Thursday, March 26, 2020

Rejection


Just cleaning/organizing the office today...something I've been meaning to do for about, oh, ten years or so. And I ran across these old rejection letters from Paizo (Dungeon Magazine):


There's no date on these rejection slips, but the cover letter of the submissions have my old address and the documents aren't even on my old laptop (which I got in 2007? Maybe). These must have been something I put together circa 2004 or 2005. Probably the former, as I quit playing 3E sometime around 2005, if I remember correctly.

Looking over the docs, it's tough to pinpoint a reason they were rejected (other than, I suppose, my writing being even worse than it is at present). Too trite? I don't know: one's a high-level "side trek" adventure consisting of a single, vicious encounter (CR 19); the other's a 1st level NPC that could be either an ally or an opponent, depending on a party's reaction.

Wow...what an abomination 3E was: the stat block for the monster was three pages (given Paizo's requested format for submissions), including "show the work" sections to ensure the stat block was put together correctly. Ugh. Gross. Plus another page explaining tactics for fighting, 3E style. The whole side trek is ten pages long including background, description, dungeon (the map is a single page), development and scaling for different party levels.

Jeez. Compare that to the adventure scenario I wrote to include with Five Ancient Kingdoms: twelve pages in A5 format, including multiple maps and encounters. Yeah, my writing is more succinct, but really it's just a lot less of a slog to write/design adventure scenarios for pre-2K D&D.

In my opinion, of course.

I'm going to try to put together an adventure or two for fun and/or purchase. It's been a little tough to find time to write with my kids at home (they need the computer for their "remote learning" lessons, and when they're not studying they want me to play with them; *sigh*), but my cleaning/organizing has unearthed at least a handful of "treasures" in the form of maps/adventures. Hopefully it won't be too hard to adapt and stuff them in a publishable format. Hopefully.

I'll keep y'all posted.

[by the way, in case folks hadn't heard, Gary Con XII is going to be a virtual thing this weekend; check it out if you're jonesing for a game!]

Monday, March 23, 2020

Magic Physics

Push is a wretched spell. And not simply because it's totally "weak sauce" as an offensive choice for the starting, first level magic-user (compared to, say, sleep or the dual-purpose light spell). No, it is wretched because of the way it's written, in game terms, especially when compared to other spells of similar effect.

[oh, hi! Remember me? Yes, still alive here at in plague-ridden Seattle. Currently a couple dudes of Eastern European persuasion are working on fixing my dryer while the family sleeps away upstairs]

Yesterday, I spent far too long on researching joules and newtons and physics calculations to figure out the correspondent scale between the push spell and the 5th level magic-user spell telekinesis. Just so I don't have to go through all that again, I'm going to write it up here for edification of interested parties. Because the phrase

"Heavy objects travelling [sic] at high speed can be deadly weapons!"
 - PHB, page 82

isn't especially helpful in and of itself. How heavy? What speed? How many hit points of damage? And how does it compare to push, which simply exerts one foot-pound of energy, per level of the caster?

Let's start with telekinesis: the spell moves 25 pounds of weight, per level of the magic-user. As would be expected from a fifth level spell, control is much more precise than for the push spell, and while the caster must concentrate to control the object being moved, the duration only lasts for two rounds plus one additional round per level. Speed starts at 2" (20 feet) per round, and then doubles with each successive round until a maximum of 1024" (10240 feet) in the tenth round. As magic-users first gain the ability to cast a fifth level spell (like telekinesis) at 9th level, I can see that at minimum the caster will be able to accelerate 225 pounds to the maximum speed by the tenth minute of concentration, and maintain control at that speed for one additional minute (each round being one minute in length).

Joules are the measure of kinetic energy and is a unit found by multiplying half an object's mass by its velocity squared in terms of meters per second (m/s). Assuming gravity in our D&D setting is the same as real world Earth, 225 pounds is equivalent to 102.058kg. Converting D&D "inches" (tens of feet) per round to miles per hour...and thence to m/s...we can calculate the telekinetic velocity over time as follows:

1st round: 0.1016 m/s
2nd round: 0.2032 m/s
3rd round: 0.4064 m/s
4th round: 0.8128 m/s
5th round: 1.6256 m/s
6th round: 3.2512 m/s
7th round: 6.5024 m/s
8th round: 13.0048 m/s
9th round: 26.0096 m/s
10th+ round: 52.0192 m/s

[for my American readers, that's a bit more than 116 miles per hour at maximum velocity]

Here's a good web site for calculating kinetic energy (in joules). Suffice is to say that a 9th level magic-user using telekinesis uses about half a joule in the first minute and quickly ramps up, generating a bit more than 8 joules after three rounds, 33 joules after four, and nearly 135 by the round five. At maximum velocity, that 225 pounds is using over 138 thousand joules of kinetic energy.

Meanwhile, the same 9th level magic-user using push generates only nine foot-pounds of kinetic energy (one foot-pound per level): a little more than 12 joules of kinetic energy.

Or does it? Let's take a closer look.

"Of course, the mass of [the target] cannot exceed the force of the push by more than a factor of 50, i.e. a 1st level magic-user cannot effectively push a creature weighing more than 50 pounds."
 - PHB, page 68

Okay, just because it drives me crazy, I'm going to go ahead and convert Gygax's pounds to kilograms (because you measure mass in kg, not pounds). If we're going to say that a 1st level magic-user can move 22.6796kg a single foot by means of the push spell, and that this is a single foot-pound of kinetic energy, then working backwards we can discover that the "instantaneous" duration found in spells like push can be measured in actual time as .8814 seconds.

[the PHB states "instantaneous" means a spell "lasts only a brief moment." Strange fact: did you know that a moment was once an actual unit of time, roughly calculated to be 90 seconds? The things you discover...]

Now we look at the 9th level magic-user using push to exert nine foot-pounds of kinetic energy (12.2024 joules) with the spell. Knowing the time, distance, and KE we can determine the mass that can be moved a single foot in .8814 seconds as 204.092kg. Converting that to the maximum amount of weight that can be pushed we see it's (roughly) 449.95 pounds. Pretty close to 50 pounds per level (which is what the text implies).

But what if my 9th level sorcerer wanted to push 175 pounds instead of 450...say, the weight of an average human male (DMG page 102)? How about 60 pounds, average weight of a male halfling? Well we can see the velocity created by the kinetic energy will change in these cases: specifically to 0.55448 m/s (for the human) and 0.946955 m/s (for the halfling). Knowing this, we can calculate the human will be pushed with enough force to travel more than two feet, while the halfling will be pushed three and a half. Judging by how far I can knock my 60 pound child in play, I exert more foot-pounds of force than this.

Now, if the sorcerer launched a dart (.5 pounds; equivalent of .2268 kg) from a flat surface (say, the palm of her hand) it would travel about 39 feet...nearly the same distance as the weapon's long range. Would a magically impelled dart lose velocity over distance like a thrown dart? Yeah, probably (since the initial impetus of force is at the place the dart is initially resting). But, still, that's kind of a neat trick.

Not as neat as magic missile, of course, which shoots five unerring darts at 9th level. Probably not even as effective as simply throwing three darts per round (with no chance of being "interrupted"). Yeah, I guess it's not really neat at all.

Push is just a wretched spell. It's the equivalent of a cantrip. I want my first level spells (my first level offensive spells certainly!) to be effective attacks. As written, it should be a defensive spell seeing as how a target ends up with a penalty to its attack roll. If it fails its save. If.

Personally, I'd prefer something that really shoves something...smashes targets against walls or flings them over cliffs. Right now, this spell is just a nudge. And that's not good enough.

I'll talk about the detritus that is gust of wind another day.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Addendum to "Staycation"

As I wrote yesterday, my son's friend Caro enjoyed her time playing D&D and expressed serious interest in becoming a dungeon master (much like Diego's other friend, Nicholas, she almost immediately attempted to add to the narrative when we started playing. The kids call this "improving"). This time, I decided to actively encourage this desire by offering to let her borrow my extra copy of Moldvay's basic rules.

I should probably note that nine year old Caro is, like my son, a voracious reader. In fact, from what I understand she is the best reader in their class (my son, never one for modesty, offers himself as the clear #2). Not only that, she is a writer: she finished her first novella (more like three short stories, joined by theme) just recently, and gave a printed copy (about 30 pages) to my son which we (Diego, myself, and my daughter Sofia) took the time to read (it was fun). The POINT is, Caro is certainly of an age and skill level to absorb the material of the 64 page Moldvay rules and...given that the kids are going to be out of school for the next eight weeks...she certainly has the time to do so.

Her reaction: "I have to read all THAT?" Even after explaining (and showing) that much of the book was illustrations, or charts, or spell/monster/treasure entries that she could peruse at leisure (i.e. not actual instructions for play), she still balked. She kept her character sheets when she left our house...because she still wants to play...but she didn't take the book.

I didn't have the heart to tell her about 5E.

I suppose, in retrospect, that I could have offered her a copy of the 40 page Holmes Basic (I happen to own two copies) and perhaps that, coupled with her experience playing the game, would have been enough. But I'm a slave to inertia and I still consider Moldvay the finest book for learning the D&D game that I've ever read (too many weird discrepancies in Holmes for my taste). I can't quite bring myself to suggest any edition but B/X as a gateway to understanding The Game.

Gateway drug.
My boy is currently reading Moldvay. He started it...mmm, yesterday, I believe (our session with Caro was Friday). He is currently up to Part 5: Encounters.  A couple times, I've had him pause so that I could quiz him on the material. I've offered additional insights and info for him to consider alongside the rules as written. It's been a bit of a slog for him: he enjoys reading but he prefers biographies and historical texts to instruction manuals (this is the first game text I think he's ever read...most games, he has me read the instructions and then teach him the rules). But I think it's important that he has a grasp of the text as a tool...if he really wants to be a dungeon master, he's going to need to know how to use the book. 

Until he no longer needs it.
; )

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Staycation

Welp, it's not quite martial law out here in the ol' Pacific Northwest, but things aren't all sunny and roses either. And if you're talking about the local economy, things are looking downright grim. Well, probably not for Amazon (I'm sure business is booming with the on-line shopping economy), but for retail and restaurants? Oh, boy.

It's enough to make me wish I hadn't given up alcohol for Lent...how can I do my part when I can't even spend money on beer?

To the kids, being out of school till the end of April just feels like an extended "staycation" rather than house arrest (though we will be starting remote learning next week). I won't be getting much time to myself (we'll see how that grump-ifies my already grumpy demeanor), but it perhaps helps that we'll be saving on gas and driving time (baseball, basketball, and soccer have all been cancelled for the foreseeable future). Hell, the Archdiocese has even suspended Mass and Friday stations of the Cross (what this means for Easter, I don't know...). Thank goodness the Fred Meyer across the street is still open and stocked (of everything except disinfecting wipes). We're not living The Stand, yet.

[will the Baranof survive the sudden loss in business? The place has been unsinkable for decades. But even with the anxiety-fueled need to drink, are people still willing to part with their petty cash in a time of possible economic crisis? We'll see...]

At least I have Dungeons & Dragons. Our game yesterday (new player) went quite well. Another foray into The Keep on the Borderlands (my son's first) as well as a gruesome character death (my son's first). The rather short adventure went something like this:

"Dave" (1st level fighter with huge strength and a tremendous amount of gold) paired up with "Azina" the 1st level elf. Caro decided to penny pinch a bit, buying only leather armor and a shield (ballsy move) and chose ventriloquism as her starting spell (after also considering protection from evil). This is the first time I've ever seen a person choose that spell.

While there were three mercenaries available at the Keep's tavern, Dave decided that the price to hire them (one gold piece per day each) was too expensive for their operation (he was sitting on 41 extra coins). Azina was looking for female hirelings, and random dice produced a 2nd level elf who was willing to join the party for a 25% share of any treasure found (per the module). After some debate over the NPC's name, we settled on calling her "Ari."

At the Caves of Chaos, Azina was hesitant to do any exploration until they'd set up a decent camp and secured a good quantity of dead wood and "other resources;" Dave, on the other hand, was anxious to get down to spelunking and treasure hunting. Choosing one of the lower caves, they lassoed a still living tree branch and climbed the sloping canyon wall to its entrance.

Lantern light revealed what appeared to be a sleeping bear and the party members cautiously sneaked up to it and stabbed it with their swords, only to find it was a skinned carcass stretched over a pile of branches and debris.

It was at this point that an argument arose over the fact that no one had bothered to bring a bow and that maybe they should have at least purchased a crossbow, as Azina started feeling nervous about the prospect of engaging everything in hand-to-hand combat. Talks of returning to the Keep broke down when no agreement could be reached on who would be doing the actual purchase of a missile weapon and while the players were dissuaded (by the DM) from attacking one another, the party decided to split: Dave was determined to press on, and Azina would return to the camp below. As Ari had signed up for a share of treasure found "and 25% of nothing is nothing" she decided to follow Dave in his exploration.

A short tunnel opened into a second cavern, where a hulking form gnawed at a huge leg of mutton. Neither group was surprised and the creature asked (in goblin, the lingua franca of the region) "What the heck are you doing in my house?" Dave's answer was to shout a few pointed barbs (he spoke goblin) and charge with his two-handed sword.

Whereupon he was clubbed to death with a single swipe of the ogre's dinner (11 points of damage). Initiative had been automatically lost due to his use of a two-handed weapon (B/X).

Weapon
Ari broke morale and fled, though she was struck from behind as she tried to escape. Scrambling down the rope she yelled frantically for help as the ogre pursued. She was about halfway down when the monster kicked the tree branch loose with a mighty stomp and she fell the last ten feet to the ground, only narrowly avoiding death. "And stay out!" he yelled before returning to his cave.

Azina, having observed this from the base of the cliff, quickly moved to help the wounded elf, then decided it was her duty to try and retrieve Dave (if alive) or recover his body (if not). Using her own rope to lasso a stone outcropping (that had been established previously) she climbed up to the mouth of the cave. Once there, and before entering, she used her ventriloquism spell to throw her own voice from deeper inside the cave, saying "Hey, I'm still alive! Come get me!" in goblin language (which the elf also spoke).

She thus drew off the ogre, deeper into his own lair, using no light source to give away her position and simply following him (slowly). Eventually, she heard a grinding of stone on stone as the ogre, confused and curious, decided to move the boulder to his secret exit in pursuit of the phantom voice, thinking it must be coming from the goblin caves. Azina was then able to recover both Dave's corpse and the ogre's great leather bag (which held his treasure), dragging both to the entrance and dropping them over the edge. The elf then tugged the rope until it released, and joined the wounded Ari in camp.

The next morning Azina buried Dave's body, perused the ogre's treasure, and cooked breakfast for herself and her companion (using rations and a healthy amount of the ogre's wheel of cheese) before studying her spell book to regain her ventriloquism spell. The two remaining party members then crafted a litter from the dead wood gathered previously, so that they could drag the huge sack of treasure back to the Keep. While Ari went to the chapel in search of healing, Azina (delighted in her new wealth) purchased a riding horse, tack and saddle, and saddle bags for herself.

Needless to say, Caro had a lot of fun and now wants to try her hand at being a dungeon master.
: )

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Building A Culture...

...one person at a time.

Hasn't got me yet.
Nope, still alive. Just been busy. Panic-stricken citizens, school (and office) closures, soccer games on the other side of mountain ranges, world-hopping spouse, and (of course) the start of Little League baseball season for two kids this year (in addition to on-going basketball and soccer) have all conjoined to steal my time. That and my own propensity for distraction...we'll get to that in a sec.

[I'm also abstaining from both alcohol AND coffee this Lenten season, which has had a bit of an impact on my writing habits]

Still, I have been gaming. Playing Dungeons & Dragons, in fact.  B/X only, for the moment...but it's always best to start slow. My children and wife have been my main players, though we have had at least a couple of my son's friends over and introduced them to the game (a third one...Caroline...is scheduled to come this Friday for a five hour session). All of these individuals are complete (or nearly complete) novices to the entire concept of "role-playing games;" hell, they're novices to most forms of fantasy adventure, outside the realm of Harry Potter (or The Lord of the Rings films, with regard to my wife).

The reactions to the game have been interesting, to say the least, with my spouse's perhaps the most intriguing of all. While she's never been a gamer (in any sense of the term), she does enjoy playing games with her children and their enthusiasm feeds her own. Joining our game in the third session of our Zenopus expedition, she took the initiative to map the dungeon (leading to much more efficient adventuring) and helped curb my son's rather Chaotic (evil) impulses.

And it's been effective...after eight sessions the characters have mostly advanced (except for the elf...she's still 433 x.p. away from 2nd level) and no one has yet died, though I did give one "mulligan" that prevented what would have been the one (and only) character death. To completely ease my conscience I'll confess that event here: the dungeon's ogre-sized spider had pinned my son's 1st level character, despite the party's precautions and lack of surprise; he managed to survive several rounds, stabbing it with a dagger while his compatriots attempted to kill it. In the final round of the combat, the spider beat my son's roll for initiative and would have struck him a death blow (from hit point loss...the kid had already made multiple, successful saves versus poison). Rather than let his heroic efforts end in failure, I allowed the party members to make a separate initiative roll against the spider, which they won, and then they managed to slay the plate-armored beast prior to its fatal attack on the boy.

Frodo should have died, too.
As I said, a mulligan...and I pointed out to the players that there would be no more shenanigans of that kind. I feel a little bad to have deprived my child of the "joy" of his first character death (though I'm confident that particular experience will be coming soon enough)...but at the time, I felt bad about the gross unfairness of the situation. The kid had immediately searched the rafters for giant spiders upon entering the web room, and the creature is just such a horrendous beast for first level characters (Gygax changed the original creature from 1 HD creature to something the size of Shelob). Besides, they've already had blood spilled (three hired mercenaries have been killed by this point)...they have been exposed to the dangers of dungeon crawling.

The party members (minus my wife's thief character) are currently locked up in the Portown jail awaiting execution anyway, so, you know, not a huge deal by any stretch...

Here's the thing, the really interesting thing (from my perspective): despite having NOT read the rulebook (yet), both my kids have already expressed interest in becoming Dungeon Masters. My son drew and annotated a dungeon map, made me roll up a character, and then ran me through his "adventure." Fortunately, I'm a pretty good player so my first level thief managed to avoid certain death on multiple occasions through a combination of deceit and cleverness and made out like a frigging bandit (I'll detail that in a different long-winded braggart post sometime).

My daughter did NOT draw a map, but also insisted on running me through an adventure of her own (while we were on the sidelines of my son's soccer match) that she spun from whole cloth and boy is she gonzo: evil clowns with poisonous claws, one-eyed killer robots, giant radioactive spiders with electrocution powers, and a room full of animal-headed humanoids that gave me a magic "wishing chest" of treasure before calling me a cab to take me out of the dungeon and back to town. Wow. If I wrote up adventures based on her imagination, I could probably make a small fortune in certain OSR circles...

[it's not just MY kids, by the way. One nine year old boy we had over was positively INDIE in his approach to gaming, suggesting all sorts of ideas, un-prompted, to incorporate into the game's narrative structure. Nicholas is one copy of Moldvay away from DMing his own campaign...]

Which is all to say: I have hope. I have hope these days that the type and style of gaming I want and crave and enjoy will not die off with my generation, or be subsumed and co-opted by 5E and the current styles/systems of gaming. I just have to get to people when they're young and raw and have no basis of comparison. Get them excited about the game that I like...at least provide them with a foundation for understanding the damn thing. After that they can pick up whatever monstrosity is the industry's "latest greatest" and make an informed opinion...with real, experiential knowledge in the back of their brains.

Yeah, I'm a pusher. And dammit, this is the hill I'm prepared to stand (and die) on. Well, this and one other...which I'll try to blog about tomorrow. Right now, I've got a couple things to do before I start prep for Friday's game.

Later, gators.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Zenopus Part 2


Last night we had our third D&D session, still exploring the tunnels beneath the ruined tower of Zenopus; tonight, we had session four. It is "midwinter break" for my kids (a five day weekend, including the Presidents Day holiday tomorrow), so bedtime has been extended deep(er) into the night than usual...last night's game lasted until midnight, and tonight's would have as well if I hadn't made the children go to bed by 11pm.

But the details of these sessions will have to wait till a later post...I still haven't written about our second sojourn into the bowels of Portown's ancient catacombs. And I want to make sure I am chronicling these in sequential order.

While our first excursion presented the basic tropes of dungeon exploration (starting with character generation and equipment purchases) and featured several combats and treasure gathering, our second  (played out last Saturday, if I remember right) introduced concepts of role-playing to the children...that is, interacting in character with non-player characters.

[the first session only saw encounters with ghouls, skeletons, and giant rats, none of whom are great conversationalists]

First up was Brubo the Bearded (...er, Hooded) and his giant mastiff of a dog. The kids were quite surprised to find him guarding the ruins when they returned for more looting; apparently, they'd just missed him on their previous excursion. He informed them that ruins were off-limits by order of the Town Master, and that trespassing was expressly forbidden and punishable by law. Unable to bribe the old man, they decided to try to talk their way into acquiring some sort of permit from the local administration.

Unfortunately, none of their arguments found any traction with the Town Master (a rather busy man and annoyed by the antics of these would-be treasure hunters). Despite giving it a good shot (and possessing excellent charisma scores), the Master of Portown remained unmoved from his stance that the ruins were best left undisturbed.

[thinking about it today, I started to get the feeling he may have some knowledge about the pirate activity in the sea cliff caves; i.e. he may be in on the deal]

The adventurers were likewise undeterred from their quest (for more gold) and determined to find a sneaky way into the dungeon. Dissuading them from outright murder of a town constable, I reminded them of the elf's charm person spell and the beginnings of a plan were hatched. First, though, they went about hiring some more muscle...another daunting task after the resident mercenaries at the Green Dragon Inn were informed of the deaths of Flint and Match, the party's last two hires. However, a stout young lad (and Ot-nay Oo-tay Ight-bra) was willing to accompany the party for a share of the treasure and a kiss from the elf (her offer!); ecstatic, they garbed young Bryan in a chain hauberk and returned, re-provisioned, to the site of the old wizard demesnes.

"Sic Elf!"
Where they encountered Brubo (again) and his large, grumpy dog (whose name escapes me...Rupert? Maybe). Almost as soon as the bearded constable could issue a "Who goes there?" the elf began chanting her incantation...at which point the wily old man immediately let loose his hound. Initiative was won by the beast who charged and savaged the elf, wrecking her spell; fortunately, Bryan and Daniel were able to dispatch it with efficiently murderous strokes. The old man turned and ran, bawling for help, and though Daniel attempted to shoot him down from behind, his arrow went wide the mark. Deciding it best not to wait around for the town guard to show up, the trio descended into darkness.

Thoughtless of mapping (again) the party wandered the dungeon in a roughly circular manner, at one point being trapped in a strange room with a metallic statue (an appeal to mama for help proved to be useful here in figuring out the means of egress), before finally stumbling into a barracks of goblins. The rowdy creatures were none-to-happy about trespassers in their home and attacked, only to be murdered quickly by our intrepid adventurers. The last goblin surrendered, but when proffered an offer of servitude to the slayers, decided death was preferable (a very poor reaction roll here) and attacked, actually managing to wound the burly fighter before being handed his head.

Battered, bloodied, and now loaded down with goblin treasure (a backpack of silver and a chest of copper), the party quickly (and luckily) located the stairs up and out of the ruins where they happily found neither Brubo, nor the town watch. Still several hours before dawn, they made their way through twisted and empty city streets only to be stopped by a patrol of three guardsmen (wandering monster roll). The dice were on the party's side (again) and these particular guards were NOT out hunting for the adventurers who had slain old Brubo's dog. Even so, the inevitable shake-down occurred when the party made the mistake of displaying the treasure they were carrying (lying that they had just come from a ship moored at the Portown docks). Negotiations with the watchmen proved successful, and the guards agreed to porter the crates to the Green Dragon Inn in exchange for a rather large "silence tax" that cut substantially into the group's profits.

Okay...now we're caught up (at least, till yesterday). The kids are really starting to get sucked into the game (as, you know, new D&D players tend to), so we'll probably end up playing tomorrow too. But I just can't keep my eyes open right now...I'll try to post the further adventures of Daniel the Brave and Maddee the Elf tomorrow.

[writing all this up, I can't help but be reminded of John Eric Holmes's stories of Boinger the Halfling and Zereth the Elf no doubt based, in part, on his own runnings of the game for his children. What a racket this D&D thing is...]

Friday, February 14, 2020

Phantasmal Image


One of the reasons I started a Patreon for this blog was to have money to subscribe to other folks' Patreon projects...and my devious plan has worked out quite well (thank you to all my supporters!). One of the subscriptions I'm funding at the moment is Alexis Smolensk's "The Higher Path" blog, and I've found his thoughts well worth the (small) price of admission. Yesterday, he wrote up several of his own thoughts on illusionist spells, riffing a bit on my own recent posts. Since I know not all of my readers subscribe to Alexis's stuff, I want to excerpt from his post, as it's pertinent to today's posting:
Two fundamental problems surrounding the existence of illusion in early D&D (which has more or less continued to poison the design) would be the dual fuzzy mechanics of "create your own illusion" and "disbelief." I can recall, all the way back to high school, the habit of players to immediately rush to, "I create a huge fire-breathing dragon with my 1st level illusionist spell, phantasmal force; do they disbelieve?"  
In other people's worlds, this was treated first by a DM's roll, to see if they disbelieve; then, a roll to see if the disbelief was successful. Statistically, this gives two chances for the huge dragon to be successful. If half the victims believe, and then half the disbelievers fail, then the dragon kills 3/4 of the onlookers. I must tell you, the way the rules are written in the DMG and Players' Handbook, this interpretation is "reasonable." Why wouldn't the 1st level illusionist create a fire breathing dragon? Why would you create anything else?  
In my world, disbelief was automatic. I would argue that even if we lived in a world with real fire breathing dragons, the sudden appearance of one, including one that was REAL, would be utter disbelief. We as human beings are built that way...  
And for this, I was shouted at and called vicious names for being unreasonable. To my mind, to make the spell work ~ to make any of the illusions work ~ they had to lack any possibility of being unlikely or impossible. Like, say, the illusion of me throwing a bag of gold coins towards the enemy, to draw them out to where they could be shot through with arrows by the party's fighters. Or creating an apparent ledge for the enemy to back onto, or a rope bridge crossing a river ... which could be fallen through, killing the victim.  
But when I asked my players to invent believable illusions, I discovered as a DM that players are not very creative in this way. They can only see dragons....
I can empathize with his point of view...I've had similar experiences myself. Smolensk's solution has been to remove phantasmal force from his game and replace it with more specific, practical, and easily adjudicated spells like phantasmal feature and phantasmal figure...this I find quite reasonable, though I might quibble over the details.

One of the problems with the original phantasmal force is that it tries to do too many things with a single spell. Fans of fantasy fiction, as I'd guess the vast majority of D&D players are, have experienced the concept of illusions in a myriad of different ways, and have formulated an idea of what an illusionist is based on those experiences. But in fiction (regardless of type) illusions are used like any other tool of the fiction creator: to further plot, to explore character, and/or (in the case of a visual medium like comics and film) to "astound and amaze."

Dungeons & Dragons isn't fiction...it's a game, something meant to be experienced. And illusions, like any other spell or aspect of character ability, must have practical applications. However, because our touchstone for understanding is solely based on fiction, it is a challenge for most of us to employ illusions. Most of us, I believe, are used to using methods other than deception to achieve our ends.

[that is to say, other aspects of D&D have analogies to real world experience. We have used "protective gear" in real life...whether it be a hard hat, seatbelt, or sports equipment...and understand how armor can be used to save our lives. Some of us have had actual fights, but all of us have used tools in some application of force to accomplish our objectives, be it pounding a nail or cutting a steak. We understand that flying...in the real world...can be accomplished only by those who are fortunate to have the means (money and/or training) to do so, but we can all observe birds taking wing to fly from one tree branch to a telephone wire, and can vividly imagine ourselves doing the same with a magic carpet or broom. And most of us have experienced some sort of invisibility...if only the kind that comes from being anonymous in a crowd of strangers at a movie theater or event...and can visualize how one might cross a room unnoticed, so long as we don't boldly interact with the individuals present]

Phantasmal force exists to allow the model a particular type of magic found in fiction...an ICONIC form of magic and, perhaps, the most basic form. In some fictions, ALL magic is illusional: it creates nothing real, creates no lasting change, affects nothing but tricking the minds and senses of its observers. This, of course, is not the case with the Dungeons & Dragons game, where most magic is very, very real to the characters: fireballs and healings and transformations (from polymorph to petrification). And yet we include illusions in the game because they ARE iconic to the fantasy genre, and D&D is nothing if not a kitchen sink approach to fantasy, welcoming every bit of myth, legend, pulp novel, and celluloid. We see the creation of illusions in film and literature for specific purposes and think it should be included in the game (it's fantasy after all) and we create a catchall spell that will create "vivid illusions of nearly anything the user envisions."

[that's Gygax's quote, BTW, from OD&D, volume 1]

Hologram
Why shouldn't the caster create the biggest, baddest monster she can think of? Why shouldn't she create an illusion of fire raining from the heavens, or of the earth cracking open beneath her opponent's feet, or of the lead orc tripping a trap that drops a thousand tons of stone on him and his compatriots? Why shouldn't an illusionist push the boundaries of whatever is the most practical application of the spell? This isn't fiction...it's a game. Players are trying to use their tools in an expedient manner.

And rather than take a step back and rethink things, the designers allow the spell to stand as written (as a catchall for anything displayed in fiction) and instead attempt to rein it in with limitations: the illusion must fit within an area. The illusion cannot be struck in combat. The illusion must be believed. Etc. Or even more complex, we start implementing distinctions like "figments" versus "phantasms," re-defining how an illusion operates on targets INSTEAD OF simply re-defining the limits of what can be created.

In my opinion, Phantasmal force is too broad of a spell and, thus, too prone to abuse and (as a result) argument and distraction from the game.

Look at audible glamer...as an auditory illusion it produces a single type of sound, whose maximum volume is determined by the caster's level of experience. Unlike phantasmal force, it does not require concentration...but then the noises are indistinct (you can create the sound of shouting or talking, but no actual words, just hubbub). For me, this gives some good parameters for a rewrite of the spell: I'd call it phantasmal image.

Phantasmal image produces a static, visual illusion. The volume of illusion produced is determined by caster level, topping out (like audible glamer) around "dragon size." Because it is a specific visual image conceived by the caster, the illusion remains in existence only so long as the caster concentrates. Deliberately touching the image immediately causes the spell to vanish; the image may be used to mask an existing, real feature.

Examples of the phantasmal image could include: a chest of gold, a corpse, a bridge over a chasm, an arrow stuck in a (real) tree attached to a note, a wall blocking an open corridor, or a crack or pit in the floor. It could mask an existing bridge (making it appear dilapidated, broken, or missing), it can make a door simply seem to be continuous wall, or can make a chest of treasure appear to be empty (note that unlike the 2nd level invisibility spell, such "deleting" of features only effects static targets, and are dispelled by touch or when a caster ceases concentration).  Phantasmal image cannot be used to create dynamic (i.e. moving) images: no attacking mobs, no flying dragons, no rain of arrows, no crackling bonfires, etc.

It is my opinion that this defining of the limits of the spell actually provides MORE possible uses for such magic. And because of its limitations (the need to be static, dispelling by touch, etc.) there is no need to muck around with saving throws or issues of "disbelief:" the spell creates a phantom image that disappears if someone interacts with it. Player characters that disbelieve a pool of green slime are free to put their foot in it and test their theory...more cautious individuals might simply look for another way around the obstacle.

All right, more to come. Have a happy Valentine's Day, people. Don't say I don't love you all!
: )