Friday, 27 February 2009

Psionic powers and ability checks

I recently picked up the psionic ability cards and threw together a psychic class for my labyrinth lord sessions. Not having the psionic rules, I knocked a few together myself based on what I saw on the cards and my own feeling for in-game balance. I removed some of the cards which were clearly magical or healing in nature (I do NOT want to make the mage class redundant, nor the cleric and have since removed most of their ESP like abilities too, to give the psychic a nice niche).

So far so good, we had a psychic rolled up in the last games session and he proved useful in play - one of the characters that the player wants to keep in the party. I'm aware that my implementation of the class is probably very different from the core rules, too, so it fits in nicely in with all of our custom classes in terms of power (and of course, the core ones too).

One thing has occurred to me though. With every ability costing psionic points to use (I total Wisdom and Intelligence for starting points on a first level psychic, then increase by d10 per level), why does the psychic need to make an ability roll to pull the ability off? Especially as if he fails it, he still burns the points? I'm thinking of replacing this with automatic success (i.e. losing the ability check) but giving the target a save vs spells to resist the effects. Points would still be burned if the target resists or not, similar to the wizard and clerics still losing a spell even if it didn't work. Also, I'm toying with magic resistance affecting psionic abilities, too.

I was wondering, can anyone with experience of psionics let me know what they think of these ideas? It seems to me that psionics may be putting too much stock on characters having high ability scores, as is.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Character death and multiple characters

Since our current group started playing Labyrinth Lord in late October, right from that first session, I thought I would try something different. I used to play D&D about twelve years previously, acting mostly as DM for a group of school friends and we had some great sessions. Back then, it was much more 'traditional' in that each player had one, and only one, character. I thought I might try breaking that convention this time around by allowing the players to use multiple characters and ever since our first game session that's exactly what we have been doing.

This has a number of interesting effects on play. Firstly, you have to set a maximum party size limit to prevent the players from abusing the privilege. I set our limit to eight characters in the party, but it can be expanded sometimes for quest specific NPCs. Hirelings and animals such as war-dogs take up slots just like characters. I may have to rethink this aspect as hired help has never been used to date except as non-combatants, such as hiring a tracker to ensure the party do not get lost.

Secondly, it almost completely solves the problem of character death. D&D has always been a merciless game where first level characters are only a single two handed weapon sword away from death; until they reach third level you have to be a little cautious with them and pick your fights with care. Players simply don't mind this aspect of the game so much when they can keep playing with their existing characters that have survived the encounter in which another was brutally slain. Death needs to be an ever present threat to keep the players on their toes. It's much closer to the spirit of the original game that Gary Gygax envisioned in the first place, when it plays out this way, I feel.

Defend the horses! A photo from our recent game session where the party's horses (which pull their wagon, here represented by two plastic bubbles - alas, the wagon model didnt make it to the session!) were under threat from two hungry Rocs...

Thirdly, you have to determine where new characters can be generated. In my campaign world of Summit I only allow it to happen with towns, villages and cities. This means that the party can be whittled down in size while travelling the wilderness or exploring deep and dark dungeons, falling prey to hideous monsters and deadly traps, a facet that adds to the tension and danger as a quest nears its climax.

Fourthly, there is a negative effect. It's harder to roleplay multiple characters, by definition. As players have less 'ownership' of any one character (by virtue of managing multiple ones) - at least until they reach higher levels anyway - this naturally affects the amount of 'flesh' that the player adds to his character's underlying mechanical 'bones'. A way to alleviate this problem a little is for player's to roll up vastly different characters (at a minimum, different classes) but this problem tends to wane with time as characters climb levels anyway. The longer a player uses a character, the more that character exists within her imagination.

In conclusion, I would recommend trying this if you fancy a change in approach to roleplaying games. Its a useful approach if you only have a small gamer group, too.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Class systems vs skills systems

I've never been overly fond of skill based systems, probably because I like class based ones so much. Class based systems are about the team; if the game system is designed correctly then no single class is a match for all challenges. This forces players to work together and becomes the spirit of the roleplaying experience - cooperation.

Skill based systems, on the other hand, are more about the opposite - the individual. Players will instinctively attempt to cover all bases when choosing skills, minimising their dependences on others and essentially making their character as independently powerful (as opposed to being powerful when operating as part of a group) as possible. Skills based systems are a good fit for single player or low player games I think.

Normally skill based systems are fairly balanced at the start of a characters career then go a bit haywire when a character hits the higher levels, so I've been avoiding using one in Labyrinth Lord. Until now. I've changed my mind because there is a side effect to skill based systems which can be quite desirable ... variety.

When the players roll up characters, ability scores alone are not enough to differentiate two characters of the same class. They can be roleplayed differently and a variety of equipment bought for each; but after you've done this a few times.. well a fighter is a fighter and isn't too different at level one than the next one. So now I'm thinking, lets bring a skill system into play.

One criticism of skill systems which I agree with also is that they can be exclusive. For example, if you make a riding a horse a skill, it tends to prohibit players from attempting to do it that don't have the skill and the rules may explicitly prevent this also. So skill systems can detract from the game experience for this reason, too.

I've been thinking of a way around this situation. Take my riding skill as an example. Say it was based on your dexterity attribute when you had to make a riding check. If the skill was rated in points, it could add to your dexterity score to make it more likely you pass the test. Characters without riding could still ride but would be relying on their natural dexterity (with no skill bonus) when tested, such as when jumping an obstacle on horseback. Clearly, this would still be inclusive - not exclusive - and provide a benefit to the skilled characters. I've not got it mechanically sorted out yet, but say you test on a d30, you could assign a +5 for a character with riding skill and allow it to develop still further as the character levels up and assigns skill points to improve it. I think this might work.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

The rescue of the cleric

Earlier this evening, we played another session of Labyrinth Lord. The party had been told, quite a few sessions ago, that their High Priestess had a task for them, when they were ready, but that it would only be given to the cleric character, who was currently in a chapel in another village, corrupting the locals. The party did a few subquests and spent some time traveling on their own accord and eventually, this evening, decided to go get the cleric so they can attempt this quest.

When they arrive at the sleepy lakeside village of Lyorel, they triggered one of my little subquests, unexpectedly for them. They witness their cleric being dragged out of his chapel by his hair and being rendered unconscious with a blow to the back of the head, then thrown onto the back of a cart. Soldiers spill out of the chapel, bearing the white dragon symbol of the Druids of the West. The Druids are the party's nemesis; they seek to end the dark religion that the party is trying to spread in the world of Summit and so are in direct opposition to their long term goals.

The party form a line just before the battle begins, attempting to prevent the kidnapping. The ensuing battle is pretty much a massacre of the Druids of the West's men, with some amusing moments like when their captain threw his longsword up in the air and accidentally caught the wrong end!

The party make short work of their opponents and, after a few trips to shops to sell some ill begotten gear (that the watch turned a blind eye to being collected), they give chase. Their trail leads them to a copse and within this copse is a clearing within which the followers of the Druids are gathered. Gathered around their cleric. Who is on a pyre, about to burnt alive as a heretic. Cue battle!

This battle went very, very differently from the previous one. The party were up against seven soldiers, a powerful barbarian, their mysterious leader and a massive four armed beast he was keeping on a leash. This powerful creature was the worse thing the party have ever faced - 8 Hit dice and 4 attacks - but for some reason the players thought they could send one character in to fight it and it would be enough. Well, it didn't work, it literally beat the life out of their Gnoll shapeshifter, who in a quirk of fate after being resurrected before had no personality at all, had some amusing final words.. something along the lines of 'well, that was expected!'

The soldiers also had good luck with picking off a few of the other first level characters and the party were in disarray. They had a crazy idea of putting gunpowder on a sack and convincing one of their characters to run into battle holding it - that it would bring good luck - which he actually fell for but was soon cut down. A flaming arrow was sent his way but missed and after that, the party was too split up and the thief was in trouble without much help but somehow managed to hold his own and kill two soldiers, face to face, toe to toe. This was partly because we play using my continunous initiative house rules which let fast characters act more times than slower ones (see link).

The main battle begins, the cleric is the upturned figure at the far side, next to the four armed aberration.

The mighty dwarf was knocked about by the barbarian til the unarmoured two handed sword wielding mountain of muscle fell, overwhelmed. The strongest character, a fighter, literally pulled the cleric out of the flames taking massive damage in the process. After this, she charged at the four armed beast but was slain. The four armed aberration was looking like it would take a few more characters apart when some fumbling took it out of action for a few rounds - just enough time for the surviving party members to finally bring the monster down.

That left the leader of the enemy as the only one alive, probably because he'd managed to stay uninvolved while his troops and pet fought, but was forced joined the battle and started wearing the dwarf down with attack after attack. The cleric was revived, and wielding the mystical Hammer of Dawn, joined the fight. Surrounded on all sides, the leader danced out of the way of blow after blow, seemingly invulnerable, slowly whittling the heroes down - until the thief arrived and stuck two daggers into his back which proved fatal. Finally - the battle was won!

But at what cost? Four characters were killed in this epic fight, fully half the party (three first level and one second). This was the first run in that they have had with the Druids of the West - an enemy that has proven to be highly dangerous and quite surprising. But, on the plus side... their cleric is safe and did not get burned alive and, of course, the plans of the Druids have been thwarted!

Friday, 6 February 2009

To be chaotic or lawful?

A fairly recent blog post about evil campaigns It’s So Good To Be Bad! on Dungeon Mastery had a comment added to it by "GiacomoArt" that has really got me thinking about alignment in D&D.

Anyone worth telling a (non-comedic) story about has a dark side, but the biggest problem with “evil” campaigns has nothing to do with logistics or morality, but with the very psychology that compels gamers to call them “evil”. You can tell lots of interesting stories about “antiheroes”, but however wrongheaded, selfish, or desperate an antihero may be, he ultimately sees himself as reasonable and justifiable, not “evil”. You can be sure that even Adolph Hitler, arguably the most evil individual in the history of the history, saw himself as a hero. What we call evil, he would have called, well… ANYTHING else. Something along the lines of “pragmatic” or “expedient”. Evil is something that the other guy does. So call them “dark” campaigns, or “gritty” or “edgy” or even “sadistic”… but calling them “evil” just turns the whole thing into a self-conscious farce.

I agree wholeheartedly with this point of view.

When Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created Dungeons and Dragons, it was pretty clear that the view of the universe they want with was absolutely black and white in terms of alignment. They had three types: Law, Neutral and Chaos. Law, supposedly represents your good guys and Chaos your bad guys, while Neutrality are animals and anything else that doesn't fit. Which, if you try to map this back into anything you can relate to, would put *everyone* into neutral.

Perhaps this was why later editions then added alignment subtypes: good, evil and neutral. These then get appended on to the end of the original trio of types to form nine types; e.g. you can be Chaotic Good, meaning something like you will break laws to perform good deeds. Or something. Maybe this is Robin Hood. Who knows. Its only a game and who cares if it doesn't really match reality... only after accepting this for years and years, I now think its completely flawed. As the above poster points out, no one sees themselves as being *evil*.

I suspect that the original trio of alignments are based on the philosophies of natural law which is based on their idea that there is a sort of ultimate good and ultimate evil in the universe and all good and evil flows from that. Well, that's a loose description of it anyway. I don't think many of us subscribe to such a simplistic world view though, daily life is much too complex to be shoe horned into such a simple philosophy.

Why does Lawful equate to good anyway? Who's laws are being followed, exactly? If they are the suppressive laws of a brutal tyrant who delights in torture and human sacrifice, lawful is not a good thing. Chaotic would be. Perhaps that is why the original alignment trio were expanded - but it's still too simplistic. Perhaps it needs replacing with an allegiance system or broad morality or ethics rating. I'm still thinking this through.

As nobody ever thinks of themselves as being evil and following laws, or breaking them, doesn't make you one or the other (just clean or a criminal within the society being modelled in the game world), I wonder what could replace this system to give a basic idea of a character's motivation and / or morality?

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Difficulties with miniatures and dungeons

Earlier I blogged about how to successfully combine miniatures with playing dungeons and dragons, specifically about how to keep the imagination fired up by having players describe their character's actions - and rewarding them for it. Today though, I'm going to blog about a different problem that I have experienced with miniatures - representing the dungeon itself.

I looked at various different options. My wilderness battles are just fantastic with the Heroscape hexes and I wanted to get something equally good for the old school dungeon crawls too.

Here is one such outdoor battle from the session tonight. Here, the party return to their wagon to find it surrounded by a patrol of six gnomes with Dire Badgers - they fight to get their wagon back! The battle went well for the party, with the Dire Badgers causing surprisingly few problems (good tactics from the players paid off).

I considered using scenery from Dwarven Forge for dungeons but, while it looks incredible, its just too expensive. Anyway I'm not really sure how useful it is to have walls in 3D... doesn't that get in the way of moving the miniatures around?

I decided to give some ceramic tiles a go that I picked up off eBay. There were 300 of them and just over an inch square, I spray painted them brown and glued a few together to make corridors easier to lay out and we played a couple of sessions using them. They are quite cool, you can effectively make any layout with them but not so good at large rooms ... and we had to keep packing them up and starting over as the table we play on isn't exactly massive as the party explored the levels. They did prove useful for the caverns that the party were crawling through at the time as they were quite nonstandard shapes, but a lot of set up time and work involved with clearing them up to layout new areas.

So, I figured I would try something else. Last week we used a roll up square map that you can write on with non permanent markers and this was quite good - however, I'm not sure if it was the pens we used but erasing them (both wet and dry erase markers) left smudge marks. Also, the square size was exactly an inch, meaning we couldn't really put doors or scenery on the map and some miniatures with slightly larger bases would push other miniatures slightly off their squares. It was pretty far from ideal for these reasons - and also, in quite a few of the battles, only two characters (of eight) would really get involved in the fights due to problems with narrow corridors and the layouts.

Which brings me to what I tried tonight and my final solution. I figured, what the hell. Who really cares if the battles scenes don't exactly match what is down on the map, if its abstracted a little, I can make the rooms and corridors a little larger and start creating opportunities for more tactics and also for other characters to get involved in the fights a bit more. Plus I like hex systems [blame Heroscape!], you don't require stupid half moves or whatever for diagonal movements. So I thought about what I could do to implement a similar system but for dungeons / indoor fights.

I took out my Lexan terrain mat and wondered about perhaps putting walls on top of it. It might look a bit odd, I thought, as it features a very nice water effect (you can see it on the pic above, its below the hex tiles), then by chance noticed that upside down, you can still see the hexes. Perfect! All I needed were some lowish walls to use as dungeon walls...

So here was the first battle fought in this way, in a medium sized room in the gnome stronghold. The figure with the casino chip under him is injured and is one of the enemy gnomes. At the side, are lots of dead gnomes lol. The four bits of scenery were representing beds, which currently I don't have, and are from Heroquest. Note my new dice tray for the players to roll dice into!

Here the (anti)heroes burst into a blacksmiths in the gnome stronghold and begin their assault. By this point, it was becoming clear, this new approach was paying off - most of the characters were getting involved (actually, they all did).

Finally, here's one from the party's perspective - the storming of the command post which went well, except for the loss of the gnoll to one of the gnome sub-officers that is; all in all, clearing out the stronghold cost the party two war dogs and the gnoll shape-shifting character.