Thursday, April 9, 2009

Doing Buffs Right

As part of my "fix third edition" week, I have provide alternate versions of several popular cleric "buff" spells as well as the rationales behind them. I am doing cleric spells because I think that casting buff spells fits them better than the other spellcasting classes.

Sometimes I use the fourth edition concept of encounter-based durations because I find it a useful mechanic that can be introduced into any edition of d&d without much trouble, and because it is so much easier than keeping track of how many rounds your effects are lasting for. My commentary on the official version of spells is based on the versions at, a wonderful resource for third edition players. Without further ado:

"Bless (1st level): All friendly creatures within a 30 foot radius of you enjoy a +2 morale bonus to their weapon and spell damage rolls until the end of your next turn. This spell may be cast as a move action."

This version of the spell doesn't impart a trivial bonus. It lets the caster (presumably a cleric) get in on the action. It doesn't take the cleric's main action to cast, so he can still cast a more powerful spell or go to town with his non-edged weaponry. The spell ends quickly, and everybody knows whether they are affected by it or not. Best of all, a cleric is unlikely to burn a ton of spell slots on doing this, but he still might memorize it so that the whole party can have a round with extra oomph. This is desirable because clerics should be able to devote at least half of their spells to memorizing proactive spells with direct effects, rather than being chained to healing and buffs. They ought to still be the buff class, only it shouldn't be buffs that are best cast on other people.

"Bull's Strength (2nd): A friendly creature touched gains a +3 morale bonus to damage with melee weapons until the end of the encounter. This spell may be cast as a move action."

This spell is also a move action to cast, so that the cleric need not spend his first few turns of each combat charging up his comrades. The bonus being applied specifically to melee damage instead of strength sidesteps all the other side effects of changing the strength ability score, and offers the caster a much better idea of how he is helping when he casts his spell. The more specific and focused the benefits of a spell, the better.

"Prayer (3rd level): All friendly creatures within a 30 foot radius of you enjoy a +2 morale bonus to their AC until the end of the encounter. This spell may be cast as a move action."

This version of the spell is not a move action because it offers benefits to the entire party for the duration of the battle, and is likely to have a significant effect on how successful the party is. Every party member likes having a higher AC, so it doesn't just help the weapon using classes. Unlike the original version of the spell, it does not affect the attack rolls of the enemies. Having penalties to all enemies' attack rolls is a sloppy game mechanic --having a higher AC is much easier to keep track of, and achieves the same effect.

"Divine Power (4th level): You become filled with divine wrath, and are ringed with a halo of angry-colored light. Until the end of the encounter, your melee attacks enjoy a +3 morale bonus to damage. Additionally you gain +15 temporary hit points; these hit points vanish at the end of the encounter."

This spell takes an action because it is a hefty bonus on top of other buff spells, and only affects the caster so that he cannot waste a fourth level spell slot on making the fighter better. A set amount of bonus hit points is desirable because the normal version of the spell offers very trivial benefits for a spell of its level. Consider that the given version of the spell offers a strength bonus only slightly better than a second level spell (bull's strength), and the extra temporary hit points start off at +7, hardly an impressive bonus then, and even less impressive at higher levels. A +15 temp hp bonus is helpful at any level, and though it becomes less useful at higher levels due to hp inflation, so too does the damage bonus become less important at higher levels (or Strength bonus in the official version of the spell).

"Spell Resistance (5th level): The subject touched is shielded from spells by the grace of your deities. Until the next day, he enjoys a +4 morale bonus to saving throws against spells and spell-like effects."

I sidestep spell resistance because slowing down encounters with additional rolls --one roll ought to be enough when saving against magic. The +4 bonus is just right. If you are burning a fifth level spell on protecting someone from magic, it had damn well better make a difference. Nor do I think that having a conditional saving throw bonus of this sort is too difficult to track, especially as it lasts for the entire day.

"Heroes' Feast (6th level): You conjure a grand feast that feeds one medium creature per level, takes an hour to consume, and offers benefits to the characters that do so. Until the next day, characters that have feasted enjoy a +2 alchemical bonus to attack rolls, +1 alchemical bonus to the DC of their spells, and gain +15 temporary hit points. These temporary hit points do not vanish until the next day."

This spell offers benefits to the cleric's companions for the entire day, including spellcasters. The extra hit points let them start the day's adventure off with extra hit points, so that the cleric need not squander as much curing on them and can concentrate on more proactive spells. Assuming a party of five adventurers, this spell will add a total of 75 temporary hp to the party, but it isn't unbalanced because it is quite spread out. The vitality powers from the psionics handbook can easily grant 75 temp hp to the user, and do so again when they have taken damage. By comparison, this spell is very balanced.

"Regenerate (7th level): The subject regrows any severed body parts or permanent physical injuries. Additionally, the subject is cured 30 hp of damage and gains +50 temporary hp, that fade after the encounter is over."

The spell as given in the srd is not intended for combat, but rather to fill the role of "we need a spell that can restore lost limbs even though the game has very little in the way of permanent injury.

Actual regeneration of the sort that occurs every round is a pain in the ass. Remembering to heal those hit points is annoying, and mistakes are common. Moreso if there is more than one creature with regeneration, things become even more annoying. It's much better to use temporary hp to express a limited form of regeneration. You regenerate a certain amount, and then your ability is overloaded.

In this version of the spell, I combine the non-combat healing (the limb loss function that rarely comes into play) and a combat application (healing and extra hit points) to make a spell that fills its distinct rules niche and is also very handy in dungeons.

If I wanted to stat a player regeneration effect with a longer duration (like a ring of regeneration) I would find it expedient to have the character begin each encounter with a certain amount of temporary hp.

"Holy Aura (8th level): All friendly creatures within a 30 foot radius of you enjoy a +4 morale bonus to their AC and saves until the end of the encounter. During this time, they are immune to possession and mental influences. This spell may be cast as a move action."

Simple, helpful, powerful, and only a move action. Worthy of an eighth level spell. Save it for the dungeon's climax, and use lower level spells (like prayer) in the meantime.

"Hand of Glory (9th level): You are temporarily imbued with a portion of your deity's power. Until the end of the encounter, your first melee attack each round receives a +15 morale bonus to damage. Additionally you gain +100 temporary hit points; these hit points vanish at the end of the encounter. After this spell wears off, you become exhausted."

There are no 9th level clerical buff spells in the srd, but I figure it's worth taking a shot at writing one. It is unlikely that a cleric using the core mechanics will be able to work too much mischief with the hefty damage bonus, even with critical hits, though I am sure he would find it helpful. Even if the cleric is using a weapon with good critical damage (such as a keen scythe) his crits will still only inflict an extra +40 damage because of this spell. This is much less than a harm spell or the hp likely to be lost to an energy drain spell, the cleric's 9th level "damage" option.
The extra hundred hit points aren't overkill at ninth level even though they are likely to roughly double the cleric's hp, and they allow the cleric to wade into combat to save his friends or to help them beat their enemies. Additionally, this spell is likely to be useful for important "boss" npcs that could use a pile of extra hit points to save them from targeted PC attacks. The exhaustion effect at the end is flavorful, and not a serious problem for most clerics.

Next: Doing Feats Right

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dubious Monsters

Before I kick off the rest of "fix third edition" week, I thought I'd post some of the monsters that my friend Tim and I came up with. We were discussing the difficulty of expressing man versus nature in roleplaying games, and decided that fauna is the most dynamic way of representing this. D&D is a game about killing monsters, not about dying from impersonal forces like thirst or exposure.

A number of monsters resulted from this. Perhaps you might enjoy them.

1. Ants that use psionics to compel you to set up camp near their hills. Perhaps they also have learned to set up camp fires.
2. Carrion-eating bees that spray you with particularly fragrant honey in Black Bear Forest. "Why the fuck would bees spray us with honey?" Then after they defend themselves from a hungry bear, they may find a half eaten deer carcass covered with bees.
3. A mimic that has learned to take the form of a tent.
4. Flamethrower eucalyptus that create their own controlled burns. Possibly occupied by fire-resistant drop bears.
5. A herd of horses that have developed a taste for human eyes.
6. A ghost shepherd. A murder herder, if you will.
7. A sentient field of wheat with razor-sharp stalks. "Lalala I love walking through fields OH GOD BLOOD EVERYWHERE..." Very Jared Diamond.
8. Birds of paradise whose feathers look like loved ones, that are used to lure you into quicksand, and then take your gems and items to festoon their bowers.
9. Dopplegangers that can only transform into beggars, prostitutes, or urchins, and subsist solely on the human flesh of the lower classes. "Don't give charity to that man, he could be a doppleganger." This idea beget several ideas relating to adaptive radiation and dopplegangers that can only imitate specific socioeconomic classes.
10. A blue-collared doppleganger that subsists purely on fermented beverages and sacramental foods.
11. A doppleganger baron that can subsist only on precious metals.
12. A colony of benevolent cranium rats living in the slums giving people dreams on how to exploit the rich. All they demand in return are fine and exotic cheeses.
13. An urban blight mold that spreads from house to house rotting the building materials and filling the residents with despair.
14. The ghost of a chimney sweep that has a black lung breath weapon. And his body is still stuck in a chimney somewhere.
15. Undead urchins that reach into your pocket and pull out a kidney. Organ pickpockets. They use the organs to fuel healing magic that they sell on the black market. Drunkards are useless to them; being drunk is surefire protection from their predations. Also lepers and those with consumption.
16. A psychic leech shaped like a top hat. It commands the creature that wears it to commit indignities upon the poor so that it may feed off the mental anguish. If a haberdasher tries to mend it, it screams, sprouts legs, and scurries off into the shadows. Also it gives off madness-causing fumes when threatened.
17. A symbiotic monocle-creature that allows you to see how much money a person is carrying and derives sustenance from the psychic energy produced by a rich wearer's feelings of contempt.
18. Literal street urchins of the spiny sort, that feel upon offal.
19. Sewage elementals, naturally.
20. A murderer that turns the soul of each person it kills into a brick, and builds a house. When he finishes the house, he stops murdering.
21. The ghost of a pet animal that died of starvation when its owners failed to feed it, and now possesses others' pets until they die. It feeds on the blood of its host's owners, and slowly mutates the owners into another version of it as a means of reproduction. "My, but your sideburns are looking exceptionally whiskery today."

The Wizards' Sins: 3e's Five Biggest Mistakes

This is my retrospective on third edition's problems. Since fourth edition isn't actually d&d, there seems little point in posting about how to fix it, and even less point in making lengthy lists of the things I don't like about it. Third edition can be rehabilitated, though, and to that end I present for your consideration a list of the worst things about it. Later posts will include ways of fixing these problems.

5. Buff Spells

Buff spells give characters bonuses or abilities that they didn't normally have. Haste, enlarge, resist elements, bull's strength, all of these are buff spells. Because there are no diminishing returns when one piles the spells on, it is often advantageous to pile all these spells onto the same person so that the most damaging attacks are also the most likely to hit, and the most dangerous character is also the least likely to be hurt.

Although the spell durations became more or less standardized in third edition, they remained a pain in the ass to keep track of in addition to everything else that happens during a fight. And with the varying bonus types stacking or not stacking, forget it.

Never mind that the spellcasters would be expected to waste half their spells on buffs. Playing a "support" spellcaster whose only purpose is to pump up another character so ~he~ can be the hero isn't much fun at all, and is contrary to the dramatic teamwork that d&d should be about. In summary, the buff spells were too many, too complicated, and too boring for the caster.

4. Chained Feats

The introduction of feats in third edition let characters of the same class distinguish themselves from each other without relying on kits that are essentially sub-classes. Kits suffer balance and flexibility problems, and often rely on a very specific flavor that can prove difficult to incorporate into every game. They are superior to the prestige class system, but that's another diatribe.

Feats are customizations to an existing class, and to an extent their inclusion ameliorates many peoples' peeves with a class-based rpg system. Most of my concerns, anyway.

Alas, not all feats are born equal. Feats are strung into great chains with increasingly powerful effects as you take more of them. These feats were such prominent features that one's feat choices became more important than one's class choices --and that's not what d&d should be like. Things should be customizable but not freeform. Which brings me to my next post...

3. Skill Points

Juggling skill points around adds nothing to the game. No extra drama is created by hawing and hemming over whether to put that extra point in survival or climb. The skills themselves are largely boring, and can result in spot and search checks being the most commonly made die rolls in the game.

Incorporating skill points was a shifting of gears from an ability based system to a point based system, and the game suffers for it. The non-weapon proficiencies of earlier editions are more fun and dramatic, though perhaps more poorly named. Instead of having to manage a hundred skill points that only kind of matter, you just pick a few things that seem interesting, and roll with it. When one looks at a second edition character sheet, one sees a list of things that the character can do and that will have a very real effect on the game. Likewise much of a fourth edition character sheet. But when one looks at a third edition character sheet, in addition to the useful things (feats and class abilities) one sees a list of messy skills that one can kind of use successfully.

I have been trying to move back to a proficiency mechanic in my latest game, and my players seem to be enjoying it. It isn't as difficult as I expected to make the switch back, and the game is better for it.

2. Ability Damage and Bonuses

As I mentioned before, keeping track of shifting bonuses is a hassle. How much more so when every time you get hit by some undead critter your ability score is reduced, changing every single thing that is based on that score. One hit from a dexterity-draining critter simultaneously modifies a character's armor class, reflex saves, initiative, and his ability to use ranged weapons. And the player needs to fix these stats every time the undead varmint hits him. Players shouldn't have to futz around with that crap in the middle of a dramatic combat, and a mechanic that forces this is a poor mechanic.

Ability bonuses are a pile of crap for similar reasons, but with the caveat that not only are temporary ability boosts annoying, but permanent bonuses are so unbalanced that they hedge out the interesting magic items. Well, as interesting as they get in third edition. Ability bonuses are so good that they make all the other magic items crap by comparison. The tendency to overspecialize in third edition is strong, so of course every wizard has the best intelligence-boosting item that he can get his hands on, and the other classes have a similar problem.

Ability-boosting items also served to sublimate ability scores. Once upon a time, ability scores actually defined your character. I may not miss the days of not being able to play a paladin because by scores weren't high enough, but I dislike that my wizard's inherent intelligence matters so little because I can eventually procure a boring stat bonus item with benefits sans flavor. If I have an unfortunately low stat, I can boost it with an item in one of the all too numerous magic item slots on my character. In prior editions, most low ability scores stuck around for the entire campaign --that wizard with a six in his constitution at first level would still cough and wheeze at twentieth level.

Worst of all, if your ability scores don't really matter, then what is unique about your character? Nothing.

1. Attacks of Opportunity

Although introduced prior to third edition in the second edition Player's Option series, I believe attacks of opportunity (or AoO) were made integral to the third edition rules specifically in the hopes that they would allow Wizards of the Coast to sell miniatures. I don't like the idea of owning miniatures, but sometimes use printed tokens when I want a fight to have especially high production values. So I'm not biased against the usage of minis, per se. I use them when I think that the game calls for them. But I wouldn't ~need~ them in 3.0 were it not for opportunity attacks and threatened areas.

Opportunity attacks are the most complicated part of third edition. I've had to explain and re-explain the rules to even longtime players, because they are so complicated and convoluted that many people find them difficult to learn.

Before 3.0, I would often eschew graph paper in favor of less precise white paper. It looked nicer even if it didn't tell me exactly where Mark the Fighter was standing. Without threatened areas and reach, position wasn't quite so essential. I could safely assume that the characters would be standing in the places where it would make sense for them to be, and not worry about it beyond that.

Opportunity attacks, threatened areas, and reach were introduced to make exact positioning essential, and so make miniatures essential. This decision was done to the detriment of the game, except perhaps for those players that long for d&d to be more like a war game. I would argue that despite its roots in wargaming, d&d became something better, and that to attend overmuch to that heritage will hurt the game.

I concede that many players do not struggle with attacks of opportunity, but they still slow down combat even if you are using miniatures. And I would ask you, reader, what do they really add to your combat that you're keen so keep to use them? The game isn't complicated enough without them? You're really so worried about players running past the monsters that you need to incorporate this extra mechanic? Gimme a break.

In my most recent game, I have removed these elements and am amazed at how quick the fights seem. We can play very fast and loose with positioning, and it's one less dumb thing to worry about in an already complicated rules system. So yeah, attacks of opportunity and all the rest are crap.

Next: Doing Buffs Right

i post some useful forbidden rituals

This isn't just going to be kvetching about the new edition or pining for the old ones. This is about an applied science. But the blog is still finding itself, and we'll see what mix we get of game products, campaign trip reports, and rants about Monte Cook being a wiener. I feel obligated to add some rules crunch.

My most presentable d&d creations along those lines were done for 3e because that was what my gaming group wanted to play, and I've gotten better over time. I'm sure the real grognards decry feats like everything else, but like so much else, I found them a worthwhile game mechanic concept with shoddy implementation.

I think that part of the problem that I have encountered as a d&d player is that 4e isn't d&d. People that lost three characters to the 1e Tomb of Horrors, and 3e players that suffered through yet another terrible Monte Cook module are both playing d&d, but I would assert that anybody using the 4e PHB is not, in much the same way that a reptile that grows feathers and has warm blood is no longer a reptile.

Part of the way I approach the game is by finding something that I think is a good idea, and then redesigning it so that it works for me. Sometimes that results in something I'm a little proud of --my cognates of the mechanics in 3e's morality books, the Books of Vile Darkness and Exalted Deeds, respectively, were much superior to those found within the published works. Then again, I wasn't shackled to writing deadlines or churning out useless exposition, nor beholden to the morals of the same audience.

While I'm rambling about the Book of Vile Darkness, Wizards of the Coast wasn't scared of putting bestiality in their modules relating to it, but it seems like they were scared of making evil mechanically rewarding. The premise of my approach to evil in my games has been that it ought to be rewarding, powerful, and easy --that's why people are tempted into evil. Being good is harder, otherwise everybody would be good.

So in the spirit of reclaiming things that I like from rules systems that I don't, here are some "forbidden rituals". In 4e, anybody can cast rituals if they learn them and pay the cost. Pretty much all the non-combat spells were moved there. These rituals that I've written ought to be usable in pretty much any edition of d&d with a little work, or at least give you enough of a gist to do your own stuff if you that think tempting characters with power has a place in your game.

Forbidden Knowledge

This knowledge is used and taught by evil creatures that seek to corrupt mortals for their own reasons. Using the rituals and skills carry no penalty or moral peril beyond the ramifications of the acts described, but the more one uses them, the more one seems to stumble upon other forbidden knowledge and the more one is presented with genuinely evil options.

Forbidden Rituals

Forbidden rituals are simple compared to more esoteric rituals used by proper spellcasters. So simple, in fact, that anybody of sufficient level can learn and cast them. The effects of forbidden rituals may be removed with a Remove Curse spell, but only if the recipient is willing. One cannot cast forbidden rituals upon an unwilling recipient.

Profane Altar
Caster Level 1
Cost: 100 gp.
Time: 1 Day.
This ritual debases an altar in preparation for darker acts. It requires the mutilation of a dead animal's body, but one need not actually sacrifice anything nor be the one to kill the animal. Celestials and certain very holy creatures may not approach within fifty feet of the altar of your shrine.

Twisted Gift
Caster Level 3
Cost: Target's level x 25 gp.
Time: 2 Days.
This ritual grants a minor wish but somehow things still seem wrong. You may give yourself a permanent -2 to one ability score of your choice in exchange for a permanent +1 to another ability score of your choice. This ritual must be performed at your altar.

Caster Level 5
Cost: Target's level x 50 gp.
Time: 3 Days.
The recipient is filled with dark power, but also ravaged by it. He enjoys a +1 to attack rolls, and spell DC, but is also is resistant to curing magic --spells that restore lost hp only heal twice that amount. This ritual must be performed at your altar.

Caster Level 9
Cost: Target's level x 75 gp.
Time: 4 Days.
The recipient is afflicted with a terrible craving for blood and death, but when this craving is filled he is supernaturally invigorated. Each day, you suffer -1 to your AC until you have slain a sentient creature. Once you have slain a sentient creature, this penalty is replaced with a +1 bonus until the next day. The circumstances and nature of the killing are unimportant to this ritual, a kill in combat is as efficacious as one done in a more formal setting. This ritual must be performed at your altar.

Summon Demonic Familiar
Caster Level 9
Cost: 1000 gp.
Time: 5 Days.
This ritual allows a wicked, sniveling creature to escape from sort of hellish afterlife, and binds it to serve as your sidekick. Though it must obey you in all things, it nevertheless is capable of causing mischief. Despite its best efforts, you should be able to use it only in the furtherance of good --if you're on the ball. This ritual must be performed at your altar.

Sulphur Imp
Humble yet sarcastic, this disgusting creature stands a foot tall, appears to have skin made of molten tar, and boasts a set of bat wings as well as a wicked looking scorpion tail that leaks venom uncontrollably. In addition to being magically bound to obey you in all things and being pretty darned helpful, the sulphur imp also has excellent networking skills and can put you in touch with more powerful evil creatures should the need ever arise.

Sulphur Imp: Speed 20 ft, Fly 30 ft, ATT +8, dmg 10 poison, AC 15, HP 30, saving throws +5; may turn invisible as a move action and remain that way even if attacking; when reduced to 0 hp is banished back to hell where it will make a full report concerning its observations in the mortal world, particularly regarding the spiritual state of the person that summoned it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Intro For New Campaign

Whiskey Springs

Though for many decades uninhabited, the western frontier of Caeledon is considered part of the Free and Happy Kingdom of Naus. Though unsettled and inhabited mostly by bandits, great mounds have been discovered that contain the ruins of cities from legendary empires of the past. Great treasures have been exhumed, and disreputable sorts have flocked from all over the kingdom to start a-digging, and even more disreputable sorts have come to cater to them as is digging.

As if the promise of ancient treasure ain't enough, there's good reason to believe that four treasures of particular note are somewhere out here. If this really is where the old kingdoms were located then there's a decent shot that someone is going to find them. Maybe even you.

King McAllister IV has declared that he will reward the men that bring him any of these treasures with land and title, and though he might not be the sharpest knife in the royal silverware set, he is a monarch of his word.

So here you are on the main street of Whiskey Springs. They've got this fancy little knot that they tie on your swords so you can't draw a weapon without fussing around with it first. The guy that tied them told you not to take them off except in self defense, or there would be trouble. Well, all right.

D&D Kool Aid: An RPG Jeremiad

My disillusionment came on slow. I drank the kool aid for a long, long time. When 3e came out, I didn't mind one bit. Stale doesn't begin to describe how I felt about the 2e rules, although I was disappointed at Wizards' transparent attempts to sell miniatures via D&D. Prior to 3e, they were deliciously optional. And it was true that choosing feats was more important than one's class, that the weapons didn't offer much variety, and that the combat took so very much longer.

But despite these and other misgivings, I helped myself to cup after cup of sugary red kool aid. I would buy huge splat books just for the six pages with feats, and even then only a third of the feats would be well-designed, let alone useful to my players. The monster books remained helpful, as indeed my 1e and 2e monster books did. I've always had an able hand when it came to updating or improving stats, so I could still use a 1e Deities & Demigods critter in a 3e game without much preparation, for example.


Yes, there were hiccups. Simple fights began requiring three hours per round. The skill system was superfluous. Major books were released that took themselves very seriously and yet failed to satiate this hunger I had for a better game. Still, I persevered. Then 4e came out.

I was optimistic about the immanent release of 4e. All the changes I had heard about sounded good. Things seemed to be getting fixed. Some of my house rules even ended up canonized via some sort of convergent rpg evolution.

When I cracked open the book and was greeted by dragon men and demon men, both big hits with the sixth grader and irc roleplaying audience, it was still fine. I could just skip ahead --I don't need to use that part of the book, and I understand that it's just there to cater to the lowest common denominator of role-player for boosting sales. The rest looked all right, I thought.

Fourth Time's The Charm

Eventually, I tried to actually use the 4e rules, and that's when everything stopped. All of the characters are essentially the same. All of the class flavor has been beaten out of them --the differences between a cleric and warlord (what the fuck is a warlord?) are marginal. And combat is even slower than in my 3e games --even if we make huge allowances for the learning curve of a new system. What was the influence that caused these terrible changes to the game that I love?

World of Warcraft. Thanks to the brand identity witch doctors in Hasbro's basement thinking they can tap into some sort of consumer confusion, you too can know the joyful tepidity of being the "tank" for a band of asperger-lite neck-beards. Thrill as you deal monotonously increasing amounts of damage to overcomplicated enemies in an ever so slightly different way than the other people sitting at the game table.

Not that there wasn't good stuff in with the bad. Many of 3e's foibles were finessed, and even more of 1e and 2e's sacred cows were slain. But the changes in 4e are so comprehensive that one may as well be playing a different game, and that game may as well be WoW. No thanks, Hasbro.