. Even if you don’t agree that 4e traded any flavor for mechanics, certainly the idea that mechanics can and do influence the tone of a system just like the fluff does. At least, this seems to be a truism for OSR folk for whom, as Roger at Roles, Rules and Rolls said, “in Old School play … fluff is crunch.”

Apparently it isn’t such a universally accepted concept though. It inspired some 5 or 6 pages of argument over whether mechanics played any part in defining the tone and flavor of a system, eventually ending in everyone agreeing to a tautology that mechanics reinforce an already decided upon flavor. Obviously mechanics, fluff and flavor are all very intertwined, and every bit influences the rest. The flavor you want for your game influences the mechanics you choose to put in (or use as a player), the fluff you include (for at least some types of players) impacts the flavor of your game, and the mechanics that you chose alter the flavor as well. And to prove it, I made some pictures.

Imagine for a moment, that we’re creating a game. In this game, the effect of every swing in combat is determined by a dice roll mechanic which produces a result from 4 to 24. Why such an odd range? Mostly to make illustrating my point easier. In this range of results, the success or failure of the attempted swing changes along that continuum, such that the worst possible results (say killing yourself or a teammate) are down around 4 and 5, while the best possible results (critical hits, one shot kills) are around 23 and 24, with the more mediocre results (basic hit, basic damage) being centered around the middle numbers 13, 14, 15. So the higher the roll, the better your attack.

Now, if you buy the idea that mechanics don’t influence flavor, then I could declare a bit of fluff and flavor at this point that in our game, plug in any mechanic I want to generate those numbers between 4 and 24 and the flavor and tone wouldn’t change at all. I could say that combat in our world is fast and very quickly lethal for each side, and something people avoid at all costs, and it wouldn’t matter what mechanic I stuck in, it would work the same because my fluff and flavor declare it to be so.

I don’t buy it, and here’s why:

Let’s choose the mechanic of 1d21 + 3 to generate our numbers, this is what it looks like according to AnyDice:

Sure, I can say combat is quick and deadly for each side, but really, our system is going to play out mostly randomly. Sometimes it will be really deadly, other times it will be mediocre and each time it’s an equal chance to be either. No one is going to be great or lousy most of the time because each number in our sequence has an equal chance of coming up. D&D players should be intimately familiar with this probability feel because that’s how most d20 rolls work.

Now, let’s chose something else, maybe 2d11+2, or even 4d6:

Again, this really won’t do much to give my flavor of quickly deadly combat much of a boost. In fact, this would actually give us a flavor better described as “combat is generally average and uneventful as combat can be, awesome successes or failures are not common, and most attacks will be average. In fact, average is exactly what this mechanic gives us, which is why D&D uses it for ability score rolls in the form of 3d6.

Now let’s go really far off the beaten path. This time, we’re going to roll 4d6 + 11, if that result is greater than 24, we’re going to subtract 21 and use that for the result, otherwise we’ll keep the roll as the result, then we will add 11 to whatever that result was:

How’s that for a mechanic? In fact, this one is ideal, and the one I would want to use for fast, deadly combat best avoided by all parties. Using this mechanic, you’re not likely to ever be average, either you’re going to kick some serious ass, or you’re going to have yours handed to you when you swing. So here’s how they all look stacked up against one another:

 

Does anyone seriously think that each of these mechanics would not impart a vastly different flavor and tone onto their game, regardless of what the fluff and other flavor said? Of course game designers generally choose mechanics to model the flavor they’re aiming for, but that doesn’t mean that the mechanic chosen doesn’t help or hinder that flavor.

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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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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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