Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On Critical Hits

As I was reading the commentary on a recent Grognardia post about ignored rules, I came across this observation by Matthew Johnson:

And then there are the rules that EVERYBODY used that are actually nowhere in the books. For instance, I was amazed to find when flipping through the DMG recently that a natural 20 officially has no special meaning (in the example of play section -- you know, the one with the calcified bone scroll tube in the pool -- one of the characters rolls a natural 20 and it's nothing but a regular hit.)

This is one of the things that I'd embraced more or less every time I have run D&D: a roll of 20 has some special effect, double damage dice or max damage or whatever. I've always been pretty even handed about it, applying it to PC as well as monster rolls, but really - 5% of hits being critical is actually fairly frequent, and the simple system in OD&D wasn't really developed for it. Some kind of critical hit rule was extremely common in actual play, probably because the system is otherwise pretty bland as-is.

Unfortunately critical hits are the opposite of what D&D combat is supposed to be modelling. Hit points are, from OD&D right through to 4th edition, representative of something other than the raw physical capacity to take damage. A single to-hit roll represents, not a single swing of the sword, but a number of feints, parries, thrusts, slashes and so on, and 4 points of damage out of 10 may not represent any physical injury at all but rather exhaustion or draining of the endurance, luck, etc of the character. (In terms of the underlying system this also calls into question both magical healing and variable weapon damage.) Saying that a great hit results in extra damage may be dramatic but it creates dissonance with the underlying combat engine.

The impulse for this is to create the really devastating death blows we read about in Conan stories or medieval romances, when a hero smashes an opponent in the face or rends them clean in half. (Le Morte d'Arthur and La Chanson de Roland are both full of people getting cut in half, sometimes to the point where it kills their horses too.) But I would argue that D&D already models this: when a character dies, it is narratively open how they actually meet their end. Just because you rolled exactly the 14 you needed to hit that orc doesn't mean you didn't hit the bastard right in his eye so the arrow went clean through his skull.

Still, the combat system leaves the impression of missing a certain something, and it makes sense to put it on that crucial roll of 20. But what is really missing from the D&D combat system? OD&D combat is lightning-fast and extremely deadly for most involved. What I am thinking goes like this: if a character hits and it's a 20, the target must roll to save versus paralysis (favoring Fighters) or lose their next turn. It's pretty simple, only adding 1 die roll, and to a saving throw chart. I think it does a good job of preserving that "nice hit" effect, in fact moreso as most combat you'll find in a good sword & sorcery yarn tends to have periods where one or the other combatant finds themselves incapacitated, but manages to come back.

Has anybody ever used a system like this? Can I (should I) simplify it any further, or spruce it up, or use it as-is?

Friday, August 20, 2010

What Trap Charts?

The title of this post references a classic Alarums & Excursions zine that ran in the very early issues. Certainly in my heart I hope it was an evasive denial of real trap charts.

I love charts in RPGs. One of my favorite gaming aids is the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets, and I've always loved the heaps of charts in the Dungeon Masters Guide. Some of the best products of the old school renaissance are the Dungeon Alphabet and the Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Roleplaying Games and Their Modern Simulacra.

I also love traps. I think Jim Raggi's Green Devil Face is fun, and I contributed to it. My first OD&D game included what I affectionately refer to as the "bear trap" (a room with a bear in it, which provoked a ton of discussion that I cut off by pointing out that there was a bear coming at the PCs). Even the cheesy fun of Grimtooth's Traps appealed deeply to me.

So I've decided on a project: trap charts. These are going to be detailed charts to give a wide variety of options for traps. Mainly because I want to use them myself, and I've been thinking of ways to spice up traps beyond arrow, pit, arrow, pit, teleporter, etc. These essentially boil down to a simple set of options; roll or pick from the charts, and now you've got a trap with 4 knives that fire from behind a tapestry when someone makes a noise in the room.

These charts are probably going to come down somewhere from 16-20 pages without artwork, and I will want to publish them. They're pretty system neutral and I'm not worried about what system you use or branding. So three questions:

- Would you be interested in buying these (almost certainly as a Lulu publication)?
- Would you be more interested in a "Trap Charts" product, or as a chapter in a broader product called "Old School Miscellany"?
- What should I do for the art (if anything)? I can't draw but my wife can, although she isn't exactly a D&D enthusiast, but I don't exactly have an art budget.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Magic in Anobrega

Anobrega has four groups of people who I see as having spellcasters: Calthi (Celtic analogues), Toreans (Roman analogues), Maradani (Roma analogues), and Elves. One thing I'd like to see, is that each grouping is more or less unique.

The Calthi are probably the most straightforward: they have druids. I don't think a second spellcasting class is necessary for them, and as it stands with them I'm leaning toward the druid class as written in Eldritch Wizardry. The other no-brainer for me are the Toreans - they have an order of Lawful clerics devoted to Deus Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun), the sun god in a militant guise. The cult itself is almost wholly military, based on the one fostered by Aurelian in particular, one of the best of the barracks emperors, and lends itself well as the sort of "templar" character embodied in the cleric. There are plenty of other priests - in Torean society as in pagan Rome being a "priest" is an honor conferred on some noble or other for ceremonial reasons - but a militant Lawful cleric is a member of this cult. Chaotic clerics are secret priests of Bacchus and have to keep their class under cover, quite different from the open military priests of Sol Invictus.

All that covers the religious casters, and I think the D&D standard is pretty good for my purposes. But then there are magic-users, and I'm a bit torn. Celtic magic is druidism, and I see no need to have Calthi magic users. Roman magic is a bit of a mixed bag, quite a lot of it had to do with divination (through all sorts of methods), while many reputed magicians had abilities that map better to clerics - miracles and the like. It was also low-status, definitely below religion in terms of overall prestige. The D&D magic-user is not a close match for this.

One thing I've been looking at is the Pyrologist, a class that Len Lakofka claimed in his fanzine was Gygaxian but turns out to have been his own work. I think the balance might be slightly off from the default magic-user, but there are two things that really draw me to this class. One, it comes from an old school APA-zine, and by one of the authors who contributed a lot to the AD&D era. Two, the elemental connection is thematically something I'm very interested in. The classical elements were more Greek but fit in well as a way that Torean magic could be something other than "stock D&D magic." I think it's more of a good jumping off point for a set of old school elementalists, though, each having its own replacement for the stock D&D m-u spell list, and also with its own unique not-quite-a-spell power (fire and air are light and wind, water is going to be purifying water, and earth is doing...something...).

Rounding out humans is Maradani, who are a great category to have witches, although this might wind up being an NPC only type using the classic "witch" NPC class, unless somebody can offer me a witch class that really would work well as a PC type. (The one I'm thinking of is from Best of the Dragon #1 and not quite so good for my purposes.) Witchcraft and curses are the direction to go here in general.

All of which leaves me with two classic D&D elements: the magic-user and the elf. I am seriously tempted to just shove the two archetypes together and say that a standard, no-frills magic-user is also a standard, no-frills elf, toss out level limits and the whole dual class / multi class / race as class concept for them. Elves will be either fighters or magic-users, single class. It's not a perfect match but there are things that can make it work. I'm thinking that the reason elves have the "default" magic is not so much that it takes certain races to do it, but that the physical process of learning magic takes so long that no other race lives long enough.

As usual I'm more than open to ideas, opinions, denunciations, and so forth.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Starting toward a setting

So I decided that I'm working on a setting after all, because the ideas I've been kicking around have finally gelled. Here's the historic precis of what I'm doing:

Two hundred years ago, the plains of Anobrega were sparsely populated by the Calthi, a human group of cattle herders not dissimilar from the Celts of Europe. They had no written language but a long tradition of myth, and a similar tradition of cattle-raids. South of Anobrega was the fortress town of Miradius, the furthest outpost of the Torean Empire. But then the Empire fell, and tens of thousands of refugees fled the violence northward. After some struggle, the southern part of Anobrega was settled by the Toreans, who call the area Ambrecus. They do not have kings; the nobility are ruled by a man called the Praefectus, although in fact only loosely, and in theory would be loyal to the Emperor in Torea if there were one. The Toreans look down on the Calthi, who they call the Galtheani in their own language. Toreans are dark, with olive skin and curly hair, and the men dress in solid colors; women wear flowing dresses with patterns. Calthi are fair, with light hair and eyes, and the men wear ostentatious checkered patterns. The Toreans particularly find their customary trousers to be "barbaric." Another human group, the nomadic Maradani, followed the Toreans north; they are outcasts and wanderers, but provide vital trade links between the Toreans and Calthi, and the lands beyond Anobrega. They wear colorful, loose clothing.

For demihumans: Elves are called the Shae (pronounced "shay") by the Calthi, and were the inhabitants of Anobrega in antiquity. Those who remain live in the western woods, and have no love for humans. Dwarves are considered great heroes; for nearly a thousand years they fought the great Goblin War, and they won four hundred years ago. The last of the goblin hordes was driven asunder and their confederation will never rise again. Before the war, Dwarves were great craftsmen and thinkers, but many of their bloodlines met their end in the victory. With their low fertility rates they will never be able to recover their old civilization; they are a dying race. There is no traditional hatred between elves and dwarves, but not precisely any love. Halflings are - well, something of a mystery. They attach themselves to the nearby human civilization, and live quietly in its shadow; most Halflings in Anobrega are from the Torean lands, but they are not of them. The only humanoids who live above ground are the orc tribes, which live in the west and rarely pass over the mountains. Goblins used to, before the war, but since then any goblin settlement above ground is destroyed without mercy.

I'm still working on the map; once I have it done I'll scan it in.

In terms of historical analogues the Calthi are the Celts and the Toreans are the Romans, with the Maradani taking up the part of Gypsies. I'm thinking I want the Toreans to have a unifying religion that isn't either Roman paganism or Christianity; maybe something with a Zoroastrian flavor. The Calthi are close to Celtic myth, and I'm thinking that they might have Druids rather than the traditional Cleric. The thing is, the D&D cleric is pretty specifically Christian. What do folks think of this? Is there any religion that these Toreans might have "gotten" in place of Christianity before the Empire fell? Or should they be straightforward Roman analogue pagans, or Christian analogue monotheists? I think the Cleric might work in a pseudo-Zoroastrianism, with the Lawfuls worshipping Ahura Mazda (or a lookalike) and the Chaotics Ahriman.

This setting accomplishes a few things for me. First, in terms of feel it's a bit more ancient, which I think is appropriate to a setting a little more like Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, than the high medieval of D&D. The equipment list is going to be fairly harsh, in that I will probably wind up removing crossbows, plate armor and polearms; if anyone has a good ancient D&D equipment list I'd love to see it. Second, it gives me a good excuse to use Roman coinage, which I've started to collect, as the basis of game coins.

I'm throwing this out there for feedback - what needs more detail, what's cool and what's lame, and what should I look at for ideas? All sorts of thoughts are appreciated.