Tuesday, March 6, 2012

BECMI Domain Rules

I've done a bit more re-reading, this time of the domain rules from the old "BECMI" D&D (the Frank Mentzer "Basic" edition) Companion Set. Since my reading of Birthright recently, I've been thinking about the Companion rules in contrast to them. It's quite a contrast: BECMI's dominion rules are much more bare-bones and abstracted, and much simpler to use. One clever twist is that the core reward mechanism from the adventuring game - each gold piece looted earns one experience point - is extended to the domain game, which makes rulership more meaningful for name-level characters.

One thing I had in mind when reading this system was a complaint I'd read on a forum a while back that the system is a "money pump" that churns out profit (and therefore XP) too fast and too easy. It's true that an uneventful domain turn produces income well in excess of expenditures and a comfortable population expansion (and therefore more income the next turn), but other factors can have very steep costs. Among these are hosting tournaments, which have quite detailed rules, and random events like natural disasters or economic unrest... which have no rules. Literally none at all. There's a chart giving the chances of various specific events (mostly bad ones), but the game effects of each are left entirely to DM adjudication. This is a non-trivial absence, since the rest of the rules system is simple and abstracted enough that it's hard to come up with ways that make for a distinctive difference between the consequences of, for instance, a fire and of a hurricane.

On the other hand - this makes sense in context. Birthright, in contrast, has detailed rules are meant for a Birthright campaign, and so they're a lot like empire-building boardgames and videogames in their "gameyness" - the rules themselves are meant to present challenges in gameplay. BECMI's dominion rules are meant for a game in which rulership is only one part of the campaign, and not the focus of the actual game. So, instead of the game mechanics containing embedded, "hard-coded" challenges of gameplay, they're a springboard for DM-driven challenges that let the player bask in his successful rule... until [random catastrophe] happens and the DM uses this as a hook to throw a problem at the player to solve. In other words, these rules aren't "The game", they are the foundation of "The game". There are some old-school-isms in design too - for instance a wise player will keep back some the profits from the domain when things are going well in an emergency fund to fall back on during a crisis, which is a test of player smarts.

The mass combat system, War Machine, looks very nice. I haven't seen how the system works out in actual play, and it's hard to tell just by looking at it whether the results make sense. It does look like the system is a little more complex than maybe it needs to be, because the effectiveness of a force is worked out in two separate but linked stages. Still, I really like how it requires no miniatures or any other props, requires very few dice rolls, and the resolution chart gives a variety of consequences on multiple parameters – each line on the chart includes winner casualties, loser casualties, won or lost ground, etc. In fact, in these days where charts and tables are badly unfashionable among most (non-OSR) gamers, War Machine is a great example of a mechanic that just couldn't be done as well without a chart. For instance, as you look at higher margins of success by the winning side, generally the winner loses less and the loser loses more. There are blips, though – the only result which has the loser suffering 100% casualties is not the highest possible success and also causes fairly high casualties even on the winning side, which invites DM narration of a brutal bloodbath. You could – maybe – with a set of rules and dice alone manage to link winner and loser consequences together with success level, but I bet it would be much more complicated and time-consuming than just looking up the damn chart!

BECMI's domain rules have a lot of good things going for them – they're quite simple, have some good flavour, and are built for BECMI so easy to use in Labyrinth Lord. And yet... in some ways they're so simply abstracted that I feel like I might be as well just skip them and have the player roll for income per peasant and skip straight to the rolls for random events, which is where the interesting gameable stuff happens. Except, of course, that the random events give no DM support whatsoever beyond saying "[thing] happens", so I just don't feel like the rules system is doing enough for me to justify its existence.

Following the Domain theme of my reading so far, I have AEG's "Empire" for 3e/d20 and "An Echo, Resounding" for Labyrinth Lord still to read.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Project RTFM

I've been doing some more reading, as part of what I'm calling Project RTFM (getting round to reading my unread books), and I've read a few RPG-related ones. Firstly, "Ready Player One", a novel by Ernest Cline. I've been reading quite a few novels lately, but this is by far the most entertaining.

It's a sci-fi story set in the mid-21st century where almost everyone spends most of their time in OASIS, a virtual reality world that's like Second Life, Facebook, and World of Warcraft all put together. The creator of OASIS died an eccentric recluse with no friends or family, and his public will left his vast fortune to the first user to find the Easter Egg he hid inside OASIS. The catch: the Egg is hidden behind layers of crazy-hard obscure puzzles, the only clues buried in the trivia of his lifelong obsessions: classic videogames and the pop culture from his teenage years - the 1980s. A subculture of egg hunters ("gunters") immerse themselves in the lore of these subjects hoping to find the jackpot, but several years on, none have made any progress at all.

The story's about a teenage gunter who figures out the first puzzle, becomes the first name on the online scoreboard, and finds out that with so much at stake it's not just a game anymore. The novel is as much a homage to the 80s and geek culture (including D&D) as it is a virtual-world treasure hunt, and has a feel like the action-adventure movies of the era that it references (and the references are many - Ghostbusters gets quoted just a few paragraphs in and it keeps going from there). To any gamer old enough to remember the 80s, I can't recommend this book highly enough.

I'm currently reading "Designers & Dragons" by Shannon Appelcline, a history of the RPG history. The research and scholarship that's obviously gone into it is astonishing, and the writing style is pitch-perfect, with enough opinion and personality to keep it from being dry, but not so much as to detract from it's credibility as a proper historical text. The only major weakness is the editing, with too many typos, and in one case I noticed a sidebar-quote had been duplicated (thereby erasing whatever the second quote was supposed to be). The book has no index, but that has apparently been released free online. It's a bit on the pricy side, but the reason becomes clear upon seeing it: it's a weighty leather-look black tome with a visual style somewhere between an encyclopedia and a grimoire.

The book is organised by company, and of course I began with the first, TSR, with their rollercoaster from founding the whole hobby and making D&D a household name, to being run into the ground and falling - twice - to the brink of bankruptcy. I already knew some of the specifics, but the book filled in plenty of gaps that I didn't know about. I've found myself wondering what "might have been" when reading a lot of this, including the story of West End Games, who nearly avoided their demise in the mid-90s (and what might have then happened to the Star Wars licence), and of course the young Wizards of the Coast (before Magic: the Gathering) who just barely survived the infamous lawsuit from Palladium with the help of mediation from within the gaming industry, and what would've happened if Wizards hadn't been around in '97 to save TSR with their CCG money.

I recommend Designers & Dragons to readers interested in the history of RPGs, specifically the business side. The details of the actual games themselves are fairly thin, but the stories of the companies and people who made them make fascinating reading in their own right.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

It's Just A Flesh Wound!

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been thinking about some of the things I liked about 4th Edition. One of these is the "healing surge" mechanic, which shifts the basic unit of healing per day from the cleric's spell slots to the recipient's ability to recover. The reason I like this is that a party without a cleric (or other dedicated healer) can use their own healing surges to restore Hit Points between encounters, and therefore isn't doomed to "death of a thousand cuts" brutal attrition that they would be in older editions.

To steal this in full would require an extensive re-writing of magic in classic D&D, but there's a "lite" option that's quick and easy. I call this the Health Reserve option.

OPTIONAL RULE: Health Reserve.
Characters get a health reserve (HR) die type equal to their base HD type plus Constitution modifier at level 1. They gain another die (plus Con mod) at each odd level afterwards. Each PC may use health reserve three times per day.
Example: a Fighter with a +1 Constitution modifier has 1d8+1 HR at level 1, 2d8+2 HR at level 3, etc. Health reserve may be used any time the character is free to rest for a few minutes; the dice are rolled and the result heals that many Hit Points. A character who receives magical healing may use HR once in addition to the magical effect, even in combat.

"Behind the curtain" explanation:
Assuming characters get maximum HP at level 1, the HR value therefore restores, on average, roughly half the full HP score. By adding one die every other level, this maintains the approximate average half of full HP. As an aside, characters over name level get "ahead of the curve", but high-level characters have more complex HP restoration issues in my experience anyway.

You might now be wondering: why not simply make HR equal to half the HP total and be done with it, like how 4e's healing surges are worth quarter total HP? A few reasons: that would require re-calculation (with rounding) each level, which is more record-keeping than updating a die code every other level. Also, it would double-dip reward characters who had rolled better for HP by making their healing more potent too; in contrast, the HR die code, like the classic healing spells, gives low-HP characters a larger proportion of their total HP. Finally, making HR a dice roll instead of a fixed value makes it less reliable, and therefore not overshadow healing spells or be too much of a crutch.

Giving three uses per day is based on the nominal "four encounters per day" assumption built into later editions. Having three uses of HR allows for an average of one between each encounter, which will of course NOT be this exact in play because of unequal HP loss, good or bad rolls on HR dice, use of healing spells or potions, etc. Even so, it's useful as a loose benchmark.

As a final note, the addendum allowing healing spells to grant a use of HR keeps even the humble Cure Light Wounds useful at higher levels because it enables in-combat use of HR. This is another way to keep this rule from hurting the cleric's role in the game.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Pawns and Champions and Masters (oh my)

In the wake of the announcement of the next edition of D&D, I've been thinking a bit about what parts of 4th Edition might be worth keeping. The rules for minions, elites and solos are a good concept, but they're limited in that they don't allow for a standard monster to be converted into a minion, and conversion into an Elite or Solo is possible but only in specific ways. The edition's focus on the “monster math” creates balance at a high cost in flexibility, in my opinion.

So I decided that I could adapt the idea to Labyrinth Lord, and having a simpler base system would allow for easy dynamic adjustment. This system allows the DM to add “templates” to monsters and NPCs. With templates in play it's best to have non-templated “normal” monsters have 4 HP per HD (instead of the usual range), but this isn't essential.

HP: 1 per HD.
Attack: +1 to hit and damage.

HP: 8 per HD.
Attack: +2 to hit and damage.
Saves: +2 bonus.
AC: -2 bonus.
XP: Each Elite is worth double usual experience.

HP: 15 per HD.
Attack: Two sets of actions per round, at +3 to hit and damage.
Saves: +4 bonus.
AC: -2 bonus.
XP: A Master is worth four times usual experience.
Special: Attacks that normally instant-kill instead cause the loss of 1d8 HP per HD of the Master (allow the attacking player to roll). Attacks that normally paralyse or debilitate (including mind control) instead only cost the Master it's next round's actions, then it resists the effect.

Usage Notes:
Pawn: DMs may add this template to groups of enemies who are weaker than the PCs. The reduced HP allows them to be killed quicker (usually in one hit), but the attack bonuses make them a more credible threat while they live. This allows battles against hordes of enemies to be less tedious and more decisive. Don't use this template for monsters who only have half a Hit Die or less (like kobolds) – they have few enough HP already to die easily in one hit.
Champion: This template allows an easy way to boost a monster to a “mini-boss” status, without requiring any special XP recalculations because it simply counts as two of the normal kind. Compared to two normal monsters, one Champion may be harder to kill (it only takes damage once from area attacks and has stronger AC and saves) but the attack bonuses aren't as good as having two sets of attacks, so Champions are good for stand-up hack-and-slash matches.
Master: Major “bosses”, Masters are intended to be able to face a party alone, but can be used with some lesser allies too. They are champion-Champions, and similar concepts apply to their game mechanics. They are not as deadly on attack as four non-templated monsters all attacking together, but their very high HP keep them in the fight where the four basic monsters would soon lose some of their number and therefore have weakening offence. Their special defence ability keeps them from losing anticlimactically to a single spell in round 1, yet still allows special-effect magics to play a major role in the fight.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

It has been a long time since I posted here. My Labyrinth Lord campaign is on hiatus, I'm running Star Wars Saga Edition instead, and thanks to persistent scheduling problems my group hasn't gamed for months and may not for months to come. So I haven't had much to post about because I'm not running or even seriously planning to run any D&D for quite some time.

However, I have made a New Year semi-resolution to read some of the many books I have unread. In the area of RPGs, I'm pretty bad for spending my free time for RPGs reading forums (which do have some really good content but in the middle of lots of useless stuff) instead of reading books I've bought. I made a start on this project yesterday, and thought I'd share my thoughts here.

Inspired by a thread I've been reading on rpg.net about the "lost endgame" of D&D – becoming a ruler after Name Level, which modern editions dropped – I decided to read Birthright for AD&D. Or, to be more precise, the rulebook from the Birthright core box set (not the setting books, which I'm not interested in), for the domain management systems. I already vaguely knew some of it, partly from playing the old PC game spin-off years ago: "Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance" (a very underrated empire-building/RPG hybrid). I've also flicked through the rules a few times before; I couldn't remember why, but I never managed to do more than skim before putting the box away, which is odd because since my longest-running campaign featured PC rulership it's a subject I'm interested in.

I read the whole thing through last night, and now I remember why I'd never finished it before: it's a difficult dry read, and Birthright's domain systems are a full-on game in their own right, not something you toy with for a little interval between adventures. In Birthright, it's the other way round: you go on adventures during domain turns, and it costs you a domain action at that, so getting "leave" to go dungeon-delving may not be possible when things are hectic. On the other hand, some random events (mostly bad ones) rolled for each domain turn can require adventures to solve the problem or they will get worse. The book actually recommends that in some campaigns players of regent PCs have a second character to take on adventures if his regent can't spare time from his duties, hinting at the possibility of Ars-Magica-style troupe play.

One of the two main issues I'd have with adopting Birthright's rules is that they're tied to the setting: there are bloodlines of heroes from an ancient war, and only the blooded heirs can rule (unblooded are out of luck: they can become respected and personally powerful, but can never hold a throne under any circumstances). A bloodline grants some special abilities (randomly determined by rolling on a table, old-skool style!) but more importantly, bloodline strength is tied into the regency point rules, which measure a regent's political power and influence and are central to the system. Using Birthright's rules out of the setting context would require a certain amount of work (I'm not sure how much) to decouple the bloodline rules from the rest of the regency system.

The other problem, and the real deal-breaker, is that it would take a lot of work to run, from both regent players and the DM. Birthright is functionally a full-blown kingdom-running/diplomacy/empire-building boardgame plugged into AD&D. The setting map is in effect a game-board with all the provinces statted out – they have multiple ratings for things like the strength of law&order, temples, economic relationships, sites of magical power (and any of these "holdings" can belong to the province ruler, a non-ruler, or even a rival). There are rules for province creation tucked away in an appendix, but using the rules in another setting would require writing up a great many provinces and politically mapping them too.

Aside from that, not only do PC regents get actions during domain turns, NPC regents do too. The book acknowledges that running ALL of them in the same turn isn't practical and suggests how to choose which ones to run based on relevance and importance, but still, the DM has lots of management to do. This section contains some tantalising glimpses into the potential of a Birthright game: the GM can, with his knowledge of what NPC regents are up to strategically with/against other regents (including PCs), think through their plans and come up with character-scale adventures resulting from these maneuverings, and the outcome of these adventures could impact on the domain game in turn. For instance, an NPC might try to destabilise an economically important province of another NPC regent (one allied to a PC) by supplying local brigands with weapons and information. The regent of the province might need to enlist the aid of the PC regent (perhaps with the offer of trade concessions), and if the PC party manage to deal with the brigands and uncover who was behind them, it could lead to war. Since these NPC actions are also going to be affected by the actions of PC regents' domains, this could make for a campaign with cascading cause-and-effect consequences that could surprise the DM as much as the players.

There's a nifty mass battle system in Birthright that occupies a middle ground between the Battlesystem miniatures-gaming mass battle rules that TSR supported for AD&D and the War Machine rules in the D&D Companion set that required only dice rolls. Birthright's system uses cards, each with stats for a different type of unit (pikes, archers, etc.) played on a special mat marked out into abstract zones of the battlefield (attacker's left flank, defender's reserves, etc.). Battles are played out in turns, with attacks resolved by drawing other cards and cross-referencing the results with the cards of the units involved. It looks pretty good and feels very different to personal combat; the morale rules ensure that standing and fighting to the last man are unlikely.

Unfortunately, the battle rules are very limited when used outside the Birthright setting. They depend on having cards for the units, and the included cards cover the usual types of units plus some non-humans (elves, dwarves, goblins etc.) that have armies in the Birthright world, but other monsters aren't covered. AD&D monster stats don't correspond to the battle card stats, and no conversion guidelines are offered. This isn't a major problem in a Birthright-setting game where true "monsters" are extremely rare to keep the focus on the conflicts of people, but if you want to run a battle in the Forgotten Realms with a red dragon leading an attack on a castle while the defenders summon devils to counterattack, the Birthright rules are little help. There is a skirmish rules section which you could use, but it's a messy handwave and has big granularity problems (for example, if the AD&D combat stats allow 12+ maximum attack damage, damage in the skirmish game is doubled, but 11 or less max damage gives no benefit; so 1d4 damage and 1d8+3 damage attacks in AD&D are identical in skirmish, but 1d8+4 is twice as powerful as 1d8+3!).

So one of the running limitations on the Birthright rules system is that it isn't easy to use outside of the Birthright setting. Ironically, it would actually be easier to use them outside of the AD&D rules system, and perhaps even preferable! Birthright is from the 2nd Edition AD&D era, the time when D&D's aesthetic had moved from the swords-and-sorcery mercenary adventuring of 1st Edition and earlier to the post-Dragonlance epic quest storytelling model; but the mechanics were still AD&D and rooted in the old-school sensibilities where an adventurer is never more than a few dice rolls from sudden death. This shows in Birthright – the game portrays regents going adventuring quite blithely, giving no advice to the DM or players about dealing with the consequences of a single save-or-die effect leaving a throne suddenly vacant. There's still clerical magic to raise the dead, but again Birthright never gives any attention to the consequences of an adventuring regent owing his (second) life to a high priest. Really, magic receives little coverage in Birthright besides some specific applications in mass battle, even though this game could really benefit from examining its possible uses (and abuses) in larger society. By also de-emphasising monsters in the setting to reinforce the medieval clash-of-armies style of conflicts, it seems like Birthright is straining against being AD&D.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Morrowind Monsters: Beasts of the Waters


Mudcrabs are hard-shelled creatures, smaller than humans but still big enough to still be dangerous. They are commonly found near water around Morrowind. Mudcrabs usually attack man-sized prey if they feel threatened, but a mudcrab tastes human or demihuman flesh even once it becomes a maneater until death – this behaviour usually gets it killed before too long.

No. Enc: 1-3 (1-6)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 60' (20')
Movement: Swim: 60' (20')
Armour Class: 3
Hit Dice: 1
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d6
Save: F1
Morale: 7 (11 for maneaters)
Hoard Class: None
XP: 10


Slaughterfish are carnivorous fish up to two feet in length, with sharp pointed teeth. They form into large schools, deadly to unlucky swimmers.

No. Enc: 1-20 (1-20)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: Swim: 120' (40')
Armour Class: 7
Hit Dice: 1+1
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d4
Save: F1
Morale: 10
Hoard Class: None
XP: 15


Dreugh are a hybrid of human and octopus in appearance, with a humanoid upper body with pincer hands and a mass of tentacles for a lower body. They are said to have underwater kingdoms ruled by fabled "trident-kings", but are savagely hostile to intruders in their watery domains.

No. Enc: 1-2 (1-4)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: Swim: 90' (30')
Armour Class: 2
Hit Dice: 5
Attacks: 2
Damage: 2d6
Save: F5
Morale: 9
Hoard Class: XIX
XP: 200

Special Notes: These creatures are easily transported to other settings, to help pad out the slim lists of aquatic monsters.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Morrowind Monsters: Undead

Morrowind has several types of unique undead. This is mostly because of the cultural practice of "sacred necromancy". This is the raising of ancestor spirits as undead to guard their own tombs from robbers. Those who practice "profane necromancy" (raising any other sort of undead for any other reason) in Morrowind are liable to be lynched or burned at the stake if caught, even though most outsiders see little moral difference between the two types of necromantic arts.

Ancestor Ghost
Ancestor ghosts are semi-transparent, and look like a floating tattered burial shroud, with bones and a skeletal face sticking out.
No. Enc: 1 (1-6)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 60' (20')
Armour Class: 7
Hit Dice: 1
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d4
Save: E1
Morale: 12
Hoard Class: XVIII
XP: 19
Ancestor ghosts are immune to non-magical weapons, except those made of silver.They have all the usual undead immunities too. They can bestow a curse (as per the clerical spell Bless reversed) upon any who invade their tomb.

Bonewalkers are the corporeal equivalents of amcestor ghosts, whose remains have been animated instead of just their spirits. They have a particularly intimidating appearance because their shattered bones stick out from their flesh all over their bodies.
No. Enc: 1 (1-4)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 120' (40')
Armour Class: 5
Hit Dice: 4
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d10
Save: E4
Morale: 12
Hoard Class: XVIII
XP: 245
Bonewalkers have all the usual undead immunities. They can bestow a curse (reducing the target's Strength by 1d6 points for 1 minute, save negates) upon any who invade their tomb.
Greater Bonewalker
These are more powerful versions of the bonewalker.
No. Enc: 1 (1-3)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 120' (40')
Armour Class: 3
Hit Dice: 7
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d12
Save: E7
Morale: 12
Hoard Class: XVIII
XP: 1490
Greater bonewalkers have all the usual undead immunities. They can bestow a curse (reducing the target's Strength by 2d6 points, save negates) upon any who invade their tomb. Strength loss from this curse returns at a rate of only 1 point per day naturally, but a Remove Curse spell remedies the whole loss immediately.

Bonelords are dangerous tomb guardians. Their form is a skeletal body within a hooded burial shroud, with an extra pair of arms attached.
No. Enc: 1 (1-2)
Alignment: Neutral
Movement: 120' (40')
Armour Class: 3
Hit Dice: 8
Attacks: 2
Damage: 3d6
Save: E8
Morale: 12
Hoard Class: XVIII
XP: 1560
Bonelords have all the usual undead immunities. They have all the usual undead immunities too. They can bestow a curse (as per the clerical spell Remove Curse reversed) upon any who invade their tomb.

Sacred necromancers often animate common skeletons, either to support the more formidable tomb guardians or instead of them if the more difficult rituals aren't possible. These are exactly the same as the Skeletons from the Labyrinth Lord rulebook (pps.95.96 in the revised edition).

Dwemer Spectre
These are the restless spirits of dead Dwemer, still roaming their lost halls, and adding to the danger already presented by animunculi. Treat them as Spectres from the Labyrinth Lord rulebook (p.96 in the revised edition), except that they can be harmed by silver weapons.

Special Notes: These undead are easily used in other worlds, as long as there exists some individual or group willing to animate the dead to guard their own tombs.