Posts tagged ‘d&d’

June 18, 2012

5e D&D getting reaction tables, morale scores

You read it here first.

From Mike Mearls’ AMA on Reddit.

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June 13, 2012

5e D&D’s Advantage/Disadvantage rules

Roger at Roles, Rules and Rolls has a great post exposing the probabilities of the the Advantage/Disadvantage rules called D&D Next: (Dis)advantage. Go check it out for a succinct discussion of the bonus (and penalty), and why it’s different than a flat +/-3.

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June 8, 2012

5e D&D Playtest, Session 3

Tonight I ran another session of the D&D Playtest, picking up right where we left off last time, with the enemies of the party’s new goblin friend running off yelling “Bree-yark” and talking about getting “the Ogre”. The session was very surprising. Rather than give a blow-by-blow, I’ll give the short version: the party killed the Ogre, but were driven off by the goblin chieftain and his troupe–who actually chased the party halfway back to town.

Here’s what we learned:

  • Magic Missile isn’t at all over-powered when you’re not fighting Kobolds.
  • The “laser cleric” effect only happens if your cleric’s player can manage to hit.
  • The Ogre can take out half the Fighter’s hit points in one hit.
  • Advantage should probably be called “Huge F**king Advantage”.
  • Being prone is brutal.
  • The whole Hit Dice/Healing Surge thing is not as huge as I thought.
  • These don’t feel like first level characters.

And finally:

  • Narrative creativity can come back to bite you in the ass.

Honestly, I was surprised I didn’t manage to drop a PC tonight. I was disappointed too, because I wanted to try out the Dying rules. I got the Dwarf down to 1 hit point, but the Cleric and Wizard saved her bacon. It felt pretty epic, actually. I planned to have the Ogre hit to subdue and tuck her into his sack for later, but he couldn’t get a swing in.

The players used all their tactical advantages. They threw a stone with a Light spell so they could loose arrows and spells into the goblin ranks. They used the hallway to bottle up the enemy and a Sleep spell to separate the Ogre from his allies. They used Ray of Frost to pin the Ogre down. And they were pretty canny with their movement too, darting in to hit and then running back to cover to deny the goblins one of their main advantages–lots of arrows.

I made two major tactical errors. The first was not realizing the Ogre had spears for throwing, so he spent a few rounds closing with the PCs, and when he was frozen in place by the Wizard, that bought the PCs precious rounds to maneuver and heal.

The second was when I had the PCs goblin buddy show up and order the five or so allies he’d rounded up from the tribe tackle the Ogre, who was “frozen in ice” as part of the Ray of Frost effect. I thought this was a really cool image: the wild-eyed Ogre, struggling to break free of the ice encasing him, rocked like a statue and toppled to the ground.

Naturally, the players used this against me. :)

On the Ogre’s turn, I narrated him throwing off the goblins and standing up, then running over to the delicious dwarf, mouth watering. The players successfully lobbied for a Strength check. Then, in a fit of soft-heartedness, I let myself be convinced that the goblins should have Advantage, because there were so many of them. (My reasoning was that they are Medium sized creatures, there are five of them, and the Ogre is only Large. I regret this line of reasoning now.)

Turns out that even a monster with 18 Strength has a tough time against Advantage. I wonder if I should have granted the Ogre Disadvantage instead? The players seemed to enjoy rooting (and rolling) for the goblins, who proceeded to hold the Ogre down for three rounds while the Fighter and the Cleric went to town on him, also with Advantage. They took him apart.

They players wisely decided to run, although the Wizard had a Burning Hands in reserve, so they might have actually prevailed. I think had we had our fourth player (the Rogue couldn’t make it) it would have been much less of a nail-biter. People have been saying that these characters are overpowered. They certainly are a hell of a lot more capable than B/X D&D characters. I’d rate them at about 4th level for B/X D&D. Probably about 2nd or 3rd for 3e D&D. I haven’t played a ton of 4e, but 4e characters seemed invulnerable at first level. The two players who have done a lot of 4e mentioned that 4e PCs “never run” and that they liked having to leg it home.

The Cleric player missed all night, so the complaints about his at-will attack were a non-issue for us. The Wizard’s magic missile, that seemed so infinitely deadly in the earlier fights, was also a bit of a non-issue. He couldn’t reliably kill a goblin with one shot, and since I had the cowardly goblins take cover between shooting, he didn’t have a lot of second chances.

Because I wanted to try out the Short Rest/Healing Surge/Hit Dice rules, the players humored me and bandaged up after losing the goblins in the forest (an opposed check, if you’re keeping track). The cleric, who was at 1 hit point, gained back a whopping 2 hit points. The fighter, who was also close to zero, managed to get herself up to half by spending a Hit Die and getting a Cure Light from the cleric. All in all, it didn’t seem too over powered. They certainly didn’t feel like they were in any position to return to the fight, especially with the goblins out in force. It felt more like insurance against bad luck on the way home.

On the other hand, it’s a little disappointing to me to know that they will rest up for a night back in town and be up to full everything. They’re averaging one cave per 24 hour period, and at this rate I’ll have to rename the dungeon “Caves of Law Abiding Beastmen and Corpses” in about a week. :)

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June 5, 2012

5e D&D pushing sandbox play?

I played 5e again last Friday. The players ambushed a couple of Orc couriers carrying a wriggling bundle from their lair to somewhere else in the ravine. Once again the advantage/disadvantage rules shone, as we dealt with long range slinging, a wizard’s familiar hiding in dense undergrowth, and the PCs attacking enemies on higher ground.

The halfling rogue started things off by sneaking up the side of the ravine to cut the orcs off, and then smashing the skull of the one carrying the bundle with a lethal sling stone. The rest of the party and their kobold scouts (see last post) burst from cover and laid down missile fire, wounding the remaining orc, who yelled an alarm and ran. Just before he ducked out of sight, the Wizard’s magic missile caught him, and that was all she wrote.

The dwarf fighter slit open the bundle to find–not the captive dwarf or halfling she was expecting–but a captive goblin. As orc patrols began coming out to investigate the noise, the party retreated to the kobold cave and conducted a whispered interrogation. It turned out that the captive goblin was the son of the recently killed goblin chieftain, betrayed by his uncle to the orcs. The party agreed to take him back to his home where he claimed to have allies.

Fortunately, the guards at the cave entrance were sympathetic, although they were put off by the appearance of an Elf and Dwarf with their would-be chief. Unfortunately, a second goblin patrol aligned with the new chieftain came around a corner and attacked. The party quickly drove them off, although the Wizard had some scary moments when he was hit in rapid succession with two spears. Then the Fighter stepped in and killified the aggressors. The allied goblins, freaked out by the situation, ran one way, while the hostile survivors went in the other direction, shouting for their friends to “bring the Ogre!”.

It was a quick session, but Caves of Chaos is still bringing the Old School, and the new rule system is continuing to make me happy as a DM, and my Wizard player even happier. The Fighter and Rogue players seem content with their characters too. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare against the Ogre–or whatever else they decide to do. This playtest is definitely pushing the “sandbox” angle of play.

And that brings me to the title of this post. After reading the play test documents, I wasn’t sure whether WotC was giving lip service to sandbox play or if they intended to make it a design priority. Well after reading this article, there’s no doubt in my mind that this edition of the game is intended to support the sandbox.

Check out this quote, where the designer is talking about the new way characters increase in power:

DCs do not scale automatically with level, and instead a DC is left to represent the fixed value of the difficulty of some task, not the difficulty of the task relative to level.

That sounds a little sandboxy, right, where there are set difficulties that players can choose to tackle in any order? Well check out these snippets from the rest of the article:

Getting better at something means actually getting better at something. Since target numbers (DCs for checks, AC, and so on) and monster accuracy don’t scale with level, gaining a +1 bonus means you are actually 5% better at succeeding at that task, not simply hitting some basic competence level.

Nonspecialized characters can more easily participate in many scenes. While it’s true that increases in accuracy are real and tangible, it also means that characters can achieve a basic level of competence just through how players assign their ability bonuses.

The DM’s monster roster expands, never contracts. Although low-level characters probably don’t stack up well against higher-level monsters, thanks to the high hit points and high damage numbers of those monsters… the lower-level monsters continue to be useful to the DM, just in greater numbers.

Bounded accuracy makes it easier to DM and easier to adjudicate improvised scenes. After a short period of DMing, DMs should gain a clear sense of how to assign DCs to various tasks.

It opens up new possibilities of encounter and adventure design. A 1st-level character might not fight the black dragon… But if they rally the town [guard]… and whittle the dragon down with dozens of attacks instead of only four or five, the possibilities grow.

It is easier for players and DMs to understand the relative strength and difficulty of things. Under the bounded accuracy system, a DM can describe a hobgoblin wearing chainmail, and, no matter what the level of the characters, a player can reasonably guess that the hobgoblin’s AC is around 15;

It’s good for verisimilitude. The bounded accuracy system lets us perpetually associate difficulty numbers with certain tasks based on what they are in the world, without the need to constantly escalate the story behind those tasks.

The items are definitely a nod to complaints that in other editions, nothing really changes, just the DCs get harder for the same activities. I think it’s also great news that even if you’re not super-specialized, you’ll still be able to play a role in the success of your party. One of my favorite things about B/X D&D is how level the playing field is, in terms of talking, improvising solutions, etc.

The bit about improvising and adventure design–that’s music to my ears. One of the main joys of running B/X is not having to worry about level appropriate challenges, “precious encounter” design, or other complexity. And the example of the party rallying a bunch of militia to drive off the big monster, that’s right out of the “Combat as War” handbook that’s the default mode of the OSR.

And finally, the verisimilitude, which could also be called “consistent reality” and making it easier for players and DMs to judge it, that’s a corner stone of any kind of sandbox. Players need information, so they can make informed choices and maximize their agency.

tl;dr: w00t!

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May 26, 2012

I played 5e D&D tonight!

Like most of the nerdo-sphere, I signed up for the 5e D&D playtest (I ain’t calling it “D&D Next”, because then I’ll have to call the next edition “D&D Next 2″). And tonight I ran the adapted version of Caves of Chaos for some friends instead of painting miniatures.

Before I get into what I liked and didn’t like about the playtest, some bona fides. Everybody in the group has played or is still playing B/X D&D. One of the guys is an active player at Red Box Vancouver, one of the guys was a DM for RBV in the days when we had more players than we could handle, and two of the other players were not only active RBVers, but were with me when I ran Basic Fantasy way back in 2008 and first started on this whole retro-roleplaying thing.

Of the group, we’ve all played a metric ton of 3e. I’m not sure about the active RBVer, but me and the other DM dropped out of a 4e group after about 6 months and the other two players stayed in the 4e group for a few years–and they both still really like a lot about 4e. So we’re not all dyed in the wool OSR evangelists, but everyone is Old School Friendly at a bare minimum.

So… the playtest. We started our game right at the edge of the ravine, the halfling rogue (all characters are pre-gens) looked for and found a track leading to a cave hidden in the trees (no roll). He crept up to the cave, spied it out and was about to head back to the party when a gang of Kobolds threw a spear and dropped out of the trees to attack (he described peering at the cave entrance and trees for guards, but bombed a stat check to notice the hiding monsters).

The halfling won initiative and ran back to the party with the monsters in hot pursuit. He was narrowly missed by a rusty dagger hurled by one of the kobolds (ie dagger -2, hit him for 3 points of damage, but in 5e the text says that until you are below half hit points, you haven’t taken any physical damage). By then the rest of the party had come out of hiding.

The elf wizard fired, what else, magic missile (automatic hit, AD&D-style). The player, who is especially fond of playing Magic-Users in B/X, was thrilled that magic missiles are an unlimited “cantrip”. He was also pretty excited that wizards get three spells at first level, instead of the usual “Sleep or nothing” of 1st level B/X. The lead kobold dropped like a sack of potatoes. The wizard’s player was also very happy that 5e lets you split your move, so he could run within range, cast his spell, and withdraw to behind the safety of the fighting-types.

Next the dwarf fighter and human cleric attacked. The dwarf fighter fired his crossbow at a kobold, killing it. The cleric called on the power of Pelor and a radiant beam from heaven burned another kobold alive.

In subsequent rounds, the kobolds took a few hit points off the halfling before he was able to slip into the treeline and hide. Then he was able to dash out from cover and stab from behind, giving him “advantage”, which means you get to double your chances to hit. The dwarf went to town with his two-handed axe, and discovered that even when he misses, he does some damage with an ability called “close call”. The player seemed to like that a lot (she is a 4e fan and that mechanic is *very* 4e).

I don’t remember if the cleric used his radiant beam spell again–I think it may also be an unlimited orison, much like the wizard’s magic missile. I do remember that the wizard used his split move to go all Emperor Palpatine on some unlucky kobold (shocking grasp… total overkill, but a lot of fun).

In any case, the kobolds routed and were cut down as they ran, except for one that surrendered and was taken captive by the halfling. After much ridiculous roleplaying by yours truly, “Meepo” led the party into the cave where he promised to introduce them to the Kobold King.

Here’s where I should mention the “hook” for the adventure that I used, from a list of possible ways to interest the players in the dungeon. Although the adventure suggests several ways to introduce the dungeon, including the tried-and-true “there’s gold and monsters, what else do you need to know?”, I thought it would be more interesting if the players were tasked with opening diplomatic relations with the monsters, offering tribute from the nearby towns if they would leave off raiding.

Speaking of the adventure, it’s practically a love letter to the OSR. Not only is it an extremely faithful port of the Caves of Chaos, arguably the most influential dungeon ever written, but it specifically encourages sandbox play over plotted adventures, suggests parleying with monsters, the possibility of TPKs from reckless exploration, playing off factions against each other, etc. There’s also a lot of rules text devoted to the idea that the rules should get out of the way of running the game you want to play. The designers are definitely paying attention to the OSR blogs.

The players ended up sending the wizard’s familiar (a cat) to scout some of the kobold lair while they negotiated with the Kobold King, attended a meagre feast in their honor, impressed the yokels with a display of magic (Light + Mage Hand FTW!) and successfully negotiated an exchange of a promissory note for four scouts and the lowdown on “The Master”, some sort of necromancer who has united the tribes through fear of his power, plus information about a still simmering feud between two of the orc tribes that could be exploited.

It’s 1am and my kids are going to wake me up in six hours, so I’m going to end this with a couple of lists.

Winning:

  • Advantage/disadvantage rules: love this, along with…
  • Helping rules: finally, a way to meaningfully help another character!
  • Simple combat: splitting up your move made combat way more fluid, as did the absence of Opportunity Attacks and all that standard/minor/move/swift action hair-splitting.
Pretty cool
  • Stat checks: seemed like a nice compromise between old-school “roll under your stat” house rules and modern skill systems.

Meh

  • I wasn’t keen on the Close Calls fighter “I missed but still did damage” power. But then again the whole “I hit but since hit points are abstract didn’t hit (or maybe I did)” design is a muddle (albeit a beloved muddle), so I could change my mind.
  • Where are the Meatshields? No henchmen or hirelings. :(
  • No morale rules or reaction tables. The first seems like it would fit really well with the streamlined combat, the second with the emphasis on “interaction” as one of the three main pillars of play (Combat, Exploration and Interaction).
  • No wandering monsters. Not much resource management yet.

I’m really curious to see how the at-will wizard/cleric cantrips/orisons will play out. The players seem to love it, but I wonder if I’ll miss the game of resource management that is the Magic-User in B/X. Ditto for hit points and healing, the characters have a ton of hit points at first level (equal their Constitution score and then some). They also have the ability to recover some hit points if they rest right after a fight, which looks a lot like healing surges from 4e, but also reminds me of the very common “bandage yourself for 1-3 hit points” house rule in OSR games. Only it’s more like 1-8 hit points.

I haven’t looked at the characters much, but they seem to have 3e/AD&D style stat inflation (ie 4d6 drop 1). The players seem excited to be so much hardier. I’m curious to see if that will translate into their being “fool-hardier” or just invincible.

Stay tuned. We continue the playtest next week. :)

-cr0m

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May 21, 2012

The Metamorphica: A Book of Random Mutation Tables

As promised, the book is finally done!

This is a picture of the cover.

The Metamorphica is a very large system-agnostic collection of random mutation tables, for any table-top role-playing game. The digest-sized PAPERBACK VERSION is available from lulu.com for only US$6.66 plus shipping, but you can download the pdf version for free (either FROM LULU or FROM HERE for less hassle) from DriveThruRPG HERE.

How did this happen? Good question!

I was originally inspired to make this when I started using the old Realm of Chaos mutation tables while I was running old Red Box D&D. We had a lot of fun with mutagenic substances so I decided to make a much larger collection that included mutation ideas from a whole range of other role-playing games. Along the way I added a lot of new ones as well, and when it became too big to be a stapled booklet, I decided to add procedures for creating all sorts of monsters and mutants. And also to make it available as a printed book and not just a pdf.

The Metamorphica is system-agnostic, meaning there aren’t any rules in it per se: no attack bonuses, no hit points, and no task or conflict resolution systems. I intend to use this for more than just D&D, but making the book compatible with such disparate systems as Metamorphosis Alpha, Burning Wheel, Apocalypse World, and Diaspora would make it way too long, and take way too much time. You can just make up rules in play if you need them, that’s what I do. It’s really not that hard.

Art preview!

The Metamorphica was written by Johnstone Metzger and illustrated by Andrew Gillis, Nathan Jones, Johnstone Metzger, and Nathan Orlando Wilson. If you need to get in touch with anyone about this book, Red Box Vancouver (no spaces) has a standard gmail address that will accept your inquiries.

Also? It’s free!

Yes, this is (essentially) a free book. But if you would like to not-so-subtly encourage future products of a similar nature, or just buy me and/or the artists a drink by way of thanks, feel free to donate whatever you feel is appropriate. I will also happily accept pdfs, which you can send to the above-mentioned gmail address (the name of this blog, no spaces).

Or, if you would really like to do me a favour (warning, real-life bummer stuff follows):
I find the violence surrounding coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the economics of the electronics industry that encourage it, particularly concerning. Especially since this book would not have been possible without such electronics. However, I have neither the time nor the expertise to track down and properly vet charitable organizations working to solve this issue. If you know of one, and can make an adequate case as to their accountability and their work in the DRC, please let me know. If you don’t know any charities working in this area specifically, don’t worry about it, just enjoy the book. And if you are unaware of this issue, please look it up, the information is readily available. Thank you.

January 17, 2012

And these arrived as well…

ACKS original art by Ryan Browning

Shown with eraser, highlighter, and one of Blair’s old digest-sized Planet Algol booklets for scale.

January 7, 2012

Revenge of Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown

I received the actual physical books in the mail not too long ago. Aside from a few typos here and there, the art and layout is quite pleasing, but you have likely seen other peoples’ pictures of them already.

A couple of observations:

1.
Isle of the Unknown isn’t a fully-conceptualized setting, but Carcosa is. However, it’s a minimalist setting, with a fairly tight, singular premise around which the whole book revolves. And while I admire that, artistically, I actually prefer maximalism, when it’s done right (i.e. integrated maximalism, not pastiche overcrowdingism). Not that I think either book should be less minimalist and more maximalist, it’s just a personal preference I’ve noticed. Luckily for me, I don’t think either product is too weird to be easily incorporated as one layer of a maximalist setting.

2.
In the poster map, the races of men are colour-coded, which is interesting because there are three fictional colours on Carcosa.* While this adds to the book’s tone of otherworldly strangeness, it is also somewhat difficult to actually imagine and picture mentally. To take a couple examples from other sources, when I imagine garrow, I think it looks like both black and yellow simultaneously (not mixed together), and I think of Terry Pratchett’s octarine as looking similar, but with blue and orange, also simultaneously.

(*Never mind that adding one new primary colour actually results in at least five new colours, that’s something to take up with David Lindsay.)

On the Carcosa poster, Dolm Men are colour-coded with light blue and cream, Jale Men are coded with dark blue and red, and Ulfire Men are coded with cream and deep purple. But when I think of ulfire, I think of red, green, and white at the same time (this might be partly due to some bird that was covered in ulfire-coloured flames in one of Blair’s early Planet Algol reports). Jale and dolm, though… I’m not entirely sure. Sometimes I imagine dolm being a bit like olive green, and other times I can’t imagine what either of them looks like. Maybe jale is similar to yellow and pink and neon colours. I mean, sure, it’s “dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous,” but so is purple.

If there is just one fictional colour, then it’s easy to imagine, because every person’s different interpretation can stand without interfering with each other, as long as they imagine some kind of fictional, hitherto-unimagined colour. When you have to differentiate between fictional colours, that can start to get weird.

That’s not a criticism, just an observation. What do you imagine dolm, ulfire, and jale look like?

I do have some actual criticisms of the two books, though. There are a few things that could have made the books easier to use, at least for me.

1.
I think both maps could have benefited greatly from the addition of roads being marked. Even without them, Isle of the Unknown’s keyed map is pretty good, but Carcosa’s is slightly less so. The poster has a map keyed with the locations of rituals and Great Old Ones, but there is no map with settlements or the colours of the men that live in them. When the locations of certain colours of settlements—such as we find around the other lake (the one that isn’t Hali)—are mentioned as plot points in the hex descriptions, it would help to have this information in map format. Likewise, there is a mention of a trade route road winding around the icy wastes, but no indication of where this road is coming from or where it is going.

The political situation isn’t the most useful aspect of this information, however. Terrain, and especially roads, determines how fast characters can move across the map, and how fast characters can move across the map determines how much the DM has to prep between sessions in order to respond to the players’ choices. If there is a road that stretches across three hexes, on either Carcosa or the Isle, it’s entirely possible that the PCs could travel the whole way in a single day, walking from dawn to dusk. Without having roads on the map, the DM basically needs to prep three hexes away from the PC’s present location in every direction, in order to get an idea of where to even place roads. It seems to me that adding even just major roads is not much additional work when all major settlements are already plotted out, which is the case for both books, and some hex descriptions even mention roads, which is at least the case for Carcosa.

Being able to see the roads helps to envision the possibilities of PC movement, which makes the DM’s job easier.

2.
Any hint of motivation or personality is missing from most of the magic-users and clerics in Isle of the Unknown. They are treated simply like monsters—if you want to kill them, all the problems you’ll face and the lack of rewards you’ll receive (in most cases) are listed, but not much else. It makes me wonder why anybody would want to interact with these characters in the first place. Even a little bit of information would have been useful, evocative, and inspirational—the way threats are summarized in Apocalypse World, for example. Describing a warlord’s personality with “Dictator (impulse: to control)” or the character of a landscape with “Maze (impulse: to trap, to frustrate passage)” goes a long way with a short amount of text.

While Carcosa has numerous settlements with motivation-less leaders and populations listed, there are also many characters who do have goals, connections to other parts of the map, and even some small semblance of personality. It would have been nice to have a little bit of that in Isle of the Unknown as well, though it’s by no means a dealbreaker. And while I think including something like the Carcosan Ethnography supplemental material in the book itself would have been fantastic, so that DMs can just randomly generate genre-appropriate population details and character motivations, it’s good enough without it that I’m not really upset.

3.
Similarly, there are a few occasions in both books where the material is essentially a tableau to be presented to the players, with little opportunity for them to interact successfully with it, or to use it in combination with other setting elements. When the text describes something the PCs can see but never do anything with, when some magical effect can only happen once in one location by accident, or when the benefits of braving obscene risks turns out to be a measly +1, I’m a little underwhelmed. I much prefer the part of Carcosa’s premise that includes finding a giant laser cannon and deciding to kill Cthulhu with it. Especially if it doesn’t work because you used up all the charges destroying castles and fortresses that asked you to pay tithes for safe passage, and now you’re facing Cthulhu with no ammo and no castles or fortresses to hide in. There’s slightly less of that in Isle of the Unknown, but both books should have had a little more, in my opinion.

Those are all relatively minor concerns, though. Overall, I think the good things everybody says about these two books are pretty accurate.

December 17, 2011

Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown

In case you are unaware of these two titles, they are a pair of books written by Geoffrey McKinney and published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Naturally, I picked them up and have been perusing the pdfs of late. I have an earlier version of Carcosa, but am very pleased with this new edition, while Isle of the Unknown is completely new. They are both old-school D&D hex-crawl campaigns, although Carcosa has a certain amount of premise and theme built into it. There is some controversy about this, which I have no interest in and do not want to know your opinion of.

Instead, I have a completely different problem. In a word, my problem is: Blair.

You may know Blair as the guy with the Planet Algol blog, as a local Vancouver gamer, or as a regular Vancouver Red Box player and DM (or all three). He’s the one who got me to check out McKinney’s Carcosa in the first place, so it’s no surprise he’s had it longer and read more of it than I have. He’ll no doubt get this new version as well, which means running it for him may lack a litle bit of surprise and mystery. I can assume he’ll be likely to pick up Isle of the Unknown too, if he can stop himself from spending too much money on obscure black/death/doom metal LPs that can double as DM screens. So, while he won’t be memorizing either book in their entirety, if I were to run either of them straight, some of that “unknown” would be slightly less so. Like when I decided to run Tower of the Stargazer without knowing he’d read it already.

Don’t get me wrong, I like having Blair running and playing RBV games, but this is another one of those awkward points of overlap in our collections. The rest of the Red Box crew might have some interest in McKinney’s works, but are more likely to ask Blair or I to DM them than they are to buy and read them. It’s just that I’ll need to modify them somewhat in order to bring back the uncertainty and suspense lost by Blair’s familiarity with them (or at least Carcosa), which unfortunately can sometimes be as much work as making up a new setting from scratch.

However! The books themselves offer up an interesting suggestion for circumventing this awkwardness, in the simple fact that they both use the same numbered hex template.

The obvious solution is just to run both of them. At the same time.

That’s a McKinney Combo Platter, kids. You might remember what’s in this hex on Carcosa, and you might remember what’s in this hex on the Isle of the Unknown, but you have no idea what will happen when worlds collide.

November 20, 2011

What I Have Learned from Random Mutation Tables

Here is a lesson I have learned from using random mutation tables in D&D. I normally use the old Realms of Chaos books for mutations, and usually it’s because characters come into contact with a mutagenic substance like warpstone or liquid derived from it.

First, let me define a term: All fiction, including role-playing games are composed of certain elements: characters, setting, props, and situation. Props are things that are important to the story but aren’t characterized, and aren’t just part of the setting. Right? Mostly, I’m ‘a talk about props here.

One of my main joys in being a DM is putting the players into a strange situation, with a whole bunch of moving parts they can interact with, and seeing them invent solutions to their problems that I would never have thought of in a million years. When you introduce a puzzle, the payoff is pretty minimal, because either the players figure out the solution you’ve already devised, or they don’t and there’s failure and disappointment. But when there’s no set solution, you can be surprised and have to improvise. This is one reason why I like random tables as well, and certainly other DMs will agree. I know Tavis Allison has written a post or two about improvising based on random tables.

However, random tables are a means to encourage improvisation on the DM’s side. What I want to discuss here is improv on the players’ side, and one of the key ways to do this is to introduce complicated props.

In a typical D&D game, your average treasure haul will include mostly coins and swords +1. The problem with these is that the only thing coins actually do is buy stuff, and the only thing a weapon or armour +1 does is change the probabilities of your dice rolls. Having a magic weapon or not might make the difference between fighting a certain creature or running away, but it’s a pretty minimal encouragement to creative problem-solving.

Props that Do a Thing

Better is a prop that does a specific thing: A sword that glows when goblins are near, a staff that casts cure light wounds, a sword that bursts into flames. Now you have a prop that does a thing, and the player’s options just increased by one (and a very visible option, too).

Sometimes, doing a thing can put extra work on a DM, though. Take an example from Playing D&D with Pornstars: Snakes are Books. The one disadvantage to this prop is that whenever the players read a snake, they look at the DM and ask “what does it say?” If you don’t have a random table for book subjects, that can be a lot of stuff to think up. There’s a magic spell from Postmodern Magick (the Unknown Armies supplement) that lets you read any book you know of, just by opening any other book. It’s pretty cool, as long as you don’t have to sit there inventing books and texts for hours on end to entertain the players. But if you have some really awesome random book tables (or a really cool library), this is dope.

In essence, though, these are props that create more props. They get your character access to information, which hopefully leads to some sort of action, because the action is where the game is really at. I want to see how the players combine the various props and spells and stuff that they have, and create some sort of plan. Especially when it involves props I introduced, and the players use them in some way that totally surprises me. And a sword +1 is never going to do that. What will? Let’s think of some examples…

Ring of Protection
Your average ring of protection +1 gives you a slightly better armour class. Whoop-de-doo. How about a Ring of the Untouchable? Whoever wears this ring cannot be touched by another living being, or by that beings clothes. This is an effective mosquito repellant, and it protects against viruses and bacteria that are not already infecting the wearer. Other creatures cannot touch the wearer, even if they are wearing metal gauntlets. Natural attacks, such as claws or bite, have no effect. The wearer cannot be pushed around, unless the pusher uses a tool. Weapons still have full effect, even lassos. Whatever the wearer is wearing or carrying is also affected, so it defeats pickpockets as well. The wearer can be touched by the undead, and by demons and other extra-planar entities.

Sword +1, +3 versus Gnocchi
This sword may or may not give a bonus to hit and damage. However, it hates all gnolls and gnomes and anything else whose name begins with a gn-, even Pietro Gnocchi. Anytime it hits one of these creatures, the wielder may immediately make another attack against anything close enough to hit. If the wielder chooses not to make an attack, he must quench the blade’s thirst with his own blood. Even a small amount will do, but he must take 1 point of damage.

Stonecutter
This sword does not actually cut through stone, it’s blade just ignores all non-organic material. It can pass through stone, metal, fabric, dirt etc. as if it were not even there. Stonecutter ignores AC bonuses from metal armour, but not leather, and can attack through doors and walls that are thin enough. Keeping it in a scabbard can be a problem, although the hilt of the sword does not share the properties of the blade. The hilt can be strapped to a belt and will not pass through walls, doors, or armour.

Potion of Mutation
If you drink it, you gain a random mutation! Actually, this is a lot like the snake-books, in that it’s a prop that makes new props. Instead of, say, a book that tells you how to kill trolls, it gives you, say, a third arm which ends in a giant lobster pincer. Good thing I have some random mutation tables!

That was pretty rambly, but I’ve got stuff to do so there it is.

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