Thursday, May 17, 2018

D&D - The Cartoon (Part 3: Old School Combat)

I'm going to give myself about 45 minutes to blog. We'll see how much I get through.

Close to four years back (!!) I started a series of blog posts (or, rather, intended to start a series) about the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon. For various reasons and distractions, not the least of which being my life in Paraguay, this trailed off rather abruptly (you can see my prior posts here and here). Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the series again, mainly due to my daughter's love and fascination with the show (my son...eh, not so much). Enough so that I thought I'd get back to it.

Why not?

My first thought, interestingly enough, is how well I think the show actually models the game. All right, all right (I hear your snorts of derision)...NOT with regard to theme (the "quest for home" isn't anything like the standard quest for treasure and prestige), but in modeling game play. Much more so than what I used to think; however, you have to read between some of the lines with regard to censorship of a children's Saturday Morning Cartoon.

For example, no one was ever going to show characters (even adult ones) butchering orcs and spilling the blood of bullywugs on screen. That kind of animated violence (even in decades past) was reserved for the cinema, if at all. The original Johnny Quest (created in the 1960s) featured a lot of shooting, explosions, and killing of "bad guys" but no blood was ever shown (certainly no results of bloody hand-to-hand fighting) and, besides, JQ was created for an older audience and originally broadcast in a Prime Time time slot. So no "D&D show" made for kids was ever going to feature a dude disemboweling some opponent with a battle-axe.

Even so, remember the abstract nature of D&D combat. PC makes an attack roll. If successful, make a damage roll. Deduct damage from "hit points." If HPs reach 0, opponent is defeated.

All of these things are open for interpretation. What a successful attack looks like...and what a defeated opponents looks like...doesn't have to be gore-splashed bloodletting affairs. We might like them to be (I know I do), but recognize that the narrative color applied to the role-playing is almost entirely an arbitrary choice, and generally of the DM. I can be lazy and say, "You swing and hit the guy; he looks badly hurt." I can instead say, "Your feint leaves him wide open allowing you to bash his blade towards the ground and drive the point of your sword into his thigh; blood gushes from the wound as it appears you've nicked an artery."

But I could also say, "Your magic club strikes the ground in front of your opponent, throwing up rocks and dirt as he's knocked to the ground. He looks at you with fear...looks like he's had it."

Recognize that...in the television show...defeated creatures (driven away, sealed in caves by rockfalls, or whatever) almost never return to trouble the protagonists. No, there are no corpses left strewn about the scenery, but they're as good as dead for all the trouble they cause later.

"But the cavalier doesn't even use a weapon!" Look, here's the thing I've come to think (as I re-watch these old shows): the Dungeons & Dragon cartoon is based on the oldest editions of D&D (even if it is pulling a lot of creatures from the then-newly-released Fiend Folio), if not B/X. Regardless of the character's "titles" (which, as far as I can tell is nothing but the name a player might scribble at the top of their character sheet), here's how I'd break down their classes:

Hank (plays "Ranger"): Fighter
Bobby (plays "Barbarian"): Fighter
Eric (plays "Cavalier"): Fighter
Sheila (plays "Thief"): Thief
Diana (plays "Acrobat"): Fighter
Presto (plays "Magician"): Magic-User (we'll get to him in a separate post)

In both OD&D and B/X, the default damage for any type of attack is D6...doesn't matter if you're using a two-handed sword or a dagger. Or a magic quarterstaff or "lightning bow" or bashing with a shield. Now, I do tend to look at the game through an OD&D (0E) lens because of the fighters multiple attacks against creatures of 1 hit die or fewer (Hank, Bobby, and Diana tend to do this a lot), but I can easily see this as a house rule 'ported into a B/X game, along with the various AD&D monsters. The B/X morale and reaction rules would seem a large part of the show.

All right, that's all my time at the moment. Perhaps more later.

We all do D6 damage.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"This is the Greatest Show!"

I've been "Hulu'ing" a lot lately, 100% due to my wife and I wanting to watch their original series The Handmaid's Tale or (as I like to call it) "the Factory of Sadness."

[all apologies to the Cleveland Browns for infringing on their trademark]

Harder to watch than the Cleveland Browns.
The show is especially depressing when you consider how many women around the world are...at this moment...are being kept in a similar states of bondage. I am not one of the folks who worry about the possibility of my country devolving into some Gilead-like society (I think it would take a biological disaster of Children-of-Men-proportion for such a thing to happen), but there is still plenty of oppression at large in the world. Hell, much of the show could be an allegory for victims of domestic violence (forced to stay in an abusive relationship for the sake of one's child/children)...the story works (and is depressing) on a multitude of levels. I think it's especially interesting to consider the story in contrast to the conclusion of Frank Herbert's 1982 novel The White Plague: by the end, the female protagonist appears excited by the new world order that's starting to set-up (with fertile women at the top of the food chain). In some ways, I can see Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel as a direct response and rebuttal to Herbert.

[similarly, one might presume Paraguay's War of the Triple Alliance...which killed 90% of the country's male population, leaving the women "in charge"...would have produced a more egalitarian society. In fact, the opposite occurred and the country is perhaps the most machismo, male-centric state in South America. That's one of the main reasons we didn't want to raise our children in their culture]

But I digress. I didn't actually want to talk about The Handmaid's Tale or even Hulu (other than to say I can now catch up on the last three seasons of Vikings, which I missed). I really only bring it up to state the need to counterbalance this sadness has required me to go hard at some media, including multiple viewings The Greatest Showman, the Hugh Jackman film now in regular rotation on my DVD player.

Don't get me wrong...I'm a longtime fan of musical theater anyway, and The Greatest Showman is a BIG step up from Bye-Bye Birdie, both in terms of quality and message. Even without the need to inject some joy and melodrama and music into my couch-sitting life, I'd have been able to enjoy and hum along with my kids (they love-love-LOVE the film, especially my daughter, who's memorized most of the songs). BUT the most interesting thing about this quasi-biography of the early life of P. T. Barnum isn't (for me) the musical extravaganza, impressive as it is. Rather it's what I've come to think of as the secret message the film is whispering in my ear:

Dungeon Masters are the new ringmasters. Or, at least, they should be.

So much better than Wolverine.
I can't remember the last time I went to the circus. I have been to a circus or two (Ringling Brothers, probably, or maybe Circus Vargas) but not for 30+ years. From what info I can find on-line, it looks like Ringling Bros. stopped traveling around 1990 and shut down completely last year, so that's probably about right. It's possible that I haven't been to a circus since I was 7 or 8 years old (around 1980) which would mean I was last at the circus before acquiring my first RPG. I can say for sure that I don't remember anything about it except tigers jumping through flaming hoops, and even that is hazy.

[shows like Teatro Zinzanni and its lesser ilk I consider more to be "dinner theater," or perhaps cabaret...definitely not the grand spectacle of the Big Top traveling circuses of yesteryear]

There was a time when people went to such shows to experience spectacle, engagement, and escapist fantasy...all at the same time. The ability to wander about, ooo-and-ah, interact with live performers, all while being regaled with preposterous claims and fanciful tales. That kind of entertainment isn't really available these days, at least not in my neck of the woods.

[admittedly, I haven't taken the opportunity to see Cirque du Soleil the few times it's made it to Seattle, so I may be speaking out of my ass]

However, something similar IS possible with fantasy role-playing. The spectacle, for the most part, must be imagined by the participants, but the DM (acting as ringmaster) has the potential to embellish the narrative, providing color and context to lift the players' flights of fancy to epic-level escapism. The experience of role-playing can be the spectacular participatory entertainment that transported Barnum's devotees for so many years...and all without harming a single animal or acrobat.

Of course, getting bogged down in too many rules and minutia can spoil the experience, breaking the suspension of disbelief and fantastical transportation. But it's up to each DM to determine (with time, trial, and error) to determine what constitutes "too many" for their game...learning how much you can handle while still managing to keep your ringmaster hat is one of the major challenges of being a DM.

Because you must keep it together.  Your duties as ringmaster are essential, and trying to run your circus in a half-assed manner is likely to get you bitten by a damn tiger.

*ahem* Anyway...

Anyway...we need a little more ringmaster at the gaming table, a little more circus mastery. Damn, but there's a part of me that feels like this is what's missing from the game (or one of the things). Too many staid and sedate game masters sitting behind their screens, trying to keep impassive expressions, waiting for players to engage in the fantasy...and waiting...and waiting...when the DM should (instead) be stepping up and inviting them in and dazzling them with their verve and passion, if not their wit and charm (which, come on, not everyone has in spades, okay?).

Damn. Imagine walking into a convention room and seeing wildly gesticulating DMs at each and every table, players leaned forward on the edge of their seats, eyes alight, hanging on every word...instead of checking their phones or doodling on their character sheets or stacking dice in an apathetic fashion.

It's enough to make you root for a TPK. Anything to wake folks up.

19th Century Gaming Con
Anyhoo, more on that later (perhaps). Suffice is to say I found the film inspiring for my gaming in a way I hadn't expected (hmm...maybe I should have just led with that). To paraphrase Jackman's character: "What does it matter if the show is fake? The smiles are real." We are playing a game of pretend over here, not curing cancer or fighting (real world) injustice. If we're going to spend our time doing it, we ought to play it hard. Tart it up. Fire it up. Make it matter to our players. Put on a show...that's what I'm feeling anyway.

Man, I want a top hat.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Tao of Podcasts

I've been remiss about not mentioning this before; please allow me to rectify the situation.

Alexis Smolensk over at The Tao of D&D has (for the last several weeks now) been posting a series of podcast interviews he calls "Authentic Role-Playing." Each episode consists of a one-on-one interview in which Alexis discusses the challenges (and approaches to those challenges) of running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a different guest.

They're pretty fantastic. Alexis has plucked his interviewees from all sorts of gaming backgrounds and each brings a different perspective (and different personal history) to the table. For me, I've really enjoyed listening to them, and I've gotten a lot out of each. If you like podcasts (I know not everyone does) I think you'll find 'em a good listen: it's a great chance to hear from a variety of Dungeon Masters, each of whom has something useful to say about the game we enjoy:

Sterling Blake (podcast #1): a veteran DM who's been running games (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th edition) for 36 years, nearly entirely with the same gaming group.

Tristan Johnson (#2): a brand new DM (just started a year ago) who uses his knowledge of history (he's the creator of the Step Back History channel on YouTube) to develop his campaign.

Erich Schmidt (#3): an adventure writer and DM of more than 38 years experience, who talks about the challenge of engaging players, the manner in which he structures his campaign, and mentoring experiences.

Carl Olson (#4): author of the Crossing the 'Verse blog, 25 year veteran of multiple RPGs, who has quite a bit to say about DMing as relates to his military and managerial experience (as relates to D&D).

Becky Hamilton (#5): a complete newbie to role-playing and a departure from the normal podcast format as Alexis explains to her what role-playing is and how it's done.

These are the first five Alexis has posted (I believe he has thirteen in total planned for his "first season"). Each is edited to about 45 minutes in length; his intention is to release a new one each Sunday for the next couple months.

I will admit that Alexis had me as one of his "guests;" I have no idea where I fall in the order of the series, though I believe it's towards the end due to scheduling conflicts we had. However, I can't say I'm looking forward to hearing my own interview: compared to the episodes he's already released, I'm not sure I offered a whole lot that was helpful to listeners (maybe I'm mis-remembering our conversation). These folks who've talked about their own experiences...Blake, Johnson, Schmidt, Olson, and (yes) even Becky...well, I've found them to be positively inspiring. They really, really make me want to run a game again, incorporating tips and techniques that's been brought up in each of these dialogues, and addressing their challenges and concerns as well.

Anyway...I've been meaning to mention this in my blog for a few weeks (sorry...been busy), and figured I better say something before the next episode drops (hopefully sometime today). Give it a shot when you have some free time.

OH...and Happy Mother's Day to one and all!
: )

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Magical Three

Just continuing on with the post I started a few days back, I want to get to the second character class that has a less than stellar degree of low level effectiveness: the magic-user. Reading back over my blog, I can see that the MU is a subject I've griped about incessantly over the years, suggesting all sorts of "fixes" that would make the class more desirable/workable...everything from magical skills, to additional cantrips, to age-based magic, to more Vancian magic, to exceptional traits, to a variation of "spell points" linked to hit points, to a few other ideas that I won't bother finding links for. After reading through all of these proposals over the years, I find one major thing they have in common:

They're all crap. Really.

About the only post about magic-users I find worth keeping is this one that basically nerfs the B/X magic-user by restricting the classes which can engage in missile combat with thrown weapons (hint: magic-users aren't one of them). As I've written before, the concept of the wizard with the bandolier of throwing knives was interesting the first time we saw it in a game ('round about middle school) and has since become a trite, laughable image. And not very magical to boot.

What is magical? Dudes with gold skin and hourglass eyes? Albino sorcerers that need drugs to survive? Half-demons that age backwards? Wizards with blue star tattoos and secret taboos?

Nah...all that is interesting color, but no more interesting really than a guy with a curly horns on his skull cap or a robe sewn with images of stars and planets. No, the real thing that makes magic-users magical is their spells (duh), and when you get down to it, spells are really the only thing that matters. And the consistent gripe over on this old blog has always been one about spells...specifically how they scale.

Now, folks might not realize this, but of ALL the various editions of D&D, B/X is the absolute stingiest with regard to spell acquisition. Not only is there the "issue" of spell knowledge (a magic-user's spell book may contain no more spells than the maximum number that may be cast in a day), but the absolute number of spells that may be cast is fewer than every other published edition...at least between levels 4 and 14. While this actually helps scale at the higher levels (in my opinion), it is still a fairly intolerable rate of acquisition...especially at the low levels. A first level character, starting with a single spell, is simply not a recipe for effectiveness. Even Gygax's house rules (which purportedly started PCs at 3rd level) provided a bonus 1st level spell to wizards with an INT of 15+.

So what to do?

Well, after careful consideration...as well as side-by-side comparison between OD&D, AD&D, B/X, etc....I've come up with the following three house rules that I can live with. For me, they give just the minimal effectiveness needed, they still feel both magical and "Vancian," and they jibe with my B/X sensibilities. Here goes:

  1. Magic-users begin the game with one extra 1st level spell. So two first level spells known to start, increasing to three at 2nd level. When the magic-user hits 7th level (the experience level at which they would normally learn a third first level spell), she does not receive a fourth spell; instead, normal B/X progression resumes (so 3-2-2-1, just as in the book). The additional spell is simply in aid of increased effectiveness at low levels.
  2. Magic-users with a high intelligence receive a number of bonus spells in much the same way that fighters receive a bonus to melee combat for strength or thieves receive (per my house rules) a bonus to thief skills for dexterity. An intelligence of 13+ provides a bonus 1st level spell, an intelligence of 16+ yields a bonus 2nd level spell (once the magic-user has reached sufficient level to cast 2nd level spells), and an intelligence of 18 gives a bonus 3rd level spell (again, only upon reaching a high enough level to cast spells of that magnitude). Note that even with these bonus spells, the B/X magic-user will have fewer spells available at high levels than both the AD&D and OD&D wizard.
  3. Finally (and I realize some may hate this), I will not allow magic-users to memorize more than one copy of any spells known (no doubling up on sleep or magic-missile, for instance). I really prefer players to find ways to utilize their entire repertoire of magical knowledge, not simply stacking combat spells. Not only does this ape the feeling of Vance's Dying Earth (as well as other S&S stories), but it provides additional incentive for magic-users to create magic items (scrolls and wands, etc.) both for extra firepower and for trade with other wizards ("I'll give you a potion of water breathing for a scroll with web and continual light."). I want magic to be a scarce and potent resource and magic-users to collect any bits of magical gear they can to bolster their own abilities. I want to encourage PCs to specialize in different styles (fire magic or illusions, for example) rather than accumulating pages and pages of spells that they seldom, if ever, find an excuse to memorize.

The astute reader will notice that the average first level magic-user with an above average intelligence (13+) will thus begin their career knowing a total of three magical spells, all of the first order of magnitude, each of which can be used a single time during the adventure (game session). Personally, I feel this is sufficient for a beginning character: it provides multiple options but is still limited, requiring the young adventurer to make clever use of her resources, but not hamstringing her completely. As previously said, I can live with that.

And anyway, I'm really not a fan of cantrips.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Surprise and Surrender (Thief Incentives P. 2)

[continued from here]

I think it's rather telling that several of the thief skill percentages (open locks, find/remove traps, and pick pockets) were increased in AD&D to that of an OD&D/B/X thief of the 3rd level, even before adding racial bonuses or adjustments for ability scores and lack of armor (see the Unearthed Arcana).  That right there provides me with a justification for adding bonuses based on dexterity, as postulated in my prior post.

Still, though, let's talk about giving the 1st level thieves reasons for using those skills.

Open locks is rather straightforward, and doesn't really carry much risk. Assuming the thief can afford her tools, there's no reason NOT to try opening locks that are found. You'll be saving your wizard the use of a knock spell, and giving your party a chance to preserve treasure chests (for carting coins), and moving stealthily (rather than chopping down locked doors). Upping the percentage chance via a dexterity bonus just ensures an increased level of effectiveness (i.e. the locks will open more often than they would otherwise).

Climbing sheer surfaces, which I take to mean "free climbing" (without rope or equipment), carries a fairly sizable risk: death. It is explicit in the text that a failed roll results in a fall from the halfway point of the climb (checked once every 100'), and multiple D6s of damage is generally going to splatter a low-level thief all over the flagstone. That's pretty rough. On the other hand, the thief's chance of success is 87% even without a possible dexterity adjustment (and here I'd only add +1% per ability "pip," rather than +5%) meaning there's very little possibility of failure even at 1st level. Cautious thieves making extensive climbs (requiring multiple checks) might make use of spikes and ropes to prevent falls once the first successful roll has been made (tying off at the 100' mark).

Hearing noise and finding traps has the same success chance for the 1st level thief as most other player characters (they hear like a demihuman and should never have less than the 1 in 6 chance of discovering a trap that any non-dwarf PC has); as such, performing those skills aren't any more "risky" than any other character (the only risk is in potentially failing to spot a trap or hear an opponent). Removing traps is another issue, and should always receive the suggested dexterity bonus. However, it's important to note that NO WHERE in the (B/X) text does it state a failure at trap removal results in springing the trap. The example of Black Dougal dying from a poison needle comes not from missing a disarm check but, rather, from failing to detect the trap on the chest, and then proceeding to open the chest anyway. It is likewise important to notice that Dougal still receives a saving throw (just as any other PC would) and at low levels requires a 13+ to avoid the traps effects. That's a bit like saying the character had an additional 40% chance of "deactivating" the trap (assuming that the trap is only capable of delivering its damage once) and that, I think, is a reasonable risk to take to save the entire party a bit of heartache.

[the 20% chance to remove (assuming DEX16+) + 40% chance to save results in an overall success rate of 52%...better than the chance to hit armor class 8 at as a 1st level character]

Hiding in shadows and moving silently are those skills that allow thieves to stealth around like ninjas, and have a low chance of success even with a dexterity adjustment. However, both interact powerfully with the surprise rules in B/X. Hiding in shadows allows the thief to become invisible in even the slightest darkness, though it is clear from the AD&D text that creatures with infravision will still detect a thief unless there is a nearby torch or heat source (like the kind that might cast shadows...*ahem*). B/X plainly states that infravision is useless even with in "magical light" (page B21), meaning thieves can feel fairly confident of remaining hidden in any situation where they themselves can see their opponents (i.e. due to the presence of illumination). In a fantasy setting like D&D, such an effect can seem semi-magical (a sudden vanishing into darkness), similar to the supernatural portrayal of the assassin's disguise skill in the television series Game of Thrones. There is no stipulation that the thief need be unobserved to perform the skill; a simple skill check allows the character to fade from sight instantly...and as well should provide complete cover (as per page B26). In a normal combat situation (with party members relying on light sources), a successful hide in shadows should allow the discreet thief to completely avoid injury except of the collateral variety (errant fireballs and whatnot). A hidden thief should be able to attempt a surprise roll (possibly at a bonus) with no possibility of being surprised herself, save by invisible creatures.

[creatures with powerful olfactory senses might be a different story, however]

Moving silently allows thieves to sneak up on (or past) guards and creatures, facilitating a better than usual surprise chance. Bugbears "move very quietly" and achieve surprise on a 1-3 "due to their stealth" and the thief who succeeds at her skill roll should receive a similar (and probably better) bonus. After all, the thief is moving silently, not just quietly; for me, I'd probably allow a successful roll to indicate automatic surprise for the thief (an opponent fails to notice the thief until she is already lunging for the attack). However, even on a failed roll, the thief should still receive the normal surprise chance of any other character (2 in 6 chance); thus, similarly to the "remove traps" skill, the chance of the thief to achieve her aim (surprise) is actually greater than the skill percentage would indicate: about 53% for a 1st level thief (assuming the +10% bonus of a 16 dexterity).

And a thief that obtains surprise should always be allowed her "backstab" bonus.

Finally, we have the somewhat problematic pick pockets skill. Problematic as the book's example shows the thief stealing from an NPC member of the thief's own party; even the basic class description contains the text:
As their name indicates, however, they do steal -- sometimes from members of their own party.
...which sets a fairly bad precedent, considering we want players to be working together, cooperatively. Fostering inter-party conflict is NOT conducive to long-term sustainability!

I know some folks use the skill as a catchall for any sleight-of-hand a thief might want to perform, but really, how many times do you need a stage magician in a dungeon setting? Not many.

No, let's look at the typical Oliver/Fagin-esque ability. Unlike AD&D with it's "dice for random item" method of determining what's been pilfered, no such stipulation is made in B/X; my assumption is that the thief can choose what she's going to lift on a successful check. And while I would NOT recommend stealing from one's fellow party members (NPC or not) there is, I think, an oft overlooked way the pickpocket skill is underutilized: as a means of escaping capture.

"Capture? I thought DMs were supposed to avoid imprisoning PCs because such de-protagonization sucks, JB." Be that as it may, PCs can still choose to voluntarily surrender...and why shouldn't they, especially when faced with overwhelming odds? Most intelligent opponents will accept surrender, rather than risk more bloodshed to their own people. Lawful species (dwarves, elves, etc.) can be expected to treat such prisoners humanely, and humans of any ilk will likewise prefer captives, either to prosecute under their society's laws, to attempt to secure ransom, or to impress their prisoners into labor (bandits and pirates might offer captives a chance to "join up"). Even cannibalistic humanoids are unlikely to butcher PCs that surrender, instead keeping captives alive for later consumption; killing them all at once would lead to "food spoilage," after all (and besides, by the time surrender comes, there might already be casualties fit for stew pots).

Here's the thing: being captured probably won't make PCs as vulnerable as one might suspect. It's not like they're going to be slapped in stainless steel handcuffs or leg shackles. They probably won't even be bound (being surrounded by armed warriors after divesting themselves of weapons being considered sufficient precaution). The characters will be marched off to whatever passes for a "holding cell" and thieves will have plenty of opportunity to pilfer the key to the cell, or a knife to cut cords, or some other useful item. Once secluded, the party will have ample opportunity to escape by whatever means the thief has managed to secure.

[or course, the thief may very well have her lock picks anyway. Unless the PC has some humongous reputation, she's unlikely to be recognized as a "thief" but rather a lower class (i.e. "poor") fighter...besides which medieval jailers are unlikely to do serious "pat-downs" for anything smaller than a hand weapon. Regardless, a successful pocket picking can allow the thief to purloin a key (removing the need for an open locks check) or a small knife (as a means of defense and backstabbing once escape has been obtained)]

The point being that the inclusion of a thief...even a first level apprentice...provides a party with additional options, not simply limited to fight and flight.

Thoughts? Are these ideas enough incentive?

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Incentivizing Thief Skills (Part 1)

Yesterday, I wrote about my re-kindled romance with the B/X system of Dungeons & Dragons and my need to address a couple of its (few) inadequacies. The first of these is a certain minimal level of survivability, to take some of the crapshoot out of the early adventure sessions (where a character can get themselves killed with a single unlucky roll). That probably deserves another post, offering additional reasons to use the proposed fortune mechanic, but first I wanted to address the other (glaring) barrier to sustainability: the lack of effectiveness found in certain classes.

This post will be about thieves; the next one will address magic-users.

I've written a lot about the thief class over the years...this will be my 20th post that includes the "thief" label. What can I say: it brings up a lot of topics for discussion. However, most of the thoughts I blogged in my last post on the subject still stand. I'll try to summarize them:

  • The thief character offers a unique play style focused on gambling that, thematically, fits the class rather well.
  • Removing thief skill checks (as I've done in the past) remove both this thematic play style, and removes the joy of development that comes from increased character effectiveness with advancement.
  • The skill percentages, as listed make the success chance so low as to provide no incentive (risk/reward) for attempting skill use at low levels.
  • The thief's lack of overall survivability (low hit points, low armor class) coupled with a lack of production makes for a character that few would want to play...at least not if forced to begin at level one.

One idea I floated in the post was the idea of adding a bonus to a thief's skill chances based on their Dexterity score: basically a +5% bonus multiplied by the standard B/X ability adjustment (+1 for 13-15, +2 for 16-17, +3 for 18). As DEX is the prime requisite of thieves, it is easy enough for beginning players to adjust the score upwards at chargen, ensuring a bonus of +5-15% to the beginning thief skills. But is that adequate? Let's examine how that looks:



Dex
9-12
Dex
13-15
Dex
16-17
Dex
18
Open Locks
15%
20%
25%
30%

Remove Traps/ Hide in Shadows
10%
15%
20%
25%
Pick Pockets/ Move Silently
20%
25%
30%
35%
Climb Sheer Surfaces
87%
92%
97%
99%

Do put this in perspective with actual thief skill progression in B/X, with the exception of climb sheer surfaces, a thief with a dexterity of 13-15 adds one level of effectiveness, 16-17 adds two levels of effectiveness, and a dexterity of 18 adds three levels of effectiveness. As a longtime B/X Dungeon Master, I've come to assume that most players will increase their prime requisite to 16 (in order to maximize their experience bonus), meaning most such PCs will be playing with the talents of a 3rd level thief.

[with the exception of the climbing, which is equivalent to an 11th level master thief]

Leaving aside the climbing skill, we see there are three basic percentages: removing traps/hiding (the worst percentage, i.e. most difficult), picking pockets/moving silently (the best, i.e. easiest), and opening locks (the middle difficulty, though requiring "thieves tools" for use...see page X10).

Comparing these to the attack tables, we see that the starting percentages are the same as a thief attempting to attack AC 0, AC 1, and AC 2...all armor classes rarely encountered by 1st level characters in B/X. Adding the proposed +10% bonus for a dexterity of 16 betters this to AC 3, AC 4, and AC 5...still difficult considering standard armor class for most creatures on the L1 wandering monster table top at AC 7. Is this enough of an improvement to encourage actual skill use by the 1st level thief?

The question is really one of incentive: does the possible reward outweigh the high degree of risk that comes with using one's skills?

Clearly there are potential benefits for using thief skills. Most allow the PC to reach treasure that might not be readily accessible, being guarded by traps and locks, located in hard to reach (high) locations, in the pockets of opponents, or in areas where stealth could enable the saving of resources (HPs, spells, etc.). But in many cases a frontal assault can prove far more effective: attacking guards allows the entire party to bring their might to bear, as well as providing a better chance of success (assuming the usual low level opponent types), and dividing risk among multiple participants. And who needs to pick locks when you can break a latch with an axe or crowbar? Is there any other possible incentive besides "looking cool?"

2nd edition AD&D was the first D&D edition to provide XP to thieves (*ahem* -- "rogues") for the use of their special abilities, at a rate of 100 per pop. That's 100 experience points for the successful use of an ability. Considering that the rate of advancement is nearly unchanged from B/X (1250 for 2nd level and 2500 for 3rd) AND that starting rogues can have skill percentages as high as 70% to 75% for non-climbing skills(!!), it's hard not to see this as another example of 2E's misguided design parameters. But the concept of awarding XP for skill use is not a terrible one.

How many legitimate opportunities does a thief get to try their skills in an average game session? Six to eight? Less? With an average success rate of some 28% (35% with a 16 dexterity and receiving a 10% bonus) we're talking some 200-300 extra XP per session. Quite a nice little bonus for a low level character, though one whose importance fades as the character gains levels and requires more XP to advance.

That being said, is it right to give the thief class such a bonus? Is it fair? Unlike XP for treasure and monster defeats, such individual awards...an incentive for the the player to attempt a risky maneuver...are going solely to one character. And it just happens to be the character whose class already has the fastest rate of advancement (well, until 11th level; that's when the cleric passes the thief in speed). Would such an incentive breed incentive in the non-thief players at the table? I can see the argument that the player is risking their own skin in a way that other classes aren't (magic-user's spells have no chance of failure and are generally performed at a distance, while front-line fighters have heavy armor and extra hit points to increase their survivability)...but still, there's a bit of inequity there.

What if the XP bonus was reduced to 50 points per successful skill use? Would this curb the possible resentment? Would such a reduction negate the thief's incentive of trying skills except in the most exceptional circumstances?

Here's the thing: the issue is one of base competence for the thief character. A 1-in-10 or 1-in-5 chance of success is not good enough for most folks to risk their lives...especially when any reward (i.e. treasure recovered) is going to be shared out equally amongst individuals who did not take part in the risk. And while a 1-in-3 or 1-in-4 chance (adding DEX bonuses) is a LOT better, there's still a lack of incentive to perform as required when alternative options (hacking and slashing) are available. Survivability is still a consideration here...dead thieves can't spend gold.

[and I would not allow thieves to spend fortune points when using thief skills...that removes the gambling aspect of the class]

So...what to do? Lacking the standard XP carrot (because going down that rabbit hole would probably lead to a bunch of house ruled individual XP awards for different classes, leading to the gradual drifting away of the the whole D&D reward system predicated on PCs working together for the common goal of getting rich)...*ahem* Lacking the standard XP carrot, I feel the incentive must come in the form of increased effectiveness of the thief skills themselves. More "bang for one's buck" is needed, to make the risk of failure worth the possible reward.

But as this post is getting a bit long, I'll write about that in a follow-up.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Sustainability

That's probably a ridiculous title (considering I can't even sustain regular blog posting) but it's the one that's been in my mind for the last week or so, so I'm sticking with it.

[jeez...did I miss the entire month of April? So much for this year's A-Z challenge!]

Over the last couple-four years my B/X focus has clearly waned here at Ye Old Blog and the main reason (just in case it ain't readily apparent) is some of the ways in which I've found the system wanting. Some of these complaints are pure silliness (making battle axes more "desirable"), some are readily tweak-able (thief skills, various class functions/scaling), and some are harder-to-fix design "flaws," like the treasure-XP-advancement ratio.

But over the last month or so I've made peace with a lot of these things...or out-and-out reversed my opinion/stance on them. Adjustments for ability scores, for example: one of the reasons for my dalliance with Holmes was a general disgust with the inflation of ability importance coupled with (and this is important) and inability to adequately justify these adjustments and what they model in-game, especially the "combat" abilities (strength, dexterity, and constitution).

Well, I've gotten past that (and will hopefully write about them in a future post), though only recently...like, in the last couple months. But doing so has helped me make peace with myself and the game, helping me to rekindle my love affair with the B/X system and many of its "rules as written." Which is kind of awesome. So long as I can justify things in-game, then I won't feel like a damn hypocrite when I write about the game with the authority I do (based on my years of experience with and analysis of the system).

Still, there are some issues for the game that, at this point, do require some "house rules" in order to provide some stability to the system...or rather sustainability. Because the essential thing (per my current point of view) is creating a game environment that sustains long-term play, so as to keep the players engaged and interested and coming back for more. To engender in players a love of the game, and of the hobby, in order to grow this thing that I call "fantasy adventure gaming."

SO...here are the issues (as I see them at the moment), that face the players with regard to the rules as written:

  • Lack of survivability in relation to both A) interesting challenges, and B) consistent world environment, and
  • Lack of minimal requirements of competence/effectiveness for some classes (specifically magic-user and thief) based on desired play style. 

A much lesser problem is one of distinction (differentiation) between classes, but that's addressable with things like exceptional traits, overlays, and the creation of new classes like those found in The Complete B/X Adventurer and similar works. The first two points are more pressing issues in need of being addressed.

It's no secret that D&D as written is a difficult game to play. Part of the basic challenge is one of survival; part of the satisfaction comes from seeing one's character grow and develop over time as it survives. But B/X as an edition is especially deadly to low level characters, for a number of reasons. Hit points for a first level character tend to be lower than those found in other early editions (OD&D and AD&D), while monster hit points and damage output tend to be higher (OD&D monsters use D6s for hit dice instead of D8s, and with a couple notable exceptions, are limited to 1D6 damage per attack). In addition, unlike earlier editions, B/X traps have a proclivity to the "save or die" variety...and given the very low chance of trap detection, their inclusion as suggested have the potential to wipe out any characters not being "one-shot" by the standard monsters.

Over the years, numerous ideas have been employed by folks attempting to offset this inherent lethalness, all of which I dislike for one reason or another. Fudging dice rolls. Providing a few healing potions at the outset of an adventure. Allowing "shields to be splintered." Increasing the starting hit points of a 1st level character (usually double or triple). Allowing player characters to start at some level higher than 1st.

Gary Gygax himself was known to play modified OD&D (the closest edition to B/X), and was purported to start all new characters at 3rd level. While this wouldn't change beginning saving throws, OD&D (as I described in that previously mentioned post) is inclined to have fewer death-dealing traps...and 3D6 hit points (plus CON bonuses) to start would allow beginning PCs to absorb an average of 2-3 blows before expiring...plenty of time to flee once discretion was determined to be the better part of valor.

[Gygax's house rules are important from this standpoint: at the time of his death, few could boast that they had run the D&D game for more years, or logged more hours behind the DM screen, than Gygax. As such, his opportunity to experiment, tinker with, and fine tune the game for maximum playability would have been second to few, if any]

In one of my recent (not yet published) projects for B/X, I took a page from Gygax's book and included rules that new PCs would start at 3rd level...however, much as I see the practical value of increasing survivability to that allowed by such an experience level, in principle I find it distasteful: I want players to have the full experience of beginning at zero and "paying their dues." Starting at 3rd level...even though the benefits provided are few (extra HPs, higher thief skills, bonus spells)...is a bit of a cheat. Or, to look at it another way, what's the point of having a 1st and 2nd level if it's going to go unused?

The point, of course, remains survivability in order to better sustain the campaign...and I have no interest in going the Hackmaster route of giving everyone +20 bonus hit points to begin (nor including extensive critical rules as an offset). But how can you increase hit points while maintaining 1st level? Using a character's constitution score as a base (it is "3D6" after all)? But then, do monsters need to determine CON? Are we going to throw standard definitions for systems like hit dice out the window? That's a crappy idea if one is hoping to maintain design consistency (which I am...for the sake of learning an already tricky-to-learn system if not elegance).

For me, I've come up with an idea that is outside the normal B/X "box," synthesized from multiple RPG designs (both my own and others). I call it Fortune points, and it works like this:
Player characters (and only player characters) begin their career with a small amount of good fortune to represent their inherent specialness and importance as protagonists. A first level PC receives two fortune points at the beginning of each game session, which may be spent as follows: 
- one fortune point to change a successful opponent attack to a "miss"
- one fortune point to change a failed saving throw to a success 
Any fortune points not used in game session may be cashed in for a straight bonus of 100 experience points. Fortune points may not be saved and "banked" between sessions (use it or lose it). 
As PCs advance in their career, this beginner's luck gradually diminishes: a second level PC receives only one fortune point at the beginning of a session. A third level (or higher) PC receives no fortune points. Player characters reduced in level due to energy drain, curses, etc. do NOT receive a larger number of fortune points; once they've advanced beyond the beginning levels, their luck has effectively "run out."
I will address the other issue of character class effectiveness (for magic-users and thieves) in a later post.