Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Scoundrel, Part 15: Some Loose Ends

So, it's kinda nice to be on this side of all that work. I now have 12 Scoundrel abilities and seven skills, available to all classes. Nice.

Also nice, in my opinion, is how easy this system is to adjust. As the ref, do you not like a few of the abilities? Strike 'em; there's plenty more, so there will be plenty of choices left over. Want other abilities? Add 'em. Don't like d12s? The skill system will work well with most dice, I think. d4s and d% probably wouldn't be so great, but I think the skill system would probably be viable with anything from a d6 to a d30. Don't want the skill system at all? There are enough Scoundrel abilities that a ref could, if he wanted to, yank the skills and still have plenty of choices for viable Scoundrels. (Of course, he'd have to find another way to adjudicate things like picking locks… but we've already had that discussion.)

Anyway, I think I'm almost done, but there are at least two items I still need to address. The first is how to adjudicate abilities. I really like the mechanic I proposed for the magic scrolls in an earlier post: to succeed at the ability, roll at or under the relevant attribute + character level +/- relevant modifier. Of course, refs could substitute their own methods of adjudicating, ranging from harder methods to just ruling that the Scoundrel succeeds whenever attempting an ability. Personally, I'd probably use a mix of automatic success and the attribute+level+/-modifier system. Backstab, for example, should always be automatic, while there should always be a chance of failure for using magic. In between those ends of the spectrum, I would probably rule that ability success is automatic when not trying to do something super-hard or super-quick or with resistance. For example, letting a Scoundrel automatically succeed in doing first aid on another character after they are safely back in town, and when the character was only down to 80% of their hit points in the first place is something I'd see as reasonable, while trying to keep a character from dying in the middle of a battle when they just had their leg chopped off because they rolled poorly on the Table of Death and Dismemberment would require a roll, I think. As another example, earning a little money on the side with sleight-of-hand when not adventuring should be automatically successful, while keeping a ring hidden from some guards that are searching the Scoundrel should require a roll to succeed.

The second is what happens when a Scoundrel fumbles when trying to use magic. Going the way of DCC and having a chart for each spell is… for more dedicated men than me. I'm thinking a simple chart could work for most, if not all, spells. Something like…

1: Roll again on table 1d4 times and combine results
2: Change target to self/enemy as appropriate
3: Change target to ally/enemy/self as appropriate
4: Increase scale of spell effect
5: Humorous effect only thematically related to spell
6: Reverse spell effect

Actually, let's stop here and open this table up for some Gygaxian Democracy. Post other very, very general ways that spells could go wrong in the comments and I'll (probably) include them (and credit you) in the final result.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Turning Yourself into a D&D Character

Quick question: a year, maybe two or three, ago, I think there was this meme going around the OSR where you could figure out your attributes or something to turn yourself into a D&D character. I've tried multiple times to google for it, but I haven't been able to find it. Does anyone else remember this? I think you determined Strength by how many push-ups in a row you could do or something, maybe? I can't remember the other ones. Anyway, if someone remembers this and can point me to it, that would be awesome. Thanks!

The Scoundrel, part 14: Miscellaneous Skills

Last set! Almost done with the Scoundrel class/skill system!

Street Lore: Knowing the current ins and outs of the underworld, or just the word on the street, as well as the going prices for gems and sundry treasure and where to find hirelings, etc. I'm thinking that this can be roleplayed, handwaved or flat out given by the ref if the character's background merits it. Verdict: Out

Hear Noise: Seeing whether your character hears something. Like Hear Noise through Door, I don't really get this one. I'll give particular events, NPCs or items a chance to make audible noise, not characters a chance to hear it. Verdict: Out

Tracking: Following some sort of quarry based on clues it leaves behind. Seems like this should be at least as available to fighters as scoundrels, and should improve with practice. Verdict: Skill

Minstrelsy: Singing and playing instruments, reciting lays and sagas, etc., usually to some effect, whether to make some silver, distract the crowds from what the rest of the party is up to, win an antagonistic NPC over, drum up the party's reputation or just entertain a tavern-ful of patrons for flavor and roleplaying's sake. I don't really see fighters, magic-users or clerics engaging in this kind of bardery, nor do I really want this to be something that works on a scale of improvement. Verdict: Ability

Foraging and Hunting: Generally being able to find good, wholesome food in the wilderness, and water, and firewood, etc. Sounds like a good way to abstract out hunting in the wilderness, but I'm not sure that's going to be common enough that it needs to be a skill. I don't plan on keeping meticulous-enough track of this to have it be a skill, anyway, though I may use Raggi's charts for determining how successful a hunt was. Verdict: Out

First Aid: This was the one ability that I threw in that wasn't in any of the classes and skill systems I referenced. The rangers I'm using in my current campaign can heal, and I've been borrowing from ranger classes, so I threw this in, since I was casting a wide net. Not really sure how I would adjudicate this as a skill, though I could see it as a useful ability for a scoundrel that's in and out of trouble a lot to have. I also try to spread the healing ability around, since I don't have clerics in my current campaign. Verdict: Ability

The Scoundrel, Part 13: Acrobatics

I'm indebted to Gavin for making these skills/abilities available to me, as I don't have a copy of Unearthed Arcana, or any other way to reference a thief-acrobat.

Tightrope Walking: Cool. I like this. Definitely not something a burly fighter or a cloak-encumbered mage would be doing, but it makes for great heist possibilities. Verdict: Ability

Tumbling: Dodging attacks and reducing damage from falls. I like this, especially when I use ChicagoWiz's grappling rules, which treats grapple attempts like regular attacks (kinda). Also, brings back memories of The Castle in the Attic. So cool.  Verdict: Ability

Jumping: Jumping extra-far and extra-high, especially with a pole to vault with. Eh, not really seeing it as worth the extra calculation, but it sounds cool… I'm on the fence with this one. Maybe this should be a skill? Help me out here. Verdict: Out

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Scoundrel, Part 12: Languages and Magic

With this post, we'll sort language and magic skills and abilities.

Memorize Spells: Scoundrels would, of course, have a much slower advancement rate for spell memorization, and maybe they should have a chance to mess this up as well. Anyway, this isn't without precedent, either in the literature (I seem to remember the Gray Mouser casting a spell- without a scroll- in an escape he made before he met up with Fafhrd) and in gaming, as Mountebanks, a type of rogue in the Majestic Wilderlands, can cast spells. Verdict: Ability

Use Magic Scrolls: As Delta recently pointed out, this has great precedent in the literature. It's very important to have a chance of failure, but I don't think this should be available to any other class. I'd say that a scoundrel succeeds if the player rolls a d20 and meets or is below the character's INT+character level-spell level. Verdict: Ability

Ancient Lore: Basically, you get to know stuff, like ancient prophesies, identifying legendary weapons and rare mythical creatures, etc. I don't see why this should be limited to scoundrels. Magic-users and clerics should totally have access to this as a skill, and fighters could conceivably study this as well, especially if they hail from cultures with strong oral traditions. Verdict: Skill

Read Languages: Being able to puzzle out something written in a language you don't know. This also seems like something other classes should have access to, especially magic-users and clerics, especially if you're running a game where there's an ancient dead language that most languages descend from and that religion and scholarship still use, like Latin in medieval Europe. Verdict: Skill

Thieves' Cant: A thieves' secret language, so full of slang and jargon that others can't understand it, with roots in historical fact. This seems like a very setting-specific thing to me. I'd either leave it out entirely or make it an automatic feature of every character with a certain background- namely, a member of the Thieves' Guild. Verdict: Out

The Scoundrel, Part 11: Being Sneaky

These skills and abilities deal with sneaking around, getting into or out of difficult places and situations and not getting caught.

Stealth/Move Silently: The ability to move without making a sound. Quite useful for sneaking up behind someone to backstab them, or when making good an escape. Not something other classes would be trained for. Verdict: Ability

Hide in Shadows: Being able to hide even though the searcher can see you, as long as you're covered in shadows. I don't see why this shouldn't be an ability. Verdict: Ability

Pickpocket: Stealing something that someone else is carrying on their person without them noticing. Should be limited to Scoundrels, I think. Verdict: Ability

Disguise: I'm not totally sure about this one, but I think it should be available to everyone. I can see warriors (they're called "Veterans" at level one in OD&D, I should emphasize) carrying out commando raids in disguise, and I can see magic-users being able to disguise themselves as well, possibly with minor magic (and wasn't Gandalf pretty good at disguising himself, both when he infiltrated the Necromancer's lair and when everyone thought he was dead?). Verdict: Skill

Climb: At first, I had trouble seeing other classes, say, scaling a castle wall, but this is growing on me as something every class should be able to do, at least if they aren't encumbered. I know some versions of this specify that this is "extraordinary climbing" of sheer surfaces, but that feels too much like Spiderman to me… I'm still somewhat on the fence on this one, and input is extra-welcome. Verdict: Skill

Escape: Basically, this lets your character get loose when tied up, and could conceivably have implications for grappling. This is something I can see every class needing, and getting better at progressively. Verdict: Skill

Sleight of Hand: The ability to make things disappear in your hands, or appear. Think of making flowers appear, or the old trick of hiding a pea under three hats and moving the hats around, or keeping guards from finding something while you're being searched. Sounds like a fun, flavorful thing for a scoundrel to be able to do. Verdict: Ability

Wary: An improved chance not to be surprised. This makes sense as an ability, I think, because Scoundrels will have more often been in situations where they need to be constantly listening for a guard that is sneaking up on them. Verdict: Ability

The Scoundrel, Part 10: Damage

These skills and abilities affect damage being done to other characters. One of the important concerns when dealing with these is going to be making sure that Scoundrels can't out-fight Warriors, usurping their role as The Ones Who Solve Problems By Fighting.

Backstab: Basically, if some level of surprise or flanking is achieved by the character, they can increase the amount of damage they do. I've seen different mechanics for this, and I don't have an objection to this, I don't think. It does need to be limited, though; none of this "I'm flanking for the eighth combat round in a row so I still get to backstab" nonsense. I figure letting a Scoundrel that chooses this as an ability double their damage during a surprise round. When the surprise round is over, they're back to normal damage. Practically speaking, this will only be a good ability for a Scoundrel to have if they also put resources into being stealthy, making this ability almost cost double. I say that if a player wants to have his Scoundrel backstab badly enough to invest in both backstabbing and being stealthy, let him have his backstab. Verdict: Ability

Assassination: Basically, if your character surprises someone, they get a chance, based off of 50%, with adjustments based on your character's level and your character's targets' level, to flat out kill the target, with massive damage resulting if your character fails. All of this automatically, with no roll to hit. Raiiiiiiiiight. That's a nice talent for the Fifth Circle of a Glantri style Assassin prestige class, maybe, but not something I want available outside of that kind of situation. Verdict: Out

Two-Handed Fighting: I've seen various mechanics for this, and don't have a problem with this either. I don't see why it should be reserved for Scoundrels, though. A fighter should be able to do this, and I don't really see a problem with a two-dagger-wielding magic-user either, for that matter. I'd put this in combat rules, not skills or thiefly abilities. Verdict: Out

Poison Use: Basically, a skill that keeps your character from accidentally poisoning himself, and also allows him to identify poisons. I'm willing to grant that PCs are generally competent enough to not poison themselves, generally speaking, and bundle identifying poisons in with poison brewing. Verdict: Out

Poison Brewing: Brewing poisons and their antidotes. I'm inclined to relegate this to an alchemist and/or assassin prestige class, though I'm more on the fence with this one than I have been with most of these other skill/ability candidates. Verdict: Out

Think this is letting Scoundrels be too powerful in combat? Not powerful enough? Think poison should be more available to players? How do you use poison in your games, anyway? Let me know!

    Monday, June 27, 2011

    The Scoundrel, Part 9: Door Skills

    On to door-related skills!

    Lockpick: This won't be roleplayed out concretely at my table in the near future, and I want every class to be able to do this, and to have some chance of failure with it. Verdict: Skill (see, I told you there would be verdicts other than "Out.")

    Force Door: This is, from what I understand, for when doors are stuck. I believe that, originally, characters had a 1/6 chance of forcing a door each time they attempted it, each attempt taking one turn. I don't see why stuck doors shouldn't, at their simplest, just require a Strength check, perhaps with a modifier, or maybe just the combined effort of more than one character with a sum of Strength scores above a certain number. I think this is more about strength than skill, though I'll admit that what little I know about forcing doors tells me that some amount of skill is involved. Verdict: Out

    Notice Secret Door: This is passively noticing a secret door, an Elf ability in certain iterations of D&D. Like I mentioned with Notice Traps in my last post, I hate passive "Notice ________" checks because I hate forgetting to roll them, which I do. So I'm going the route of Rob Conley's Majestic Wilderlands and taking this ability away from even Elves. They can have perks that don't make me have to remember to roll secret dice behind the screen. Verdict: Out

    Find Secret Door: This is actively searching for a secret door, usually along a stretch of wall a certain length long and usually taking a turn to search that stretch. I've had middling results with players making abstract decisions to examine the walls of a room, splitting the stretches of walls between them to make the job quicker so there would be less wandering monster rolls, or going over each others sections, to double-check their fellow PCs. That's making decisions about resources in play, and that's good, but this still rubs me the wrong way. I figure that roleplaying through secret doors is going to be more fun than that, and both Al and Courtney have provided tables that could just as easily be used for generating ideas for secret door mechanisms instead of disarming traps. Verdict: Out

    Hear Noise Through Door: Success when listening through a door. I'm not sure exactly what this is other than putting your head up against a door and listening to see if you can hear any orcs playing cards or poking a prisoner in a cage with sticks or something. If so, I'm not sure why even thieves and demihumans would only get a 2/6 chance at beginning levels to be able to hear through a door. Any insight to this from my readers would be greatly appreciated. Until I'm told that I'm misunderstanding this, though, it seems to me like this should just be something where success is automatic for everyone. Verdict: Out

    Have some insight into hearing noises through doors, or another one of these options? Think one of my verdicts is wrong? Let me know- I'm eager to learn more and, as with any good home-brewing, nothing's final here.

    The Scoundrel, Part 8: Trap Skills

    So, now we've hit the part where I go through each chunk of prospective skills and sort them as either Out, a Skill or an Ability. Let's start with trap-related skills…

    Notice Traps: This is a passive skill; "I'm just traipsing through this dungeon and I spotted that tripwire" kind of a thing, sort of like an Elf passively sensing a secret door in some iterations of D&D. If I were to include this, that would mean rolling dice in secret, because we obviously can't have automatic passive trap detection. Having tried to do that for Elf characters when they pass secret doors, I've found that I tend to forget to roll passive checks for my players half the time. Other refs may also have the problem of players figuring out what they are rolling for and taking the hint to actively look for something. (I roll for wandering monsters regularly, and have been known to roll my dice just to make sure my players don't try to figure out why I'm rolling my dice, so that's not a huge problem for me.) Besides the fact that I hate passive rolls that I have to make because I hate forgetting them, I feel that this will cut down on trap-finding roleplaying; every trap that is passively noticed is one less trap that the players find through roleplaying and one more time that they are rewarded for not roleplaying. Verdict: Out

    Find Traps: This is active. "I'm looking for traps, probably poking around with a pole or something, and just found that tripwire." I figure this can be roleplayed without a problem, and I'm willing to allow players to find traps with no chance of failure, provided that the way they describe their character's actions would reasonably reveal a trap. So, a PC that's probing ahead with a 3-meter pole would find a pit trap without a problem, but, if only concentrating on the ground, would miss the scything blade trap from the ceiling that's activated by the stylized magic eye in the wall. Anyway, I'm willing to trade fail-proof trap detection for good roleplaying, even if it means that less traps will actually go off. I've found that, as a ref, I gain as much, if not more, pleasure seeing my players creatively get around a problem as I do in watching their characters die because of creative traps. Verdict: Out

    Disable Small/Mechanical Traps: This, the way I understand it, is an attempt to keep thieves from being able to abstractly deal with all traps, but still keep mechanical traps of some sort, like poison needle traps or traps with clockwork or dart-shooting traps, as something that can quickly be dealt with by thieves. I don't like that because I think players are perfectly capable of roleplaying this kind of thing out. I also think this is the kind of thing any class should be able to do, and don't like the idea of having high chances of failure when attempting this- in fact, I'm pretty comfortable with just letting a player succeed in doing what he concretely describes with at least all but the most difficult mechanical traps. Verdict: Out

    Disable Traps: I really don't like this one, which you could probably figure out by the way I rejected Disable Small/Mechanical Traps. I'm a big fan of roleplaying trap disabling. The important thing to remember in rejecting this as a skill or ability, though, is that, when placing traps, you have to think through at least one way that the trap can reasonably be avoided or disabled by the PCs. Courtney's got some resources for doing that here and here. I've found the first one helpful and just discovered the second. Verdict: Out

    Well… that's… consistent… I really do plan on a verdict other than "Out" for other skill/ability candidates, I promise.

    Think I've got something wrong, or just misunderstood something, for one of these? Let me know! Next time: skill/ability candidates loosely related to doors.

    Sunday, June 26, 2011

    Budgets, Checkbooks and RPGs

    I recently, in my non-rpg-playing life, bought a book on personal finances and budgeting. I really wish that I had been taught earlier in life how to do those kinds of things, not because I'm in any kind of trouble, but just so I'd know and wouldn't have to be figuring this stuff out on my own now. I hang out with my grandpa on Sunday mornings, and I was telling him about all this and had an idea:

    Since , when I'm a middle-school teacher, I'm already planning on using rpgs to teach kids about the metric system, why not also teach them basic budgeting and how to keep track of their finances with rpgs as well?!

    After all, while the students might not receive an allowance or have a job, their characters will be dealing with more "money" than most people will ever see in their lives. Teaching them to use that responsibly, or at least keep track of how they blow their silver in un-responsible ways, seems like a blindingly obvious way to teach responsible budgeting, saving and, in the right format, how to use a checkbook.

    Imagine if having fun playing D&D was the memory that popped into your mind every time you opened your checkbook. How much more likely would you be to balance your checkbook if you associated it with RPGs? Creating a "wealth record sheet" that resembles a checkbook (and, incidentally, would serve as a cursory adventure record as well) would do that. Kids would be learning checking without even realizing it.

    Lastly, this would be yet another point I could bring up if anyone ever challenged having an RPG club at the middle school. "I'm teaching the kids how to budget, save and keep track of money responsibly… and they're enjoying it!"

    (Oh, and this is also a great excuse to drain your players' purses in every way you can imagine. ^__-)

    Saturday, June 25, 2011

    The Scoundrel, Part 7: Prospective Skills

    So, the way I see it, the next step in creating my skill system and making my Scoundrel class is to go through as many possible skills and abilities as I can and sort them into three categories:
    • Out: These are skills or abilities that I don't think would be conducive to playing the game according to the philosophy I've laid out so far in this series. Whatever these were meant to cover will just be roleplayed out or ignored.
    • Skills: These are skills that I think every character class should be able to use and to improve in with the system.
    • Scoundrel Abilities: These are abilities that I think should be exclusively available to Scoundrels. This category should mostly include things that don't require die rolls to adjudicate.
    I've compiled a list of skills and abilities that need sorting. I'm sure there are more, and I'd appreciate you pointing out any and every gap you find in my lists, both of sources and actual skills. Suggestions that are original to you instead of coming from a written source are also welcome.

    Here are the sources I consulted in looking for prospective skills to go in this skill system. 
    Here are all the skills and abilities I found. I've loosely grouped them together by theme, not in any exact way, but just to make them a bit easier to work with.
    • Notice Traps
    • Find Traps
    • Remove Small/Mechanical Traps
    • Remove Traps
    • Lockpick
    • Force Door
    • Notice Secret Door
    • Find Secret Door
    • Hear Noise Through Door
    • Backstab
    • Assassination
    • Two-Handed Fighting
    • Poison Use (added thanks to Gavin)
    • Poison Brewing (added thanks to Gavin)

    • Stealth/Move Silently
    • Hide in Shadows
    • Pickpocket
    • Disguise
    • Climb
    • Escape
    • Sleight of Hand
    • Wary
    • Memorize Spells
    • Use Magic Scrolls
    • Ancient Lore
    • Read Languages
    • Thieve's Cant

    • Street Lore
    • Hear Noise
    • Tracking
    • Minstrelsy
    • Foraging and Hunting
    • First Aid
    • Tightrope Walking (added thanks to Gavin)
    • Tumbling (added thanks to Gavin)
    • Jumping (added thanks to Gavin)
    OK, so what am I missing?

    The Scoundrel, Part 6: A Skill System

    I'll cut straight to the chase with this post: we're going to make a skill system.

    I'm basing this skill system off of the d12. Any die type will pretty much do, but I like d12s, they don't get a lot of use and I think they'll provide about the right level of probability jumps for the feel I'm going for.

    I would probably record these skills on a character sheet by listing the skills and having 12 open circles in lines after each skill. Players can fill these in as their skills improve. I'm going to call the circles that players fill in to represent the chances of success in a particular skill "pips."

    Grouping the pips in fours like this makes it easy to tell at a glance how many pips you have.

    Much like James Raggi's skill system, low rolls will mean success and high rolls will mean failure. Each character will start off with a 1/12 chance of success in each skill. (If the referee feels this is too harsh, characters can start off with 3/12 or 6/12 chances. I haven't play tested this, so I don't know if this is too harsh for my tastes, but I doubt it will be.)

    Whenever a character rolls to use a skill and rolls a natural 1, the player makes a tally for that skill. When five tallies for that skill have been tabulated, the character receives another pip. In this way, characters improve their skills slowly as they use them. (This idea is stolen from Sham's skill system.)

    Each first level character gets three "pips" to allocate to any skills their player chooses. In this way, then, the party magic user or fighter may very well be a better lockpick than the party scoundrel, which keeps the scoundrel from monopolizing skills.

    Whenever a character levels up, they receive two pips that they may allocate to any skill.

    The Scoundrel will be a class with many abilities to choose from. One of these abilities will be to receive an extra pip during character generation (so, four pips at level one instead of the standard three) and whenever leveling up (so, three more pips at level two instead of two more pips at level two). This ability can be chosen more than once, so it is possible, say, for a Scoundrel to have few other abilities, but to receive six pips at level one and five pips each time he levels up.

    Variant: The Scoundrel chooses one skill for each non-skill ability not chosen. The Scoundrel allocates one pip to that skill each time he levels up. This is in addition to the standard two pips that can be allocated to any skill whenever he levels up.

    Variant: The Scoundrel chooses one skill for each non-skill ability not chosen. The Scoundrel allocates five extra pips (bringing the chance for success up to 6/12 = 1/2) to that skill during character generation. After character generation, these skills can only be improved by adding regular pips earned by leveling up and by using them and rolling natural 1s, the same way skills are improved by every other class.

    Friday, June 24, 2011

    The Scoundrel, Part 5

    So, having established that skill systems are not inherently evil, nor inherently anti-Old School, and that they, at some level of granularity, are necessary for D&D, if not all RPGs, we move now to the objection to thieves that we've been leading up to for a while: thief classes necessitate skill systems.

    We've already established, however, that skill systems are in D&D from the beginning, even before thieves show up in (I think, from what I've read) Greyhawk. So we're going to have to modify this objection some. I think that this objection has more to do with thieves necessitating, or at least encouraging, skill systems that do what I described in this post, that is, that the existence of thief classes necessitates the existence of a skill system that encourages players to solve problems with abstract dice throwing and not concrete creativity.

    The question, then, becomes how we can create a skill system that encourages concrete creativity and not abstract dice throwing. I think there are at least two ways to do this.

    One is to go the route of Rob Conley in the Majestic Wilderlands: abstract, general skills. He creates a skill system with a bit more granularity than mere attribute checks; that is, each attribute is divided up into a few broad skills, each of which may receive bonuses based on class or some other factor. For example, Dexterity is divided into Climbing, Legerdemain (manual dexterity- pickpocketing, sleight-of-hand, disarming traps), and Stealth. (I assume that any Dexterity-based actions that don't fall under these broad categories would just get straight attribute checks.) These abstract skills encourage concrete descriptions in the same way that just using skill checks does: the skills are so abstract that the player isn't exactly sure how the ref will adjudicate what he wants to do, so he describes his actions concretely and lets the ref figure out what dice to roll against what number. This is all well and good, but it's not to my personal taste right now; I'm enjoying how well attribute checks work for me in this way at the moment and don't really see the need to split them up like this in my own game.

    The other way of designing a skill system that encourages concrete description is to use skills that are for concrete, exact tasks, but to ensure that these tasks are tasks that can't (or won't) be described easily at the table.

    For example, a skill system like this might include a "Lockpick" skill because (unless you want to add a mini-game or have a lock at the table or are familiar enough with picking locks that you can easily have a conversation about picking an imaginary lock) that's not something that can easily be modeled at the table: it's not the focus of the game and, like combat, it's much easier to abstract the details away and move on to further exploration.

    By contrast, this kind of skill system would probably not include a "Find Traps" or "Disable Traps" skill. These are things that are easily described in concrete ways by your average player: "Grom prods the floor all around with his 10 foot pole," "Bill shines his bullseye lantern around the ceiling, looking for anything unusual," "Robert looks the chest over carefully and scrapes off the grime you mentioned from around the lock to check for any holes for poison needles," "Grom cuts the tripwire and carefully ties it to a stake he's hammered into the ground but out of the way," "Bill sets the end of his rope on fire and catches it on the rope of the pendulum trap to catch that rope on fire and destroy the trap," "Robert takes some large wooden splinters and stuffs them into the poison needle hole he's found," etc., etc.

    This is the way I want to go with the Scoundrel: Each Scoundrel will have a collection of abilities and skills that the player has chosen from many options. This will allow for both the ability to shape Scoundrels to each player or ref's concept (a ref can disallow certain abilities or skills to fit his vision for the campaign or for the Scoundrel), and the fact that the archetype I'm going for here is one that picks up, opportunistically, whatever skills and abilities he can as he goes along; by the very nature of the Scoundrel, there is no defined path to stay on by discipline and will power because Scoundrels are opportunistic and almost always undisciplined. Abilities will, like with all classes, be exclusive to the Scoundrel, while skills will, by definition, be available to all classes; in fact, I would argue that each character, regardless of class, should start with a base chance of success in each skill. Just as fighters have better chances of hitting opponents in fighting but everyone has some chance, though, Scoundrels will be allowed to progress is skills more quickly than other classes if they so choose.

    The main work, then, of creating the Scoundrel will be figuring out the mechanics of the skill system and figuring out what abilities and skills should be available. I've got some help on both of these tasks from around the OSR blogosphere that will prove invaluable as I go about doing this. Next time, we'll see if we can hammer out a good skill system mechanic.

    Sunday, June 19, 2011

    Selling Your Players on Abstract Hit Points

    If hit points are abstract, increasing hit points with level advancement represents increased work that needs to be done by enemies/traps/nature to inflict the same amount of damage on a PC, not increased damage that a PC can take. If that's true, why does it take more healing to heal the same proportional loss of hit points to a higher level PC that has more hit points?

    Dave Hargrave points this out in his third Arduin Grimoire, asking "why is it that a tenth level character requires several Heal Lesser Wounds rituals to fix up the same proportional damage that a first level character needs only one lesser heal to fix? The disparity gets greater the higher in experience that a character gets."

    He then goes on to suggest a four-tiered set of Clerical healing spells to replace the default model:

    Heal Lesser Wounds heals up to 25% of the character-being-healed's hit points. Heal Wounds of the More Serious Sort (seriously, that's what he calls it- not "Heal Moderate Wounds" or anything short like that- that's the Arduin Grimoire for ya) heals up to 50% of a character's hit points. Heal Grievous Wounds heals up to 75% of a character's hit points. Heal Critical Wounds heals up to 100% of a character's hit points.

    As a ref who's running an Old School game but has some players who are inclined to New School (3.5) gaming and are playing not because it is an Old School game but because it's gaming with friends, I'm always on the lookout for more ways to sell Old School gaming. I'll probably be introducing these mechanics into my game the next time we game as a way to cement hit points as an abstract concept. I don't currently allow clerics, but the box of super-powerful healing pills the PCs have will either be Heal Grievous Wounds or Heal Critical Wounds. We'll see what they think.

    Saturday, June 18, 2011

    Limited Internet Access

    I'm out-of-state for a cousin's wedding with significantly less internet access than I was expecting I would have. Posting should resume early next week.

    Sunday, June 12, 2011


    So, you've probably noticed my formatting changing from post to post and sometimes even changing over time for the same post. I'm experimenting and trying to figure out how to get this easy on the eyes as well as consistent. It also doesn't help that Blogger seems to enjoy making text look uniform when I'm typing it and not uniform when I hit "Preview" or "Publish." Anyway, that's the explanation for that, and I hope I'm making progress towards a more readable blog rather than the opposite.

    Also, while things are up in the air, I'm open to suggestions.

    The Scoundrel, Part 4: In Defense of Skill Systems

    So, to get this out of the way, my take on Dungeon Crawl Classics is that I love the art, the extra dice are awesome, I'd love to be a player in a game or maybe a campaign some time, but I haven't seen anything yet that makes me want to switch over to it for the games I run.

    Also, to transition to the subject at hand, in the section on skills, there's this: “Skill checks are designed for use when a system of abstract rules is necessary to adjudicate a situation. Only make a skill check when practical descriptions by the players will not suffice.”

    Now go read this. Trollsmyth, by the way, is awesome, though he seems to have slowed down in his blogging recently, which is really too bad. One could do a lot worse than reading through his old posts.

    So, after reading that, I'm going to argue two things.
    1. We can define skills as abstractions of actions the characters engage in, usually meshed with dice rolls to quickly determine success or failure.
    2. Skills are used to quickly move past parts of the characters' lives that are not what the particular game is about, but that are necessary supports for the parts of the characters' lives that the game is about.
    Using this definition, and this purpose statement, we can see that skill systems in Dungeons and Dragons aren't a question of presence/non-presence but a question of where we're falling on a spectrum of skill systems.

    For example, while I haven't actually read 0e, Sham tells me this on his old houserules site for his Solstice setting (click "Dungeon Tasks" on the left): “In OD&D, the following tasks were defined: Find Secret Passage(Door), Elf Sense Secret Door, Listen (Hear) at Door, and Force Open Door.”

    These are all "abstractions of actions that characters engage in," adjudicated by dice rolls. For that matter, combat, turning undead and learning new spells (in systems that make you roll for that) are all skills. The game isn't about eavesdropping techniques, SWAT door-busting techniques, medieval combat techniques against imaginary monsters, relationships with imaginary gods that allow sending the undead to their graves, or learning arcane imaginary magical spells. All of these things are activities that are necessary for our PCs to engage in to support their dungeoneering or adventuring, so they need to be a part of the game, but they aren't what the game is about, and they are cumbersome or impossible, for the most part, to act out at a gaming table, so we assign values to chances of success and let the dice, more or less, do the rest.

    This, as anyone who has played D&D knows, is both OK and necessary to the game.

    Moving, perhaps, up the spectrum a bit, we also see a very loose and informal skills system with attributes. It's what I referenced in my last post: a PC attempts something and the ref decides that the task attempted falls under one or more of the PC's attributes. The PC's player then has to roll the applicable attribute score or under in order to succeed. This is very common in Old School play, from what I understand. It's suggested on pages 10 and 18 of Michael Shorten's Swords and Wizardry Quickstart.

    Moving up the spectrum a bit more, we see that the Majestic Wilderlands contains a very simple skill system which has essentially, as I understand it, split each attribute up into smaller domains of actions that are still very, very general. In this way, PCs can have different levels of proficiency in different areas that fall under the same attribute score.

    No one argues that Rob Conley and the Majestic Wilderlands aren't Old School. The Majestic Wilderlands are, after all, houserules for a retro-clone of 0e for a campaign setting that is the descendent of the first published D&D setting, and the product of three decades of continuous gaming in that setting, though not all with D&D, so far as I understand, I'll admit.

    Moving even farther up the spectrum, and out of the realm of D&D (into other games that I know much less about, so please correct me if I'm wrong) we find that some other games out there that are "Old School" have skill systems. The first edition of Pendragon, for example, includes 36 conventional skills on its character sheet. It instructed me to add three more when I rolled up a character while trying to learn how to play. Not only that, but it includes skill categories for 12 personality traits and a varying number of strong emotions, all of which are assigned numbers and which are used, in conjunction with dice, to determine things in the game. This is the game that James Maliszewski describes as "to be frank, the most perfect out-of-the-box RPG I have ever played." (I'd also talk about Traveller, which, from what I understand, is far enough up the spectrum that you could call it "skill-based" instead of "class-based," since it doesn't even have classes, but I haven't studied Traveller like I've studied Pendragon, so I won't.)

    We can move up the spectrum even more, but I become less and less familiar with what I'm talking about, and the games further up the spectrum generally don't get considered Old School with the same unanimity as the ones I've described. I also think I've made my point: skills, as I've defined them, are compatible with, and even necessary to, Old School D&D and, to an even greater degree, other Old School RPGs. Skills are important for adjudicating actions that aren't what the game is about but that are necessary for what the game is about to be possible for the PCs. Even traveling along the spectrum of "skillsiness" doesn't automatically disqualify a game or house rule from being Old School, as my examples show.

    So far as being Old School goes, then, skill system inclusion isn't a binary question, but a question of execution. How is the skill system designed and how does it mesh with the other parts of the game, both with design and actual play? That's the important thing, not whether or not a skill system is included in the game because, if it's a table-top RPG, it has a skill system (except maybe for some of those diceless RPGs, but I'm not even sure about those, since I haven't read them).

    Friday, June 10, 2011

    Why Skills are Dangerous: A Prelude

    So, we had a really awesome session tonight. My players, for the first time, made it into the second level of Matt Finch's excellent The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom. The players seem to be getting the hang of the changes to the combat system that I enacted recently, throwing lots of waterskins full of flaming oil to kill things very quickly. Even so, we had two rolls on the Table of Death and Dismemberment, but with the worst to happen being a broken bone.

    My players really did me proud this session. Examining some fungus-cages, they tried using crowbars and 3 meter poles to pry them open enough for those inside to get out. When that didn't work, they used potions of diminuation to shrink the captives enough to let them out.

    When trying to destroy a machine that was basically a wood-chipper for people, they started dismantling it and then stuck a corner of one of the fungus-cages, which they had been unable to destroy so far, into it and jammed the machine until it broke.

    When trying to get past some minions of the Shroom that was chasing them, they pointed to the half-transformed-into-a-podman-minion guy they had rescued and told the podmen that they were clearly friends, I had one player roll under his PC's charisma, with a bonus of +2 to his roll for creativity, and he succeeded… three times.

    When faced with a 50-foot tall water-fall they had to scale, one player had his PC tie a loose knot by the grappling hook on a long length of rope and then loop the eye formed by the knot over the end of a 3-meter pole. Swinging the pole like a trebuchet, he sent the grappling hook and line flying. I had him roll under his strength score to get the hook 50 feet high and under his dexterity to actually hook it on anything. It took his PC three tries, and cost a wondering monster check, but it worked.

    What do all of these scenarios have in common? They are all scenarios where a later edition of D&D probably would have trained my players to ask to make a skill roll to attempt to achieve their goals. If I had been running a later-edition game tonight, I would have probably still had a fun time- I greatly enjoy my friends, after all- but I would have missed out on the fun I had during these scenarios tonight.

    I should emphasize that my players did roll to resolve some of these scenarios. They didn't only roll, though, and they couldn't have rolled without roleplaying first. With the bluffing past the podmen minions, I wouldn't have let the party roll to bluff the podmen until the player who came up with the idea told me what he was going to try to do. Then, after he told me concretely what he was trying to do, I let, no, had him roll. He, the player, told me concretely what he was trying to do; I the referee, told him his chances for success.

    My player at the waterfall at first said, "we'll throw a grappling hook up to the top of the waterfall." I asked, "how are you going to throw the grappling hook up 50 feet?" and he came up with his answer, which was creative, entertaining, and plausible enough for me to let him try it, so I told him how to roll. Again, he gave me something concrete for his PC to try and I gave him targets to roll under to succeed.

    In both cases, my players asked to do concrete things. They didn't ask to roll the dice- I told them to. That meant that, when they came to a problem, they didn't reach for the dice. Instead, they approached the problems creatively. Once they had figured out how to make problems I had no idea how they were going to get past solve-able, I assigned chances to their success. This process made it so that we all had the immense pleasure of witnessing or practicing creativity. That's one of my favorite parts of roleplaying, and it's especially a pleasure, as I'm refereeing, when my players defeat problems in creative ways I didn't see coming.

    And this is why skill systems are dangerous. I'm going to argue in the next few days that skill systems aren't inherently bad or anti-Old School. The important nuance, though, is that skill systems are also dangerous if not handled properly. If I had been using a more invasive skill system tonight, we all could have missed out on a lot of fun. I'm going to argue that a skill system doesn't necessarily have to preclude the kind of fun we had tonight. What's important when designing a skill system, though, is that the designer (and the referee) makes sure that the skill system doesn't train the players to approach concrete problems the PCs face in an abstract way, reaching for the dice, knowing what skill they are going to use.

    Training players to use concrete creative problem-solving skills is good. Training players to roll the dice as the only part of problem-solving they engage in is, in my very strong opinion, bad. Any skill system I approve of will have to pass this litmus test.

    Friday, June 3, 2011

    Post-Session Thoughts

    Ran a game tonight. It's been a while. I was starting to feel bad about this whole blogging-but-not-gaming thing, so this makes me feel better.

    Before we got down to gaming, two of my players were doing inventory and buying stuff. One of the PCs has a houseboat and they talked about storing another PC's oil in there when he wasn't tossing it at monsters. That got me thinking about what would happen if, say, pirates attacked Haldane and the PCs fired the houseboat and sent it at the pirate fleet, a la Spanish Armada.

    So here's an un-tested thought: giving XP for copying historical situations. Now, this would probably appeal especially to those gamers who actually have a strong history in wargaming, because they actually have a lot of specific battles they can think of off the top of their heads that they can borrow tactics from. If I were playing with a bunch of wargamers, and if I had that kind of background myself, I probably would implement this rule. As it stands, I don't know if more than one of my players has enough historical knowledge to take advantage of this, and I don't really think I do either. Oh, well. Maybe when I'm a teacher I can add wargames to the list of things I want to do with my students to build rapport.

    Speaking of which, I hope to be teaching in just over a year, and I want to start a roleplaying club for the kids at whatever school I'm teaching at. I suppose it might actually be a good idea to include wargaming in the club, as I don't think I've ever heard anyone call Diplomacy or Kriegspiel "Satan's Game." That might actually be the best way to start the club: with a game of Diplomacy with a turn a day.


    Wednesday, June 1, 2011

    The Scoundrel, Part 3

    I know last time I said that I'd post about skill systems, but I'm still cold-addled and don't think I can give that topic the clear thinking it deserves. It will have to wait, but I wanted to get this post out, partly because I'm curious what others will say on this particular issue and if I take advantage of the spike in attention I got today, I may get more answers to my question.

    I've read about this objection multiple times:
    Thieves encourage conflict within the party by stealing from other PCs.
    This is the objection, in contrast to my last post, that I understand the least. As a player, if a thief steals from my PC, my PC will retaliate, and I assume that the rest of the party will back me up. As a referee, I don't see any reason why I should stop that. If the thief's player pulls some "that's what my PC would do" spiel, well, that's also exactly what the other PCs would do too, now isn't it? The thief is outnumbered and out-matched in combat, if not against the fighter, then definitely against the wizard. The player, and the PC, are going to learn a quick, hard lesson about stealing from the other PCs. If the party turns the thief over to one or the other elements I control as a referee, I would probably make sure the book got thrown at the thief PC. If the thief's player wants to bring that kind of thing into my game, they should know that there are consequences.

    Now, call me naive, but, so far as inter-party conflict goes, this seems pretty cut-and-dry. I'm personally more concerned with the way a party splits up loot (do magic items count as a part of the pot that we split or do we just give them to a PC that can use them since they help all of us? do we give loot to a PC that wasn't there when the loot was looted?), as that's what I've actually seen cause inter-party conflict. (The best answer for the loot, by the way, seems to be having the party decide the answers before there is actually any loot to fight over.) Of course, I've never actually seen a party member steal from another party member, so I might somehow be wildly underestimating this.

    Have you ever seen this in a game you played in or refereed? How did it get resolved? Was it that big of a deal?