30 September 2017

House Rules - Druids as 1st Level PCs

I've often seen this discussed around the community, the idea that the Druid class should be open to 1st level Clerics, since it isn't really the role of a powerful Cleric, but an alternative approach to divine magical power. I like the idea of Druids being around at all levels, so this is how I handle it.

A Druid is the same in all ways as a Cleric of equal level (hit dice, attack progression, saving throws, spells per day chart, etc) except for the following:
  • A Druid uses the Druid spell lists, not the Cleric lists, see the Companion and Master rule sets for these lists.
  • A Druid may never wear armor made from metal. Hide, leather, bone, etc are acceptable, and buckles and other incidental hardware don't count, but chain and plate mail, and similar non-standard armors are forbidden.
  • Likewise, although a druid is not bound by the Cleric's limitation on weapon use (Druids can use piercing and slashing weapons), they may not use metallic weapons, this includes weapons like arrows and maces that may be mainly composed of wood but have a metallic head. Wood, stone, bone, horn, etc are all acceptable.

Pretty simple. I see no need to create a whole new class with different saves, experience progression and other features. Just tweak the armor and weapon allowance and switch to the Druid spell list.

29 September 2017

House Rules - Some Basic Skills Every Spellcaster Should Have, Without Needing to Waste a Spell

The Classic D&D game grants a lot of abilities to magic users through their spells, including a few I think should be learned skills, not requiring the casting of a spell to perform. Among these are the abilities to read magic, detect magic and identify magic items.

Hold up though, I'm not just going to give every 1st level magic user, elf or wicca the power to perform these activities any time they wish with a 100% success rate! Like the class skills of the thief, these skills start out weak and undependable, and increase in reliability as the magic user progresses in levels.

At the DM's option, clerics, druids and shamans may gain similar abilities, restricted to the magical writings, spell effects and items accessible by their class. 

Magic User's Level

Read Magic %

Detect Magic %

Identify Item %





















































































Some notes on the table:

Read Magic: All magic users are taught to write in magical code, so it makes no sense to me that interpreting the magical code of other spellcasters would be so difficult as to require using a spell. There is one important factor to keep in mind, however, since this skill is just a learned ability, not a spell or imbued magical power, it's not without flaw. The magic user must be conversant in the base language used to write the magical code. For example, William is a scottish magic user who drafts his scrolls in Gaelic. For Pierre, a french magic user, to be able to decipher William's scrolls using this skill, he must also have some skill in the Gaelic language. If not, the read magic spell, as presented in the Basic rules, is still available, and without the chance of failure. A result of (1)00 on the skill check is an abject failure and may provide flawed translations, while a roll of 01 is a decisive success and may grant additional information, DM's fiat.

Detect Magic: Another skill that is so innate to being a magic user that it seems illogical to have to 'waste' a spell performing. Almost all fantasy fiction I've read includes some reference, minor or otherwise, to aura-reading by practitioners of magic. Granted though, from the point of view of a spellcaster, all creatures (and perhaps all living things, including plants, depending on the mythos) are inherently magical, so the chance of failure here reflects the magic user's improving ability to accurately interpret the difference between 'ambient' magic and items or creatures that are actually enchanted. A result of (1)00 on the skill check is an abject failure and may provide false readings, while a roll of 01 is a decisive success and may grant additional information, such as a hint at the nature of the enchantment, DM's fiat. Once again, if a magic user needs a 100% accurate reading, the Detect Magic Spell is still available.

Identify Magic: Through his studies to become a magic user, and further training to advance in level, the magic user surely picks up a vast array of trivial knowledge related to the craft. These seemingly useless (at the time one learns them) bits of lore can later come in handy when trying to determine the nature, history and powers of a magical item. However, this should not be treated as a 100% accurate, "read the item's entry in the rule book" style identification of the item. Instead, we take a little inspiration from the AD&D 2nd edition Complete Bard's Handbook. Upon acquiring a new magical item, the magic user may spend 1d2 hours studying it, checking his notes, jogging his memory, etc. Then a skill check is made, and each successful use of this skill should reveal one of the following bits of information:
Whether item is intelligent, Whether items is cursed/evil, Item's name, Famous past owners, Age of item, Where it was made, Who crafted it, Who can use it (Class, Race or Alignment restrictions), General effects (described as 'creates a blazing inferno' or 'shoots deadly bolts of magical force' instead of 'fireball' or 'magic missile', for example), How to activate it (Command Words, etc)

Each bit of information gleaned provides a +5% bonus to subsequent rolls, but once a check is failed, no further attempts to identify that item may be made until the Magic User or Elf has Gained a level of experience.

A roll of (1)00 on the skill check is an abject failure, and may provide false information. Likewise, a roll of 01 on the check is considered a decisive success and may provide additional information, lower the time required to study the item, etc.

As always, if the magic user needs a fast or 100% accurate identification of an item, the use of the Analyze or Lore spells or a Slate of Identification, or hiring of an NPC sage with access to either one, is available as normal.

A note on the use of these abilities by Elf class PCs:
Whenever fiddling with the rules related to magic users, I'm forced to weigh the impact of the changes on the elf class as well. In general, I either deny the tweaks to the elves, or limit them in some way to keep the magic user a viable class in light of the elf's added martial prowess.
In this case, I allow elves access to these skills, but they are treated as being two levels lower in experience when consulting the chart, which also means that they have an actual rating of 0% success on the charts until attaining 3rd level. However, since each skill notes that a roll of 01 is always a success, 1st and 2nd level elves have a base 1% chance of success with all three skills.

House Rules - Minor Options for Customizing PCs

In the spirit of supporting OSR retroclone publishers, and adding cool ideas to BECMI, I've decided to examine each of the games, and grab at least one idea to tweak for use in a BECMI game.

This timeI look at Caverns & Cavaliers, by WeaselFierce (Free PDF Download, Link:http://weaselfierce.webs.com/roleplaying.htm). WF introduces an interesting idea called Traits, whereby every few levels, a player can choose from a list of bonus abilities to add on top of the normal class abilities. In C&C, this serves somewhat of a custom class builder option, since the base classes are a bit more barebones than in BECMI, but the abilities are fun and minor enough to use without ruining game balance.

I suggest allowing the player to choose one Trait every 5 levels, including level 1 (so, levels 1,5,10,15,20,25,20,35) from the following list. The DM may add or remove abilities from the list as he sees fit for his campaign.

Weapon Expertise+1 to hit with a specific type of weapon (may be taken multiple times, either stacking the bonus for one weapon, or choosing a new weapon
LinguistCharacter gains the ability to speak and read one additional language (may be taken multiple times)
Defensive Reflexes-1 bonus to Armor Class (may be taken multiple times)
Toughness+3 to total hit points (may be taken multiple times)
Fast HealerCharacter heals an additional point of damage per full nights rest (may be taken multiple times)
Lightning Reflexes+1 Bonus to initiative (may be taken multiple times)
Alertness-1 bonus to personal surprise checks (may be taken multiple times)
Brute+1 damage to melee attacks (may be taken multiple times)
Devout Hunter+1 to all Turn Undead checks (may be taken multiple times)
Eagle Eye+1 bonus to find secret doors checks
Lucky Locksmith+5% to find and remove traps checks (may be taken multiple times)

Caverns & Cavaliers offers a bunch of other interesting ideas, such as custom class templates and advanced classes for experienced characters, it's definitely worth downloading and taking a look.

28 September 2017

House Rules - Promoting and Rewarding Combat Teamwork

Iron Sword is a retro clone game from WeaselFierce's website (Free PDF download. Link: http://weaselfierce.webs.com/roleplaying.htm). IS adds new twists and ideas to a Classic D&D foundation, the most noteworthy of which is the lack of spellcasting classes! This is intended to recreate a sort of viking/visigoth type setting, where heroes are measured in their deeds, not necessarily their motivations.

Author Ivan Sorenson describes many different options that serve to promote social interaction and roleplaying instead of just combat, and this is one I've chosen to showcase for adaptation into BECMI. Consider these optional rules applicable to all PCs.

Blade Brother (or Sword Sister, for the female PCs)
PCs who fight together quickly learn each other's tactics, strengths and weaknesses, sometimes creating an almost supernatural bond that aids both of them in combat.
Any two PCs, regardless of class (the DM may require them to be of the same alignment, I do) may choose to become Blade Brothers. After this declaration, one game session must pass before any benefit is earned, as they study each other's combat techniques. Upon the next game session, both PCs receive the following benefits:

1.The partner who goes second in combat in each round receives a +1 bonus to hit if the first partner's attack was successful. No penalty is invoked if the first PCs attack misses, however.
2. At any time during a combat, one partner may supernaturally "loan" HP to his partner, though this is a full round action for both PCs. To transfer the HP, the partners must grasp hands and vigorously proclaim their battle cry, at this time, the PC giving the XP suffers 1d4 HP dmg, which is added to the recipient PC's current total, not to exceed his maximum HP.
3. If one of the partners is slain in combat, his partner suffers a -2 penalty to hit and damage for the rest of that session of play (or 1d3 days, if time is passing quickly that session) to reflect the supernatural loss and remorse. Avenging one's partner's death by defeating his killer in solo combat removes this penalty immediately.

A PC may only be bonded to one other PC at a time in this fashion, though he may choose another PC with whom to bond if his partner dies or retires, or the bond is dissolved. A retired partner inflicts no penalty on the remaining PC, although a bond with a new partner may not be forged for 1d4 weeks of game time, and the 1 session bonding period must then be repeated for the new partners. A bond that is dissolved mutually by the two PCs invokes the same penalties as the death of a partner, in #3 above, on both partners, but without the vengeance loophole.

House Rules - Home is Where the Heart is

Iron Sword is a retro clone game from WeaselFierce's website (Free PDF download. Link: http://weaselfierce.webs.com/roleplaying.htm). IS adds new twists and ideas to a Classic D&D foundation, the most noteworthy of which is the lack of spellcasting classes! This is intended to recreate a sort of viking/visigoth type setting, where heroes are measured in their deeds, not necessarily their motivations.

Author Ivan Sorenson describes many different options that serve to promote social interaction and roleplaying instead of just combat, and this is one I've chosen to showcase for adaptation into BECMI. Consider these optional rules applicable to all PCs.

My Home is My Castle
A PCs home, be it a palatial estate or a humble room at a roadside inn, or even a secluded glade in a forest, represents more than just his base of operations during the campaign. Family, friends and the comforts of hearth and home are all to be found here, and this comfort and security manifests in a couple minor game mechanics ways:

1. All PCs heal an extra 1 HP of damage per night spent resting in their home, in addition to any normal healing rate.
2. The PC receives a +1 bonus to all saving throws made within his home.
3. The PC receives a -1 bonus to his Armor Class while in his home.

27 September 2017

Campaign Mood - To Bend the Rules or Not to Bend the Rules.

Swords & Wizardry (Free PDF download and modestly priced hardcopy versions) is an OGL clone of the original D&D game, and while slightly different in rules mechanics than BECMI, it's close enough to be immediately useful. While, in my not-so-expert opinion, S&W collects, organizes and clarifies the rules for an OD&D style game, the core rules refrain from adding anything revolutionary or new, I think this is intentional, as the game also boasts a large community of fans online that produce a ton of supplementary material that does innovate.

Still, there's one section in the core rules that I feel makes a very important statement about DM design and strict adherence to some esoteric idea about rules canon:

Creating monsters
Monsters are not player characters, and their abilities are not at all determined by the rules for player characters — not even the stats for races that can have player
characters, such as Dwarves. The Referee decides a monster’s abilities, and he doesn’t have to follow any rules about this! Feel free to add wings, breath weapons,
extra hit dice, wounded versions, or whatever suits your adventure and your campaign. Toggle and tweak, imagine and invent! The rules aren’t responsible for the quality of the swords and sorcery in your game, you are! So don’t try to create monsters according to any sort of power formula. Create monsters based on how they feel and how they play at the gaming table. Create challenges for the players, not headaches for yourself. Your job is to imagine and create, not to slave at rulebooks finding out what you’re “allowed” to do.

While author Matthew Finch is, obviously, talking specifically about custom monster design, I think this reasoning can apply to any DM design task; magic items, spells, etc.

As the highlighted part of the citation reminds us, you are the game master, and once your campaign gets going, noone knows it better than you and your players, not even the most skilled of game designers. Feel free to tweak, ignore or add things to the rules wherever it suits your game.

S&W is a quality clone game, very nicely organized and presented, and it and its supplemental material are definitely worth checking out for inclusion in any old school game.

Campaign Mood - Hack 'N Slash vs Story Gaming

There's been a lot of discussion  around the blogosphere over the years about "story games", and how they do or don't differ from normal role playing games. It seems to me that there are two "ideal" play styles among role players:
  1. Gamists - This playstyle emphasizes the mechanics of the game over everything else. Your character is a collection of rules stats that improve over time, allowing you to overcome more and more difficult challenges the game master presents. Character and setting backstory and plot are minimal.
  2. Storytellers - On the other hand, this style of play focuses on the story of the heroes' exploits, which rich, detailed backstory and setting development. Whether the story is crafted primarily by the game masters and the PCs are along for the ride, or the group as a whole collectively constructs the story as it develops, story is king and rules and dice results that get in the way can be overlooked.
There is nothing inherently wrong with either style of play. Whatever your group enjoys, the game can accommodate it. The early incarnations of OD&D, Basic D&D and AD&D 1e definitely lean, as written, toward gamism, but Gygax stated that he felt the story and plot could be handled by the DM and players as needed or desired. TSR included Appendix N and the suggested reading lists in some of the Basic sets to give you ideas for story, but you were basically on your own. "Modern" editions of the game claim to embrace story above all else, but honestly the focus is still on the rules of combat, traps, etc. To be totally fair, AD&D 2e has the most claim, among versions of D&D, to being a story telling game, as it had a good selection of materials dedicated to creating long term campaigns, detailing villains, and other very "rules light" things. 

Here's the point though, the two styles of play are not mutually exclusive! I think, in fact, that most of us play the game somewhere in between the two extremes. 

I personally enjoy the story aspect. As a DM, I'll come up with some interesting scenarios and see how the PCs react, and enjoy watching things unfold, and having something more interesting than just "remember that time I did 25 points of damage in one attack!" to talk about when reminiscing about the game. As much as I try and present a story for the players to help flesh out though, I keep in mind that this is a game. In all but the most extreme circumstances, I let the dice "fall as they may", and try not to twist the rules simply to accommodate my story idea. Heck, a failed dice roll, or even the death of a beloved PC or NPC can add just as much to the evolving story as letting the heroes win all the time.

I've enjoyed the discussion, but I really fail to see how people get hard feelings about it. I play the game a little different than someone else, so what?

26 September 2017

Campaign Mood - Save or Die and Game Lethality, Old School vs New

This is a revision and expansion of a post originally appearing here on the 7th of March, 2012. The links to D&D 5e playtesting articles on WotC's site are sadly outdated and dead.

This week (1st week of March, 2012) on WotC's site, the topics of discussion are Save or Die traps/monster abilities and Deadly Dice (the lethality of the game mechanics in general and whether character death is a good or bad thing). We'll start with the first topic, raised by Mike Mearls.

First, a bit of context (Following quotes are from Mike Mearls):
      First, to give you some insight into where I'm coming from, I take the idea of approaching the entirety of D&D's history very seriously. I'm about to start a new D&D campaign at the office, and I'm using the 1981 basic D&D rules as a starting point. As I plan the campaign and (eventually) run adventures, I plan on making house rules, adopting rules from other editions, and shifting the rules to match how the game moves along. In some ways, it's a reality check against the ideas I see proposed for the next iteration. Would I want them in my campaign? Do they work for my group?
He takes the task of understanding old school D&D so seriously that he intends to house rule and "frankenstein" the rules from day one, to create something that works for his group? That's fine and dandy for tailoring the game to your group, but it does almost nothing to advance an understanding of the old school game and what makes it special and unique. To me this is just more rulebook dropping to try and appeal to old school gamers who've abandoned more recent versions of the game, but anyway...
     If you came to D&D with 4th Edition, you might not have heard someone say "save or die." It dates back to the earliest days of the game, where some traps, monster attacks, and spells required a successful saving throw or the hapless target was instantly killed, turned to stone, reduced to a pile of dust, and so forth.
     The save or die effect represents an interesting point in D&D mechanics. On one hand, fighting a critter with a save or die attack is tense and exciting. Or at least, it can be. A good DM makes a fight like this into something that can grow into a gaming legend over the years. Players will remember how their characters valiantly fended off attacks and either hoped for lucky rolls or came up with a cunning plan to defeat or avoid the critter.
     On the other hand, the save or die mechanic can be incredibly boring. With a few dice rolls, the evening could screech to a halt as the vagaries of luck wipe out the party. A save or die situation can also cause a cascade effect. Once the fighter drops, the rest of the party's inferior AC and saving throws can lead to a TPK.
 I think this description of Save or Die (SoD) effects in the game is fairly simplistic, and overlooks one major component of a successful game; a good DM. While yes, the rules as written do provide for the scenarios that Mike mentions, I think a big assumption on the part of the designers was that a) players were playing their characters cautiously, with an almost paranoid approach to exploring, searching for traps, engaging new and mysterious monsters, etc. A good DM will reward this type of play and allow the careful player to usually avoid having to make that dreaded SoD die roll in the first place.

A thief who meticulously checks for traps before opening doors and chests, charging brazenly down a hallway or prying dust covered treasures from their resting places will have a very good chance of avoiding the SoD situation. A fair DM might even grant a small bonus to the save if it ends up being required if the PC has taken proper or extraordinary precautions.

Likewise, a party that carefully approaches impending combat can often pick up clues to the nature of deadly attack forms. Take the medusa as an example, her gaze means certain "death" for a low level party unequipped to reverse petrification. However, in almost all medusa encounters I've seen published in adventures, she doesn't charge out to attack without warning. The party gets a brief chance to observe her lair, noting the "exquisitely carved" statues of humans, demihumans and humanoids with looks of abject fear on their faces. Medusa lore isn't all that obscure, and observant players should expect something nasty. If the DM follows up with a first glimpse of the medusa herself in the form of a shadow or reflection she casts that is visible by the PCs, even better. Perseus knew the legend, we can assume similar folklore exists in a fantasy world regarding such a terrible beast and give the PCs a chance to know and act on what they've heard as bedtime tales as kids.

Mike goes on to comment in a generic sense on the pros and cons of SoD mechanics, and offer a "fix", where PCs with high hit point totals can avoid instand death and, I assume, just take some damage. Sounds good, except that it punishes low low characters and fixes nothing. High level PCs have access to Stone to Flesh, Remove Paralysis, and even Raise Dead type magics. They do not need protection from instant death mechanics. If you're opposed to instant death, SoD type situations, just remove them, don't reinforce the problem with a well intention but ineffective band aid.

Monte Cook's column on Deadly Dice, the lethality of the game, segues from Mike's discussion into a more general discussion of how deadly the game should be, or whether PC death should factor into the game at all.
      The play-by-the-rules level of lethality in the game has changed a lot over the years. The general trend has been to make the game less lethal overall, although an argument could be made that the game has become slightly more lethal at the higher levels since it was more common to end up with an unkillable (unchallengeable) character at the upper levels in older editions.
 This is really a non-point. Most, if not all lamentations of the lethality of the game are focused on low level characters. 1st to 3rd level characters in Classic D&D or AD&D 1st edition can be, as Monte goes on to note, a dime a dozen. Death waits around every corner, and making it to middle and high levels is an accomplishment.
     I remember way back in the earliest days of the game how someone told me that people didn’t even bother naming their characters in their campaign until 2nd level because there was so little chance that a 1st-level character would survive. As silly as that might sound, the feeling of accomplishment at surviving such a lethal game, even for a little while, must have been great.
Exactly! It does feel great. In the first campaign I played in, a typical dungeon crawl in the Caves of Chaos, the minotaur and owlbear caves vexed us. Our party of 4 players, no henchmen, went through a total of 14 characters before we bested both foes, with my thief PC being the sole survivor when the minotaur finally fell! I'll remember that win for as long as I play the game! When death is not only possible, but fairly likely, surviving and conquering the challenges is a big deal.

Of course, one could argue that the D&D game isn’t about feelings of accomplishment. It’s about creating characters and developing fantasy stories. Characters perhaps shouldn’t die unless circumstances dictate it, rather than when the dice go against them.
I don't buy this argument one bit. I love story and role playing as much as anyone. Heck, I probably put a lot more value in it that most other old school and "OSR" players do. But, here's the BIG POINT, the story evolves as the game unfolds. The game does not get twisted and bent out of shape to cater to whatever amateur novella I'm trying to pass off on my players as the new campaign.

Besides, this is heroic swords and sorcery fantasy. Death is every much a part of the story as life and victory. Death snatched Thorin Oakenshield from the seat of victory. Boromir fell, giving his companions more focus and motivation. Sirius Black and Obi Wan Kenobi died, inspiring their proteges to buck up, face their fates and conquer evil. If there is no death, or at least no real chance of death, you aren't playing a game, you're not even really telling a story, you're just mentally masturbating about how cool and powerful and untouchable your pet character is. Put the dice down and start a D&D fanfic blog!

There is another component of the shift toward "invincible" PCs in the game. The impact of video games on the hobby.

In most video games, there are save points, reloads, respawns, or some other mechanics to allow you to return to where you left off, or close to it, in the event that your character dies. To me, the need to import this mechanic into a table top rpg is based on flawed thinking.

In a video game, at least early on, and somewhat still in single player console games, the whole venture is a solo quest. While you may have a party of a handful of characters, there is generally only one player. If the game never lets you die, it quickly becomes boring. On the other hand, if you have to start over every time, the game becomes tedious to the point of frustration and quitting, considering that some modern games have hundreds of hours of play time.

Even in newer, multiplayer games, such as the World of Warcraft mmorpg, having to start over at level 1 every time your "guy" dies would ruin the fun, since you're part of a guild of players who will continue on if they didn't die. The game simply can't adapt to having a low level character running around with a bunch of high level characters without killing the new guy every time a monster shows up.

D&D and table top rpgs in general have a unique feature that all video games lack. A DM. The DM can tweak things to fit a replacement character back into the action. Or variant rules such as Hackmaster RPG's mentor/protege system can be used to make the replacement character something more than a 1st level whelp. An existing henchman or NPC ally can be promoted to full PC'hood. etc. The flexibility of the rules means that one, or even all of the characters dying does not mean that the entire story has to end and reboot from the start.

Even when we suffered a TPK delving the Caves of Chaos, the overall story continued. We found the bodies of our doomed predecessors. We heard tales of their fate from bards and travelers, etc. The story moved along, and we stepped back into it.

House Rules - Tweaking the Class Weapon and Armor Restrictions

Especially with the advent of later editions of the D&D game, as well as the influence of video games, recent fantasy films and other factors, many players will wish to play Cleric, Magic User or Thief characters that break the standard Classic D&D model of those archetypes. Sword wielding Clerics, Magic Users adventuring in armor and other odd combinations are likely requests from players creating new PCs for a campaign. The first reaction from many a DM, including me, is to say no and demand everyone play by the rules as written, however, I've slowly come to the conclusion that the players should be able to create the character they want, within reason, and the rules can be slightly tweaked to allow these weird PCs.

Fighters, Dwarves and Halflings are allowed (almost) any weapons and armor. The only exception to the rule is the use of very large weapons by halfling PCs. This should just be a matter of common sense, I won't waste time combing through the weapon lists in detail, but suffice to say that from the Basic rulebook weapon list, the Battle Axe, Long Bow, Two Handed Sword, and Pole Arm should be barred to Halflings. At the DM's discretion, a very strong (Str 16+) Halfling PC in a life or death desperate situation could possibly wield one of these once in a while using an "untrained" penalty (explained below) of -1 to hit and -1 to damage. I recommend discussing this possibility in advance with the DM and other players, to avoid arguments within the game.

Thieves are well rounded combatants, skilled in the use of many weapons and armor types. The restrictions placed upon the class tend to reflect a preference for light, quiet weapons and quiet, nonrestrictive armors that do not hinder any of the class abilities. In the event that the player wishes his thief to wield a weapon not normally allowed to the class, I impose an "untrained" penalty of -2 to hit and -2 to damage. STR bonus or penalty to damage is still applied in addition to these modifiers.
In the unlikely event that a thief character wishes to don heavy armor, I would allow it, but with some dire consequences. First, the character operates with a -4 penalty to DEX, and is unable to use any of his thief abilities while wearing any outlawed armor.

Clerics are the least restrictive class in combat, outside of the Fighter group. With a choice of any armor type, the only request you're likely to encounter is the use of a barred weapon.
In a campaign that uses a specific Mythos or Pantheon of gods, each with a detailed portfolio, mythology and iconic weapon used by that deity, I allow the cleric a choice, to be made at character generation and unable to be changed later without 1d6 months of "offstage" training time and the loss of one level of experience. The PC may either use the normal cleric selection of any blunt weapon, or forgo those weapons and be trained in only the specific weapon of his deity.
For Example: Artemy, a Cleric of the god Ares, might decide to forgo the use of the normal selection of blunt cleric weapons, allowing him to train in the use of the Gladius (short sword), the favored weapon of that god.
In the event of a god like Ares or Athena, where two or more weapons (short sword and/or spear, in these cases) might be considered iconic, the cleric must still choose only one of those weapons to be trained in. A Cleric who uses a weapon forbidden to him suffers the same untrained penalties a thief does; -2 "to hit" and damage, and must additionally make a successful WIS ability check each time the forbidden weapon is used or face the wrath of his god and lose all spellcasting and undead turning ability for 24 hours. Desperate, life or death situations may warrant a modifier to the WIS check, at the DM's discretion, and repeated willful violations may invoke harsher punishments, again, at the DM's discretion after a proper omen or warning is given by the cleric's god.

Magic Users suffer the harshest restrictions on the weapons and armor they may use, as well as the toughest penalties when violating those restrictions.
In the event that a magic user wishes to don armor, I would allow it, but with some dire consequences. First, the character operates with a -2 penalty to DEX, and is unable to cast any spells while wearing any armor.

are somewhat trained to use magic while wearing armor and do not suffer a DEX penalty for wearing armor, but each time they cast a spell while armored, they must make an INT ability check to successfully complete their spell. A failed check means the spell is interrupted and lost from memory.

When attempting to use a weapon barred to their class, Magic Users suffer the usual untrained penalty of -3 to hit and -3 to damage, coupled with their likely penalty to damage from a low str score, if applicable.

The other thing to keep in mind when characters, such as Magic Users or Thieves, with low STR scores attempt to equip bulky armor and heavy weapons is the impact on encumbrance. Even in campaigns where carrying capacity is handwaved, I suggest a DM use common sense and not allow situations where a STR 6 Magic User is toting around (though perhaps not actually wearing...) a suit of plate armor and a couple long swords, in addition to his spellbooks and other adventuring gear.

Any thoughts? Feedback is welcome!

25 September 2017

Campaign Mood - Adventure Design Philosophy, Old School vs New

It occurred to me tonight, while going over some old Judges Guild stuff (Druids of Doom in particular caused the muse to get her act together and turn a vague idea into something concrete) that I have seen the biggest difference in design approach between Old School and New School/Modern adventure design for RPGs, D&D to be specific. TSR modules had some of the same qualities, but the stuff by 3rd parties like Judges Guild, Mayfair Games and the non-TSR magazines and fanzines really showcase it. 

There's two aspects to the difference:

1. The adventure module works with the game's rules, but is not a slave to them. Old school adventures constantly introduced new, wacky and unique monsters, traps, treasures and encounter ideas in general that had not been done before and really had no precedent in the rules. Sometimes the writer explained how to adjudicate the situation, other times the DM was left to figure out a resolution on her own, but either way, the writer was not afraid to test the limits of the rules, and go beyond them when it made for a fun adventure.

2. The old school adventure writers expected you, the DM, to change their adventure! Many of the scenarios were location based, or "sand box" style, with a bare bones assumed plot or theme to get the party started and keep them moving in the right direction. A few of the published adventures even came 'un-stocked', ostensibly to teach the fledgling DM how to create and run an adventure, but also allowing the experienced DM to make the scenario her own, tailored to the campaign and party. Many of the adventure booklets, especially the ones by Judges Guild, even have copious space throughout them that is set aside for the DM's notes! No current modern adventure product I know of, except maybe some of the OSR retroclone support products, dare do this.

So, while it doesn't answer the whole question, I now have an answer when people ask me what I consider Old School gaming to be.

Gary and Dave, and the early industry they created, were more than welcoming of house rules, variants and "DM fiat", outside of tournament play, which is one of the primary reasons we got D&D and AD&D. AD&D was the fleshed out, official tournament version, D&D was the barebones 'tweak it to your heart's content' version.

Modern designers, whether of rules or adventures, feel the need to account for every possibility and railroad play into a defined set of rules that can handle anything. A recent rant I commented on lamented the "breaking" of a game by house ruling it, or pushing it to the limits of min/max powergaming.

To an old school player, that is not a problem at all, but rather it's half the fun!

24 September 2017

House Rules - Ability Score modifiers variant from Tom Moldvay

One of my more recent old school acquisitions was a stapled photocopy (stuck inside a stack of old Space Gamer magazines, not sure if the guy I bought them from knew it was there or not) of the 1986 Challenges RPG, by Tom Moldvay. I'd never heard of, much less read this classic, so it went to the top of my reading pile.

Challenges (Challenges International, Inc. 1986) describes itself as an "Easy-to-Play Game System for Fantasy Roleplaying, but in reality it is more of a slimmed down, modified version of D&D/AD&D. Tom's system mostly covers character creation, which is very similar to AD&D, along with some spells and brief notes on how to interpret monster write ups in "any of the various fantasy roleplaying adventure modules published by Challenges International, Inc". As far as I can tell, CI only ever released one adventure, Seren Ironhand, though the notes in the rules can apply to any D&D or AD&D adventure with little modification.

It's Tom's modifications to character generation that interested me most, and that's what I'll be addressing here.

Most of the material here would be familiar to any AD&D player, but since Tom is also more notably the co-creator of the BX edition of the D&D Basic rules along with Dave "Zeb" Cook, I got to thinking about applying the modifications in Challenges to that, and other, incarnations of Classic D&D.

Tom's method for generating ability scores is interesting, if a little overpowered for my taste. He suggests rolling 2d6+6 nine time and choosing the best 6 results, which are then assigned to the abilities as the player wishes. Obviously this will create characters who are a likely to be more powerful than their standard D&D peers, but the option is there if you like it.

Next we get to the suggested Ability Score Adjustments; that is, the game effects for having a high or low score in each ability.

At first glimpse, you'll notice that some of the standard D&D terms are changed, probably to play nice with TSR. Reading into the text though, these changes are common sense.
Warrior = Fighter
Sorcerer = Magic User
Muscle = Strength
Will = Intelligence
Stamina = Constitution

I included the chart for reference, but it is obviously formatted for AD&D, with percentile ability scores. I don't intend to bother adapting that AD&Dism to my Classic game, but the notes below the table are interesting, and could be applied to Classic D&D characters in order to reward high prime requisite scores without unduly harming game balance too much.

In all cases, these bonus adjustments are in addition to those those listed in the Basic Rules, so yes, a fighter with 18 STR gets +4 to hit and +5 to damage, total, but he's a fighter and has no other special abilities, so is it really that outrageous to ensure he has a slight edge over the lucky Cleric of Thief who rolled an 18 for STR also?

If you intend to use this chart, I'd ignore the Basic rules-as-written, and grant these to hit and damage modifiers only to fighters (Warriors), including Dwarves and Halflings, but not Elves. This actually appeals to me because it gives fighters a noticeable advantage in combat over the other classes.

Magic Users (Sorcerers) would instead get a couple bonus spells per day added to their arsenal, thanks to a high Intelligence (Will) score, which can give them a little better chance of survival at low level, and since they only include 1st and 2nd level spells, the long term game balance isn't really impacted too much. To give the Magic User some advantage over the Elf, I'd restrict this ability to Magic Users only. Note: A Magic User still can't cast 2nd level or 3rd level spells until normally allowed to through level advancement.

Alternately, if the Elf players complain too much, you could allow them to choose one of the two bonuses, either STR or INT to use, but not both. This actually has some precedent going back to the Original D&D rules, where the Elf player had to choose between the Magic User or Fighter class, but not both, for each session of game play.

Likewise, Clerics can pick up an added spell or two per day if they have a high Wisdom score, which usually ends up benefiting the entire party in the form of extra healing, so I don't see a major downside. A Cleric still can't cast 2nd or 3rd level spells until normally allowed by class level, but the decision of whether to grant a 1st level cleric access to her bonus first level spell is up to the DM. I allow, since, like I said before, it tends to help the entire party, but I can see how some rules purists would prefer the Cleric wait until 2nd level to cast any spells, as Classic D&D says.

The Thief options require a little definition:
Skill Bonus applies to Open Locks, Find Traps, Remove Traps, Pick Pockets and Climb
Stealth Bonus applies to Move Silently and Hide in Shadows

What do you guys think of Tom's ideas for more "advanced" characters?

Campaign Mood - Making Monsters Interesting, Ideas from the Monsters! Monsters! RPG

A couple years back, I was rummaging through the old school stuff at the dealer's room in one of the smaller Florida cons, avoiding the temptation to buy even more copies of Classic D&D rulebooks and modules I already own when I came across a neat old game called Monsters! Monsters! (Metagaming Concepts, 1976) by Ken St. Andre.

Honestly, it was the beautiful cover art by Liz Danforth that caught my eye since I'm a huge fan of her work, but after reading the book, I've had a lingering desire to adopt a few things from it to my D&D game.

M!M! is admittedly a fairly obscure title, even among old school players, so I'll give a thumbnail idea of what it's about.

The game is basically a variant of Tunnels & Trolls, the premise being that instead of playing brave heroes ridding dungeons and ruins of the monsters that live there, you are the monsters, ready and willing to ransack the towns, farms and other places the poor humans live. The game is fairly tongue in cheek and a fair bit silly, but there's some interesting bits here and there.

One of the ideas that struck me as useful is the inclusion of notes on the various monster types intended to make them more true to their mythological or literary source material. I've picked a few of my favorites and converted them to quick, unscientific D&D rules for use in a game.

Every dragon or dragon-type beast must have at least one soft spot somewhere on its external body. (Remember, Smaug, from The Hobbit, had that once scale missing on his breast.) Any dragon struck by a weapon on its soft spot dies.

The game goes on to explain that for every 100 weapons directed at the dragon, he must make a 'saving roll' to see if anyone in that mob hit his soft spot.

To adopt this to D&D without making dragons too easy to defeat, I suggest giving any character a 1% chance (a natural 01 result on a percentage dice roll) on their first, and only their first, successful attack on that dragon to hit his weak spot. Subsequent attacks do not get this chance, since once combat is in full swing, it is assumed that the dragon will protect his weak spot from hack and slashers. Optionally, a character who has researched or happened upon information that points out the possible weak spot (like Bard using Bilbos recon report to slay Smaug) may add 1 to 4 percentile points to the success range of that roll, either DM's caveat based on the quality of the information, or the result of a d4 roll, generating a 2% to 5% chance of success on that first attack roll.

If a successful attack roll is followed by a successful percent roll to hit the dragon's weak spot, the dragon must succeed on a Save vs. Death or be slain instantly. If the dragon makes the save, it still suffers maximum damage from the attack, negating the need for the attacker to roll for damage.

The Sphinx has a very high IQ, but is vulnerable to riddles, and will stop to engage in a riddling contest with any human or monster brave enough to attempt it. If the Sphinx loses, it must do the will (one time only) of whoever out-riddled it. If the Sphinx wins, the other is at its mercy.

There's not a lot of conversion needed here. If a Sphinx is encountered and combat has not begun, a PC may challenge it to a riddle contest. I strongly suggest playing the contest out through actual riddles between players and DM, but if you prefer, I'd roll 1d6 to see how many "rounds" the contest lasts, then having each side roll that number of either INT or WIS (player's choice) checks, keeping track of success (a d20 roll of equal to or less than the ability score being a success). The DM should do the same for the Sphinx, calculating its ability score as 1d4+14. The winner is the one with the most successes on the checks. In event of a tie, repeat for one more round of riddles. The winner is then owed a favor by the loser, as negotiated between DM and player, but as noted, Sphinxes are not merciful when they win, and their favor should be dangerous or otherwise annoying to the player.

Ghosts are non-material and are not vulnerable to material weapons. They are, however, susceptible to magic, and are likely to be magic users themselves. Humans who meet ghosts must make their saving roll to avoid panic , which reduces both IQ and Dex by half for the rest of the encounter.

This one could be fun and useful in illustrating fear when encountering the undead. Any time a character first encounters a specific type of undead of greater HD than their character level, they must make a save vs paralysis. Success on the saving throw means they grit their teeth and face their fear without any real hesitation, but failing the save results in panic, which results in a -4 penalty to all
die rolls until the undead creature is destroyed, turned or the character flees the encounter area for 1d4 rounds. Returning to fight that creature again requires another saving throw, as do future encounters with that type of undead until a success is rolled on the saving throw.  Once the character has successfully overcome the fear of a certain type of undead, she can fight those creatures in the future without hesitation. I added the note about greater than the PCs hit dice to prevent 1st level PCs from freaking out and fleeing every time a skeleton or zombie shows up, we'll just assume they've heard enough horror stories and wife's tales that the minor undead, while repulsive, are no longer panic inducing to a fledgling adventurer.

That about wraps it up for the basic monster quirks stuff. Continuing with my read through, I found myself really enjoying the section of the book called the "Monster Glossary", contributed by Jim Peters, with "additions by Ken" though no details are provided, as is usual in older RPGs. Anyway, this section is somewhat similar to the monster quirks I discussed last time, but it covers a lot more creatures, and tends to just be brief notes on the myth, folklore and literary sources of the beasts, along with some rules-lights suggestions for playing them.

This kind of material is something I do appreciate in the Monster Manual type books from newer editions of D&D, as opposed to the bare bones notes in the BECM rulebooks. While the generic approach has the benefit of allowing the DM room to customize monsters for use in her game , when confronted by a creature from a vague source, or one that is unique to D&D entirely, sometimes the spark of imagination is a little slow in presenting itself. That's why I like these short, and sometimes silly notes on using the creatures.

To demonstrate the style and scope of the information Jim and Ken provide, and a look at their sense of humor with the material, I'll provide a couple examples straight from them, then we'll pick a few more to add my own notes to, more geared toward using the creatures in a D&D game, instead of the M!M! scenario of playing the monsters to make life hell for the poor humans of the countryside.


"For those of you who were raised in a barrel and only just released, the dragon is a large lizard, usually with batlike wings, and possessed of 2, 4 or 6 sets of claws. Some have long necks; others resemble alligators. They breathe fire and are nearly indestructible, save for one vulnerable spot. Dragons are extremely intelligent, almost always evil, have a great love for treasure and human virgins, and are immune to spells cast by anyone with an IQ lower than their own."

"If you want an army of monsters, orcs are the customary cannon-fodder. They were best described by Tolkien as the troops of Mordor. They prefer long, cruelly-curved scimitars. Sunlight hurts and blinds them, but they function well on cloudy days. They often wear armor and rarely use magic."

Nothing really groundbreaking or rules-changing here, but you get a brief imagination kickstarter to build upon when thinking about how to use specific monsters in a game. I think these kind of short descriptions can add a lot to a campaign's flavor, especially if you add in your own tweaks or adapt some unusual alternate version you've encountered somewhere. For this article though, I'll stick to the material from Classic D&D and the Monsters! Monsters! glossary entries, leaving my own ideas for some other type for the most part.

Trolls are the 8 foot tall, usually thin incarnation of evil earth spirits with voracious appetites. They prefer the taste of long pig (human or demi-human flesh) to any other food, but will sometimes consume cows or sheep if the former is unavailable. Trolls are very strong, and though they are proficient in the use of most arms, they prefer smashing weapons like clubs, hammers and maces, and also possess vicious claws and teeth to attack with if unarmed.

Trolls are notorious for being able to regenerate damage almost as fast as it is dealt to them, unless those attacks are fire or acid based. Trolls avoid sunlight at all costs, as exposure to it will turn them to stone, though if not smashed to rubble before the next tolling of midnight, they will return to flesh form and life again.

That last bit about the need to smash a troll's stone form before midnight or risk it coming back to life is from M!M! and would certainly be a nasty surprise to any PCs who lure the beast into the sunlight to defeat it and then decide to make camp near their new troll statue.

Beings with the body of a horse below the torso, head and arms of a human, centaurs are passionate, generally good natured folk, though overfond of alcohol and merriment. When sober, centaurs have an innate gift of healing, treat as a cure light wounds spell once per day, but otherwise they don't make much use of magic.

These notes don't apply to the Centaur PC class found in the Tall Tales of the Wee Folk sourcebook, but the healing power of a sober centaur could be a major benefit to a party that's been out in the woods a little too long.

Basilisks, magical lizards hatched by evil magicians in the eggs of chickens, are extremely poisonous, and even piercing or slashing attacks against them cause blood to splatter on the attacker, causing paralysis (if the poison save is failed) that the basilisk will use to its advantage in either eating the foe or using its gaze attack to petrify the creature.

An extremely lucky creature who is able to carefully look upon the creature before it sees them will cause it to enter an excited rage in which it might petrify itself!

Basilisks are dangerous opponents, so that last part may make things a little less lethal for low level parties who stumble upon one. In order for the creature to turn itself to stone, the PCs must have surprise for the encounter, and the basilisk must fail its petrification saving throw, which it gains a +2 bonus to.

Those examples should be enough to get your creative gears turning. Simply by altering descriptions, and tactics or tweaking an attack or defense form, you can add a lot of unique flavor to your campaign setting, or simply throw a curveball at jaded players who think they've seen and done it all when it comes to the game's monsters.

As always, please feel free to comment, including any similar quirks or house rules you use to spice up the monsters in your game.

23 September 2017

The Known World Setting- A Few New Druid Magic Items

In Classic D&D, and pre-AD&D Mystara, druids are powerful clerics, given to the protection of the natural world. Unlike druids in other incarnations of the game, Known World druids have a respectable career as a cleric already behind them, and should be capable of great works of faith-magic. Sadly, the material for the setting reveals few examples of this, leaving druid magic as an afterthought unless a PC decides to take that path as their cleric rises in level.

With that in mind, I decided to share a couple examples of druid magic from my home game, in the form of magic items so they can be used by lower level PCs, or in campaigns where the druid class isn't used.

Laoreigh's Brooch
A few centuries ago, before the explorations of Karameikos by the Thyatians began, the area had grown wild and untamed after long years of Traladaran collapse. Many of the small bands of humans struggling to survive in the wilderlands looked to their druids as protection from the dangers of the woodlands, and the farmers subsisting on the shores of Lake Windrush, in the shadow of the ruins of Castle Gygar were no exception, often seeking the aid and counsel of the cicle of druids who lived in the hills near modern Eltan's Spring.

One of druids, a kindly old woman named Laoreigh had quite a reputation in the area for being a master of plant lore and was esteemed for her skill in healing the unfortunate souls who fell victim to rashes or illnesses from contact with some of the nastier flowers and herbs found around the lake. Laoreigh was no glory hound, and demanded no payment or honors from her neighbors for her aid, and having no skilled student to carry on her work, she crafted the magical brooch that bears her name in hopes that it would be used to soothe the suffering of future peaceful folks.

In the time since, the druids of the Eltan's Spring circle, created a few copies of Laoreigh's brooch, one of which is kept by the druid Bertrak, the soul remaining druid of the Eltan's Spring circle. If the party participates in the adventure "The Sound of Madness" from the Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure box set, or in some other way performs noble deeds in the service or alliance of Bertrak, he may bestow the brooch upon one of them as a reward. The other brooches, including the original, have faded into the fog of history, and their current whereabouts are unknown.

Laoreigh's Brooch is made of brass in the shape of a fan of three leaves of the pixie's tear, a rare herb sometimes found in the wooded hills around lake windrush.The trinket is about an inch tall and an inch and a half wide, with a thickness of about a quarter inch. The replicas are sometime made of bronze or copper, but are otherwise identical and bear the same magic.

When pinned to the wearer's clothing, the brooch provides protection the dangerous plants of the world, offering a +2 bonus to saving throws vs poison from plants and plant based monsters, and a bonus of -1 AC against attacks from plants and plant based monsters.

Those of neutral alignment who wear the brooch displayed openly are entitled to a +1 bonus to reaction checks when encountering druids, this bonus increases to +2 if the wearer has the original item and not a replica.

Bertrak does not know the process for creating these items, but a PC druid who earns his trust and access to the hidden "vault" (actually just a well concealed cave near his grove) where he has stashed most of the relics and records of his circle will be able to do so given 1d4 months of study and creation time.

Rod of the Windrush
In the dry summer months of north-eastern Karameikos, wildfires are a constant danger, threatening the farms and homes of the folk who live there. In the infamous summer of AC 873 in fact, the town of Threshold was nearly wiped from the world when a savage fire roared down from the hills to the east and engulfed the town, destroying most of the buildings and claiming hundreds of lives.

During the rebuilding effort, Flindemar, then leader of the Eltan's Spring druid circle, who had all assisted in the doomed effort to fight the fire, presented the mayor of the town with a bundle of Windrushes, the the ubiquitous reed that grows along the shores of the lake and gives it its name, woven into the shape of a stout rod and magically preserved and hardened to a stone like strength. Flindemar promised that the rod would ba a great boon to fighting future fires. The mayor and his successors treasured the rod, and kept it safely in the town's vaults when it wasn't needed.

Sadly though, when the town came, albeit peacefully, to be under the rule of the Karameikos dukes, a wave of crime temporarily swept through Threshold, and even the old city vaults were plundered at least three times. During one of these raids, the rod vanished, and its current owner and whereabouts are unknown.

The Rod of the Windrush may be used by any druid, or a cleric of L or N alignment, presumably to aid in fighting fires, but in actuality any time its power may be useful.

Once per day, the Rod may duplicate the Create Water spell as a 14th level cleric with the exception that the water source may be created floating in the air and has a range of up to 100 feet from the caster instead of the normal parameters.

In addition, up to three times per day, it may also protect the bearer according to the Resist Fire spell.

Note: Do not repost or redistribute this material on any forum, website, archive or social media without express prior consent from the author. 

22 September 2017

The Known World Setting - A Few New Minor Magic Items

After a while, the limited lists of magic items in the BECMI rulebooks can get a little boring, and I often end up creating new things to amuse the players. I've found that when you're giving out mysterious, unique things, they usually don't have to be super powerful to catch the interest of the PCs, and minor magics can be just as fun and interesting as relics and artifacts, without the risk of unbalancing a campaign.

So this will be the first in a series of articles featuring some new magic items of low to medium power to spice up the treasures found by PCs in a Mystara game.

Kala Chalk
Now and then, traders returning from the mysterious Honor Island, in the island Kingdom of Ierendi, tell tales of the strange and wondrous magics known to the reclusive magic users there. Less often, those traders have a trinket or two from those mages for the curious buyer with coin to spare.

Kala Chalk is one such item that turns up in the markets of port towns from the Shires to Alphatia once in a while, or in the pocket or pack of some rare traveler. Crafted from a slightly oily powder made from stones found on Mt. Kala on Honor Island, the magic users there (and the opportunistic merchant trying to sell the unique item) claim that it harnesses the power of the volcano in order to protect a person from all enemies!

As any seasoned adventurer in the Known World can attest, "all enemies" can be quite a subjective idea, and those who know the mages of Honor Island will understand that the actual power of the chalk is not what the average folk of the mainland might expect. You see, the folk of Honor Island are notoriously chaotic, and given to mingling and working with creatures considered monsters elsewhere...

Kala Chalk appears to be a 3 or 4 inch stick of 1/2 chalk with a reddish tint and a slightly greasy feel to it. Its power is invoked by drawing a circle on the ground, which then protects those within the circle from aggression by lawful creatures. Those protected gain a bonus of +2 to their AC and Saving Throws against attacks by such creatures, and lawful creatures who enter the circle suffer 1 point of damage each round that they remain within. Creatures forced into the circle against their will gain a saving throw vs. death magic to avoid the damage. The protection granted by the chalk circle lasts for 1d6+3 rounds, or until dispelled.

One stick of Kala Chalk is enough to draw a circle or circles to protect 8 creatures, either all at once or in multiple smaller groups.

Archer's Salve
This thick oily substance is said to be created by elusive elven clerics of the immortal Mealiden in Alfheim, to aid that nation's archers in hunting and battle. It is never sold to non-elves, but turns up once in a while in neighboring nations and can be used by any creature normally allowed to use a bow (but it grants no bonus to crossbow bolts.)

The salve is used by rubbing it into the shaft and fletching of a normal arrow, a process that takes 1d2 rounds to properly complete. Once coated, that arrow is imbued with a bonus of +1 to hit, until used successfully (it can be used again if it misses a target but is retrieved). The arrow also qualifies to hit creatures normally immune to non-magical or non-silver weapons. If not used successfully before the dawn of the next day, the salve's magic fades.

Avrine's New Moon Makeup
Avrine Nimblefoot was Hin "thief" known throughout the lands of Karameikos and the Shires for her daring and good-natured spirit. Hin storytellers who extol her adventures often quip that she was the greatest sneak of all the ages, and when she wanted to remain hidden, even the eyes of the Immortals couldn't spy upon her.

What most Hin don't know, or choose not to mention when telling their tales, is that Avrine had a small but potent arsenal of enchanted items to aid in her exploits. One such go to items in her career was a unique type of stage make up, the recipe for which was developed by the diminutive adventurer herself, with the aid of some forgotten Glantrian alchemist*. Thieves and roguish Hin have since copied the formula for Avrine's make up, and it's not all that uncommon in the realms of Karameikos, Ierendi and the Shires to this day.

Each jar of Avrine's New Moon Makeup contains 1d3 applications, which must be applied over the user's entire face to activate. The sticky, slightly sweet smelling goo is utter black, and once applied it bestows a dark, shadowy countenance to the wearer's entire body. When worn by a Halfling, the makeup raises the chance of hiding outdoors to 20% and hiding indoors to 1-3 on a d6 check. Human thieves (and other, nonstandard classes with similar abilities) may use the makeup, with a lessened effect, gaining a bonus of +5% to their Hide in Shadows checks.

New Moon Makeup is spoiled by exposure to bright light, losing it's magic as soon as the wearer is exposed to sunlight or magical light such as a Light spell.

*Oddly enough, in stories about her, the names of Avrine's collaborators and conspirators are always "forgotten".
Note: In my games, the mundane buying and selling of magical items is extremely rare, but for those who want them, here are the suggested retail values of each of the items featured here:

Kala Chalk, 1 stick: 500gp (The seller will usually be very vague about the specific nature of the item's magic and will emphasize the rarity and difficulty of obtaining the chalk, which is more of a factor in the price than the actual effectiveness of the item.
Archer's Salve, 1 vial: 100gp (75gp to an elf buying from an NPC elf) 
Avrine's New Moon Makeup: 300gp (on the black market only, the stuff is illegal in most civilized places)

Note: Do not repost or redistribute this material on any forum, website, archive or social media without express prior consent from the author. 

Campaign Mood - Aleena the Doomed, or, How to Annoy the Players with their Hirelings

Aleena and the Bargle incident are often remembered with tongue in cheek fondness by many gamers, and for good reason, she's a memorable NPC, it's a cool campaign starter adventure hook, and Larry Elmore's art for her is D&D cheesecake gold.

But, let's look at her dialogue for a minute:

"Greetings, friend! Looking for the goblin? You might - Oh! You are hurt!
May I help?"
"My name is Aleena. I’m a cleric, an adventurer like yourself. I live in the town nearby, and came here seeking monsters and treasure. Do you know about clerics?"
"Well, the goblin went that-a-way, “He came through here so fast I almost didn’t see him. You hit him? Good for you! Goblins are nasty"
So far so good...
"Since you don’t know about clerics, let me explain. Clerics are trained in fighting like you, but we can also cast spells. I meditate, and the knowledge of spells enters my mind. One of the spells I can cast right now is a curing spell, and you look like you need it!"
"feel better? Would you care to sit and rest a bit? I’d like to tell you a few things that you will need to know later."
Um, actually chica, I've got a goblin to slay, thanks for the healing and all though...
"If you didn’t know about clerics, you probably don’t know about magic-users. They are adventurers, like you and me, but they study only spells, and rarely fight. They have different spells than we clerics do, and instead of meditating, they learn their spells from books. There are a few magic-users living in town, but not many."
"If you are attacked by a bad magicuser, you might be able to avoid the magic, but it’s harder than avoiding poison. Spells can be helpful, but they can
be very dangerous, too.

By the way, that looked like a snake bite that I cured. That can be very bad, because most poison is deadly; you were lucky that it didn’t cause more damage. Some other creatures also have special attacks, like poison. Some can paralyze, and some can even turn you to stone by just looking at you - unless you look away in time. And
dragons are the worst! They can breathe fire, acid, or other deadly things. You can never avoid all the damage from their breaths, but you can lessen it if you cover up in time."
Huh. Not only preachy, but a metagamer, this is going to get old fast.

She goes on blabbering in this preachy, almost condescending manner right up until ol' Bargle shows a little mercy on strong fighter's mental state and fries her with a magic missile.

Now, of course, this type of hand holding is probably useful to someone who is picking up D&D and the heroic fantasy genre as a whole for the very first time, but to experienced players, when read to them as npc dialogue, it gets irritating, fast.

And that's a good thing.

Especially among low level parties, the temptation to use hirelings as party crutches can be a problem in a campaign. "What, 6 of you and noone rolled up a cleric? Great, I supposed you expect me to run one for you, so you have a paramedic tagging along while I'm trying to run the monsters, npcs, etc"

Yeah, sometimes you have fewer players than the game assumes, or PC attrition during a campaign or a player absence from the game makes hirelings and other tag-a-long NPCs useful, if not required, but, if your players begin to lean on them too much, getting lazy or careless because they know the hireling will bail them out....

Make them like Aleena. Annoy the living hell out of your players every time they call on the healer or torchbearer to do their job. You don't have to go as far as having the hired thief steal from them, or the hired cleric refuse to heal those not of his alignment, just have the thief be an arrogant prick, have the magic user be overly intellectual and condescending of their mistakes and silly ideas, have the cleric preach endlessly about the glory of his faith and the sins of the players, have the fighter be a loudmouthed boor who never fails to break down parleys with insults hurled at the enemy.

You get the idea. Eventually the party will get tired of the BS and release the npc from employment, or murder him in his sleep...

21 September 2017

House Rules - Expanded Lock Picking Houserules

We like to give some variety to locks and traps, to make things a little more interesting than the old "ok, roll to unlock/disarm it". While intricate detail of the workings of the device is overkill in most cases, I found that a simple system to differentiate the quality of various devices doesn't slow things down too much. Here's what I came up with.

Lock/Trap QualityOpen Locks and Remove Trap Adj.Notes and probability
Shoddy+10%Very poor quality; bad worksmanship, cheap materials and outdated technology. 1-15% chance of device being this quality.
Poor+5%Poor quality; bad workmanship, cheap materials or outdated tech. 16-40% chance of device being of this quality.
Average0Average quality. 41-75% of device being of this quality.
Good-10%Good quality. High quality materials used. 76-90% of device being of this quality.
Excellent-20%Very good quality. Excellent materials, workmanship or innovative tech. 91-98% chance of device being of this quality.
Peerless-40%Exceptional quality. Excellent materials, workmanship and innovative tech. 99-00% chance of device being of this quality.

I also added a set of higher quality thieves picks and tools to the equipment list. The "Peerless thieves picks and tools" cost 250gp, but grant a 10% bonus to all OL/RT checks made by the thief using them.

In addition, I came up with a system allowing for multiple attempts at picking a single lock. By the book, if the thief fails the first attempt, he must wait until he gains another experience level before attempting it again. This is a little unreasonable, in my opinion.

I rule that the first attempt at picking a lock takes 1d4 minutes. Each subsequent attempt is made at a -10% (cumulative) chance of success, and takes an additional 1d6 minutes (so, the first attempt is 1d4 minutes, the second is 1d4+1d6 minutes, the third is 1d4+2d6 minutes, etc)

House Rules - Variant Non-Magical Arrows

In the standard rules all attacks with a bow do 1d6 points of damage. I wanted to add a little variety for characters who use bows heavily, as well as give the DM some options to use with NPCs and monsters who make use of archery in combat, so here's a collection of new arrows I devised to give your archers a little more flexibility. Enjoy.

Bone Tipped Arrow : 1d4
Used mostly by primitive cultures, including those of humanoids like Goblins and Kobolds, this arrow costs of a 3 or 4 inch long sliver of bone strapped to the end of the arrow's shaft. It's ineffective against any armor heavy than studded leather, causing armored opponents to simply ignore the attack, unless the archer takes a -4 called shot penalty to his attack roll to aim for an unprotected part of the body (if any, DM's discretion).
Cost : 1cp each

Stone Tipped Arrow: 1d6-1
Also used mainly by primitve peoples, this arrow is fitted with a head made of stone chipped into a suitable shape. The major improvement from bone arrows is that this variety can be effective against heavier armors.
Cost : 2cp

Sheaf Arrow : 1d6+1, -1 to hit
A thicker shaft and heavier head reduce the accuracy of this arrow, but give it a higher damage potential than the standard arrow.
Cost : 1sp

Whistling (or Screaming) Arrow : 1d6
Forces a moral check against creatures with WIS of 10 or lower carved channels in the shaft caused the arrow to spin on its horizontal axis, creating a high pitched screaming sound easily heard up to 1000 yards away
Cost : 5sp

Flare (or Flame) Arrow : 1d6
Causes additional 1d4 points fire damage if target fails a save vs. breath. Often used in the field by rangers and soldiers by shooting them straight up, hence the flare name.
Cost : 1gp

Stinger (Ceramic Hollow Tipped) Arrow : 1d6-2
May be filled acid or poison that is released on impact. these arrows shatter on impact and cannot be reused.
Cost : 1pp (does not include cost of acid or poison if used)

Frog Crotch Arrow : 1 point damage, Not very effective as a weapon, -4 to hit (generally against AC 10, but DM's discretion applies)
Successful hit allows the archer to cut ropes and cords. Used often by recon type rangers and archers involved in siege situations. The name is taken from the old 1E Oriental Adventures book, so don't blame me if it sounds a bit crude. The name is derived from the shape of the head, sort of a rounded v with the open end facing forward and sharpened along the inside edges, the arrow catches the rope and severs it.
Cost : 1gp

House Rules - Olga's Variant Ideas for Death, Dying and Hit Points

Olga is a member of my game group and a dear family friend. When I can coax her into writing a guest post, i'll feature them here, with minimal editing.

Death's Door

I notice that many later editions of D&D and its variants, either officially or as an assumed unwritten rule, don't treat 0 hit points as dead, as it is written in the Basic Rules. Systems seem to vary on what negative hit point total means actual death, but 0 or lower HP just seems to mean the PC (but oddly enough, not the NPCs or monsters, go figure) is simply unconscious and bleeding, sure to die if help is not given by a comrade quickly.

The Hackmaster RPG (4th edition, the AD&D 1st ed. "clone" parody) takes a different approach, granting every PC, NPC and monster a HP "kicker", 10 extra hit points for everyone. While I don't like shaking up the rules to that extent, and further dragging out low level combat as 1st level PCs and low HD monsters literally hack each other to pieces attempting to deal 14 to 118 points of damage, I do like that at least the system is fair to the DM's cast of characters and creatures, <b>everybody</b> gets the 10 bonus points.

The compromise system I came up with follows the basic idea of the 0 HP means unconscious rules, while incorporating a little of the Hackmaster rule spirit as well. Here's my proposed Death's Door rule:

At 0 HP, a PC or NPC is unconscious, and dying from bleeding, even if that bleeding is internal, from blunt melee weapons. The character will lose 1 HP per game round unless healing is given by an ally through magic or successful use of a healing skill, if you use those options. If the character's HP total falls below -(1+CON Adj)*, he is dead.

If the character is returned to 1 HP or higher through healing, he must make a saving throw vs. Death or permanently lose 1 point of CON ability score. This loss of ability score does <b>not</b> retroactively affect the character's hit point total, but will affect future HP gained at level up if the characters CON score adjustment changes.

That's for PCs and "named" NPCs, the DM's cast of characters that are more than just bystanders or riffraff using the Normal Human, Elf, Dwarf, etc monster descriptions. Monsters do not gain the death's door option, they are still dead at 0 HP, but instead, they get a 1 HP per HD kicker, always rounded up. So a Kobold or Goblin gets 1 extra hit point, while a 10 HD Dragon gets 10 extra HP. I think this balances things out ok without forcing the DM to keep track of half a dozen or more unconscious and dying monsters during an encounter.

* As shown on page 36 of the Basic Set, characters with a high Constitution score get an adjustment to their HP. This is the ability score adjustment I'm talking about. +1 for a score of 13-15, +2 for 16-17 or +3 for a score of 18 or higher. A character with a 17 CON can therefore fall to -4 (1+ +3 con adj) HP before actually dying. Negative Con. adj for a low ability score are ignored for this purpose.

20 September 2017

House Rules - Experience Awards for Noncombat Activities

Overall, there's nothing really wrong with the XP awards as written, but I like to have some loose guidelines for XP awards for non-combat activities. Since I do not use the 1gp=1xp rule granting experience just for gathering treasure, these help give the players a sense of accomplishment and encourage participation during the game session

This is the system I used.

XP Award
Player/Character Action
25Clever but ineffective idea or action:
100Clever and effective idea or action:
50Well role played encounter
150Exceptionally role played encounter
25Class ability used successfully Note that spells are considered under "Clever Actions, above, not as class abilities. When applying this to Turning Undead by a Cleric or Druid, the bonus applies to each creature turned, since the Cleric does not have a unique 'death blow' option like the other classes, below.
50Class ability used to benefit a fellow PC or NPC, not self Note that spells are considered under "Clever Actions, above, not as class abilities. 
100Furthering the game. In other words, Encouraging, teaching or helping other players; avoiding rules lawyering arguments, helping the DM remember relevant rules, etc.
50Innovative or creative use of the rules.
100Selfless bravado, placing your character in harm's way to aid another PC or NPC.
100Solving a puzzle, riddle or similar situation.
50Playing within alignment guidelines as decided by the DM and players
25/HDDefeating an opponent (in other words, delivering the death blow). This is in addition to the normal XP awarded for the monster.10 XP per hit die of the opponent defeated.
25/HDDefeating an opponent with a spell (in other words, delivering the death blow). This is in addition to the normal XP awarded for the monster. 10 XP per hit die of the opponent defeated.
25/HDDefeating an opponent with a Backstab (in other words, delivering the death blow). This is in addition to the normal XP awarded for the monster. 10 XP per hit die of the opponent defeated.
50Active participation in the story. This is awarded once per session, to each PC who qualifies.
100 Completing a campaign/story goal. This is awarded to each member of the party.

House Rules - Scaling the Cleric's cure spells

Here's a breakdown of the Cleric's "cure" spells, by level he can cast them and amount of damage healed:

LevelSpellHP Restored
2Cure Light Wounds1d6+1
8Cure Serious Wounds2d6+2
10Cure Critical Wounds3d6+3
12CureallAll but 1d6

The main question I have about this is the disparity in time between CLW and CSW compared to then acquiring CCW and CA. Six experience levels pass while the Cleric can only heal 1d6+1 per spell, but after that, you get an upgrade every 2 levels. Huh?

To me, this only limits the Cleric's choice of spells to cast, and thus, his role in the party. If we want to move beyond the party medic role and encourage the Cleric's player to experiment with some of the other spells available to him, I think we need to overhaul the cure spells. My proposal is simple, get rid of the CLW, CSW and CCW spells, and replace them with this one:

Cure Wounds*
Level: 1
Range: Touch
Duration: Permanent
Effect: Any one living creature

This spell will either heal damage or remove paralysis.

If used to heal, it will restore ld6+ 1 points of damage, however, it will not heal any damage if used to cure paralysis.

The Cleric may cast it on himself if desired.

This spell will never increase a creature’s total hit points above the original amount.

As the Cleric becomes more powerful, the effectiveness of this spell increases; for every 3 experience levels he gains beyond 2nd level(keep in mind the cleric must be 2nd level to cast this spell initially), the cleric may add an additional 1d6+1 points of damage restored:

LevelHP Restored

*This spell may also be reversed, inflicting the listed damage on a single creature after a successful attack roll by the Cleric.

The Cureall spell remains unchanged, providing a more reliable option for high level Clerics to quickly heal large amounts of damage.

What do you think?

19 September 2017

Campaign Mood - Mundane Animals as Low Level "Monsters"

A trick I like to use to establish a better sense of fantasy and wonder in the campaign is to start things out very mundane and down to earth. Bandits will be humans rather than orcs. The owlbear stealing chickens from the local farm turns out to be a rival farmer in a makeshift costume. Magic is rare at first, and the real monsters wait quietly for the party to come to them, a bit later.

Certain monsters are so ubiquitous that using them is almost expected and doesn't do much to harm the mood of the game. Of course you wouldn't want a party of 1st level heroes actually challenging a dragon, but seeing one flying on the horizon at dusk, or hearing tales of his tyranny and gold lust are fine, even at basic level play. Orcs and goblins and kobolds (oh my!) shouldn't be overused, humans and demihumans are supposed to be the dominant races in the world, after all, but they can make appearances now and then without the DM screaming "THIS IS A FANTASY WORLD!" at the players. Remember, fantasy in the setting works best when you ease into it. Recall the wonder, excitement and trepidation of poor Bilbo Baggins as he ventures out into the world for the first time. Capture the wonder of Harry Potter as he prepares for his first term at Hogwarts school. The monsters, magic and epic tales of the setting will have a bigger impact on your players and be remembered longer and much more fondly if you build up to them. If you throw wave after wave of skeletons and zombies at the party from day one, there's no real thrill or shock when the BBEG (big bad evil guy, the primary villain in the campaign or campaign chapter) turns out to be a lich.

Consider as an example the Minotaur Cave encounter from B2: Keep on the Borderlands. This encounter, while fun and memorable, is flawed in two basic ways in my opinion. First, minotaurs are mythic, epic monsters, an encounter with one should be the climax of a lengthy quest involving a story reminiscent of the Greek tragedies from which the creature is borrowed. He shouldn't just be the pet and treasure keeper for a band of bugbears. Second, I think the purpose of the encounter, and the level of difficulty, can be just as easily fulfilled by replacing the minotaur with a bear. Use a Grizzly (or a Cave bear if you're feeling mean) and the encounter plays out similarly to the minotaur. The only difference in this case is that the bear wont have a reach/missile attack, so you might want to tweak the encounter area a bit to prevent characters from "shooting fish in a barrel" and picking him off from a safe distance.

This way, down the road when you have a great idea for an epic story arch that involves a minotaur, you haven't softened the impact of that creature. "Ho hum, another minotaur, let's get this over with".

I'm open to feedback and other ideas for maximizing use of the mundane and ubiquitous low level animals and monsters, so please use the comments below to chime in.

I'll leave you with a quote from Gary Gygax, from the aforementioned minotaur encounter in B2:

(the only options for escape are finding and using a secret door)... or else to run out of the place and climb a large tree.

Classic. I miss that kind of tongue in cheek humor in the game, WotC takes their D&D way too seriously.