Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Busy, Busy, Busy

No wine tonight, but I'm still up at 4am (not for long). I've actually got a few things I've got to work on this week (non-game related), so blogging will be sloooooow unless I get some sort of frenetic bee in my bonnet.

Actually, today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent, and I was considering giving up the blog for forty days...might be able to finish a couple other writing projects if I wasn't researching post topics in my spare time. Well, we'll see. I'll let folks know if I decide to do that.

Speaking of projects, I've got four "in the hopper." Hopefully, one of 'em will come out more than half-baked.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Wino (Whiny) Thoughts

Sometimes it's hard to believe (as I sit here in the heat, at quarter to two in the morning, drinking myself into slumber with a tasty malbec) that we (my family) will one day be leaving this country for good...and quite possibly sooner than expected. Heck, we might even be back by March.


"Hard to believe," isn't really the right phrase. I most assuredly believe I'll be back in my home in Seattle, but it's hard to feel it in your heart when you're in the thick of it. Until you actually walk through your door and the whole years spent in a foreign country fades away like a bad dream. Years. I've been in Paraguay for years now. I remember, back in college, giving my then-girlfriend a lot of shit for her major in "Latin American studies." Why the hell would you study that? I remember teasing another good friend mercilessly for her major in Spanish (though I understood her reasons for wanting to learn the language). Who cares if it's the second most widely spoken language in the world (after Chinese)...why would I ever wish to travel south of the U.S. border?

Why indeed.

As I've written before, it is quite possible I will look back on these years as some of the best of my life, because of the free time I have, and the time I have to spend with my children. I have not used it as well as I could have. I could have done more with my children. Or I could have focused more on my writing. Instead, I've half-assed both...but that comes from a lifetime of shoddy self-discipline on my part.


Even so, Paraguay has been good to my family. It has been good for me. I am terrible at adaptation. I am a big-ass whiner and complainer. I have been a crotchety old man, stuck in his ways, for decades. Paraguay has forced me to blow some of that shit up. I'm still a complainer. I'm still stuck in my ways. But I can see that and I know it's a choice, and I can choose to be otherwise. I haven't felt that way since 1997...a long f'ing time ago.

But please don't misunderstand: this country is a shit-hole in O So Many ways. I don't mean to be flip...I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. Oh, you can make a lot of money down here if you've got money to invest and it doesn't burden your soul to, you know, exploit human beings. That's not really my bag, though. And I wouldn't recommend it for "missionary work," either. No one down here is really interested in being "saved" (in any sense of the word). In the words of Some Great Street Philosopher: "It is what it is." Oh, I have great hope for change...there are a few people who care about that here; more than a few even. But it is really, really hard to buck inertia...and there are folks actively fighting against progress. They don't want to lose their cash cow.

Have any of my readers seen the movie, Dazed and Confused? Great movie...reminded me very much of my uncles in Montana (and, thus, my very young childhood). There's a line in the film, spoken by a teacher to her students on the last day of school:
"Okay guys, one more thing: this summer when you're being inundated with all this America bicentennial 4th of July brouhaha, don't forget what you're celebrating...that a bunch of slave-owning, aristocratic, white males didn't want to pay their taxes."
And that's certainly true. But here's the thing: slave-owning, aristocratic, white males were the people who had power, wealth, and freedom in their time...the ones who were in a position to make a change, real true change, within (what would become) their country. Such change doesn't come from "grass-roots" organization...the "grass" is too busy worrying about putting food on their table to create an effective revolution. The Magna Carta was forced on the King of England by the nobility, not the peasants. Francisco Madero, the instigator of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, was from an extremely wealthy family. Jose Rodriguez, the true "founding father" of an independent Paraguay was a lawyer and politician, the son of a tobacco farmer, with a substantial education (a doctor of theology, a master of philosophy). 

Real change, for good or ill, needs to be a top-down affair...though if you don't have "buy-in" from the proles, it's going to be tough to make it stick. And one of the main problems with Paraguay is that most (not all) of the people in power don't have any interest in creating any real change. They simply don't give a shit. They're more self-absorbed than your average American. And that's really saying something.

But even without the corruption and the exploitation and the ignorance and the contentment of people in power to let the country fucking rot while they vacation in Cancun and Miami...even without all that, it's hard for me to recommend Paraguay. It's too hot. It's got too many bugs. It's got epidemics of dengue and zika (year-round mosquitos coupled with standing water/sewage from broken pipes will do that). It's got poverty...bad poverty. The kind where people have simply adapted to being impoverished for generations and even when they're offered housing and job training, they go back to their hovels which is closer to their panhandling gig and use the free housing as a "weekend house." It's got...

Blah, blah, blah. No one cares. Most Paraguayans don't really care. They don't. It's just the big tranquillo way of life. Sleep on the sidewalk after lunch. Piss on the street when you need to piss. Sit around sharing your mate in the shade of the mango trees growing through the middle of your un-paved street. Who cares? Abortion is illegal and the age of consent is 14, and they've got orphanages filled with orphans, and they celebrate when some primary kid is having an affair with her teacher because she's "trading up" and there's still chipa to eat and half a dozen professional soccer teams to watch and a red meat asado being fired up for friends and family on the weekend...if you can get there without someone smashing into your car on the drive over to their house (a house with electrified, barbed wire running around the wall and shotgun-toting security in the guardhouse on the corner watching for motorcycle-riding purse-snatchers).

This place. Get me back to my sky-high property tax 10% sales tax and $5 lattes and $50 tanks of gas and people bitching and moaning about (what my wife and I now refer to as) "first world problems." At least I know the taxes are going to paved roads and funded services (like police) and efficient bureaucracy. At least I can get a draft beer that doesn't taste like Corona Light. Yeah, I won't be able to afford a housekeeper, but I still have a dishwasher and a kitchen without ants. Yeah, I'll have to do my own laundry, but at least the whites will come out white. Do you like bathing your children in water that's yellow-green? I don't. There's one sewage treatment plant (it's new) in the whole damn country of Paraguay. Yeah, it rains a lot in Seattle...and least there aren't people (and cars and highways) being washed away in floods every time it rains. Oh, my throat and sinuses are aching to be away from the constant hum of air-conditioners, 24 hours a day.

Naked, promiscuous, friendly savages...that seems to have been the main draw for Spaniards to set up permanent shop here, on this part of the Rio (prior to the Jesuits coming in to educate and save souls, that is). At least, I don't really find much other historic reason for the creation of this country. Sure they were cannibals, but they only ate their enemies (and really only the enemies they respected). Now, of course, they have ranches filled with cattle and thousands of acres of soy beans for export. And the friendliest (i.e. lowest) tax rate in the Americas. But even if I was fluent in the local language, these things would not be reason enough to stay here permanently. I'd rather have paved streets and drivers who give the right of way to pedestrians. I like chipa, but I'll settle for a pumpkin scone. Or a bagel with lox. Or a bowl of non-sugared cereal. Or any of a thousand other options. You don't get options here. I went to the grocery store yesterday and there were no beans. No beans. Like, a can of beans. When was the last time there were no beans in your supermarket? 

Give me the beans. I need that more than the easy sexual mores.

Ugh. It's 3:30am and I'm still venting. I'm sorry. Everyone's asleep but me, but I've got a busy day tomorrow, so I should TRY to sleep. I had planned on writing about D&D (specifically, the strength stat...don't ask; maybe tomorrow). But I've been drinking wine, and I'm feeling "venty." I know I'm probably being terribly unfair in my criticism here (again)...my son's school, for example, is very, very nice and would be wonderful even if it were somehow picked up and dropped down in the United States (it would be better than most of the public schools in Seattle). There are worse places to live than Paraguay, even if you happen to be poor. Places that are getting bombed on a regular basis, for instance. Places in the midst of civil war. Other places living under oppressive regimes and military dictatorships. I'm sure there are folks around the world that would rather be napping under a mango tree in Paraguay. At least they'd have mangos.

Me, I've got the easy life. This...this Paraguayan experience...will all be ending soon, either in two months or six. And no matter how long it actually takes, I'll be spending a good chunk of the time eating meat, drinking wine, and putzing around on the laptop. Bitching and moaning, probably, as only whiny, privileged people can. Lamenting shit that really doesn't matter, killing time till I can get back home...my real home, the only home I've ever known. A place with ocean and mountains and evergreens.

*sigh* I'm out of wine. Time to call it a night.

You Are Here

Weapon Restrictions

Knife fighting is a dirty, nasty business. We'll come back to that, but I just want y'all to keep that in mind.

[by the way, my AFC West childhood won't let me feel fantastic about giving John Elway and the Broncos another Super Bowl win, but I prefer them hoisting the trophy to the paper tiger Panthers (yes, yes, I can enumerate my reasons for criticism, but I shan't bore the non-football folks). Congrats, anyway...now I can stop thinking about football till next preseason]

Before we get to magic-users, we need to talk about clerics. In Men & Magic (volume 1 of the original D&D game), the entry for clerics states only:
Clerics gain some of the advantages from both of the other two classes (Fighting-Men and Magic-Users) in that they have the use of magic armor and all non-edged magic weapons (no arrows!)...
That's it...that's all Gygax writes in reference to the weapon restrictions of clerics. One could be forgiven for reading those rules and considering that ALL normal weapons and armor are allowed to the cleric, and only magical edged weapons are prohibited. Regardless, the only weapons listed on Men & Magic are the personal weapons found in CHAINMAIL: the dagger, hand axe, mace, sword, battle axe, morning star, flail, spear, pole arm, halberd, two-handed sword, lance, pike, and various bows and crossbows. There is no sling available for purchase; neither is there a war hammer. There IS a magic war hammer on the list of enchanted weapons...three, in fact...and it is the only "non-edged" magic weapon besides the mace +2.

Holmes...who uses the exact same weapon list, but only has one magical weapon of the "blunt" variety (the war hammer +1)...writes this about the cleric in his Basic rules:
They may, however, wear armor, including magic armor, and carry non-edged weapons such as the mace or the quarter staff. No swords or bows and arrows can be employed, for the cleric is forbidden by his religion from drawing blood.
Moldvay...who adds the war hammer and club while removing the morning star and flail...writes this on page B9 of the Basic rules:
Clerics are forbidden by their religious codes from using edged weapons, such as swords and arrows. A cleric may only use a weapon without an edge, such as a mace or sling.
The emphasis is added by me, but it's an important distinction...later editions of D&D (3rd, 4th, and 5th) make no mention of a religious code or tenet that prevents the cleric from using edged weapons. Instead, they allow clerics to use "simple" weapons (like crossbows), making a design choice that the reason clerics are unable to use weapons like swords and long bows is their lack of training. Clearly, they are forgetting the Second Lateran Council of 1139 in which Pope Innocent III (reportedly) banned the use of crossbows, as well as bows and slings. At least, against other Christians (the crusader knights had no issue using such weapons against Saracens in the Middle East).

My main issue with the rule is that a mace or war hammer...when used correctly...should still shed a lot of blood. If you crush someone's skull with a mace or club, there will be bloodletting. Bleeding occurs from a break in the skin, and blunt force trauma from a weapon...especially one with knots, flanges, or spikes intended to focus impact force...are likely to cause that break. Not to mention, bleeding from other orifices (eyes, nose, ears, mouth...). That being said, religious tenets (not necessarily Divine Law...there's a difference), can seem silly, arbitrary, or contradictory. They are subject to change; they sometimes do fail to hold up to scrutiny (usually when they've outlived there usefulness or when the context in which they were created has changed). Ranking members of the religious hierarchy are still expected to uphold the tenets of their faith, even when they "don't make sense."

And anyway, rolling around in the dirt with a dagger should be considered beneath most priests' dignity, I'd think.

Here's what I'm NOT particularly fond of modeling: that some weapons are harder to use than others. I mean, let's consider this for a moment. It does require a lot of training to wield a battle axe with full proficiency...using it to parry, and hook, learning to hit with the butt of the weapon, or the back of the head with a reverse move, not to mention understanding the distance one needs to fight optimally (and not allowing yourself to be disarmed upon hooking an opponent's weapon). But just to try and swing and hit a guy with an axe...there's not a lot of "concept" involved in that. You may not be a great axe fighter, but it doesn't require some sort of exalted "martial weapon" status. Certainly not over the hand axe which is pretty much the same weapon on a smaller scale. Fact is, a hand axe is more difficult to use because, while faster, it is shorter, requiring you to get in close to your opponent, which opens you to (and requires you to employ) all sorts of grappling close combat maneuvers. Things happen faster at close distance, requiring more focus and skill, especially when fighting someone with a longer weapon (like a sword).

This holds true for most weapons: most weapons have strengths and weaknesses that require training, practice, and experience to fully utilize. A dagger is an effective weapon...the most effective weapon in the right situation...but damn hard to use by someone who hasn't specialized in knife-fighting. A person without training (and a lot of strength and good grappling technique) will have a difficult time inflicting more than superficial wounds against an opponent who can defend themselves, especially one who has a longer weapon...like a stick. Effective knife-fighting requires speed, cunning, and a willingness for brutality that few folks can stomach. Patience (i.e. staying cool-headed) is also necessary, something that few amateurs can muster with such a "simple" weapon.

[this fight from Game of Thrones, while staged, is still a fair example, demonstrating how a smart knife-fighter can use a cluttered environment to his advantage when fighting against a weapon with superior reach. If they were outdoors, this would heavily favor the dude with the longsword]

The way to "realistically" model these things, by the way, is to go with the AD&D method: give a penalty to ANY character using a weapon in which they lack proficiency. The baseline attack line exists for people who are proficient in a particular weapon and different classes are able train in more weapons than others: the fighter learns how to use more weapons than any other class, but the weapons learned are not "set in stone." It is also appropriate (I believe) to give a martial class like the fighter a lesser penalty for using a non-familiar weapon than classes like the cleric or magic-user, both of whom focus their studies in other areas.

However, this doesn't really justify weapon restrictions. The religious tenets of a cleric does, but no such taboos are mentioned for magic-users. No reason of limiting their equipment is given at all in early editions of the game, save for the AD&D PHB which states:

...they can wear no armor and have few weapons they can use, for martial training is so foreign to magic-use as to make the two almost mutually exclusive.

Now, I believe I've mentioned before that I've worn armor in the past? I had some SCA friends who invited me along back in college, and got me dressed up in a lot of pads and mail and steel plates for the purpose of getting knocked around with padded baseball bats. Sure, it's not the same as walking around in casual clothes, but properly fastened down, it's really not that tough to maneuver in. Heck, it doesn't take you all that long to be accustomed to it (though I'm sure it would be fatiguing to wear for several hours). The point is: I don't have "martial training" and I can wear "heavy armor" just fine.

And likewise with weapons...at the time, my "weapon training" was limited to some archery at summer camp. They gave me a spear to use. Why? Because it's a great weapon for a novice: you can keep your opponent at a distance and you just need to poke at them. Tremendously effective. Oh, they let me use a "sword," too, but my arm got tired from swinging it...I really didn't have the muscles I needed and my technique was poor (especially trying to use a shield at the same time while being attacked by raving lunatics). But I like the spear (with two hands) and I'm guessing that I would've done better if given a smaller club (um, "sword"); with a few weeks or months of practice I'm sure I could get my arm in shape.

Notice that they didn't give me a dagger. Arming a person with a dagger and saying, 'get ready to defend yourself in mortal combat,' is pretty much a death sentence (as I'm sure it is for a lot of 1st level magic-users forced to defend themselves once bereft of spells).  It's a damn last resort is what it is. A thief or assassin loves the dagger, but not for "combat" reasons: it's concealable and good for slipping into someone's kidney when they're back is turned. It's a weapon for fighting dirty, preferably against an unarmed or hindered (tied up, sleeping) enemy. Great for slitting throats, but not for going toe-to-toe in open melee.

Come get some!
Why would any pasty-faced academic (i.e. magic-user) carry the dagger as a weapon? I can see them carrying one as a magical tool (like an athame) but not as a means of combat. Yet, that is exactly what it is expected to be: a weapon, to be used in battle after all spells have been exhausted. Ridiculous. Ridiculous! Why? Why is this the weapon they get? Why not a wooden cudgel? Why not a spear? Why not NOTHING...why not simply say the magic-user is unable to fight effectively in combat, and if forced to do so must roll on the "normal human" combat matrix?

No, instead we have a character class that, as it advances in level, they get stronger in combat (an 11th level wizard, presumably older and more feeble physically, fights as fiercely as an owl bear). And their chosen weapon for training this combat ability? The dagger. Ridiculous.

More later (my time's a bit limited today).

Friday, February 5, 2016

Magical Skills (Cantrips)

You'll probably want to read this post first, for a little background. Oh...and this little follow-up, too.

"Wizard Week" (apparently) continues here at Ye Olde Blog. Wouldn't say that was my original plan for the week, but I can roll with it. Anyway...

After bitching and moaning about my five year old's magic-user's limitations (the child in question? we've yet to get back to the game. Probably in a couple more years...), I received a lot of feedback...which I do appreciate, by the way. But the one comment that made the biggest impression was this bit of an (off-hand?) remark from Thomas Williams, stating:
Oh, and finally, I think if consulted, the spirit of EGG he would say that MUs played by children under the age of 10 can blast doors with a 1-2 on a d6 (modified by INT) ;-)
Thomas, that's kind of brilliant.

Back in...oh...2009 or so I was trying to think up little things to add to the magic-user character to be "more magical." Because a guy who carries around a single spell in their head (as the 1st level B/X magic-user does) ain't all that. And one of the things I considered was the addition of minor magic, something "not unlike AD&D cantrips." Which, I should note, is something I never really allowed or used back in the days when I did play AD&D.

[cantrips weren't outlawed or anything...they simply didn't seem worth inclusion. My co-DM used them a bit, but mainly for NPCs of the "jokey," humorous variety. That's what cantrips were seen as by our group: comic relief. Certainly not a valuable magical resource]

The apprentice hard at work.
It was a suggestion, but one without a specific system, and something I didn't really try to pursue. But a lot of other folks ARE doing cantrippy things to their campaigns. I had at least four different people suggesting the addition of cantrips to help "boost" the beginning mage, and I know of a couple others who allow cantrips as part of their house campaigns (mages in Alexis's campaign, for example, receive 2-3 cantrips on average, plus a couple more with every level. Of course, his 1st level mages can cast three 1st level spells to begin...). Even so, I wasn't very keen on the whole cantrip concept. I just wasn't interested in adapting a batch of 0-level spells from AD&D to B/X, let alone trying to create my own list.

[and, dammit, a 1st level magic-user isn't supposed to be an "apprentice," anyway...]

But after seeing the simplicity in Tom's suggestion...of basically re-skinning existing B/X systems as magical variants...I have a way to give cantrips a try. Here's the proposed text:
By the time human magic-users are ready to begin their adventuring career (i.e. have achieved 1st level) they are presumed to have been trained in the theories of magic and spell creation. The fact that they have created and cast their first 1st level spell is proof they are ready to "graduate" and go out into the world. 
While training, apprentice magic-users learn and practice basic theorems and rudimentary spells, called cantrips. These mercurial magics are unreliable compared to the greater, formulaic spells used by adventurers, but they are good practice for the student precisely because of their difficulty and magic-users retain knowledge of this training even after finishing their studies. 
All magic-users know the following cantrips: 
  • Charm of Opening (2 in 6): With a word of command, a locked/stuck door shudders and bursts open. Does not function on doors that are magically held or locked.
  • Dowsing for Traps (2 in 6): With the use of a dowsing pendant or apparatus, the magic-user can discover if a particular object or area is trapped or not. A failed roll means that the result of the dowsing is inconclusive.
  • Ignite (2 in 6): May start a small fire, such as for  torch, without the need of a tinderbox.
  • Premonition (2 in 6): A minor form of ESP, the magic-user can detect the presence (or lack) of living creatures within a short (30') distance, such as on the other side of a closed door. A failed roll indicates nothing can be sensed. Premonition faces the same restrictions as ESP.
  • Revelation of Secrets (1 in 6): With a few minutes meditation, the magic-user can sense the presence of concealed objects (secret doors and hidden compartments, for example) and gains knowledge of the means to reveal the same. This spell will not detect invisible or magically concealed objects.
  • Water Finding (1 in 6): As dowsing for traps, but will discover the location/direction of natural freshwater outlets (streams, springs, wells, and rivers). This spell only functions outdoors (i.e. in the wilderness). 
The numbers in parenthesis indicate the character's chance of successfully casting the cantrip. Magic-users with an intelligence score of 13+ have a number of bonus points (equal to the number of bonus languages known) to distribute amongst these skills; for example, a magic-user with a 17 intelligence could add one point to ignite and one point to premonition, raising the chance of each to 3 in 6. Mastery of cantrips proceeds over the length of a magic-user's career; with each level earned, a single point may be added to any one of the character's cantrips. 
Each cantrip may be used but once per game session; however, a cantrip only counts as "used" if its casting is successful. A magic-user could thus attempt a specific cantrip multiple times, though not for the same purpose (for example, if a dowsing for traps fails in a particular room, it may not be tried again in the same location, but may be tried in different room later in the adventure).

Thus ends the text.

Astute veterans of B/X will recognize that each of these cantrips is a slightly re-skinned version of a standard adventuring procedure (hearing noise, breaking down doors, foraging in the wild, etc.). The main difference here (besides magical "color") is that the cantrips gain bonuses for a magic-user's (presumably) better than average intelligence, and increase over time...possibly increasing to the level where the cantrip can be used automatically (6 in 6) like any other spell. The trade-off is that, like all spells, each can only be used a single time in the game session...the charm of opening could not be used to blast every door in the dungeon, for example (unlike the bruiser fighter's muscles).

A final note, and then I'll leave off: I'm not a fan of cantrips that add attack or defense (i.e. combat) abilities to a mage. There's a reason magic-users are "nerfed" regarding weapon use and armor allowed; adding cantrips that "correct" this design choice run counter to the spirit of the game in my opinion. Shield and magic-missile are powerful, formulaic spells that address the imbalance, but within the spirit of the game concept. We don't need weaker magic giving MU's the equivalent of leather armor or a throwing dagger, for example.

But I plan on talking specifically about weapon limitations in a follow-up post.
: )

You Know What?

I actually HATE the whole "spell points" thang.

I've got another post coming today, but I just thought I should get that out and up front. I woke up this morning and I honestly couldn't remember what idea I'd had Wednesday to offset my irritation with magic-users. When I went back and read what I wrote I was just, like, oh how stupid.

If I can't remember a concept, let alone a system, two days later then it's probably not quite awesome enough.

No. I was being silly.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Just To Be Mean

After careful consideration, I'm adding a few weapon restrictions to my B/X game:

Spears may only be thrown by fighters and elves.
Axes/hammers may only be thrown by fighters, dwarves, and elves.
Javelins may only be thrown by fighters, dwarves, elves, and halflings.
Daggers may only be thrown by fighters, dwarves, elves, halflings, and thieves.

Is that it? Did I leave out any B/X throwing weapons? I think I got 'em all, yeah?

Throwing a weapon with an intention to injure/kill isn't easy...certainly not as easy as throwing a rock or a baseball. Trying to hit a target that's aware of the danger (e.g. in a combat setting) isn't like simply "going for distance" with a javelin throw. Like many things, it requires specific training and a lot of practice.

My loving wife was kind enough to gift me with a set of throwing knives a few years back (she's at least somewhat tolerant of my weirdness)...special blades designed specifically for target throwing. They aren't fighting knives...they've no guard and they're balanced for throwing. They certainly look nothing like medieval daggers. But with some instruction and a bit of practice, one can get them to stick in a target with proper technique. Most of the time.

So long as the target's not moving. Or covered in armor. Or trying to kill you with its own weapons.

I understand and realize that fantasy adventure games like D&D take a lot of creative license...they err on the side of the cinematic, or pulp literature that inspired them. And that's cool because that's what we want to play: cinematic/literary heroes taking part in pulpy adventures. It's why one blow from an owl bear doesn't (usually) disembowel your fighter, or render the cleric unconscious and concussed. It's why your sword talks to you and fireballs fly from the bearded geezers finger-tips.

However, let's put things in a LITTLE bit of context. In real life combat, one would be hesitant to throw a dagger (or any weapon) at an opponent. You leave yourself unarmed (or down one weapon) and you may be arming your enemy. Plus, it's hard to do...hard enough to be fairly unreliable, certainly a tactic of last resort unless you're talking massed pilum throwers of the Roman army or something.

But in a heroic fantasy game that features single combat and small scale battles, we can be forgiven a certain degree of creative license. Hell, a certain degree is to be expected. Even so, that "certain degree" is never so much as to allow pasty academics of occult lore to turn in Danny Trejo like performances. Sorry.

Not a wizard.
SO...no more magic-users with bandoliers of throwing knives. Not in my games, not as a matter of course...perhaps if they spend a "feat" or two (or whatever equivalent I use) to acquire the proper training. And maybe not even then. Too frigging ridiculous.

Now consider THAT and then tell me: do you thing the 1st level magic-user might need something more than a single spell to go with that pointy thing in the scabbard?

No more knife-throwing wizards. I'm done with it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Paying Dues - Magic-Users

[continued from here]

Monday, I decided it was time to teach my son how to play D&D. I offered him a choice between Holmes Basic and B/X and he decided on Ye Olde Moldvay. Here is a picture of his character sheet:

The writing is mine, other than the name (yes, he decided to name the character after himself). The picture is his (in case folks are wondering, he has a small pet monkey perched on his shoulder...a request from my son, that I allowed him to purchase for 10 gold pieces). All equipment (including a normal dagger...the silver one was "too expensive") is written on the back.

The choice of magic-user was based on his ability scores (3D6, rolled in order), intelligence being his best stat. His choice of spell (magic missile) was based on my brief description of the magic system and each available 1st level spell. This was to be B/X strictly "by the book;" with the only exception being that I allowed him maximum hit points at level one. I opened my book to The Haunted Keep scenario in the book, explained the background and started the game with Diego the Mage (and Meme the Monkey) outside the door to the east tower, where the goblins' tracks had led.

"I blast the door with my magic missile."

I explained (again) that his spell could only be used once per day, and that was really intended for combat. I also explained to him that the tower was fairly dilapidated and the wooden door was rotten and hanging by one rusty hinge...easily opened without the aid of magic. Would he prefer to save his spell? Yes, of course.

He entered the tower and avoided the pit trap (thanks to his 10' pole). After exploring the pit with his rope, he proceeded through the interior door, finding himself in a hallway with doors to both the left and right.

"I blast the right-hand door with my magic missile."

I should point out that my son only just turned five (last month). His relationship with doors are not the same as an adult, nor even an older child. There are many doors he's not allowed to pass through without permission. Doors that are stuck or locked can easily confound him (especially if the key hole is higher than he can reach unaided, as with our exterior door). And, of course, he has no preconceived notions of how the D&D game is "supposed" to be played...I'm trying to NOT instill any of my "gaming sensibilities" into him, wanting him to formulate his own ideas, come to his own conclusions. In the past, I've taken this tactic with "newbie" role-players and found the results surprisingly excellent.

However, here I was running up against the confounding limitation imposed by the D&D system...that ridiculous model that requires characters to "pay their dues," playing multiple sessions of ineffectuality (is that a word?) before becoming even mildly proficient.

Mmm...let me back up a moment. It's not really the model that's "ridiculous." A fantasy character beginning her adventuring career can be expected to be a bit wet behind the ears, and should also be expected (with time and experience) to become more proficient and effective. To me, that's what the whole level thing models...1st level characters are new to the career while a 9th ("name") level adventurer should be pretty darn proficient...near the top of her game, really. At least, that's kind of the implication of making a "name" for oneself, no?

[of course, I realize that's not actually the case. Character hit dice peak at level 9 and most "endgame" options are opened for B/X characters at this level. However, magic-users don't gain their full abilities (spell-wise or endgame) till 11th level, fighters gain even greater attack abilities at levels 10 and 13, while thieve abilities don't start hitting the 90s till levels 11 and 12. In the end, the only thing reaching "name" level actually ensures is the end of new level titles for your character]

But a 1st level magic-user shouldn't even be let out of the tower. Compare such an entity to, say, the children in those Harry Potter novels (and please allow me to say for the record that I dislike a LOT about J.K. Rowling's wizarding world, both as a setting, as a magic cosmology, and even as children's literature. Sorry, J.K.). Look at the newbie wizard, Skeeve, from Robert Aspirin's humorous Myth books. While clearly "apprentice level" youngsters, their abilities utterly dwarf that of a beginning magic-user in B/X...or most Old School editions of D&D.

More powerful than your seer.
This is not a new bitch for Yours Truly, by the way. This post is a pretty good example of my standard gripes. But while I've come to accept (or, rather, re-accept) "Vancian" magic (in light of its injection of a distinct play style...not to mention ease of implementation), I quite simply hate the way it scales. One more time: it's too weak at the low levels; too much at the high levels.

Yes, too much. 30-40 spells...hell, 20 spells...is simply too many for a single session of game play, in my opinion. Consider a typical session: you can expect perhaps 4 to 7 encounters in an evening of B/X play; my sessions average about six, probably four of which have some sort of combat component or potential (interactions with "monsters," in other words). Should magic-users be able to cast a spell every round? Or should there be some threat of "running low," prompting them to husband their resources? To me, 10-12 spells in a game session feels about optimal (2 or 3 per encounter, with another 2 to 3 used outside of combat), with something like 15-18 spells being the maximum (for the highest level characters) for a single game session...though even that feels pretty darn high to me.

Note, I'm talking about the number of spells being cast, not necessarily the number of spells known. I think it would be fair (and sticking with the strategist play style paradigm) to allow a magic-user to actually know more spells than they can cast (that's an AD&D concept, by the way, not B/X). On the low end (for the newbie adventurers), I'd think four or five spells cast would be about right, maybe as low as three for a truly deficient wizard. The problem is, how can you scale that over X number of levels?

Doesn't that dude with the pointy hat look capable of more than one spell?

[in writing this, I am reminded of the Dungeon! board game. In the 1975 edition, wizards received 7 spells to start (each spell being represented by a card that was discarded when cast), but could opt for an additional +D6 spells by choosing to forgo the use of magic swords during the game]

Because THIS is the main "carrot" for the magic-user. M-U players are not expecting to gain much in the realm of combat ability (HPs/attack bonus), but they are expecting to become more proficient in their craft. More spells known, more spells cast, and more powerful spells. Certainly, these things are best linked to level (the more proficient the adventurer, the more powerful the magic)...I'm just not sure they need to be linked in the specific fashion they are.

This is about to go off the B/X grid. Ah, well...just call it a 'thought exercise.'

I suppose the easiest thing thing would be to link spell-casting to hit points. Spells would be given a power rank (say, from 1 to 3) and each spell cast would drain a number of hit points from the caster. I did something similar to this in Cry Dark Future in order to model Shadowrun's "mana burn" system, and it worked pretty good...but then even a 1st level spell-caster in CDF/SR can fall back on an automatic weapon when they're running low on spell juice.

[I say this would be "the easiest thing," though one could certainly fall back on the CHAINMAIL system...as I did in Five Ancient Kingdoms...of requiring a dice roll to effectively cast a spell, with higher level characters having a better chance of casting spells...in effect, making the magic system more-or-less the same as combat. But here I'm trying to preserve the asymmetry of the class and magic system, even if I'm otherwise changing it]

*ahem* The note here is that unlike a traditional "spell point" system (Palladium, as an example) you're only tracking a single resource: your character's health. Plus it measures the effects of pain and suffering as a distraction without the need for "concentration" checks and such. Also, it models that hoary staple of fantasy literature where the mage sells her life to get off "one final spell." I dig all that.

So then, what effect would leveling up have on your character's magical might? Other than increasing your hit points, of course. Well, you'd need gain additional spell knowledge (more arrows for your quiver)...perhaps one or two spells per level...and might increase the power rank of spells that could be learned. With such a system, I'd probably try something like:

1 point spells at 1st level
2 point spells available at 4th level
3 point spells available at 7th level

With 1 pointers being the equivalent of 1st and 2nd level spells, 2 pointers being the equivalent of 3rd and 4th level, and 3 pointers being 5th and 6th level spells.

Alternatively, you could keep the standard rate of spell level gained (2nd level spells at 3rd, 3rd level spells at 5th, 4th level spells at 7th level, etc.)...but I'm not sure that's really necessary. After all, B/X fighters don't learn more weapon and armor types as they level up, and thieves are likewise stuck with the same skills at 1st level as 10th (yes, they get the ability to read languages and magic..but magic-users gain the ability to enchant items and brew potions; it's a wash). Allow each character to start with a number of spells determined by their intelligence...say six for average INT and add the standard B/X modifier of plus/minus one to three.

That gives a range of three to nine to begin and, on second thought, I'd probably limit the number of spells gained to one per level. However, magic-users could attempt to "master" any spell scrolls found (adding the spells to their repertoire) or spend hard earned treasure on additional spell research to increase their knowledge. That's a win-win in my book: players have a good reason to spend gold and it gives me an alternative use for spell scrolls (since they won't function the same under this system as they do in the Vancian universe).

I do want magic-users to pay some dues, after all...I just don't think their dues need to be as high as they are in the default B/X system.

[as always, feedback and disagreement is welcome]