Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Chop! Staves and Spells

[this is my final post in a series discussing the removal of "saving throws" from your D&D game. You can see the formative thoughts here and here; links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3...plus a four part series on "dragon breath"...um...here, here, here, and here. Let's get to it]

Well, it's about time...a few ten thousands of words and a couple weeks later, we're finally down to the last saving throw on the chopping block: Staves and Spells. I managed to get both kids to sleep (Sofia is literally "rocking out" to Don Felder's Heavy Metal (Takin' a Ride) next to me), so the beer's been cracked and the laptop's been fired up. Let's see if I can get through this before people start waking up.

I'll start with the easy one first: Staves. A magic staff is just a lesser extension of the magic-user's might...if we can get rid of magic wands (either because we don't need saves to dodge magic ray-guns or because we're rolling them into the overall category of "magic") then we can easily drop the longer version.


Now let's take a step back for a moment and talk about dice rolling, that hoary tool for randomly resolving in-game happenings. Fortune (as the injection of random chance is called) is a great little bit of impartiality and surprise...a little somethin'-somethin' to keep everyone on the edge of their seat during a game, even when the DM's narrative abilities fall short. Gamers of all stripes are prone to dislike too much random chance...we've outgrown the strategy-less days of Candy Land and Chutes & Ladders, after all. Allow us at least some (and hopefully more) input into what happens...otherwise, why not just hit the casino down the street and throw some cash at the roulette table?

[*ahem* okay that's a ridiculous apples-to-bowling balls comparison. Forget I mentioned it]

Let's put it a different way: while we like some randomness - to surprise us, to thrill us, to not leave things up to GM fiat (see Amber: Diceless Role-Playing) - it's certainly not the dice-rolling that drives our interest in role-playing games. Even when we hear the phrase, "Let's hurry up and get to some dice rolling," what's being asked is that we get to one of the exciting, active parts of the game...because those are the times when dice-rolling (for the most part) are going to take place. This IS a "fantasy adventure" game we're talking about, ja?

SO...we don't want too much randomness...just enough. That's one of the reasons I wanted to cut damage rolls out of combat: find a way to incorporate the resolution of random damage (if you even want random damage...see my Five Ancient Kingdoms for a different option) into the attack roll, rather than random roll followed by random roll (followed by random roll again, if you're using an "initiative" mechanic). It's one of the reasons that I hate things like "dodge/parry" rolls (sorry Rifts, Chaosium, etc.). Let's just get to the meat of the action: it's your turn in the combat round, you get one roll to see how successful you are, then it's someone else's turn. Period.

I'm not a minimalist...I still want some back-and-forth in a resisted sequence of action (which is what combat is), rather than "one roll scene resolution" (see Story Engine as an example). I just want things tightened up, okay?

[and, yes, there are sometimes when extra dice rolls are cool with me: usually games that involve lots of gunfire and bullets and rolls to see how riddled with holes you are...but that's not sword-swinging fantasy, 'kay?]

And so now we get back to our topic at hand, and the problematic issue of D&D's Vancian magic. See, when we look at Chainmail we see that magic was divided into two, one-roll type actions:
  • Fireball/lightning throws from a wizard wherein certain targets (Heroes and whatnot) received a "save" roll, and
  • Other spells that had no save, but required a dice roll from the wizard to succeed.
Wizard takes a spell (or spell-like) action and one die roll determines whether or not it is successful. In the former it's a save roll, in the latter it's the wizard's own casting roll.

What D&D did with its adaptation of Chainmail magic was to remove casting rolls (and counter-spelling, but that's its own story) and instead limit spell-casters in other ways...namely, quantity of spells and spell accessibility. Chainmail had some limits in quantity of spells (though even the most insignificant of Seers still had unlimited fireballs and the ability to turn invisible at will), but any wizard, regardless of power, could know the spell cloudkill or anti-magic shell (for example), not just spell-casters of "high level."

By implementing this Vancian sensibility (spell-casting is not so much a matter of the character's skill, but a matter of storage capacity), it makes it a lot harder to CHOP magic saving throws. I mean, if you make magic-users roll a D20 to cast spells (the way fighters have to roll a D20 to successfully damage someone), then its simple to say, hey, no save allowed buddy. Because...well, I've asked this question before in this series (several times) so I guess I can do it once more: what the hell does this saving throw versus magic represent?

My 11th level magic-user has memorized the spell Flesh to Stone, successfully implanting the living, wriggling bit of magic in my noggin. What is the difference between casting it at a 1st level fighter rather than a 10th level fighter? What does the one with the "10" saving throw have that the one with the "16" doesn't?


Absurd. The magic is the magic. For that matter, what does it mean that the 1st level fighter makes his saving throw? If it's a matter of willpower "resisting the magic" then Why O Why does a save versus a lightning bolt still mean the character takes half damage? Why doesn't the same principle of resistance (no effect) apply?

This bullshit is further confused with 3rd edition and its different saves (Reflex for lightning bolt...as if someone could dodge a flash of lightning...versus Will for imprisonment), and compounded in 5th edition with different ability saves for different spells (Constitution, Dexterity, Wisdom, whatever).

"Dodge this, pal."
"It's just magic, dude...get over it." Bullshit, I say. It's not "magic"...it's game design and lazy game design at that. You have a resource (magic) that has an in-game effect and you're giving the target an "out" (saving throw). But just as we can read a fantasy novel and say, hmmm, this plot is full of holes and doesn't make sense logically we can say, boy this design is full of inconsistencies. Sure...there's magic and it works "magically" (the way a "hyperdrive" in space opera works on scientific principles that can't be explained in real life). But if they don't have internal consistency, they're rendered absurd or ridiculous or whatever you choose to use as your derogatory term. Do you want to play Steve Jackson's Munchkin? Or do you want to explore a fantasy environment that works on consistent natural (and supernatural) laws? Sure, sometimes the beer & pretzel game is fun, but if you want satisfying, long-term play you need to hold your game to a higher standard than just, "well, this works."

Because that's what you're doing now: oh, we want magic to automatically work BUT we don't want it to automatically work. Dude...figure it the fuck out.

Now, I've got my own take for the new fantasy heartbreaker, but my magic works on different principles than the Vancian model. For purpose of illustration I'll describe it a bit...though keep in mind that mine's a different animal from standard "wa-hoo" D&D:

Magic is hard, but not relegated to people with a natural "gift." Anyone who falls into the "above average" education level will know some magic, but only dedicated scholars are going to know more than a handful of spells. Similar to mathematics (in our real world), magical knowledge is gradually built upon a foundation of knowledge...you need to learn "prerequisite" spells before you can learn the higher arts. There are different "levels" of spells (three, in fact), but they are not restricted to a particular character level...a higher spell level just means a more difficult spell to cast. This difficulty is modeled by the target number a spell-caster must roll to successfully create the spell. Having a higher level of experience means its easier to cast the spell (like a high level fighter has an easier time hitting a low armor class).

Now, keeping in mind that this is how magic operates in my heartbreaker, where would a saving throw fit? If a fighter hits you with a sword, do you receive a saving throw to avoid taking damage or (God forbid!) death? No, of course not. If you failed to wear adequate armor, picked a fight with a dangerous warrior, and stayed within sword-reach, well...that's on you, buddy. Why should magic be any different?

As it is, the arbitrariness of saving throws in D&D is pretty ridiculous. The only thing that doesn't keep a DM from achieving a TPK with a 1st level magic-user using a (save-less) sleep spell on a group of 1st - 3rd level adventurers and then slitting their thieving throats is the sheer kindness of the DM. Why shouldn't the NPCs arm themselves with the exact same repertoire of magic as the average PC adventuring party? Magic-users are supposed to be highly intelligent right? Why play them stupidly? Have the orc shaman throw an auto-hit magic missile at the 1st level party's magic-user and watch that "sleep bomb" go down the toilet.

But noooo, "that's not fair." You'd much rather have a game where the PCs go into the dungeon, fire off a sleep spell at a group of goblins, retreat, rest for the night, then come back and do it again. Boy, am I tired of that.

SO...I don't have (or need) saving throws versus magic for my new heartbreaker. If a character wants to resist a command while under a mind control spell (as is depicted so often in Conan-style fantasy), they have a (limited) resource called Grit that they can spend. But that doesn't help you folks who are still playing D&D. How can you chop saves, while sticking with your Vancian paradigm?

Well, let's look at the B/X spells that would give saves and see if we can just get rid of 'em (the way the designers have already done away with saves for 1st level spells sleep and magic missile). Okay, my list shows the following: Charm Person, Light/Darkness (in the eyes), Continual Light/Darkness (same deal), Phantasmal Force (disbelieve), Web, Fireball, Hold Person, Lightning Bolt, Charm Monster, Confusion, Dimension Door, Polymorph Other, Curse, Cloudkill, Hold Monster, Magic Jar, Death Spell, Disintegrate, Flesh to Stone, and Geas. Oh, wait: web doesn't have a saving throw in B/X...good. Cleric spells with saves include the same ones listed, plus Silence 15' Radius (if cast on a person), Cause Disease, Dispel Evil, Finger of Death, and Quest. With a few slight alterations, we should be able to axe all the saving throws here.

[sorry, I could go through all of OD&D and AD&D and BECMI but that would take a much longer series of posts than what I really want to do. You should be able to extrapolate as necessary]

Magic-user spells first:

Charm Person: this spell basically gives the caster a "12" reaction roll ("Enthusiastic Friendship") and should be treated as such: the monster is charmed, not dominated. Any command/request that goes against something the creature would normally do should break the spell. Creatures with a high intelligence should never be charmed for more than a day.
Light/Darkness, etc.: don't allow this to target a creature...period. Cursing someone with blindness is a 4th level spell; why would you allow the PCs to do so with a cheap Continual Darkness?
Fireball/Lightning Bolt: reduce overall damage to D6 per two levels (round up). No saving throw.
Hold Person (or Monster): limit this to creatures whose HD do not exceed the caster's level.
Phantasmal Force: just don't allow it to do harm. If it's touched, it's dispelled; forget "disbelieving."
Charm Monster: as charm person, but again limited to no more HD than caster level. Groups must have less than half HD/level.
Confusion: problematic for a number of reasons. Just limit it to creatures of 2HD or less (or reduce the duration for larger creatures). More useful as a battlefield spell (see Chainmail).
Dimension Door: don't allow its use on others.
Polymorph Other: do not allow targeting of creatures with more HD/level than caster.
Curse: why should a player receive a save when there's no save against a cursed scroll? Answer: they shouldn't.
Cloudkill: limit poison to damage. Duh.
Magic Jar: limit to creature with HD/level not exceeding caster's level.
Telekinesis: no save allowed.
Death: this doesn't need a save; use as written.
Disintegrate: limit to single creature with HD/level not exceeding caster's level.
Flesh to Stone: limit to creature with HD/level not exceeding caster's level.
Geas: limit to creature with HD/level not exceeding caster's level.

Cleric spells next (I should probably note that I dislike the idea of giving saving throws to clerical spells in general...this IS the divine will of the gods we're talking about!):

Silence 15' Radius: can't cast it on a person.
Cause Disease: no saving throw.
Dispel Evil: total HD affected cannot exceed caster's level.
Finger of Death: total HD/level of creature cannot exceed caster's level.
Quest: no save, but must be same alignment (and/or religion) as caster.

Does this make spell-casters more dangerous? Sure...but that's to the good, in my opinion. Anyway, the average party of adventurers is going to outnumber the number of auto-kill spells a caster is going to throw at a party...and I'm sure the players with spell casters will appreciate not having their spells thwarted by a good DM saving roll (ask my old player Luke how frustrating that can be).

However, there is the matter of the use of a high Wisdom since (in B/X) its only benefit outside the cleric class in providing a bonus to saving throws versus spells. My thought? Use it to award "grit" points to PCs that can be used to automatically resist a magic spell that would otherwise de-protagonize the character (that is: mentally control the PC or transform their body in some way). In B/X it would look like this:

13-15 +1 grit point
16-17 +2 grit points
18 +3 grit points

Give ALL player characters one or two grit to start (a below average WIS would result in a lesser starting amount). Grit is regenerated at the beginning of each game session. Sound good? Sounds good to me.


: )

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Chop! Dragon Breath (Part 4)

[continued from here; last one, I promise!]

So, then, we come to the big question: how does one do battle with such a monster?

I spent a couple-few days reviewing various dragon slayings in (non-D&D) film and fiction, and compiled a short list for review:
  1. Unnamed dragon (from Beowulf). Slayer: Beowulf (with Wiglaf). Method: multiple (four) sword strikes. Result: Beowulf mortally wounded by dragon fire.
  2. Vermithrax Pejorative (from Dragonslayer). Slayer: Ulrich (with Galen). Method: suicide bombing (via magic). Result: Ulrich sacrifices himself.
  3. Bryagh (from Flight of Dragons film). Slayer: Sir Orrin. Method: (thrown) sword to creature's chest. Result: Orrin mortally wounded by dragon fire.
  4. Maur (from The Hero and the Crown). Slayer: Aerin Red-Hair. Method: dagger plunged through eye (up to shoulder) into brain. Result: badly maimed by dragon fire with lingering mortal wound.
  5. Smaug (from The Hobbit): Slayer: Bard of Esgaroth. Method: dwarf-forged arrow to creature's chest. Result: Esgaroth ("Lake-Town") is destroyed in fiery conflagration.
  6. Lambton Worm (from folklore). Slayer: John Lambton. Method: multiple sword wounds in river preventing regeneration (river washed away pieces). Result: Lambton family cursed to untimely deaths for nine generations.
  7. Glaurung (from The Silmarillion). Slayer: Turin Turambar. Method: sword wound to underbelly from hideyhole. Result: Turin was fine but dragon's final curse loses him his sister/wife and unborn child (and leads Turin to commit suicide).
  8. Maleficent (from Sleeping Beauty). Slayer: Prince Phillip. Method: (thrown) sword to creature's chest. Result: no damage (thanks to magic Shield of Virtue).
  9. Unnamed crocodile (from legend of St. George). Slayer: George of Lydda. Method: lance charge from horseback. Result: nothing thanks to Christian devotion.
  10. Fafnir (from Volsunga). Slayer: Sigurd. Method: sword stab to left shoulder from below, while hiding in ditch. Result: Sigurd gains magical powers, but is cursed for taking dragon's treasure (and things go downhill from there, eventually leading to untimely death).
There are some commonalities in the majority of these stories. Firstly, the battle with a dragon is most often a solitary one. Even when a hero brings an army or entourage, they're chickening out long before the showdown with the beast. You can chock this up to magical "dragon fear" (a la Dragonlance by way of the 1st edition Monster Manual), but big monsters are just too much for non-heroic types to handle. And they're ineffective to boot: the arrows of Bard's guardsmen simply bounce off of Smaug's scaly hide. In Dragonslayer we are told that when King Gaiseric went against Vermithrax with "his best company of fighters," none came back alive. This doesn't mean that a hero can't have aid in slaying the dragon...and D&D is a game of multiple protagonists...but it's something to be considered.

Secondly, in almost every case, the slaying of the dragon is only accomplished with sacrifice and/or at great cost. Four of the heroes listed are left dying as a direct result of the wounds they suffer while fighting the dragon. Three are subject to curses received as a result of killing the monster. Only Bard, Phillip, and St. George escape personally unscathed, but Bard's entire town is destroyed and its people left as refugees. As for Phillip's fight...well, it's a 1959 Disney film for children and not actually based on real folklore (there's no dragon in Little Briar Rose). Meanwhile, St. George doesn't even face dragon fire...I should probably have left it off the list.

[perhaps I should have listed Niner and King Roland from Stephen King's The Eyes of the Dragon, but while Niner is majestic and fire-breathing, he is still treated as a beast to be hunted not a monster of epic proportion]

In every case (except with poor ol' Vermithrax), it takes a piercing weapon to do the job. A good axe can take a chunk out of a thick tree, but not one wrapped in steel-strong hide. Often, magical aid is helpful in getting the job done. Phillip gets a lot of fairy help, not the least of which are his magic sword and shield.

In nearly every case (except The Hobbit) the slaying of the dragon is accomplished from close range. This has the unfortunate propensity of exposing the hero to the monster's breath weapon which...unless protected by magic (Galen, Phillip)...is absolutely deadly. The heroes doing the slaying are usually already cooked, and it is only their inherent grit (Orrin, Aerin, Beowulf) that allows them to deliver the death blow. Otherwise, some form of stealth may allow the hero (Turin, Sigurd) to strike while delivering the hero from physical damage...but really what's the bottom line, here? 'Cause this series has already lasted too long for a single saving throw...

With these things in mind, let's consider how to restructure combat for dragons.

[oh, what...you don't like special "dragon combat rules?" Why not? Every D&D editions always included special combat mechanics when fighting dragons. They're a different beast]

"My armor is like tenfold shields..." --Smaug

A dragon has a defensive class ("ascending armor class") equal to ten plus its hit dice, at least in B/X (a red dragon has 10 HD, for a DC of 20; this is the equivalent of the dragon's listed AC of -1. The white dragon has 6 HD, and a DC of 16...four less than the red and again equivalent to a B/X AC of 3). But while the DC is what must be "rolled over" for a successful attack, it doesn't tell the whole story. You can't kill a dragon with a mace or an axe or even a war hammer...its hide is too thick and much too hard. You must use a long, piercing blade: a spear, long sword, lance, pike, etc. that can be stabbed between scales or into vulnerable areas, like the eyes.

From The Hero and The Crown (McKinley, 1984):

"It is customary today to hunt the dragon with arrow and thrown spear; but if one of the Great Ones comes again, this will avail his attacker little. As their size has diminished, so has their armament; a well-thrown spear may pierce a small dragon anywhere it strikes. The Great Ones had only two vulnerable spots that might be depended upon: at the base of the jaw where the narrow head joins the long neck; and behind the elbow, from whence the wings sprout. Dragons are, as I have said, nimble; it is most unlikely that a Great One would be so foolish as to lower its head or its wings to make an easy mark. A great hero only may slay a Great One; one who by skill and courage may draw close enough to force the fatal blow."

If you want to allow PCs to nickel-and-dime dragons, then allow magical weapons (only) to inflict a maximum amount of damage equal to their magical bonus (only) with a successful attack. They are otherwise only inflicting pinpricks on a dragon with their feeble attacks: they are mosquitos to its hide...simply irritants (and that's with a successful attack). For actual methods of slaying a dragon, we must turn back to Chainmail.

Chainmail provides two means by which a heroic fighter (a Hero or Super Hero) may defeat a dragon: fantasy melee or the (much easier) "shoot-it-down-with-an-arrow-when-it-flies-overhead" method. We'll forget the latter (for the moment...we'll come back to it), because we're not trying to model the singular Bard the Bowman (and making such a method easier is the surest way to turn a unique situation commonplace). So instead, we'll look at melee:

A Super Hero (8th level fighter equivalent) slays a (Great Red) dragon on a 2D6 roll of 11+, and drives it back on a 10. A Hero (4th level fighter equivalent) slays a dragon on a 2D6 roll of 13+, and drives it back on a 12. Note that it is impossible for a Hero to kill a dragon unless armed with a magic sword (which gives a bonus to the roll). A Super Hero escapes death by dragon fire on a 2D6 roll of 7+.

Okay, now lets convert those percentages to D20 rolls (since neither B/X, nor my new heartbreaker, use 2D6 as their standard mechanic).

A Super Hero can slay a dragon on a D20 roll of 19+. That 11+ on 2D6 is about an 8.5% chance of success. Rolling a 19+ on a D20 is a 10% chance, but I'm willing to give a little extra. A Super Hero is the equivalent of an 8th level fighter (+8 to melee attack rolls in my game), meaning the PC has hit a target of 27 (19+8) to slay the dragon. What is a 27 when compared to a red dragon's aforementioned DC of 20?

A perfect strike from a strong (13+ STR) person.

Remember that in my "revised combat system" every rollover point equals 1 point of damage inflicted by a PC. Swords and spears only inflict a maximum of six points (though that maximum can be increased by strong characters, or enchantment). To inflict 7 points (a perfect thrust of greater than average strength) requires an attack roll seven over the DC of the opponent.

A 4th level fighter (the equivalent of Chainmail's Hero) cannot achieve this result against a red dragon. She needs something extra...like a sword +1, +3 versus dragons.

Sorry, Galen...it ain't happening.
The D20 roll for a Super Hero to escape a blast of dragon fire is 9 or better (a 60% chance...a skosh more than the 58.3% of 7+ on 2D6). Of course, we want ALL player characters to have a chance to escape dragon fire, not just the 8th level ones, so we work backwards from here: PC must rollover 16 to avoid dragon fire; add level to roll. There that was easy enough. The arc of a dragon's breath weapon isn't enough to catch more than one or two PCs at a time if they stay spread out and harry the monster from multiple sides. Tactics become important here, since the breath weapon equals death. A magic shield might add its bonus to this roll...if it's a big enough shield.

Ah, but what if you've got to kill a dragon and there're no 8th level warriors in the party and you're totally willing to sacrifice yourself heroically? Good question! I'm doing away with the rules for subduing a dragon (duh) and instead instituting something I like to call "Going for the Kill!" One PC of the party can draw the dragon's attention and ire and get all close-and-personal...as opposed to dancing around hoping to hit the jackpot roll while avoiding dragon breath. When you "Go for the Kill!" you receive a +5 bonus to your attack roll, meaning even a 4th level character can slay a Great Red with an 18+ roll (18+4+5=27). Interestingly enough, this improves your chances to the same as if you used the "shoot dragon's underbelly with bow" rule from Chainmail: 15% for Heroes, and 35% for Super Heroes (40% with a high Agility score). See? Told you we'd come back to that!

Going for the kill is not all wine and roses, however. By (pretty much) challenging the dragon to single-combat and getting in close, you will be subjected to dragon fire. That means no "rollover save" to avoid the flames...the PC isn't trying to avoid the flames, she's trying to deliver a death blow. The mechanic works like this: you must announce you're "going for the kill" before rolling initiative. If you lose initiative, or if you miss your attack roll, then your character is bacon...or, at least, mortally wounded (I believe I mentioned before a little resource called "grit?" It allows characters to fight on after being mortally wounded, which means you can see a Beowulf or Sir Orrin type combat, where the hero still slays the dragon despite being slain himself). It's tough...but that's the price you pay to be a hero.

[regarding the possibility of magical curses and whatnot, I leave it up to individual DM's to decide how magical and fairy tale nasty they want their campaign setting to be]

All right, this was a lot longer than I intended it to be. Thanks for sticking with it. I'll get to chopping the last saving throw a lot sooner...probably tomorrow (and that post should be a lot shorter). Oh, on the subject of magic...specifically, how PC magic-users can use their powers to slay dragons...my inclination is to again refer back to Chainmail, where magic just doesn't affect the monsters (fireballs and lightning bolts just drive 'em back "one space"). You might arrange to have some sort of suicide explosion spell like Ulrich uses in Dragonslayer, but magic in my own heartbreaker is going to be a bit more on the "understated" side, anyway. If you want to kill a dragon, get a lance...or a very long sword.
: )

Friday, September 26, 2014

Chop! Dragon Breath (Part 3)

[continued from here. Sorry, real life's been keeping me busy, so let's jump right in]

From the D&D Basic Set (Moldvay, 1981):
PARTY ACTIONS: The first decision a party must mke in an encounters whether to fight, talk, run, or wait to see what the monster will do. 
If the party chooses to fight, combat will begin... 
If the party chooses to talk (and if the monster will listen), the DM plays the part of the monster. The players can ask questions, make bold statements, and otherwise react to the creature. The encounter may then become peaceful (agreement!), hurried (as the monster or party runs away), or violent (if the talks lead to combat). 
If the party chooses to run away, the monster might not follow, in which case the encounter is over. If the monster decides to chase them, the players must try to outrun it or distract it so that they may escape... 
If the party chooses to wait to see that the monster will do, the DM must decide the monster's reactions.
This, then, is our blueprint with which to start.

Let's begin with the presumption that dragons are never "just another encounter." For a beast to have lived hundreds of years (enough to become a serious threat or to accumulate a hoard worth pillaging), the beast must have used both its might and intelligence. Unless you wish to have "dragon country" where the beasts are small and treated like vermin to be stamped out (see Robin McKinley's The Hero and The Crown as an example) we're not talking about St. George's crocodile. We're talking about giant, flying engines of destruction.

Good model for "little" dragons.
[if you do want to have small, lesser dragons like those in McKinley's book, I would use the exact same stat-line as the D&D hell hound to represent them. There would be no save for their breath attack, but damage from their flame tongues is minor enough to make them dangerous without being deadly (well representing the novel's creature)...assuming the PCs have no kennet ointment to protect themselves, of course]

Encounters with dragons should be momentous occasions, not random battles. Oh, it's not a bad idea to have one on a wandering monster chart for a particular patch of wilderness...have one fly overhead, far out of arrow range, before returning to its lair, already sated on some farmer's cattle. The passing shadow is enough to put a little fear of God into adventurers while cluing them in that there is such a creature in the vicinity...should they wish to tackle it.

More often than not, any dragon with which the party is going to interact should be encountered in its lair (we're talking about chromatics here, not those goody-two-show gold dragons that wander around polymorphed in human form). There's a couple reasons for this: one is dragons sleep a lot. They do this to conserve energy, giving time (sometimes years) for the food supply to repopulate after devastating the countryside. If dragons are constantly active and hunting, your fantasy setting is going to look like the post-apocalyptic depiction in the film Reign of Fire. A world of ash with people living in caves, in other words.

Over-hunting leads to a depopulated food source.
Dragons also tend to stay in their lairs to guard their hoards. A combination of intelligence and avarice makes them homebodies, suspicious that some thief is going to purloin their stash...which is just as well for the folks outside its lair. If the beast gets hungry, it's probably going to level a nearby town, gorging itself so that it doesn't have to go out again for awhile. This can lead to a cycle where small communities, devoid of heroes (perhaps because they died trying to defend the town), give the dragon regular tribute in the form of treasure and cows (or people) and whatnot.

So the monster is going to be in its home, more often than not. If a dragon is perched on the local church steeple than something terrible is probably about to happen.

When in its lair, a dragon is probably sleeping. What else would it be doing? Watching TV? Updating Facebook? Probably not counting its money...and probably not eating either (the eating and digesting of food is accomplished outside the lair, though nearby. You'll be able to smell dragon territory as you approach). Unless you just followed it back from a hunting excursion, it's snoozing more likely than not. I wouldn't bother worrying about a percentile roll for this: just use a regular surprise roll, with any roll of "surprise" indicating the creature is asleep. The chance of surprise is based on how the party approaches...all a-clinking in armor and weapons? Standard 1 to 2. Taking caution to be stealthy? 1 to 4. Unarmored halflings should, of course, surprise on a 1 to 5.

Failing to surprise the monster doesn't mean it wasn't asleep...it means you woke it up.

Now, unless the dragon has had previous dealings with the characters in question, most times it's going to be at least a little curious as to who dared enter its home uninvited; dragons are well aware of their own might, after all, and quite prideful/arrogant because of it. It is unlikely that someone has come hoping to slay it...the idea is folly (and anyway the dragon is confident in his own abilities regarding such an attack)! There are several likely reasons someone may have stumbled into their lair: perhaps they are lost and bumbling, perhaps they've come with a message, perhaps they wish to bargain for a favor or service, or perhaps they are there to offer some sort of tribute. Of course, the dragon reasons that the most likely reason for uninvited guests is theft: someone has dared to brave the dragon's lair because of tales of its great wealth and the hope of pilfering something of value.

In most cases, an awakened dragon will want to question these strangers: not out of any love of conversation (though who's to say a solitary dragon doesn't get a tad lonely?), but to ascertain both motivation and threat level. Even thieves are not destined for an immediate barbecue: the dragon is going to want information from would-be burglars, including accomplices, financiers, and earlier forays that may have been successful (it is always possible this isn't the thief's first attempt, just its first time being caught). Assuming such conversation is possible, play becomes a battle of wits with the dragon, as players try to keep themselves from the fire with riddles, flattery, obfuscation, and subterfuge. Reaction rolls become important (and good Charisma scores)...though keep in mind that adventurers outfitted like thieves and mercenaries will probably receive penalties to such rolls.

"Greetings, mortal worm!"
Even if such conversations go south, its unlikely that the dragon is simply going to open fire. This is the dragon's home, after all, and its breath is as destructive to its possessions (i.e. treasure) as to interlopers ...remember the legendary avarice of dragons! If there's no overt threat from the PCs, the dragon is probably content with scaring them off...preferably after making them empty their pockets. Three or four adventurers aren't much of a snack anyway: the skinny ones are hardly a mouthful, and the fatter ones are tough to get out of their metal shells (and may leave bits of armor lodged between teeth). No, unless the adventurers are determined to throw themselves into battle, the dragon is probably content to run them off its property and go back to napping. It can always track them down by scent later, should it so choose to amuse itself in that way.

So, what if the PCs can't communicate with the creature? Vermithrax Pejorative wasn't much for talking...though she seemed to recognize and understand human speech well enough (several characters talk to her throughout the film, receiving reactions...and how else would the king have been able to make the bargain for twice yearly offerings?). Even if the dragons in your campaign lack the capacity for human speech, creatures that understand (and appreciate) the value of treasure should probably have some comprehension of speech...or be able to read their minds, or smell emotions, or whatever. These are reasoning creatures...not just animals to be butchered. And so, even one-way communication should still be possible (and the dragon's own body language can communicate to the PCs what it thinks of their discussion...see the dragon in Shrek as a comedic example).

Running away is a fine strategy when facing a dragon, of course, and for the reasons above DMs can let players escape unharmed...assuming, of course, that they haven't taken anything from its hoard. Stealing from a dragon is the surest way to draw the monster from its lair and it will pursue such filchers to the ends of the earth. Not only for vengeance, understand, but on principle...the dragon can't let adventurers go spreading stories of the creature being an easy mark, or it will only be a matter of time before thieves strike again. Now adventurers that taunt a wakened dragon with a piece of purloined treasure should of course be subject to immediate immolation, unless some drastic (magical) measures are taken (unlike the Rankin/Bass film's portrayal, Tolkien's novel states Bilbo only stole a cup when the dragon was asleep...it was upon returning to the lair that he conversed and taunted Smaug, and the only reason he escaped more than a singe was Smaug's inability to fit more than his nostrils into the escape tunnel; Bilbo never faced a full blast of dragon fire).

If PCs are willing to run, let them. If they're willing to sacrifice something (throwing down the weapons they're carrying, dropping a sack of treasure), let them escape UNscorched. If they're really deserving of a singing, let the dragon give 'em each a single die of damage (die type depending on the creature's size) as it sends them on their way.

[to be continued in one last installment]

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Chop! Dragon Breath (Part 2)

[continued from here...again, sorry about that]

These are not the dragons of Beowulf. The Big B fought a fire-breathing dragon, and kept fighting even after taking a mortal wound from the beast's flame. Or maybe they are the same: it depends on how you read the poem and interpret the final blow (was it the loyal retainer Wiglaf's blow that mortally wounded the monster? Or was Beowulf's dying strike really needed to finish it off?). But Wiglaf was no superhero in the way Beowulf was, destined to slay terrible monsters. A hero, yes...but that is all.

SO...saving throws. The problem here is that unless you want to reduce your game to fantasy folklore, you have to deal with all the various dragons present in the D&D game. White dragons and blue dragons and gold dragons and whatnot. In Five Ancient Kingdoms (a game based in large part on Chainmail) I limited myself simply to the fire-breathing dragons of folklore. And for my new fantasy heartbreaker I will probably due the same (though I may have fire breathing versus venomous-type worms, I probably won't be doing "acid breath," etc. like D&D. Probably...). That's my style choice...but for purposes of this post I'll assume we're talking about modifying a "normal" D&D game with all its chromatic crazy.

Let's start with a model. For fun, I'll use Vermithrax Pejorative from the classic fantasy film, Dragonslayer. Per the movie's design team, "Vermithrax is 40 feet long, with a wingspan of 90 feet. But she had to look light enough to fly. So most of her weight is at the head, neck, and shoulders. The rest of her is pretty streamlined."

This is what 9 Hit Dice looks like.
Forty feet is a little small for a red dragon, at least according to the Monster Manual. Length for the red is given as 48 feet; the blue dragon at 42 feet is the closest in size. Since an average blue has 9 HD (which is within the hit die range of the red dragon) will go ahead and give VP the same.

Vermithrax is a 400-year-old dragon. In the film, Ulrich states: "When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit...crippled...pitiful. Spiteful!" Book 2 of OD&D cuts off at the century mark when HD were still only D6. Supplement I (Greyhawk) increased HPs by 2 "at the two oldest ages," but the age table was not extended. Holmes Basic did extend the age table, giving ancient status (8 HP per die) to dragons over the two century mark. In the Monster Manual, Gygax revised this: ancient dragons were those with more than 400 years. 3rd edition gave dragons 12 age categories, but kept the first eight the same as the MM, simply revising the names (Very Old becoming "Mature Adult;" Ancient becoming "Old"). Personally, I'm inclined to use the Holmes table just because I prefer a smaller scale chronology (thousand year old dragons? That's, like, Star Wars...aka galactic...scale). Plus, it fits with Ulrich's statement which implies the dragon is nearing the end of its life. So, we'll give ol' Verm ancient status and 8 HP per die.

9 HD x 8 HP = 72 hit points. Enough to kill an 18th level B/X magic-user with maximum hit points and an 18 constitution. A 20th level fighter with a +1 constitution bonus has, on average, 71.5 hit points...she dies, too. Assuming, they fail their saving throws.

And that's what we're talking about, right? Axing saving throws?

[other chromatic dragons are fairly close in scale. The white dragon equivalent of Vermithrax (small and ancient) will have 40 hit points...enough to freeze an average 8th level super hero (36 hit points) in his tracks. Again, assuming he (or she) receives no saving throw]

"Interrupt my nap, will you?"
That's a fairly hefty amount of damage ...at least prior to AD&D's hit point inflation with its D10 hit dice for fighters and CON bonus that goes up to +4, per HD. No, it's not a huge inflation...but things have only gone up from there. Which meant that monsters, especially dragons, have had to get bigger, too...but I'm digressing. If you keep the scale small...limiting the amount of HPs characters acquire, limiting the levels they can obtain, limiting bonuses for ability scores...then a monster like Vermithrax is a HUGE monster, a formidable encounter for any group of heroes. Which is good since we really don't want dragons to be "ordinary monsters."

If you keep dragons dangerous (by limiting PCs, allowing them to become legendary through their deeds, rather than their "stat lines"), then it doesn't matter how many HPs the thing has. If you get caught in a stream of acid, or a cloud of poison gas, or are struck by lightning, your character's not walking away. I mean think about that for a second...characters that fail saving throws but still have HPs left? What's THAT look like?
"Five hit points left...have at thee!"

No, it's obvious to me that if you get doused by dragon breath, whether fire or acid or whatever, you're done. Toast. So what's the mechanic for killing PCs (and allowing their possible survival...they are the protagonists of the game's story, after all)?

First off, I don't think there should be any attack roll for a dragon's breath weapon. Dragon breath is too big, too dangerous, too potent for armor to deflect or human reflexes to dodge. If you're in range when it breathes, you're getting hit.

On a related note, I would probably change the shape of all "fantasy" breath attacks to the same cone of effect. A blue breathing lighting or a black breathing acid can sweep an area with their breath attack. This isn't a spitting cobra we're talking about, and dragons aren't stupid animals. As far as "chorine gas" goes...I go with 3E on this one: corrosive, acid gas settling on stuff and destroying it. Chlorine gas (which was briefly used in WWI) just isn't as dangerous/deadly as the other destructive, elemental breath weapons.

Second off, dragon breath kills. This ain't damage...it's death.

Then how can PCs escape this death? Because they ARE heroes...at least in my new heartbreaker. At worst (in early editions of D&D) they are rogues with above average courage and ambition. Regardless, they're protagonists. This isn't Chainmail where only Super Heroes, Wizards, and other dragons are important enough to weather the fire...how do we get our brave little PCs to survive these un-savable, un-miss-able, auto-kill attacks?

Well, my initial thought on the matter is: it depends on the actions the PCs are taking. Player choice, not an arbitrary roll, is going to be the main determination of PC survivability.

But that, it appears, will have to be in a Part 3. Sorry, yes, I know we still have one more saving throw to go...and we will. But dragons (and their abilities) require strong consideration in a game that bears their name in the title.

[to be continued]

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Chop! Dragon Breath (Part 1)

From the Monster Manual (Gygax, 1977):
Example of Subduing a Dragon: Two 8th level fighters, a 7th level dwarves fighter, an elven 4th level fighter/6th level magic-user, and a halfling thief of 9th level stumble upon a huge red dragon peacefully asleep upon a veritable mountain of treasure. After a hurried, whispered debate the party opts to strike to subdue as that will a) give them a dragon to use or sell, b) save treasure from destruction by avoiding the fireworks of a general melee, and c) the subdued dragon will have to point out and help carry out the choicest treasure items. The smaller, quiet party members circle the dragon. None stand at the beast's head. With a shout the party strikes with a general bonus of +3 to hit. They all succeed, and the halfling thief gains quadruple damage... The first melee round is over.
...Combat goes to round two. As the dragon has just awakened, the party again strikes first. Four of them hit... The dragon chooses to breath (dice score 99%), so he turns his head and fires right where the elf, dwarf and halfling are attacking. Saving throws indicate that each takes 44, 88, and 44 hit points of damage respectively. All three char and die.
The full entry is worth a read. It takes four rounds, but the remaining fighters manage to finish the subdual process (thanks to a random roll in round three that causes the dragon to bite instead of breathe and win on initiative in the the fourth round). However, I'm not sure anyone can see it as more than a pyrrhic victory: how long did it take the demihuman characters to accumulate their levels? How much of the treasure will be spent to raise them from the dead? Likewise, how long will the dragon remain subdued before slaying the two fighters? Based on the section for Length of Subdual, I'd guess the answer is "not long."

Subduing dragons for fun and profit seems to have disappeared from the D&D game circa 2000 (i.e. with the advent of 3rd edition). At least, I don't remember it being part of the core 3E books (I don't have them for reference at the moment). However, the idea is a strange one regardless...look at the reasons cited in the above entry as "practical" reasons for subduing a sleeping dragon:

1) It will "give them a dragon to use or sell." Who would buy such a dangerous, uncontrollable creature (and what's the going rate for such a sale?)? This isn't like poaching a giraffe to use in the Emperor's arena of blood sports...you're talking about a critter who can barbecue anything in its path, and who can turn a medieval town into so much kindling in a matter of seconds (it's not like the bucket brigade is going to stand a chance at putting out the number of wooden structures a dragon can fire with a single breath). Perhaps a wizard would be interested in buying a dragon for spell components or magic item manufacture...but then it doesn't need to be alive for that, right?

2) It will save treasure from destruction by "the fireworks of a general melee." Clearly this was a shortsighted idea. There was no avoidance of melee and the fire was let loose in round two. Just a terrible idea from the get go. If you want to avoid the destruction of hoard items, your best bet is to first lure the dragon outside of its lair (see Burglar Baggins as one possible method. Cows and virgin sacrifices appear to do the trick, too). Just a bad, bad idea.

3) The dragon will pick out (and help carry out) "the choicest treasure items." Wow, how naive are these adventurers? A red dragon in AD&D has exceptional intelligence (15-16) regardless of whether or not it can speak "human language." That means it's probably smarter than everyone in the adventuring party, with the exception of a magic-user. Why wouldn't it simply pretend it can't speak the PCs' language (all the while listening to their plans and schemes)? Assuming someone speaks dragon. what motivation does it have to point out "the choicest treasure items?" Wouldn't it be more likely to point the fighters towards those magically cursed weapons and armor its been saving for just such an occasion? Wouldn't it have a little enmity for these weak fleshlings that dared invade its home? Wouldn't it be scheming to kill them and return to its hoard (and its choicest treasure items) at the soonest opportunity? And how exactly is it going to help carry treasure out? In it's craw?

Anyway, how'd it all work out for the party in the example? Not very good, right? The dragon woke up, and blasted the adventurers with its fiery breath. Three members were affected, two made their saving throw versus Dragon Breath, and all died. Barbecue. AND, I would like to note, that this was under the AD&D rule of dice randomly for whether or not the creature breathes: in B/X the  dragon's first attack is ALWAYS with its breath weapon (duh), and then the chance of melee is 50% (3 in 6) thereafter.

Here's my thought: is it really a saving throw if a successful save results in your character's death?

As mentioned in my original post, the idea of a "save versus dragon breath" comes from Chainmail where certain fantasy pieces (specifically the Super Hero and the Wizard) have a chance to resist being "removed from the board" when the dragon belches death at them. The saving throws for an 7th level fighter ("Super Hero") and 11th level magic-user ("Wizard") is modeled on the same percentile chance save, though OD&D uses the D20 rather than the 2D6 roll. Lesser character's chance of save is extrapolated from this.

But back to the question: is it really a "save" if you still die? How many hit points would an 11th level wizard have? A maximum of 57 in OD&D (with Constitution 15+) or an average of 29 (with lesser CON)...and this is diminished considerably in later editions, even with the advent of Supplement I (which dropped the magic-user's HD type to D4). An 11th level magic-user in B/X has a maximum of 38 hit points without CON bonus and an average of 22 (and resist fire isn't a magic-user spell). Against, O say, an adult green dragon (8 HD, 40 HPs), you're talking about probably getting gacked, even if you save against the cloud of chlorine gas...especially if the mage has already taken 2-3 points of damage in prior encounters (since magic-users aren't frontline fighters, minor damage often goes unhealed...'Oh, he's okay.'). An adult red dragon (10 HD, 50 HPs) will certainly kill the average 11th level magic-user, save or not.

So let's talk about dragons for a moment...my own conception of them are largely drawn from two sources: The Hobbit's Smaug (mainly the 1977 Rankin/Bass film, whose character...and dialogue...is nearly word-for-word perfect with the novel) and Vermithrax Pejorative of the 1983 film Dragonslayer. The two portray very different depictions of the classic monster, but they share a couple traits (aside from being badass):

  1. Incredible destructive power...enough to dramatically change the way of life of entire communities.
  2. An almost total un-killability...they're pretty much immune to the kind of attack portrayed in the Monster Manual.

In fact, the closest representation to either of these beasts is found in Chainmail, which was almost certainly modeled after Tolkien's dragon, Smaug.

"Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a pl -- oh SHIT!!!"
Chainmail's "Great Red" dragon creates the same cone of fire found in all the early editions: half an inch wide at the mouth, extending to 3" wide at the terminus of the cone with an overall length of 9". B/X and Holmes Basic doesn't bother with inches, simply converting to the "dungeon equivalent" (where 1" = 10 feet). But Chainmail (an outdoor wargame) has a much larger scale where 1" = 10 yards...and I believe this is the proper outdoor scale given in those early editions of D&D as well.

That's a huge amount of area on which one can burn. 90 yards...nearly the length of a(n American) football field. As the field is 53 yards wide, a dragon could sit at one end of the field and cook most of both teams in the opposite "Red Zone" (with the exception of the wideouts and defensive backs). That's just a lot of flaming destruction. That's not something you can dodge or duck or escape from.

And what exactly is that flaming breath? Is it the flaming, super-acidic venom spit in Moorcock's Elric books? Is it a jet of napalm snot? Is it a blowtorch jet of flame, like what is released to raise a hot air balloon (except on a grander scale)? Is it hot enough to touch off a firestorm, igniting the very air? The sheer amount of flame produced in one breath would seem to indicate that (in spectacular fashion)!

In Chainmail, nothing can stand against dragon fire, with five exceptions: fire and earth elementals (for whom dragon fire has no effect), super heroes, wizards, and other dragons. And these latter three are still destroyed unless they roll a 7+ on 2D6 (a 58% chance of survival). Giants, wraiths, rocs, trolls, heroes...they're all toast, save or not.

So what did the save originally represent "in game?"

One can presume that dragons themselves are somewhat immune to their own flame (certainly around the mouth/face region of the body). Perhaps, on a failed save, the creature has its wings damaged somewhat and plummets to its death (dragons are flying creatures). Perhaps their scaly hides are immune to flame, but a failed save indicates the fire finding that "chink" in their armor and burning out their heart...the same chink a super hero can exploit in Chainmail with a well-placed arrow (8+ roll to auto-kill...the same 42% chance that a dragon has of failing its save). Humans, after all, have hydrochloric acid in our stomachs...but you wouldn't want to dump it in our bloodstream.

[and note again: other than such an arrow, dragons are impervious to normal melee and missile fire or the spell bolts (fireball and lightning) of wizards. They are invulnerable juggernauts...it says something about the power of dragon fire that it has the ability to bring down its own kind]

But super heroes and wizards aren't huge, flying dreadnoughts with super-heated innards. What's their story? How do they escape? Since, yes, a successful save does not result in any sort of "half damage." You are either destroyed or you ain't. You are either burned to a crisp or you somehow avoid the flames.

Avoid the flames. Get that? There's no other way I can look at it. Somehow, your charmed character has managed to escape being set alight by fantasy napalm. It doesn't touch you...this isn't a matter of being partially barbecued, or licked with flames, or getting some "splash" damage or something...because the deadliness of dragon breath is near absolute.

So what happened? Lucky fortune. Somehow you managed to fall into a ditch, or find an appropriate type of non-flammable cover just in the nick of time. And it's not the type of fortune that applies to just anyone, because even standard Heroes don't get a break here (only Super Heroes...they're two different figures on the table). The guys that are destined for TRUE greatness...sometimes Fate herself steps in and intervenes in what should be a routine cremation. It has nothing to do with armor or equipment...Super Heroes and Heroes can be equally equipped (or not equipped), enchanted or not. Nope...it's just that one guy is a footnote in history, and the other's a legend. The wizard might have some "remembered spell" to save themselves (the 7+ save is the same as their counter-spell roll to negate a hostile wizard's spell, or fireball/lightning). But the Super Hero? He's just the Chosen One.

[jeez Louise...this is one super looooooong preamble. Sorry, I'm going to have to cut this into two parts. To be continued...]

Monday, September 22, 2014

Fallen Heroes

You'll have to forgive me for the late start, but I only got four hours o sleep and am moving pretty sloooow today. I was up till 4:30am (my time) re-watching the Seahawks-Denver game which, in case you missed it, was pretty darn good (admittedly, my perception of "good" is colored by the fact they won; a triumph of orky toughness over human ingenuity in Blood Bowl terms). I had been forced to skip most of the 4th quarter due to drawing superheroes for my child's school project (don't ask...but it turned out pretty cool), so I wanted to see what happened that lead to collapse after three quarters of domination. The answer: some great play from the Denver defense (leading to nine points), and an impressive 55 second, 80 yard scoring drive from future Hall of Famer (and ex-High Elf) Peyton Manning. A pretty entertaining affair.

But there are many football fans feeling a lot worse than Denver folks this week. People in Baltimore and Minnesota have been coming to grips with their star players being terrible human beings (even as NFL fans in general have been treated to a bellyful of disgust with the way the NFL mucky-mucks conduct their business, allowing winning/profit to trump basic humanity). This isn't a blog post about that: people can read all about it on ESPN or other news sources. I just wanted to say I understand and empathize a bit with how people in those towns feel.

People outside of Baltimore and the Twin Cities may not really grok how devastating it is to find out "the face of your franchise" is a person capable of such domestic brutality or child abuse. Ray Rice has been the celebrity face of the Ravens for years, and Adrian Peterson has been the only good thing about the Vikings for nearly a decade. These people are more than just touchdown scoring athletes; they are heroes to their communities and role-models to children that have grown up enjoying their teams' sports. Americans have a bit of cynicism when it comes to politics and Big Business (like the NFL), but individuals...heroic individuals that you passionately cheer for on a weekly basis...those are the ones you hope to be "good" and not mired in the same sordidness you've come to expect elsewhere.

I said I empathize with what these communities may be feeling, but I'm not referring to my local football team. Longtime readers of this blog have seen me write on more than one occasion of Marion Zimmer Bradley, one of my favorite fantasy authors, and a tremendous inspiration for many young writers (especially female writers). MZB has inspired my game design on more than one occasion, with both her ideas and storytelling, but that's nothing compared to what she's done for real writers, even helping many to get their professional starts. To many, MZB has been a hero and tremendous role-model to emulate.

Ms. Bradley died in 1999. Her last years were marred with some scandal due to her ex-husband (with whom she remained friends and occasional business partners) being accused and eventually convicted of child molestation, dying in prison in 1993. Bradley's own writing in the 1990s was affected by her declining health and most of her publications were collaborations with other writers. Her books and stories have continued to be published since her death, and new books based on her fantasy worlds (specifically the Avalon books and Darkover novels) have continued to appear in print.

In June of this year, nearly fifteen years after her death, Ms. Bradley's adult daughter revealed that she had been subject to years of abuse...physical, mental, and sexual...at the hands of her mother throughout her childhood. When contacted regarding this, Ms. Bradley's younger (adult) son corroborated her daughter's statement and discussed (briefly) his own abuse at his mother's hands, and how it still affects him to this day.

Neither of Ms. Bradley's children appear to have been seeking publicity: they were contacted for statements and gave accounts because they felt it was safe to do so, at this time, fifteen years after the late author's death. Both had long since distanced themselves from their mother, changing their names, helping to put her ex-husband in jail. Neither appear to receive any money from their mother's estate (the son says he was disinherited and receives no money from his mother's estate). There's nothing they seek to "gain" by their stories: their accuser lies dead and buried, and they agree many people have found their mother's work to be a great help...they were, frankly, afraid to say anything earlier for fear of how her fans would react.

It's extremely difficult to find words to express how terrible this is...the idea of how awful it must be to first live through years of abuse at the hands of your own mother, and then to live in fear of publicly revealing that abuse even years after the abuser's death. It's just hideous.

And to those of us who held this person up as a personal source of inspiration or a hero...well, I've written before that anything is forgivable (it is), and that good can still come from people who do evil and despicable deeds (it can)...but still, it is so disappointing, so saddening, so terribly frustrating to see your heroes are...not just "people with human foibles"...but people with a history of doing terrible,  monstrous things to their fellow humans. Especially those who are vulnerable and powerless to stop them. Your feel for the victims, but there is personal sadness, too, to have your hero knocked down from the pedestal on which you placed 'em.

I first discovered this information about Marion Zimmer Bradley in August. Found out about it while idly surfing the internet during an airport layover, researching something else. Knowing how much I've written in praise of the author over the years (on this blog), I've been meaning to write something about this ever since...not just to explain why you probably won't be reading any glowing reviews of her work in the foreseeable future but to acknowledge I am aware of this news. I don't know why it's taken me so long to get to it, but reading the recent Rice and Petersen news stories and contemplating how their fans must feel just reminded me I should probably get something posted.

Just FYI: since this news has come to light, I have read that all income from e-book sales of Bradley's digital backlist will be donated to Save the Children.

Okay...I'll get back to the saving throw "chops" now...probably starting tomorrow. Sorry (for more than one reason) for the interruption.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Chop! Turn to Stone

[continuation from long post here]

Turning someone to stone just by looking at 'em is a rare gift indeed. So rare that, prior to the advent of Dungeons & Dragons, I know of only one creature in mythology or folklore that had petrification as a natural ability: the three gorgon sisters, of which Medusa was one.

No, basilisks do not turn people to stone, unless you mean in the Old English sense of "dead as stones." The cockatrice doesn't either, despite its Wikipedia entry (it cites page 186 of a poorly reviewed eBook fantasy novel as its "source" for this ability). The "gorgon" bull-creature was derived from a misnamed account of the catoblepas, and given its stoning power by Gygax (as actual folkloric depictions of the the catoblepas simply has a "death gaze" like basilisks).

"I'm practically a demigod!"
Medusa (from which the monster of the same name was derived), was a singular creature. Yes, she had two sister gorgons in mythology but, of the three, only Medusa was mortal and thus killable by the mythic hero, Perseus. And you know what? He did just that. Thus ended the threat of monsters with the power to petrify (unless you wanted to take a trip to "Gorgon Island" to look up Medusa's immortal siblings).

There are depictions in fantasy and folklore of magicians turning folks to stone, and I'll be happy to address that in the spell section of this series (coming up!). But monsters turning people to stone is something that doesn't need to be modeled...and thus no saving throw is necessary.

Now, if you really, really, REALLY must have gorgons (like Medusa) in your fantasy game, I understand it. But you still don't need the saving throw. What would such a save represent? The hero saying, "Must...not...turn...to...stone!" And they get so much better at it as they go up in level?

That's how D&D 3.5 (and presumably Pathfinder) represented it...as a Fortitude save. "My 7th level fighter is resisting her petrifying visage?" What? How? "By being extra tough...he has control over the very molecular structure of his body and he's saying, 'Don't calcify, cells!'" Certainly Perseus (a high level fighter and Zeus's son) could have stared her down if such was the case.

No, clearly this is one of those examples of: if you're going to bother to put it in the game, then let it work. The PLAYERS are going to need to come up with ideas/alternatives for beating such a creature...as did Perseus...something besides, "well, I'll just tough it out with a saving throw." You're going to have to fight blindfolded, or use a mirror...either with a substantial penalty to your attack roll. Or else, try to sneak up on the thing when its sleeping (hoping that it's back is turned to you). Depending on the tactic used, the penalty might be more or less (though possibly with a percentage chance of accidentally catching a peek of the creature when embroiled in melee).

Creatures that have these types of auto-kill attack...because that's what they essentially are (you need a 6th level spell to bring 'em 'back to life,' as opposed to the 5th level raise dead, but even so)...should only enter into a campaign setting with some pretty substantial clues to tip off characters' cleverness.  How was a basilisk's "death gaze" defeated in mythology? By carefully placing mirrors about the creature's lair while it was sleeping. But its body is deadly poison as well...best handle it only with thick gauntlets.

If the banshee's wail causes death, best stuff your ears with cotton (or strips ripped from your tunic).

These are the kinds of tricks players routinely come up with. Good DMs don't let the rules get in the way of a good player idea...but then not every DM is "good," and not every player is inclined towards thinking "outside the box." Don't give 'em an excuse not to: get rid of this saving throw and let the chips fall where they may.


[oh, just a quick side note: I see at least one reader thinks these posts are "shite," based on the box he/she checked. However, I don't really see any negative views expressed in the comments section. Not trying to call you out, pal, but I would certainly welcome your  dissenting opinion...just an FYI. Being told I'm wrong and why doesn't bother me all that much. Sometimes it even changes my mind]

Chop! Paralysis and Turn to Stone

[this is Part 3 in a series of getting rid of saving throws in my new fantasy heartbreaker...though you could certainly apply these ideas to your B/X campaign. You can see my formative thoughts on this concept here and here. Part 1 can be found here; Part 2 is here]

Okay...which problematic concept to deal with first?

Guess we'll start with paralysis. As originally explained, the idea of paralysis (being unable to move or act...at least temporarily) first comes about in Chainmail with regard to the Wight fantasy creature. Here's the full entry (per my 3rd edition copy):
WIGHTS (and Ghouls): Although they are foot figures, Wights (and Ghouls) melee as Light Horse and defend as Heavy Horse. They cannot be harmed by normal missile fire. Wights (and Ghouls) can see in darkness, and must subtract 1 from any die roll when in full light. If they touch a normal figure during melee, it becomes paralyzed and remains so for one complete turn. A paralyzed figure is considered to be able to strike a blow at the Wight just prior to paralysis taking effect, so melee can occur but only one round. Zombies are in this class but attack as Orcs and move as Goblins.
Note a couple things here: the text is pretty clear to specify which characteristics are shared by both wights and ghouls; from my interpretation I would say the paralysis ability is limited to wights (and available to neither ghouls nor zombies). Lumping the creatures in the same category is a space-saving device for creatures that (on the Chainmail battlefield) are almost totally similar.

The other thing one notices is the lack of a saving throw.

O wait, sorry...there's one more creature that paralyzes troops in Chainmail: the Wraith. However, that creature's paralyzing touch lasts indefinitely unless cured by the touch of "a friendly Elf, Hero-type, or Wizard." And no, there's no saving throw.

When we get to OD&D we find the Chainmail concepts have morphed a bit. Wights and wraiths now drain energy levels (as they will through every edition that follows) and touch paralysis is limited to the ghoul...the ONLY monster in Book 2 to exhibit this ability. OD&D refers players to Chainmail to see how the power works...one would presume it would last for a single minute (as "one turn" in Chainmail equals one minute of game time) and that the victim would receive no saving throw.

Which is fine, since there is no saving throw for paralysis in OD&D. You can *CHOP* the save versus paralysis and stay right in line with the original RAW.

Holmes Basic adds a couple more paralyzing creatures to the mix (the carrion crawler and the gelatinous cube) and makes sure to note that all creatures (including the ghoul) bestows a saving throw versus paralysis on their victims: except there's no saving throw versus paralysis to be found in the Holmes book.

[the gelatinous cube and carrion crawler first appear in Supplement I and do state that characters receive a "save versus paralysis," but there is no such save found in the book. Or in the later OD&D supplements, at least so far as I can find]

Saving throws versus paralysis first show up in AD&D and B/X, but in different categories: AD&D lumps it in with poison...perhaps because it appears as a monster effect that gets delivered like a contact poison (like being stung by a jellyfish); B/X puts it with Turn to Stone, probably because it has a similar effect (immobilizing the victim). But I'm just guessing.

Here's the question: what exactly are we talking about? A fear effect? A contact poison? A way to wrack up a TPK? 'Cause that's really what D6 ghouls (x3 paralyzing attacks per round) or D3 carrion crawlers (x8 paralyzing attacks per round) is a recipe for: total party kill...at least at the low levels where these creatures are usually encountered. Heck, the gelatinous cube shows up on Holmes's random monster chart for the 1st level of the dungeon...that's a 4 HD monster!

[I've seen a single ghoul take down half of a four man party by itself...the last two characters locked themselves in an exit-less room to keep the thing from eating them]

For my money, the idea of a touch paralysis makes sense for Chainmail's wight because it models the "barrow wight" of Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring (if you want to call Frodo's paralysis of fear to be part of the creature's mystical "chill" effect; the ring-wraiths had a similar "fear" effect). And only a deus ex machina (Tom Bombadil) freed them from the creature's grasp.

In such an instance of magical, involuntary fear...throw death knights and lichees and dragons into this category, too...you're really talking about a character's morale or willpower. The ability to resist a type of charm that would prevent an otherwise able-bodied person from acting. Because normally players have complete control over their characters' actions; the DM is not allowed to say, "You stand there, shaking in your boots, overcome by awe/terror/majesty of the monster." Sure, the players can say that (and often do, jokingly, in 'not-what-my-character-is-really-doing' banter)...but they don't. They are, after all, heroes (of a sort) and men (and women) of action.

If it's a magical effect, it should be dealt with as magic. That post comes later.

If it's some sort of clenched-muscle-induced contact poison, that's a different thing. In my earlier post on poisons, I wrote that non-lethal poisons (specifically gas attacks: sleeping, laughing, tear gas...whatever) should, if triggered, simply effect the target. If you have a monster that paralyzes its prey...like a spider that drugs its prey to eat later, for example...than a successful attack is going to do one of three things:

  • damage the character ('oh, you were knocked down and hurt')
  • poison the character ('oh, the thing bites you')
  • or both ('oh, the thing knocks you down and then bites you')

There are a couple ways to model this, but I think the easiest is to consider using a damage threshold. Assuming that we're talking a monster with a virulent enough "sting" to paralyze a human, figure out the maximum normal damage it would do without inflicting its effect...anything over that is an indication the person's been dosed (with or without extra damage).

For example...say the giant spider really only paralyzes its prey because it likes warm meals (the Shelob syndrome). It won't do much more than buffet a character for minimal damage (1-3 points), but you roll 1D4 for damage with a result of 4 indicating the character has been stung. For a truly monstrous spider with a monstrous sting (like the aforementioned Shelob from LotR...you do know spiders don't sting - they bite - right?), the damage roll might be 1D6 with a 4,5, or 6 result indicating an injection (and perhaps damage of 1, 2, or 3 points due to the size of that stinger!).

You want your ghouls to paralyze prey for some reason? Okay, fine. They're man-sized and unarmed except for dirty-filthy nails and teeth. An unarmed man (in B/X) does D2 damage on a successful attack (from punching and kicking and head-butting). Ghouls are a bit more rabid-vicious so they do D4 damage instead (and I'd personally ixnay the "extra attacks;" it's already factored into the damage and greater HD/attack chance).  Anything over 2 points (head-butting) can be considered a claw-bite-paralysis action.

A carrion crawler paralyzes on any successful attack...but just give 'em one attack per round unless you want them to attack multiple opponents with their tentacles - in which case I'd limit the number of targets to no more than the creature's HD. Three, in other words.

The gelatinous cube is a cube, 10' long on a side, that fills a dungeon corridor but somehow only receives one attack per round. You'd think it could just (slowly) run over anything in its path. Per Supplement I:
"Any flesh which comes in contact with a Gelatinous Cube becomes anesthetized unless a saving throw vs. paralization [sic] is made. The touch also causes 2-8 points of damage as the creature seeks to dissolve and devour flesh."
[the text in Holmes is mainly the same, including the word "anesthetized"]

I'm not sure what this means. The body part struck falls asleep? I'm not even sure how such a creature attacks? With a dralasite-like pseudopod? I'm inclined to use the Moldvay interpretation (creatures struck by the thing are paralyzed, not anesthetized)...otherwise, how would it be able to do its job of cleaning the dungeon of living denizens?

[another problematic concept...do the wandering monsters run from the thing? Do they ever sleep? Or do they just "clock out" at 5pm before the dungeon custodial service starts its nightly rounds?]

The cube doesn't start being extra-surprise-worthy until Moldvay (or perhaps the MM1E...I don't have my copy on me) and if I was going to use the monster, I'd consider axing that ability (a giant shlorping beast that glistens in torchlight?). I'd probably keep the damage at 2D4 and treat the damage threshold as 5 or so (with results of 2, 3, or 4 simply resulting in "numbing" along with acidic burning/digestion). On a 5+ the thing "anesthetizes" enough of the character that you can't run (your legs perhaps, or your head), as well as doing damage. At least, with anesthesia, death should be relatively painless.
Only the surprised can't outrun this thing.
But, of course, you also have the alternative of not using creatures with paralyzing attacks, or repurposing them so their attacks' "special effect" is something other than paralysis...spreading disease is a good one for the ghouls, for example (something I used in 5AK). On the other hand, if attacks are going to have a special effect (like disease) you still need a way to determine whether or not it took effect. Damage threshold works for disease, but you can also take a cue from lycanthropy's magic curse: "Any creature reduced to less than 50% of their hit points are infected." That's fine too.

[so does the B/X giant rat's disease with slight modification: roll randomly after combat to achieve a result of either no effect, bedridden, or terminally ill]

Ugh...this post is a lot longer than I intended. I'll have to handle petrification in a follow-up. Sorry.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Chop! Magic Wands

[this is "Part 2" in a series of getting rid of saving throws in my new fantasy heartbreaker. You can look at the formative thoughts on this weird concept here and here. Part 1 can be found here]

Nothing says "old school fantasy" like a bearded wizard with a pointy hat and magic wand. It's iconic...and not just because it used to be TSR's logo. Well, maybe because of that. But look at all the wand-waving illustrations you find in those old books. Pointy hats and magic wands have the highest ratio of pix-to-page count in Holmes, but Moldvay's not far behind (it just seems like more in Holmes because there are so few illustrations in general). And the DMG has plenty, too.

I really dislike magic wands.

And I'm not just talking about their depiction in film and fiction. Apologies to all the folks who grew up loving Harry Potter: while I've read the books and seen the films I've never been terribly impressed by Rowling's work. And I intensely dislike most of the depictions of the "magical world;" it's like the worst of Glantri, where magic becomes so common that there's little "magical" about it. If we're talking about "wands" in the Harry Potter sense, I'd have to say I hate magic wands.

But in D&D, I've never been a big fan of the magic wand. What is it, but a gun that shoots spells (a gun with no trigger)? A quiver with up to 100 magic arrows (at least in AD&D)? Just another resource to keep track of, except that it's on the DM to track it because the PC isn't supposed to know how many charges are in it.

My experience with wands back in "the ol' days" is that by the time a wand was found, identified, and its activation words discovered, the magic-user was so powerful that he (or, rarely, she) would often forget to even use the thing, instead relying on his own spells. Just an extra piece of encumbrance. The only wand that saw much use was the wand of wonder, because it was fun to see what random weirdness would spring from its end. But even that was usually left holstered during any real combat or crisis.

Perhaps if wands were more like, I don't know, historic or mythological wands...more magical, as opposed to a 10-shot roman candle. Rare items, like Circe's wand (that turns folks to animals - no charges) or even the White Witch of Narnia's wand (that turns folks to stone - no charges). Dangerous things; things of power. Things not to be trifled with.

Traditionally, wands are part of ritual magic, representative of the life principle or the initiation of action. The wand of the magician is a symbol of the magician's authority over nature...like the scepter of a king (though like the magician's magic itself, one easily concealed from the eyes of the mundane). Ars Magica uses wands (and staffs) as an extension of the wizard's own magic power...literally (touching someone with your wand is the same as touching someone with your hand). But the wand itself isn't inherently magical, unless the magician transforms it into a talisman.

Anyway, I'm not a fan of the D&D wand. In fact, I'm tempted to axe them completely from the fantasy heartbreaker unless I can think of a way to make them more interesting. Five Ancient Kingdoms doesn't include wands like what you find in D&D...but then, 5AK doesn't restrict wizards'  magic in the same way as D&D. Part of the reason wands work the way they do in D&D (I assume) is to act as extra spell repositories for magic-users whose magic is limited. If you have a wand of light, you don't need to carry a light spell. If you have a wand of fireballs, it frees you up to carry other 3rd level spells (like water breathing and fly).

But, hey...this is a post about the Magic Wands saving throw, right? Sure it's easy to *CHOP* such a save if you remove wands from the game, but I'm not certain that I'm going to do that...yet. And while I may remove them as the mechanic they are in D&D, that doesn't mean they won't make some other appearance, right? And then the question of a saving throw comes up again. So let's talk about it.

Why the hell is there a separate saving throw for magic wands?

Chainmail, from which it appears D&D draws its saving throw concept, doesn't have "magic wands" (unless you want to say that's what wizards' auto-cast fireballs and lightning bolts represent). OD&D is the first place you see a the Wands saving throw ("All Wands - Including Polymorph or Paralyzation" is the title of the save). OD&D includes the following magic wands in Book 2:

  • Metal Detection
  • Enemy Detection
  • Magic Detection
  • Secret Doors & Trap Detection
  • Illusion
  • Fear **
  • Cold **
  • Paralization [sic] **
  • Fire Balls **
  • Lightning Bolts **
  • Polymorph **
  • Negation

Only the wands listed with an "**" would appear to receive saving throws, all of which would seem to be those that generate a cone or ray or target a single victim (polymorph). I can only assume that the reason for the saving throw versus wands (as opposed to using a more general "save versus magic") is that the saving throw represents the PC executing some sort of dodge maneuver against the wielder of the wand.

In other words, the wand is like a laser gun and YOU, Flash Gordon, must some how duck-n-roll for cover.

"A La Peanut Butter Sandwiches!"
Not only is this ridiculously cartoony (in the Saturday Morning Cartoon sense)...even if this IS the kind of cartoony action you want to model in your game (which is, of course, your prerogative), than Why O Why is it limited to magic wands? Why can't your action heroes dodge arrows and thrown spears and giants' boulders...all those other missiles that PRESUMABLY approach a character slower than a *ZAP* ray from your magic ray gun?

Don't tell me it's easier to dodge a flash of lightning than a hurled dagger. And don't tell me you're "dodging the wand, not the ray" (that's what my old Palladium folks used to use as a justification for dodging a laser: "you're dodging the gun")...fine, then, why can't you dodge the crossbow?

What it feels like (to me, anyway) is that the designers said: 'Well, shooting a laser...er, fireball...at someone with a wand should require some sort of attack roll.' 'But how protective against a blast of cold is plate mail (since the alternative combat system of OD&D determines target number by armor worn)?' 'Oh, yeah, not very. Ummm...let's add an ALTERNATE alternate system where the target is automatically hit, but can reduce or eliminate the effect with a successful dodge roll.' 'Yeah! Save versus wand!'

Something like that.

Regardless of whether or not I include magic wands in my new game, they are certainly not going to be magic ray-guns packing a battery pack. If they have a magical effect that needs to be resisted...well, we'll deal with that in a later post. Otherwise, there's no more need to have a "dodge" roll for wands than I need to have a "dodge" roll for the longbow. We already have a combat system that determines effectiveness of attacks.