Thursday, 23 October 2014

Everything is Uncertain, Including Death (and Taxes)




“Quick, we must retreat!”
“Why? You look absolutely fine to me.”
“Yes, but the next the next sword blow will surely kill me.”

Or

“Have no fear, I will leap into the fray and hold them off, for I am fresh, so even if they all strike me I shall remain standing.”

Such are the caricatures of the abstraction of HP; combatants can take HP ‘damage’ without risk until they’re right down to the little numbers. These caricatures, and the implicit criticism, have some merit. Players do know that the Orc with a handaxe (1d6 damage) will not be able to kill their 8HP Fighter on this round. And they do know that their 6th Level Fighter, whittled down to 3HP, is now in serious trouble, even if we can see no difference in his physical capabilities. 

Or rather, we think we can see no difference in his physical capabilities. The 5e Basic pdf says "The loss of hit points has no effect on a creature's capabilities until the creature drops to 0 hit points" (v0.2 p75). Of course I know why the rule book says this: we don't apply penalties to characters and creatures that have taken HP damage. But it is language like hinders and 'proper' understanding of the abstraction of HP and D&D combat - though as I note below the abstraction of HP is terminally undermined in newer editions. When the abstraction is understood, we can see that of course a loss of hit points does have an effect on a character or creature's capabilities. A PC with 3HP has far less ‘fighting ability’ than one with 30HP, even if their AC and THAC0 or BAB remain unchanged. Simply put, the 3HP Fighter will survive fewer rounds of combat than the 30HP.



But anyway, it is often difficult to grasp such abstraction, and the 'certainties' (see above) that it produces can sit uneasily with players and DMs. We might intellectually understand the abstract nature of D&D combat, but we often - instinctively - fall into making sense of these numbers (HD, HP, AC, ‘to hit’ rolls, etc.) as if they had a one-to-one correspondence with world.

So, let’s make things a little more uncertain, shall we?

Carcosa has PCs roll their HP at every encounter. You also have to roll to see what type of HD you have! Fun for a diversion, but the certainties in the two 'examples' above are not mitigated. Why not have the PCs roll their HD every time they are 'hit'?

Here’s how it would work:

Characters and creatures start with 0 'hit points' (HP). They have not yet been 'hit'. When a character or creature is 'hit', damage is rolled as normal, and this many hit points are added to their HP, which accumulate. A character or creature rolls their HD every time it adds points to their HP. So that 6th Level Fighter would roll 6d8 (assuming no modifiers from CON), giving him somewhere between 6 and 48HP. It wouldn’t be quite as 'swingy' as that might look as the multiple dice produce a pronounced bell curve. If the total rolled is greater than the accumulated HP of damage, the character or creature can fight on. If the number roll is equal to or less than the accumulated HP, the character or creature is either dead or has suffered a serious wound.

Naturally, I need a good critical hit chart to generate the wounds and determine the chance of death. I am tempted by the extended critical hit charts from WHRP1e (found in the Character Pack, maybe one of the Apocrypha books) which have different charts for all kinds of weapons and sources of damage. ACKS’ ‘mortal wounds’ table might also be a suitable base. While I would want the procedure to be relatively simple, I'd also have to work out a simple set of modifiers to rolls on this chart. Presumably these would involve level, CON modifier, and perhaps the difference between accumulated HP and the last rolled HD total. And death? This would either be an automatic result on the far reaches of the chart, a consequence of a wound that is not treated or bound in time, or perhaps, to keep things simple, a Saving Throw (vs Death). For simplicities sake, most monsters and NPCs might die as soon as the HD roll is not greater than accumulated HP - this is a system about PCs, after all.

Or maybe the 'dice-drop' table I suggested ages ago... 

Whatever table I eventually use I've a feeling that it will have to be kind to the PCs. Or, at least, as kind as a critical hit/serious wound table can be. PCs are going to be more vulnerable using these rules. While 1st Level PCs will get killed/wounded by a single blow in this system and the traditional one, the real effect will be on PCs with around 3 or 4 HD. In the traditional system there is no chance that the first sword blow will drop them (especially with the kind of house rules that boost HP - max HP at 1st Level, re-rolling 1s, re-rolling all dice at each level, etc.), in this system some of those formerly 'insulated' PCs are going to fall in the first round of combat. But then, so are some of the monsters in the same HD range, which brings a much wider range of the bestiary into play much earlier on... along with larger treasures and greater XP rewards. Swings and roundabouts, eh?

But why do this?

Well, it gives me an excuse to use a critical hit chart. And do I love me a good critical hit chart. But it also means that even PCs (and monsters) of moderate to high level/HD are in an uncertain amount of danger once the daggers, axes, and swords are drawn. The cartoon criticism of D&D's accumulating HP is disarmed. Sure, higher level characters are far more likely to be able to fight for longer than low or zero level characters, but there will rarely be the guarantee that the next swipe of a sword will not do for them.

But more importantly than that, much more, it allows me to incorporate an aspect of ‘newer’ D&Ds from which I have always recoiled – easy HP recovery (or easy HP reduction, given what HP 'mean' in this system). As I've said, the abstraction of HP and D&D combat is often difficult to maintain in the imaginations of the DM and players. And players and DMs really do need to buy the abstract nature of HP and D&D combat in order to understand how the game effect of low HP = reduced overall fighting ability = a ‘wounded’ state. But for this abstraction to work, HP ‘healing’ has to be slow and/or difficult. If a PC can easily replenish their all HP, say with a ‘long rest’, the HP abstraction is terminally undermined. If a good night's sleep allows a PC to recover all their lost HP, then low HP very definitely does not = wounded, not even as an abstraction.

But at the same time I will concede that rapid HP recovery can improve some aspects of the experience of play. If PCs can recover their HP by taking a rest, swigging some brandy (see Crypts & Things), or hearing a rousing speech, then (of course) they can get a lot more adventuring done, especially during the first few levels of play. And these early levels are the key to a sustained campaign. So I'll be experimenting with this system in the next games that I run.

As a final point, easy HP recovery and no ‘real’ wounds means that PCs can fight all day, every day. This puts them on the 5e track – which given the 'XP per adventuring day per level' table in the DMG pdf I can safely caricature this as 'How to Hit Name Level in 30 Days, or Your Money Back!' I know that this meant to make players feel 'epic', but I can't imagine feeling less 'epic' than having my character, starting at 1st Level, is set to become a mighty lord in a matter of mere weeks of game time.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

A Complete Game in Four Parts


Of all the D&Ds, Frank Mentzer's BECM is the one that is closest to my heart. I leave out the 'I' as I never owned the Immortal Set. In fact, as I describe below, I'm not sure that I've ever needed the Master Set as part of my 'complete game'. Certainly I've never played in a campaign that has got beyond the 'teen' levels. Part of the reason that I hold these slim books in such high regard is, no doubt, nostalgia. In the 1980s we got a tremendous amount of play out of just four books – the Basic Player and DM books, the Expert book (which is my favourite D&D book of all time), and the Isle of Dread. We fought our way up from frightened dungeon grubbers, we travelled all across the Known World, by horse, ship, and – later – a variety of flying monsters, we built castles, ruled domains, and lead armies into battle (we didn't have the Companion set at the time so we made up our own rules, which isn't that difficult in an AC/HD system). We could do all this because BECM D&D is a wonderfully complete and well organised game that supports this range of fantasy adventure with a number of simple but effective play procedures.



"Well organised?! It is spread across seven books!" Sure. But do not overlook the virtue of procedures organised by 'tier'. First, it stops players and DMs being overwhelmed by trying to master rules and procedures that are of little to no relevance for their own games. But second and more importantly - and this is something that is missing from plenty of more serious, comprehensive games - it makes material the idea that the kind of adventures that a PC might engage in will change, as they grow. This change will be qualitative as well as quantitative. Play at higher levels isn't just about fighting bigger monsters for more magnificent treasures (though both are there, if you want them) but about different kinds of adventure altogether. The PCs are a 'real' part of the world. In my opinion, if 'serious' D&D has to be three big hardbound books, it would be better for the game (though not for WotC’s bank balance) if the material – the procedures that make up the game – was organised by tiers of PC power (and where these tiers mean something other than the addition of more kewl powerz) rather than the now standard PHB, DMG, MM division. 

Second, do not be fooled by the fact that these rules are spread across seven books. Each book is a pretty slim volume affair. I can use the weight of most RPG rulebooks to press flowers - if I was into that - and many RPGs don't settle for just one big book. These? I couldn't squash an ant with these books, even one on top of the other. Yet within these books there are not only the systems that are found in any fantasy adventure RPG - character creation and advancement, magic, equipment, combat, monsters, etc., but a whole raft of simple procedures that cement the place of PCs within the game world. My expectations of an RPG have been so coloured by the comprehensiveness and scope of BECM that I find other games inadequate in this regard (and end up porting in BECM D&D's procedures to fill in the gaps).

From the Basic DM book we have a procedure for dealing with retainers (BD20), a system for handling the reaction of monsters and NPCs (BD22), treasure tables that provide us with a system of determining appropriate levels of reward with the context of a D&D game world (BD40-42), a system for generating room contents and random treasures (BD47), and a system for determining whether the party will encounter wandering monsters, with sample wandering monster tables on the inside back cover.

The Expert book, as we all know, introduces wilderness travel and adventure (for example, encounter tables on E30 and 35, getting lost etc. on E41), but it also includes procedures for allowing PCs to build castles (E23), hire mercenaries (E24), conduct magical research (E25), as well as adventures at sea (E42-44).

The Companion book brings us rules for ruling Dominions (CD5-10), fighting wars (CD12-17), and, for those higher level PCs without the taste for rulership, guidance for engaging in adventures across other dimensions and planes of existence (C18-20).

And, given that in BECM we’re not talking about a race from 1st level to name level in just under three weeks of actual adventuring (which, judging by the release of the free DMG pdf is the assumption of 5e), the Companion book also introduces some rules for aging (CD25).

In other words, across a handful of pages (not many - count 'em!), using pretty simple systems of resolution (okay, the Dominion rules could have done with a serious trim), we have the procedural skeleton on which a can be built play a campaign in which the players can enjoy their PCs exploring, shaping, ruling, and travelling beyond the game world.

And while AD&D churned out adventure module after geographic guidebook after splatbook, the BECM D&D supplemental line included material that further cemented the idea that this was the D&D for extended, meaningful sandbox campaigns. The C and M series of modules often involved the PCs not only as adventurers but as rulers. Hidden in the GAZ series was material than made them something more than mere geographical guidebooks and sources of variant Class options - consider the trade rules from the Minrothad Guilds and Darokin supplements. And in Red Arrow, Black Shield, the PCs were invited to take a meaningful, consequential part in a continental war - in the war itself, mind, which was not 'merely' the background for a quest for a MacGuffin.  

Kids game, huh?!

[Of course, there are a few things that I don't like about BECM. It is not the perfect D&D. Central to my complaints is the lunatic level spread (36 levels!), and the fact that that level spread is partly responsible for producing the worst iteration of the Thief class in any D&D.]

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Hanging Garden - (not quite) Skeleton Encounter #4



Another Skeleton encounter (well, sorta) that fits on two sides of a 6"x4" index card. Earlier encounters in this series can be found here:



#4 The Hanging Garden

Alone in a meadow is a tree resembling a tall willow with a dense curtain of hanging branches. It sways gently, creaking and groaning, even without wind. If the PCs approach, the tree will burst into blossom; red, white and yellow flowers opening along the hanging branches. The tree reeks of sweet decay and small skeletal birds flutter here and there. This is a CARNIVOROUS PLANT, and the flowers are its ‘mouths’. An aberration, it fed on birds until people settled nearby and began to use it as a way of disposing of their criminals and other outcasts. Years of ritualised murder, combined with whatever residual magic produced the tree, keeps the dead from their rest. Tangled in the branches of the tree are 10 SKELETONS. Some are able walk a few feet from the tree, as if one a leash, while others are higher into the canopy and jerk ineffectively as they dangle. 

The PCs might well conceive of reasonable a plan to destroy the tree; if so they will recover the some trinkets and jewellery worth 3d6GP. However, the tree is difficult to set alight and the trunk cannot be reached without entering the hungry curtain of branches. Unreasonable plans might result in PCs being tangled in the branches – Save vs Paralyzation or be trapped, taking 1d4 damage per turn until a successful Saving Throw is made. Other PCs can help, granting a +2 bonus to the tangled PC’s Saving Throw, but risk being entangled themselves. Skeletons ‘freed’ have a 2in6 chance of attacking the PCs; otherwise they will head towards their ‘home’ village.

This encounter presents little threat to a party that doesn’t do anything silly. Unless the PCs decide to destroy the tree, this encounter serves as atmospheric foreshadowing. The next settlement that the PCs reach will be the one that uses this tree as its means of punishment. A sign outside the village reads, ‘Sinners Shall Tend to the Garden of the God’. PCs should watch their manners…


The 6"x4" index card format really restrained me here. I left out the Skeleton stats, something that I'd thought about before as which ever OSR (or other) game you are using has standard Skeleton that supercedes the Labyrinth Lord statline I would reproduce here. This wouldn't always be the decision - a monster or NPC that varies from a standard would need the statline included - what I want here are index cards that I can draw from a file and [almost] immediately play. 

It also isn't all that Skeleton-y. It started out as an encounter with a number of Skeletons in gibbets, but this gives the players much more to do. Or, well, much more to mess about with. I haven't provided any stats for the 'tree' as it doesn't need any. No more than an oak tree would, anyway. It is an environmental hazard, not a 'monster' to be fought. Of course, it is really an introduction to a proper 'Hammer Horror' village, and the PCs have more choices to make when they find that. 
 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Shattered Bone! A [pinched] Skeleton Rule


Skeletons, by Bob Harvey (Talisman of Death, FF#11)

Before I get round to polishing off the other six Skeleton encounters, I came across a cool little rule in Elric! I've seen rules for adjusting damage to Skeletons based on weapon type - i.e. bludgeoning weapons do more damage, peircing weapons very little, but Elric! has a suitably elegant spot rule. I can't say that I'd ever noticed it before, probably because Skeletons are relegated to a 'Natural Beasts & Generic Monsters Table' at the very end of the bestiary. Anyway, here is the footnote that relates to Skeleton 'armour':

"Does normal attack damage. Destroyed completely by weapon damage roll x4 or less, as rolled on D100: thus damage result roll of 4 needs a D100 result of 01-16, or there is no effect. Include any damage bonus." (p 137)

An elegant spot rule, if inelegantly put. I'm not sure what the first sentence means, but given that Skeletons have only 5-6HP I have assumed this means that armour (which in Elric! reduces damage according to a dice roll) does not reduce the damage roll for purposes of calculating the percentage chance of destruction. If attacks also do HP damage, this rule isn't half so cool - most Skeletons would be 'killed' long before they are shattered. However, reading it my way, this rule requires no increase in bookkeeping (indeed, it requires less, as we're no longer tracking Skeleton HP) to achieve an interesting effect. I don't see why this rule couldn't be applied to Skeletons in most fantasy games. 

I certainly could see myself using this in a D&D/OSR game. If I wanted to make 'tougher' Skeletons - such as the Skeleton Champions in The Cursed Holmgang, I would improve their AC rather than fiddle with the multiplier that is used to derive the percentage chance of destruction. As HP doesn't matter (at least not with regard to crude weapon attacks), improved HD would be used to increase their ability to hit.

If I wanted to complicate things further, we could alter the multiplier by weapon type. For example, piercing weapons have a x1 multiplier, slashing a x3 multiplier, and bludgeoning weapons a x5 multiplier. Or something like that.  

(Credit for this rule is due to one or more of Willis, Watts, Morrison, Pursell, Shirley, and Shaw, authors of Elric! I'm not sure if there are antecedents for this rule to be found elsewhere.)

Incidentally, Magic World (which is largely Elric! reskinned, though the bestiary is drawn from RQ3), does have Skeletons taking HP damage in the normal way. I think. It has Skeletons taking no damage from thrusting weapons (except on a Special or Critical) and being automatically destroyed when it takes a Major Wound. Except the MW bestiary doesn't give us a HP score from which we can derive the Major Wound threshold (a product, presumably, of an incomplete translation of material from RQ3, which had hit locations, to MW, which has total HP scores). Going by SIZ alone (average 13), we could guess that Skeletons might have 13 HP and a Major Wound threshold of 7. However, Elric! gives Skeletons just 5-6 HP, based on (SIZ+CON)/2. If this was transferred straight over to Magic World it would mean that the Major Wound threshold would be just 3 - so pretty fragile! Shards of bone everywhere!   

Friday, 3 October 2014

A Travelling Show (1d6 Skeleton Encounters #3)


Another Skeleton 'encounter'. This (or these, perhaps) are might not be very adventuresome, but it is (they are) colourful. And there is the potential for the PCs to get tangled up in a heap of trouble (when isn't there?), particularly if they meet this travelling showman more than once.

A Travelling Show

Osteus Arcanus is the stage name of a petty Necromancer. Lacking the, ahem, backbone, for the deeper secrets of death magic, he has put his talents to use as a showman. His carriage is made from painted black wood, polished brass, and carved bone. It is pulled by two black shire horses wearing bull skulls as ostentatious champrons. Osteus maintains a sinister appearance, using theatrical make-up to give himself a deathly pallor and darken his sunken eyes. He wears a brass skull cap and the (tattered) funeral wear of the nobility. All this is a mistake; as often as he puts on a successful show, he leaves a village or town just ahead of the pitchfork and torch.   

OSTEUS = MU (Necromancer from Theorems & Thaumaturgy): 3, AC: 7, HP: 7, MV: 120’/40’, ATT: 1 dagger, DAM: 1d4, SV: MU3, MR: 6, AL: C, XP: 100

Osteus’ spellbook – an overwritten volume of the Hagensburg Register of Deaths – contains the Level 1 spells Exterminate (T&T p12), Read Magic, Scare (AEC p75), Skeletal Servitor (T&T p15), and the Level 2 spell Ray of Pain (T&T p14). He also has a collection of books on obscure funereal rites (worth 200gp to a suitable buyer), and a beautifully illustrated copy of Delvecchio’s Classical Clowning (200gp). A locked chest contains a 50gp and 500sp. He also has four human skeletons, bones linked by wire, hooks drilled into their skulls. These hang on a rack in his carriage when not dressed in cheap costumes and animated using Skeletal Servitor for act – a compendium of famous tragic, historical, and comedic scenes. Each casting of Skeletal Servitor allows him to animate a Skeleton for 9 turns.

There are many ways in which the PCs may (repeatedly) encounter Osteus, but here are three:
1 – At the edge of town, Osteus sobs over a charred skeleton. It is dressed in what remains of a ‘princess’ costume. 'She' was burned by angry, confused villagers. Distraught, Osteus will initially say little other than, ‘They burned her!’
2 – A clown picks berries from a roadside hedge. If approached, it will become clear that it is a Skeleton. Osteus is brewing a kettle of tea a few hundred yards away.

3 – Osteus enters a village with great pomp, with two Skeletons dressed a noble guards marching ahead of his carriage, from which he announces himself as a great dramatist. On behalf of the villagers, roll for reaction…

[This should (it does!) fit onto a 6"x4" index card. Maybe I'll have to put together a PDF at some point for easy archiving. As well as referencing Labyrinth Lord, spells have been drawn from Labyrinth Lord Advanced Edition Companion, and Theorems &Thaumaturgy - a free(!!) pdf from Gavin Norman of City of Iron.]