You can play an elf thief-mage in BX/BECMI now: still decoupling races and classes

My post on separating races and classes in B/X and BECMI lacked elves. Here they are:

Elf

  • Maximum level: 10
  • Experience modifier: +2000 XP for first level, keep proportions afterwards (so an elf thief-mage would level at 3200, 6400, etc).
  • Hit dice: reduce 1 step (d8->d6->d4, where it stops, go to d3 hit dice if you really hate elvish thieves or mages)
  • Infravision: 60 feet
  • +2 to saving throws
  • can cast spells like a mage of the same level, gaining access to them the same way (starting with a book). Spellcasting is allowed in armours or using shields if the class chosen allows to use them.
  • Detect hidden or secret doors rolling 1 or 2 on 1d6 (for D6 Thieving: +1 to find secret doors)
  • Languages: Common, Elvish, Orc, Hobgoblin, Gnoll.

Obviously the first elf rolled by a player turns out being an elf magic-user: that means two spellbooks, two spells at first level (one for being a MU, another for being an elf) plus an additional spell due to our high intelligence house rule.

You can play a dwarf cleric in BX/BECMI now: decoupling race and class

At my table we play something Mosleysh and personally I really enjoy the archetypal demihumans, but sometimes a player wants to play, say, a thief-mage.

My answer was “we’ll whip up a new class, as a hybrid of thief and mage”, then I slapped a tag on it saying “3200 XP to make level two”.

The thing bugged me a bit as a dirty solution. As I said I like the Mosley classes but the BECMI demihuman spellcaster rules I find a bit… lacking.

Anyway, the same weekend we came up with the 1d6 thieving skills system we also worked on separating race and class, while keeping full compatibility (except a couple of minor glitches and other things we changed on purpose). Here’s the modifiers for dwarves and halflings (already working for D6 thieving), elves are here:

Dwarf

  • Maximum level: 12
  • Experience modifier: +200 XP for first level, keep proportions afterwards.
  • Can’t use long bows or two handed swords.
  • Infravision: 60 feet
  • +5 to saving throws
  • Stonetelling: detect slanting passages, traps, shifting walls and new constructions rolling 1 or 2 on 1d6 (for D6 Thieving: +1 to find traps and secret doors)
  • Languages: Common, Dwarvish, Gnomish, Kobold, Goblin.

Halfling

  • Maximum level: 8
  • Experience modifier: none
  • Hit dice: reduce 1 step (d8->d6->d4, where it stops, go to d3 hit dice if you really hate halfling thieves or mages)
  • Can’t use longbows or two handed swords (for BECMI, keep to small weapons).
  • +1 to hit with missile weapons
  • -2 to armor class when attacked by greater than man-sized creatures
  • +1 to individual initiative
  • +5 to saving throws
  • Hiding: if quiet and still 90% outside,  1 or 2 on 1d6 inside (for D6 Thieving: +1 to hiding with an additional +4 if outside if keeping quiet and still)

Morlock Tinkers

Somehow a morlock joined my players’ party. Yay for we playing a mix of gonzo and serious fantasy! :)

But I found the original morlocks did not fit the role I wanted them to play in my world. This is how Sham describes them:

Morlocks(N-C): AC 5 Move 9 HD 1+1 Once tech-advanced time-travelers, now lost devolved species of cannibalistic subterranean men. Covered with pale fur, they are extremely sensitive to bright light. Able to slink silently and track foes. Wield clubs and spears. Favorite dish is pickled Mole-Man.

Right, we have a race of “fallen” chrononauts to mod. This is more or less what happened:

  1. Misread the monster entry and notice just 5 months later when you’re blogging about it. They used to travel in time, not space. Well, so wha’? :D
  2. The party stumbles in the workshop full of morlocks in the first level of the Dismal Depths, after stumbling in countless pieces of odd and deadly machinery.  One of them notices the party and gets charmed to stop raising the alarm. Come up with name: Ugub, come up with a number of gimmicks for the race (because everybody’s weird):
    1. Keep the cannibalism, change aspect to pink skin with sparse white bristles (think of a pig, or of a kinda glabrous mouse lab), give them coloured overalls with pockets full of tools. Thin frame, like an elf, but about 1 meter tall. Long prehensile ratlike tail. Basically a rat-elf-space-midget, wielding spanners their height as two handed weapons.
    2. Goggles, as they need them. No, wait, make the goggles glow a soft yellow from the inside.
    3. push the weird even further: during the dungeon crawl Ugub takes the goggles off and shows that morlock eyes are bright as lanterns and can illuminate the room.
    4. Morlock hands have about 20-30 fingers. Lots of them come out of strange places (like wrists, back of the hands, other fingers…).
  3. This was all fine but I made the error of make a humanoid alien. Humanoids are not alien. Well, District 9 crabs are alienish, but erect posture, bilateral symmetry, 2 walking and 2 manipulating limbs arranged the human way make aliens too similar to humans to my tastes. Epic fail for me. Time to compensate with some behavioural and cultural weirdness.
    1. Ugub takes travel notes about lots of mundane stuff because everything’s alien to him. And he makes strange questions. He’s an alien engineer after all.
    2. Whenever morlocks speak in common about anything not from the non-local world put the “space-” prefix before it. Space-worms, space-ship, etc. Ugub even referred to his long-time-lost home planet as “space-planet”.
    3. Playing an alien alienation is another meta-tool that can be used, for example, to highlight societal structures and mores belonging to the game world, such as feudalism and marriage being very similar in their oppression of personal freedoms, or how odd is that PCs don’t see anything wrong in being a roving band of murderers and tomb raiders but have problems with killing kids. Or simply that they don’t eat the corpses of their comrades, because “saving your corpse for your friends’ next lunch is the best gift you could do to them”. See, alien. An alien is alien to you.
  4. Laser weapons! Pewpewpewpew! And gimmicks!
  5. Morlock’s space-ship crashlanded generations ago and, due to problems evident to anyone who ever tried design-by-committee, didn’t manage to rebuild one. One that worked, at least. Only a morlock of great leadership will be able to stop this stupid design practices and lead everybody back to space-planet.
    1. Here’s your morlock tinker endgame: reach level 14, build a sonic screwdriver, put together a research lab, gather a project-team with the best morlock tinkers, spend a heckton of money into the project and, over 10 years (same time BECM advices for elven flying ships and dwarven undeground vessels, less if many research labs are parallelized) you’re ready to take off and “win the game”.
    2. Or use the thing to bomb the f*ck out of cities from low orbit if they don’t recognize you as their overlord. Orbital insertions are always fun.

This improv-session took maybe 5 minutes, while the PCs were making friends with Ugub.

Last bit I needed to put together were the actual game mechanics…

Awesome Spells: Charm Person

I’m a big fan of Charme Person. Like, big time. For the following reasons:

  1. It allows the mage to play puppeteer with somebody. Awesome. This spell so wins. Plus it presents the mage interesting problems (“should I just make him die? kill him myself? let him go back? keep on charming him every day?”). Plus, in feeding megalomaniac urges is second to just Fireball: free minions are both tricky and awesome.
  2. Because it is truly a spell with a huge range of uses. It can be used to turn the tides of a battle, to get information, to get some slack from people like guards, teachers, bankers, bartenders, shopkeepers, wenches, tax inspectors and so on. Especially if the PCs are somewhere they’re not going to stick around when charme will wear off.
  3. There’s a great chance people met somewhere can be very knowledgeable about their whereabouts. Doubly so in confined places like dungeons. Having the charmed act as a guide while keeping him away from trouble is something the charmed might appreciate, in retrospect, and if played smart can hardly be against the subject alignment. Even just asking “how the heck do we get out of here?” can save the party’s bacon.
  4. Charming an NPC allows PCs to peek “behind the scenes” and learn tidbits about your setting without going out of character. This is a meta-tool that can be used either to showoff your effort, highlight or foreshadow something important that you want to make sure players notice (possibly because they didn’t get it the fist time around) or to provide closure for some events players have been puzzling about. Be careful while using meta-tools as they’re very powerful and with great powers blah blah blah.
  5. It allows forces me to create NPCs on the fly, and I totally love that. NPCs and exploration are what make me want to run games, doubly so if I have to come up with mad stuff on the fly.
  6. It’s just first level. It lasts days. It’s probably going to last more than the charmed individual… :)
  7. When it wears off, problems might happen. An entire generation learnt to hate Bargle because of two spells, and one was this.
  8. An evil/chaotic NPC will probably propose and be willing to do extremely dirty work for his master. Torture, thieving, murder, prostitution, slavery, racket…

As a house rule, I make the spell permanent if the save is failed with a 1. It happened in my sandbox, and it’s been great fun to have Wolf (a ruthless bandit leader with alcohol and lotus problems) hang around with the party. He would suggest to do things most other PCs would not be ready to do or to even suggest (except the Cthulhu cleric, but that’s a topic for another post).

Something else that happened is that while my players were exploring Sham‘s Dismal Depths: Bowser the medium (played by my cousin Andrea) charmed a morlock to keep him from raising the alarm. Ugub the Morlock was used as a guide, the party keeping him safe from harm and, when they were going to leave the dungeon, Bowser even paid him and let him go back to his workshop. When the spell ended Ugub (reaction roll… high enough) realized that the magic-user treated him better than his taskmaster, left his workplace with a bag full of tools and rejoined the party. This is the reason why we now have playable morlock tinkers… :)

How I learnt not to suck at running games

I remember my first RPG session: I ran S. Andre’s Amulet of the Salkti for a bunch of classmates in primary school. It tanked: as I was basically the only one that was up for running games I didn’t have much to learn from so I kept on tanking for years, improving slowly. After a while I learnt that with what we would now call hexcrawls peppered with published adventures players enjoyed more (and allowed me to sneak in locations and plots if I felt inspired or simply rolled up something myself).

Fast forward a few years, there’s a single piece of writing that changed the way I run games: Roleplaying Tips’ Session Checklist (second part here).

Go. Read both parts. Come back.

Ok, it’s not that mind shattering. But I realized three things:

First: I had a list I just needed to fill in to have enjoyable sessions.The first adventure I ran with this was a campaign reboot (why the campaign needed a reboot is a nice topic for another post) and the players were glowing. It almost never happened before. The following adventures were the same. Maybe it works for me because I just needed a “metagaming crutch” to make my games better: perhaps with more significant encounters, maybe because it’s focused towards the game user model.

Second: my left-sided brain realized that a GM is at the same time a content creator, an entertainer and an MC. GMs have to put adventure materials together, make a nice session out of them and keep the evening enjoyable and with a nice rhythm. Players have great responsibilities and RPGs are no democracy, but instant recall is always an option.

Third: you can’t get better than content created specifically for players. Sure, engaging all the PCs is good (I see it as a failure if it doesn’t happen) but I feel that engaging  and entertaining all the players is the holy grail of RPGs (and downright impossible with a new group). Forget about deep plots, coherent settings, verosimile NPCs if players want gonzo sandboxes filled with ducks and flumph civilizations.

User Experience is King.

retreat? not really

My players still have to perfect the notion of backing off when things turn sour. By “perfect” I mean “realize it exists as an option and not only is doable but oftentime necessary”: they just go forward like badasses, plowing into whathever is between them and what they’re looking for.

Actually they just hate losing PCs and oftentimes behave in case of loss (“ah, I’m dead so I’ll just roll another crappy PC so i can ruin your game because your game sucks nag nag nag”) in a way that is quite lame. I’m the first to take the blame as, for a number of reasons, in the big d20 campaign I’ve run for them a raise dead was just a big bag of gold away. But the GM that ran games for them after I stopped was much worse in this respect (every encounter was against a Mary Sue, thus nonsensically deadly, unless the GM decided the plot was ripe for a given Mary to be killed by our heroes).

Anyway, last thursday 2 retainers and 1 companion (it’s a PC’s “favourite” and most trusted retainer) died, and another left because he felt it was getting too risky. This happened because they were in a narrow valley and didn’t want to pay the toll asked by a stone giant. At level four. And when the battle turned really bad, they didn’t try to retreat, parlay, beg, buy their freedom, anything.

And this afternoon, while the whole party backed off after a skirmish with a 10 headed hydra hiding in a thicket, the dwarven fighter decided to charge ahead. Here we go, another fine hero ready for the halls of the Bearded Forefathers.

I’m not really above ringing the TPK bell should they deserve it, but heck if it’s annoying. I guess it’s going to happen soon. The bad part of it as that the above quote is not distant from the truth (can’t remember it exactly but that was the point driven by the nagging player). The problem is that I want to give everybody fun and a nice experience and TPK, unless it’s totally dramatic and cool, is the worst closure ever (still, at times better than no closure at all).

Most probably they didn’t get the fact that encounters are NOT tailored to their level: if dice say “4 stone giants in their lair” and the party goes straight towards it after noticing that actually the lair was a crude fortification across a narrow valley, they deserved what they got.

1D6 Thieving

This is the first post of a serie on thieving skills for Dungeons & Dragons. The rules are not meant for a specific edition but can be easily used for anything pre-d20.

This weekend I got to hang out with my cousin Andrea and we went over a number of “rules” we always meant to tweak for our D&D sessions but we never got around to.

Anyway, percentile chances for thieving skills never really satisfied me for a number of reasons:

  • they’re the only percentile rolls players do
  • they start abysmally low (except for climb walls) and grow very slowly
  • other aspects of the system are handled with a d6 roll

I personally find this kind of roll very “clean”: grab the “easy” die and see if you roll a 1, more if you’re “special” (dwarf, elf or thief searching for secret doors for example). Also I really liked AD&D way to increase the skills by allocating 30 points every thief level. So we decided to move them to be d6 based and increased by allocation. The problem with that is that going beyond 5-in-6 is tricky and both puts the mental strain on the GM to set difficulty modifiers and it allows for scarce granularity, especially in the critical 83% to 100% percent. So we opted for some kind of “exploding die” mechanic: say, if you have 8, you actually have (5+3). This means that if you roll the first die and fail you can roll another die and succeed with 3 or less. Really high skills such as 12 are noted as (5+5+2), allowing to roll a third die if thing go bad… but since thieves get 2 pips every level after the first die the incentives to focus that much on a skill are very low (unless it’s climb walls, because failing that really means “you die, chump”). Difficulty is handled by changing the skill level (a wall easy to climb would give +1, bringing a skill of 5 to 5+1, for example).

The last bit has been integrating in the new system things such as the halfling hiding abilities (2-in-6, +3 to skill outside) and pontificating about a broader skill system. I like this so much I’d probably use it even for hit rolls and saving throws but “we wouldn’t be in D&D-land anymore”, or something like that. Anything to keep players from moaning.

Anyway, here’s the writeup:

Each thief spent most of hist time training particular skills, and can allocate 10 points at character generation on the following skills, plus 2 points for every level gained:

  • pick locks
  • find and remove traps
  • climb walls (starts at 3)
  • move silently
  • hide in shadows
  • pick pockets
  • hear noises (starts at 1)
  • find secret doors (starts at 1)
  • read languages
  • backstab (not a normal skill: it increases the normal +2 bonus characters have while attacking from behind. In case the attacker was undetected and the attack hits damage is doubled)

Other unusual skills can be learnt from sources found during the game, such as secretive guilds and forgotten tomes (refer to your DM):

  • appraise
  • use magic items (failure implies a probably disastrous mishap. Scrolls with mage spells have no difficulty modifier, anything else has at least a -5 modifier).
  • use poison (again, failure probably means the thief got poisoned)

To determine if the skill has been used succesfully it is necessary to roll less or equal to the skill with 1d6, with 6 being a failure.

Skill of more than 5 make possible to roll more than 1 die: subsequent rolls subtract 5 from the skill for every die (so the second roll is against skill -5, the third against skill -10 and so on). It’s useful to mark skill levels greater than 5 already split in “rolls”: for example 7 as 5+2 and 11 as 5+5+1.

EDIT: more skills here.

Sandboxes, pacing, improvisation and expectations: part 1

I’m going to deconstruct a bit the process I use to build a sandbox, starting from last session. It will take a number of posts because there are plenty of things to write about.

All the posts in the serie here.

This is what happened last session, in about four-five hours:

  • after meeting a basilisk last session, they’re left with a couple of statues of people from their huge menagerie of henchmen, followers and fanboys.
  • so they decide to go and get some trees up the mountains (they’re in a rocky desert/badland type area by some less desertic mountains where actually trees happen to grow).
  • they go up and they kinda totally stumble in a giant rattlesnake. Ms Wyslosky, the badassest fighting-person of the party (follower of one of the two wizards) gets bitten three times before dispatching the reptile. Then fails three saves out of three and die horribly.
  • they manage to make a raft to bring the statues (and themselves) to the nearest city. I forgot to mention to you, reader, that there is a canyon in the desert with a river at the bottom. I also forgot to mention that they’ve never seen any boat on it. On the way some of them fall off the raft (rapids, aha) but they manage not to die or to lose anything except a copied spellbook due to water damage.
  • then they meet a bunch of naiads. Somehow the reaction roll is stupidly high so the nixies are friendly and don’t enslave all of them, instead the leader (Lily) introduces them to their which-queen, which returns the statues to meatyness. Since they can’t pay the queen asks somebody to be left there in slavery: they talk one of their henchmen (an ex-petrified halfling) to hang out with tens of hot water-nymphs. I foresee death by snu-snu for chubby here. Party begs the queen for informations about who could resurrect their friend, which tells them about someone in the desert, the entrance of his place sealed by a stone slab with complex engravings in some forgotten language, and another guy living way upstream by the river, up in the mountains, guarding a mausoleum all by itself by a ruined tower (the word “mausoleum” evokes bad memories to my players). They decide for the latter as the which mention the former is way more inhospitable, but she still thinks that they will get no help.
  • they get back to the Unís, the big merchant city, and don’t find anybody to raise their companion. Duh, magic is banned there, unless you’re a Templar. Templars are a cross between civil servants, secret services and commando troops rolled into one badass corp that hang out in a castle on top of a craig by the city harbour, and they bow just to the Queen. The Queen of Unís has been on the throne for hundreds of years and doesn’t really appear in public. None of the PCs are templars (in this campaign), so no special ju-ju fo them, but they find an experienced mercenary that accepts to go with them (for twice the normal pay).
  • They start walking upstream and meet a flying wizard. After another awesome reaction roll it turns out that, yes, the wizard is actually looking for apprentices and tells the pc the location of his tower before flying away.
  • going upstream they reach a waterfall, try to give a look behind it but don’t manage to due to the strength of the river.
  • they are ambushed by a bunch of grunge elves. No, not those from HackMaster, just grungy elves. Fight is hard but the party overcome the challenge and manage to find their treehouse due to a lucky charme person. And Loot was had.

All of this hauling around the body of the fallen in a barrel full of brine.

Now, 10 encounters in 5 hours. None of this was planned. They all enjoyed. Most things were rolled on the fly using the expert box or Kellri’s netbook or based upon existing knowledge.

I have to go and continue the session now. Next post will be about expectations.

Scrolls, Identification and Magic

Lack of sensible magic creation rules always appalled me in D&D. Possibly because I tend to play magic users and possibly because the difficulty and investment needed to create magic items doesn’t really match up with the relative abundance of it in the standard D&D game.

Same for magic item identification: the only way to identify magic items in BECMI is the slate of identification found in the companion handbook (can’t tell about B/X as i don’t have the cyan box).

Anyway, I decided to mix Holmes Read Magic and normal Identify in a new spell:

Unveil Arcana – level 1 MU, level 1 CL

Range: 1′

Casting time: 1 turn

Duration: instantaneous

The magic user will properly identify and understand one unknown function of a magic item:

For scrolls and spell books: similar to Read Magic, but will identify just a single spell of all the unknown spells present in the scroll or spellbook.

For other magic items: the weakest unknown function of the object will be identified first.

Regarding magic item creation, I’ve made up my mind about spells and potions:

Spell Scribing

A spell-caster can scribe a known spell into a scroll. The process will cost 100 mo and a week per spell level in rare ingredients. No other item production, adventuring or spell research can be done by the caster.

Potion Brewing

A spell-caster can brew a potion that when imbibed will have the effect of a spell that the caster can cast. The process will cost 300 mo and seven days per spell level in rare ingredients. It’s necessary to peruse a laboratory worth at least 5000 mo per spell level. No other item production, adventuring or spell research can be done by the caster.