Dangerous Ground

Combat in D&D and its various descendants is abstract for the most part, making it fast (well, except in 3E) and easy to run, and thus pretty fun to play. So how about using abstraction to introduce dangerous battlefield conditions into a fight?

The Idea

While some battlefields may be perfectly safe to fight in, one can expect many fights, given where they occur and the genre in which they exist, to be fought in dangerous spaces. The floor could be slippery, there could be a fire pit in the middle of it, the roof could be caving in – just use your imagination.

flashVbarinActually staging a combat in such a dangerous space can be tricky, though, because the combat rules are abstract. You can use a battle grid and miniatures, but sometimes they are feasible, or you just don’t want the bother.

One way to get around this is to extend the abstraction of combat – Armor Class, hit points, etc. – to the ground itself.

As the Referee, you pick a number from 1 to 20. This is the unlucky number. When this number is rolled during combat – attack rolls or damage rolls – the roller of the number suffers an effect tied to the battlefield.

For example – the room in which a fight is taking place has a fire pit in the middle of it. The pit is about 2 feet deep and there are hot coals in the bottom of it. The Referee decides a roll of ’10’ (unmodified by anything) means somebody has stepped into the pit and burned themselves for 1d4 points of damage. He also decides this damage cannot reduce them to less than 1 hit point, and that the unlucky combatant must pass a saving throw or suffer a penalty to movement for an hour due to twisting an ankle or burning a foot.

Now – this is key – it is probably a good idea to let players know what the unlucky number is, and what can happen (in general terms) when it is rolled. Why? I’ll let Alfred Hitchcock explain:

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

When the players know the unlucky number, every dang roll has some tension packed into it. You know how everybody stared with wide eyes and holds their breath when somebody has to roll a crucial saving throw or attack? You can bring a little of that to every roll during one of these fights, but only if people know the unlucky number.

A few things to consider if you decide to use this notion:

If the unlucky number is low, it means it has a more likely chance of coming up, since both attack rolls (1d20) and damage rolls (d4, d6, d8 etc.) can trigger it. If you want the effect to be more rare, make the number higher than 10.

Higher numbers also mean success can be tinged with failure; lower numbers can rub salt in the wound of missing an attack.

You can have multiple unlucky numbers. In the example above, the roof might also be in danger of caving in, so a ’10’ means stepping in the fire pit and a ’17’ means roof tiles fall on a person for 1d4 damage.

The effect can also be a time track. Using the “roof falling in” example above, each roll of ’17’ can bring the roof closer to collapsing entirely on the people in the room. Maybe it takes 3 such rolls before it happens. This introduces some great tension into the fight, and requires players to gamble a bit every time they roll the dice.

You could, maybe even should, permit people a way to avoid these unlucky numbers. Maybe they have to reduce their movement rate or accept a penalty to attack.

Whatever the unlucky number, carry the attack and damage roll through completely before the dice roller suffers the consequences. In other words, if the attack roll brings up the unlucky number AND scores a hit, the hit counts and damage is rolled before the unlucky attacker burns himself, slips, etc.

One could also use this to simulate the danger of engaging giant monsters, with a chance of being stepped on or knocked into or of a randomly flailing tail connecting for damage.

 

JMS-BLACK

 

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Libraries Made Easy

AncientlibraryalexLibraries are a common trope in fantasy art, literature, etc. The old wizard hunched over books amid a sea of books. In fantasy games, though, they leave something to be desired. They can always be used as a backdrop, of course – just window dressing – but I think it’s more satisfying to make them worth their while.

In the past, I’ve tried to detail specific books found in a library. You come up with some cute, old-fashioned title, and maybe decide what important tidbits of knowledge are to found within it, but again – mostly unsatisfying. Not an extreme amount of utility, and often they turn out not to be that useful. The book is written on an equipment list where it is forgotten.

With this system, you can get a general idea of the utility of a library with a small bit of identifying text – less than a monster’s stat block. You might still want to get fancy with book titles, and of course you will still want to describe the sights, sounds and smells of the thing to the adventurers, but at least the utility of the library will be concise and easy to remember.

Library Size

This is the first element of a library – the size. Based on the size of the library, adventurers can get a bonus to answering questions in various subjects. The size of the library also determines how long it takes to find those answers.

Here are the library sizes:

Size Description Bonus Time
Tiny Travel size +5 1d6 minutes
Small Bookshelf +10 1d6 turns
Medium Room of books – a sage’s library +15 1d6 hours
Large Several rooms – a wizard’s library +20 1d6 days
Huge Library at Alexandria +25 2d6 days

There the basic library set up. All the reference text required when you write a dungeon chamber or a city or whatever is “Small Library”.

Note that bonus here is given as a bonus on a d20 roll (and I know, it looks huge at the moment, but read on). For percentile systems, multiply by 5 (+1 = +5%). If you normally roll d6 for skill checks you’ll have to be creative.

Tiny libraries only give you one chance to find information to help answer a question. Larger libraries grant people multiple chances: 2 chances for a small library, 3 for medium, 4 for large and 5 for huge. Each time, one must roll for how long the research takes. One could, therefore, spend up to 60 days researching in a huge library and still not find the answer to their question.

Subjects

While there are many subjects a real library could cover, fantasy adventurers usually have questions that we can bundle into five subjects. For a general library, divide the library’s bonus evenly among the five subjects. A tiny library, then, would grant a +1 bonus to answering questions in each of the five subjects, where a huge library would grant a +5 bonus.

Libraries can also specialize, dividing their total bonus up between the different subjects as you see fit. To do this, you add a parenthetical to the library’s size thus: Medium library (A5, H1, L5, N3, T1). The letter corresponds to a subject and the number corresponds to the bonus.

Subject Basic Advanced
Arcana (A) Spell components, correspondences and general effects of spells and magic items Actual spell research, activation words for magic items, true names of demons
Healing (H) Non-magic diseases and poisons Magic diseases and poisons, other magical effects like petrification
Lore (L) Recorded history of the “material plane”, legends and folklore of the same Lore from primordial times, lore from other planes of existence
Nature (N) Abilities and vulnerabilities of creatures from the material plane (e.g. wolves, owlbears, halflings) Abilities and vulnerabilities of creatures from other planes of existence (e.g. demons, devils, elementals)
Travel (T) Geography of the material plane – how to get from point A to point B and what to expect along the way Same, but for other planes of existence and time travel; also existence of magic portals and how to use them

Subjects are divided into basic and advanced categories. For a basic category, use the library’s full bonus for that subject. For advanced, use half that bonus (rounding down).

Fleshing It Out

This scheme gives you a basic “stat block” for a library. There is, of course, so much more you can do with these things:

1) Describe the thing – the leather of the books, the smell of the paper, the dust, the disorder (if the library is really disordered, double or triple the time it takes to answer questions), the wood of the shelves, the tile floor, the librarian giving you the stink eye when you walk into his library in bloody platemail, etc.

2) Definitely describe the librarian if there is one. If the library is large enough, the librarian should be fleshed out as a full NPC since one might interact with them more than once. A good librarian might become an ally or enemy, or at least an adventure hook.

3) The library could present particular dangers or challenges. Maybe it is so old that each time you use it the overall bonus (or a specific bonus) is reduced by one, or is reduced by one if you fail a save or dexterity check. Maybe there are traps and thus a % chance of stumbling into them (‘15% chance of book avalanche when studying nature’ or ‘rot grubs infest the arcana books’). Maybe the library consists of engraved basalt tablets in a cave at the base of a volcano, with seams of lava between them – the bonuses are tripled, but the research involves jumping over red hot lava that can kill you.

JMS-BLACK

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Yes, But …

treasure-chest11It’s been a long slog through a dangerous wilderness and then a devilish dungeon. Henchmen have died, PC’s have bled, but in the end, Law triumphed over Chaos (with an assist by Neutrality) and the dragon is dead.

Yes, but …

The PC’s have “won” the game. They’ve completed the adventure. They’re done. Or are they? Since the name of the game is adventure, the end of a particular adventure can be a temporary thing. I draw to your attention Mr. Edgar Rice Burroughs and his planetary romance set on Barsoom. If you haven’t read about old John Carter and his incomparable princess, you should, and in between the Martian sight-seeing you might also pay attention to how ERB paces the books and ends them, at least how he ends the first one because it’s a great way to run adventures.

220px-Princess_of_Mars_largeIn A Princess of Mars, every success by John Carter is a doorway to a new challenge that must be faced (and must be faced NOW!). Once John Carter gets used to the red planet, it’s pretty nonstop action – challenge followed by resolution followed by complication or new challenge, etc. When the book finally ends, the adventure does not. Like all of us wide-eyed kids who saw Han frozen in carbonite and Luke get a rough lesson about his family tree, readers of the first Barsoom novel are left hanging, waiting for the next installment.

The Notion

Almost every success in the game drives the adventurers to a new challenge, and the end of each “module” leads directly into the next for at least three “modules”. After every three, the adventurers have a chance to rest.

The idea here is not a story-driven piece, in which the players are led by the nose. The players can always choose to give up. They just have to face the consequences. They intrude on a dungeon and decide not to face the dragon – fine – but the dragon is now awake and cranky and everyone for 100 miles is suffering for it.

Moreover, when they kill the dragon, a new challenge arises from that now moldering corpse. Think about some of the classic module series of AD&D and how they linked – you finish the slavers in the under city, but now you’re led to their stockade to strike another blow against their evil.

When you design your adventures, think about how to turn one adventure into a trilogy (or how to break a mega-adventure into a trilogy of smaller adventures).

This might involve:

  1. Foreshadowing the trilogy in its first two stages – not in ham-handed way, but in such a way that as new things are revealed, the players get that light bulb moment and start making connections. It might make sense to make sure the players know there’s more in store. If the group is heading off to deal with some kobolds in the woods, an old man in the tavern might mention that he thinks the kobolds are being put up to it by the weird cult in the hills. Another might scoff and say something like, “Oh, I suppose next you’ll tell us the dragon beyond the mountains is causing the drought.” Now they know there’s more out there than just some kobolds in a 1st level dungeon.
  2. When you write the adventures, figure out how they link together, and how each is a separate adventure in its own right. Give the players bite-size chunks – bring the courses of the adventure meal out one at a time rather than all at once. The best way to do this is to make the end of one the beginning of the next one. Each adventure needs a beginning (“You all meet in a tavern …”) a middle (the delve) and an end (“… you open the treasure chest and find …”). The end holds the key to the next beginning, “… but as you fill your packs with treasure, the ground shakes and the giant diamond falls into a crevice … it looks like there’s another dungeon below the one you’ve just conquered.”)
  3. The big idea here is about transitions from one state of play to another. You might think about this in terms of PC level. The trilogy that drives PC’s from 1st through 3rd level will be different from the one that drives them from 4th to 6th level. When the PC’s move from the “basic” levels to the “expert” levels, they leave who they were behind in some ways and must enter a larger, more complex and more dangerous world. The old game had this in mind with the idea of hitting name level and building strongholds – the old life of wandering adventurer would end, and the new life of settled ruler begins. In play, this was also a transition from RPG to wargame.
  4. alternatefuturesHere’s where consequences come into play. In our own lives, there are moments where we have to choose about moving forward – say from childhood to adulthood. We can choose not to, but there are consequences. Choosing to reject adulthood does not mean the world of your childhood lives on. Things still change, and often not for the better. When the players choose to ignore that next challenge, the campaign world they inhabit changes because of their choice. This doesn’t have to be a severe change designed to force them into tackling the next adventure, but it should involve loss and a noticeable change. If in the end the players decide not to follow up, they have to live in the world they’ve created and you can embark on a new trilogy. They just have to accept that the campaign world is different and move on.

Just a notion – do with it as you will.

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Downtime and Special Guest Heroes [Notion]

Yesterday, I had an idea about how one could model a magic-user taking time off from adventuring to research spells or make magic items. It occurred to me that the mechanic could also be used to balance adventurers belonging to organizations. Here’s the idea in a nutshell:

Magic-users should be able to get a palpable advantage from researching spells and making magic items. In the “real world”, we have to make trade offs in terms of time – you can study to become a doctor, or to become a lawyer, for example, but probably not at the same time. If you choose one pursuit, you miss out on another.

“You’ll have to slay the dragon without me, I’m busy.”

In games, this can be tricky. You can declare that the spell research will take a month of time, which is a month the magic-user cannot spend adventuring … but so what. The group merely schedules their next adventure for one month from now (in game time) and they go on their merry way.

Of course, this can be an obstacle in the course of some games, when the group has a limited amount of time to crack a code or stop an invasion. More often, it’s no obstacle at all – perhaps some money that must be spent for room and board, and nothing else.

Here’s an idea for how you can model this without entirely disrupting the game.

Downtime for Research and Development

Say our resident magic-user, Merlyn, wants to research the invisibility spell. The GM can decide that this will take Merlyn away from adventuring for, say, two game sessions. That means two meetings of the players to play the game. No XP or treasure for Merlyn while he’s busy hunched over dusty tomes learning how to become invisible.

In the meantime, the party hosts a special guest hero, an NPC magic-user one level lower than Merlyn controlled by Merlyn’s player. This guest wizard does not earn XP, but does get a normal share of the treasure. Each time Merlyn needs to take a break, the guest wizard can step in, always one level lower than Merlyn.

We have now to come up with a schedule for downtime required for various magical operations. Maybe something like:

Researching 1st to 4th level spells – 1 session
Researching 5th to 7th level spells – 2 sessions
Researching 8th to 9th level spells – 3 sessions

Scribing up to three scrolls or brewing up to 5 potions – 1 session
Making most magical items, including armor – 2 sessions
Making magic weapons – 3 sessions

You can use whatever schedule you think is correct.

Other classes that need to train might use a similar schedule. You could allow a fighter or monk, for example, to sit out for a couple sessions so they can learn some new special maneuver.

Downtime for Organizations

This brings up another time commitment – organizations. Clerics are supposed, in some campaigns, to belong to large temple organizations from which they should draw some advantages. The temple should provide some healing, maybe needed equipment or information, etc. To keep this from being an extra ability of clerics that other characters do not enjoy, it can be balanced by the cleric having to take time off from adventuring to serve the temple in other matters. Depending on how useful the organization is, a PC might have to take one of every ten sessions off or one of every six sessions off or whatever off to meet their obligations. The PC gets a benefit, and pays for it by missing a session now and again.

Downtime for Rest and Recuperation

The same mechanic can also be used to model recuperation time, say from a nasty disease or if you are using old AD&D healing rules from damage sustained in combat. The PC misses a session to heal up while a guest steps in to substitute for them.

Fringe Benefit

The fringe benefit from using this mechanic is that you develop ready NPC characters who can step in to become PCs when an existing PC dies. If Pauline the Wizardess has subbed for Merlyn several times, she can become the party’s new magic-user when Merlyn is eaten by a dragon.

New Spells and a Way to Use Them

New magic-user spells – fun to create, but hard to get into a game. After all, a magic-user only has so many spells he can cram into a spellbook, and when it comes time to choose, the average magic-user is going to go for the most useful, and thus usually the most standard, spells in the game. Detect evil might be boring, but it sure is useful.

Since I was inventing a bunch of new spells yesterday, I also went to the trouble of inventing a way magic-users can actually use them. It’s a highly complex set of rules …

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… that are actually not complex at all, and very simple. I call it Quasi-Spell Research

With an hour’s meditation, a magic-user can prepare any magic-user spell permitted by the Referee. The magic-user must have an open “spell slot” for the spell to do this. Once a spell has been prepared in this way, it can never be prepared with quasi-spell research again. It can, at some point, be learned and added to the magic-user’s spell book in the normal way, but not using this method. The magic-user also cannot use quasi-spell research to acquire a spell for making a magic item – she cannot use it to scribe a scroll, brew a potion, etc.

Since we have a rules lite way of accessing all sorts of new spells, how about a few new spells?

Black Sun (Necromancy)
Level: Anti-Cleric 3, Magic-User 3
Area of Effect: 120′ radius
Duration: 1 minute per level

Sunlight in the area of effect becomes gray and wan. It does not harm creatures normally harmed by sunlight, such as vampires.

Fantastic Transformation (Transmutation)
Level: Magic-User 9
Range: Touch
Duration: 10 minutes

This spell requires three subjects plus the caster. All four participants must be holding hands. Upon casting the spell, a bolt of cosmic energy erupts from the spell caster’s hands and travels through the subjects. When it ceases, all four participants in the spell are transformed. The subject with the highest strength score gains the benefit of the stoneskin spell. The subject with the highest dexterity score gains the benefit of the fire shield spell. The subject with the highest wisdom gains the benefits of the improved invisibility spell. The subject with the highest intelligence score takes in the properties of an ooze. If one subject qualifies for more than one of these transformations, they choose which one they want, and the runner-up then takes on one of the other transformations. All transformations last for 10 minutes and then cease.

Freak Out (Illusion)
Level: Magic-User 5
Range: 30′
Duration: See text

You may target all creatures within 30 feet of you with waves of psychedelic weirdness. Creature with 0 to 4 HD are confused for 1 minute. Creatures with 5 to 9 HD begin dancing around like crazy beatniks for 4 rounds and are fatigued for 10 minutes. Creatures with 10 or more HD are stunned for 1 round while they ponder the cosmos, man (and engines that run on water, man – water!), and then fatigued for 10 minutes from the heavy thinking.

Light Fantastic (Evocation)
Level: Magic-User 3
Range: See text
Duration: 1 hour

A beam of light departs the magic-user’s fingertip and proceeds in a direction chosen, bouncing off of solid objects as it goes generally in the direction determined by the caster. The light beam extends for a maximum of 90′ and lasts for one hour, suspended in the area cast. Any creature stepping through this beam of light must pass a saving throw or fall prone on the floor, having tripped (over) the light fantastic.

Melt (Transmutation)
Level: Magic-User 8
Range: 90′
Duration: 10 minutes

For ten minutes, the landscape and all inanimate objects around you seem to melt and bend. They become porous and strange. Walls can be walked through with a d20 roll under a character’s Wisdom score, and creatures can walk on walls and ceilings as though they were the floor. Weapons deal only 1 point of damage (plus strength modifier), and rigid objects become flexible. Everything in the landscape changes color into a brilliant, psychedelic pallet, including living creatures. After the spell ends, all sentient creatures must pass a saving throw or be sickened for 1d6 rounds. Creatures who are sickened must also pass a save or suffer 1d6 points of Wisdom damage.

Mystic Fire of Phango (Evocation)
Level: Magic-User 4
Range: 30′
Duration: Instantaneous

The mystic fire reaches out from the spell caster’s fingertips, like hands of liquid white flame, to caress the skull of the target. The spell attempts to erase from the mind of the target their three highest level spells that are also of a level the spell caster can cast. Thus, a 7th level magic-user could erase spells no higher than 4th from a target’s mind.

If the target’s highest vulnerable spells number more than three, then each spell is nominated by the target in turn and the spell caster decides if they wish to target that spell.

For each of the three to be erased, the target can choose to release the spell from their mind, or suffer 1d6 + spell level points of damage to their synapses and retain the spell. Thus, retaining an 8th level spell would inflict 1d6+8 points of damage to the target.

Recharge (Evocation)
Level: Magic-User 3
Range: Touch
Duration: Instantaneous

The magician uses their own body as a battery to recharge a wand or staff. For every point of Constitution damage or every 1d6 points of hit point damage they are willing to accept, they add 1 charge to a wand or staff.

Silky Smooth (Necromancy)
Level: Magic-User 1
Range: Touch
Duration: See below

At the magician’s touch, the victim loses all of their hair or fur, being left with silky smooth skin. Creatures without hair are unaffected.

Sinister Suspicion (Illusion)
Level: Magic-User 2
Range: 120′
Duration: 24 hours

The target of this spell scans as evil (Chaotic) to detect evil spells for 24 hours.

Sun Shower (Evocation)
Level: Cleric 3
Range: 240′
Duration: 1 round

Particles of light shower down on an area 40′ x 40′ x 40′. Creatures harmed by sunlight suffer 3d10 points of damage (no saving throw) in the affected area.

Supercharge (Evocation)
Level: Magic-User 4
Range: Touch
Duration: Instantaneous

The magician supercharges a wand. On its next use (and only its next use), the wand can expend two charges to cast its spell at either double the range, double the duration or increased damage. Damage is increased by +1 point of damage per dice of damage it normally inflicts. Thus, a three dice lightning bolt would do 3d6+3 points of damage if cast from a supercharged wand.

Transmute Skin to Tongue (Necromancy)
Level: Magic-User 7
Range: 30′
Duration: 1 hour

This bizarre curse changes a creature’s skin to the texture and color of a tongue. Their skin now tastes whatever it touches, a highly disconcerting sensation that requires a saving throw each turn to avoid becoming sickened (for sentient creatures) or frightened (for non-sentient creatures). Creatures without a skin (oozes, energy creatures) are unaffected. The affected creature’s appearance is likewise disconcerting to others, who must pass a save to avoid reacting with revulsion.

Transmute Sound to Light (Illusion)
Level: Magic-User 4
Area of Effect: 30′ radius
Duration: 1 minute

This spell converts all sound in the area of effect into light. The form of the light depends on the sound; singing, for example, might produce a lovely light show, while arguing would cast a harsh reddish light on the area.

Battles, in particular, create a vivid, violent strobe effect, with each clash of arms producing a flash of light. The effect is disorienting, and each creature in the area must pass a saving throw to avoid becoming dizzy (-1 to AC, -1 to hit, each miss in combat by 4 or more points resulting in the attacker falling prone). The dizziness ends when one leaves the area, for outside the area one hears the sounds and does not see the lights.

Dig Deep

You never know what will inspire an idea, and this one came from watching an episode of Father Knows Best before driving to work. In this particular episode, good old dad tells Bud to use his charm when trying to apologize/ask out a girl. Now, Bud was already in the position of apologizing to the girl because of his so-called “charm”, so the interchange got me thinking about the value of putting extra effort behind a task.

In games, we often have characters making skill or ability checks of some kind, assuming they are putting forth their best effort to accomplish the task at hand. Maybe they are … but I suppose we’ve all been in the situation of “coasting” by on things we’re good at, or even of not trying all that hard to do something we know we’re bad at. There are times, though, when something must be done, and so we focus just a bit harder on success. In terms of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts strips, it looks something like this:

That tongue sticking out means Charlie Brown is digging deep and putting all his effort into it. So, how do you do this in a game?

The simplest way is to give the players a once a session or even “once per day” chance to really focus on a task or saving throw or maybe even an attack. For attacks and saving throws, you might give a +1 bonus, while for skill and ability checks, a +2 or +10% bonus. You could also just allow a single re-roll on a failed try at something.

So – what does this extra effort cost?

Maybe nothing. I’ve heard some supposed experts speak on the subject of will power, forwarding the idea that we all have it, but in limited supply. This “extra effort” bonus could just be a free gift to the players.

You could also make it a trade off. Maybe putting forth extra effort involves becoming fatigued for a period of time – say an hour. You could even split mental fatigue from physical fatigue.

If the group is touchy-feely, perhaps the player has to share an episode in his or her past in which they had to dig deep to do something, or in which they goofed off and really screwed up.

If you want to get really nasty, make players spend a few XP for that extra effort – not a huge amount of XP, of course, but maybe 10 or 25 points.

Oh – and make the player stick their tongue out of the side of their mouth while they’re rolling the dice. That I insist on!

What are Powerful Friends For?

Answer: To get you in trouble!

Quick post today on a trope not uncommon in fantasy fiction, but which doesn’t see much use in gaming (at least, not that I’ve seen). Allow me to paint a picture for you …

A powerful wizard appears before a startled group of people and declares that seven of them must at once come with him on an errand of terrible importance. Seven step forward, and once they have grabbed what gear they can, they set off from their safe home and into the wilderness. With the wizard’s help, they overcome their first challenge, a small army sent by the Adversary to stop them, but must then part ways with the powerful wizard and sally forth alone.

High and mid levels in the back, low levels in the front, please

You’ve certainly seen something like this if you’ve read your Tolkien, and I’m sure in other places as well. In game terms, a high level character partners with several low level characters, gets them started on an adventure, and then leaves them to their own devices.

In games, the adventurers are usually the same level (or close to it), and the accompaniment of a much more powerful NPC under the Referee’s control would appear to be a colossal mistake. In fact, it would be if that powerful NPC was to follow along for an entire adventure, getting everyone out of scrapes and leaving little for them to do. As the adventure-starter, though, there are possibilities.

For one thing, the instigator, as we’ll call them, can fill the players in on the background of the adventure – the whos and wheres and wherefores.

For another, their presence for the first big challenge of the game permits the Referee to make it a whopper – something epic and un-survivable without the instigator. For a long term campaign, this can be an early shot in the arm of XP for the low level adventurers, to help them on their way. More importantly, it is a way to immerse the players into the setting and the quest in a dramatic way.

Finally, when the instigator leaves, the players will find themselves in a position similar to the conquistadors of Cortes. The adventurers might not be able to turn back, and so they must go forward. The challenges they face from this point on are a bit more keyed to their abilities (though some will be deadly if they are not handled properly), but they will always remember the instigator and their first taste of dangerous adventure.

Secret Ability Scores – My Goofy Idea of the Day

Of course he has an 18 charisma – just ask Juanita and Thelma Lou

I was recently thinking about self-awareness. How many people have you known who were not nearly as charismatic or intelligent as they thought they were? Their failings seem obvious, but are blissfully unaware of them. I thought that this might offer a fun and interesting way for veteran players to liven up their old games.

In most fantasy games, characters have ability scores. These scores are rolled by the player and known to the player. This knowledge plays a role in the player’s choice of their character’s class or career, and it influences their actions in the game.

But what if players did not know their character’s ability scores? Might make for an interesting game, no?

(Or maybe a complete disaster)

It all hinges, to use Blood & Treasure as an example, on wisdom. Wisdom deals with awareness, not only of one’s surroundings, but of oneself. A character with even average wisdom should be able to gauge how intelligent and charismatic they are … and how wise they are. The wise man knows what he knows not, so to speak. Characters with low wisdom, on the other hand, assume natural abilities they do not actually have. If wisdom is low enough, they may even be unaware of their physical limitations. A foolish man can talk himself into anything, after all.

Here’s the idea – a player rolls his or her ability scores with their eyes closed. The GM writes them down. If you’re rolling ability scores in order, all the better. If not, the player can decide which score gets the highest roll, then the next highest, and so on. There will be some clues if you’re doing it this way, but no system is perfect.

In all cases, the player does not know his or her character’s wisdom score unless it is 13 or higher. If lower than 13, roll a dice – on a 1-3 they think it’s average and on a 4-6 they think it is high.

If the character’s Wisdom score is 13 or higher, the player gets to know all of her ability scores.

If the character’s Wisdom score is 9 or higher, the player gets to know his physical ability scores and either his intelligence or charisma score (his choice). The mystery score is believed to be high.

If the character’s Wisdom score is 6 to 8, they get to know their physical ability scores, but not their mental scores. You just tell them that their intelligence and charisma are high and leave it at that, regardless of the actual score.

If the character’s Wisdom score is 3 to 5, they don’t know any of their ability scores, but are simply told that they are all high, again, regardless of the actual scores.

Now, this creates a certain difficulty, as classes often have ability score requirements for entry. You could tell the player that their character, who they think has a high intelligence, cannot cut it as a magic-user, of course, but then the player should know they have an intelligence lower than 9.

I can think of a couple ways to go with this:

1) If they pick a class for which they cannot qualify, they instead become a wash-out and end up as a fighter or thief (assuming they can qualify for those classes). They might still act like a wizard or priest, but they won’t be and they’ll know it and probably resent the hell out of those who actually did enter the class of their choice.

2) Another way to go is to permit them entry into the class with lower scores, and apply an XP penalty to their advancement. Maybe a -10% for every score that isn’t up to muster. These are characters who try really hard, but it takes them forever to get the hang of things.

The idea here is to produce Barney Fifes in your game – characters who have to get in over their heads a few times before they slowly figure out their limitations. Characters who insist they should try to decipher the magic rune because they have the highest intelligence, even though their intelligence is actually a ‘6’. Characters who bumble and stumble a bit, just like we do in real life.

Monstrous One-Liners

Have you ever had a half-ass idea for a monster – just a description and a few ideas for special abilities, or maybe even just a picture – and wanted to use it without having to come up with all the other stats right then and there?

Today, I was jotting down some ideas for monsters at work and I thought up a way to do simple, one line monster descriptions and only one stat – a monster level – that ties into a random chart that determines the combat stats when you need them.

Monsters have levels that run from 1 to 10. The monster’s level determines the dice you roll for its combat stats.

The combat stats are then rolled on this chart. You could do one roll and use all the stats for that line, or roll for each stat – whatever you want. Treat a roll that is less than zero as zero.

Two notes:

*Damage for first attack; second and third attacks are 1 level lower; third and fourth attacks are 2 levels lower

**Movement is slow (S), normal (N), quick (Q) and rapid (R) – use your best judgment for what these mean in your preferred version of the grand old game

Finally – some monster one-liners (with a quick sketch of the killa-bot).

Killa-Bot, the murderous automaton; 4th level; electro-touch (1d6), resist electricity, maniacal laughter (confusion)

Befouler, the drooling eye orb; 8th level; rust ray, acid ray (1d6), disease ray, rot ray (ruins food and water)

Mindbender, worms out to conquer the world; 3rd level; appear as normal neckware, control mind with their touch, magic resistance 15%

Tar-Bull, bovine made of flaming tar; 5th level; fire body (1d6 damage), foul smoke (save or blinded), charge for x3 damage

Mercury Ape, violet violent primate with force arms; 3rd level; constrict with arms (x2 damage), resist all energies, immune to mind effects

So the adventurers run into two of mercury apes while exploring a dungeon. The DM rolls d6-1 five times and discovers they have 2 HD, AC 13, 2 attacks for 1d6 damage and they are slow. She can now make a note of this for the next battle, or even roll over again the next time mercury apes show up.

The Wages of Fame

William Tell

I’ve seen a few systems in games for measuring the reputation or fame of adventurers. They make sense, to some extent – folks spending their kind of money and killing monsters the way they do should be pretty well known in a campaign area. But should they? And how? And what do they get from it? And why am I asking so many questions? Huh?

Here’s an idea for handling fame without adding too much in the way of rules or complications. It might suck, but here it is anyways.

Accumulating Fame

How do people become famous in a medieval milieu? For the purposes of D&D and similar games, it makes sense to tie fame to deeds. Hey, if Bob jumps over a cow at the local faire, people in the village will know that Bob is famous for jumping. They’ll tell others, and maybe for several villages around Bob will be known as “the jumper”. So it goes with adventurers.

Since fame is tied to deeds, it also makes sense that fame is tied to XP. XP are handed out for deeds, therefore XP equals fame.

Or does it?

In our example above, everyone saw Bob jump over the cow. If Bob had done it without witnesses, and just claimed to have jumped over a cow, he might have become known as Bob the Liar rather than Bob the Jumper. So, in this system, XP only turn into fame when the deeds that generated the XP are either witnessed by the public at large, or can be proved. If you want to use this system, you’ll need to put a second XP number in parentheses after the normal XP number.

You accumulate these “fame XP” by doing things in front of people, or you need to spend or display the treasure you looted, and you need to bring back trophies (at least one really good one, the gorier the better) to show that you defeated monsters or black knights or wizards. If you do these things, you count those XP towards your fame level.

Since we have a separate “fame XP”, we also have a separate “fame level”. For simplicity’s sake, use the Fighter’s XP progression in your game as the Fame XP progression.

Fame levels are as follows:

The Upside of Fame

So, what do these fame levels get you?

First level fame is worth nothing.

From 2nd level onward, they enjoy the following benefits:

1) They have a percent chance of drinking for free and picking up interesting rumors in taverns

2) They have a percent chance of getting an invite to dine with notables equal to their fame level, the chance depending on the size of the settlement

3) You can employ an extra number of henchmen equal to your fame level, and their base loyalty is increased by a number of percentage points equal to your fame level

4) You can request audiences with princes, kings, emperors, high priests, etc. You have half this chance of requesting a boon in exchange for a favor, and a percent chance equal to your fame level of requesting a boon in exchange for nothing

The Downside of Fame

Fame has a downside as well. When you enter an area, your fame might proceed you. You can cut the chances of being recognized by wearing a disguise and using a different name, but lose the benefits of fame (see above) if you do so. Here’s a twist – if you are moving in a group and not everyone in the group is disguised, your chances of being noticed are increased by 5% per undisguised person.

If you are recognized, one of the following happens:

Challenges: You will be challenged to a duel (magical or martial) or test of skill by other notables in the area. This will be public. Losing these challenges actually reduces your fame XP level by as much as it would have increased if you had won.

Quests: If you are neutral or lawful (good), and there’s trouble afoot, you will be asked to handle it. If people have been kidnapped or there are monster’s raiding the area, you are expected to solve it. If you refuse, you lose enough XP to take you down a fame level. You suffer the same consequences if you fail at the quest.

Justice: If you are chaotic (evil), you are set upon by the authorities in the area, or bounty hunters or people you wronged in the past. In other words, being famous and evil means being hunted.

For this reason, characters might discover that fame is a double-edged sword.

Death

Nobody wants to die, but dying famous is probably better than dying unknown for an adventurer. When a character dies, the following happens:

6% chance per fame level of a folk song being composed in their honor

4% chance per fame level of a biography being written about them

2% chance per fame level of a monument being erected where they died or a civilized place nearby

For clerics, druids and paladins, there is a 1% chance of them being canonized

Now, total these honors received. This is the percent chance (thus, maximum 4%) that upon death they are received by “the gods” into their company as a quasi-deity. They can still be used as PC’s, with powers deemed suitable by the DM, but only in the company of other quasi-deities or demi-deities and the like. Congratulations!