Session Nineteen

We had a special Christmas past, present and future game last weekend, which went ok. I've been feeling a bit burned out recently, so I think for the immediate future one of my players is going to be running a mega-dungeon game for a bit. After a few weeks, i think we're going to trade off with some regularity.

On Abstraction and Saving Throws

 I thought I had written about this already, but apparently not.

Modern systems seem to assume a baseline representation - i.e. I rolled twice, so each roll represents a swing of my sword or I can possibly move up to 10' a second, so in six seconds I move 60'.

At first blush this seems to make a lot of sense, but if you look at it too closely the abstraction inherent in hit points and saves breaks suspension of disbelief. i.e. Hit points suddenly becomes literal wounds dealt by specific sword blows. There are 3 saves reflex, will, and fortitude, and they literally and in a direct and visceral way represent 'getting out of the way' 'resisting with your mind' and 'enduring with your body'.

But wait - you made that reflex save and you're still standing up? You failed that fortitude save and didn't fall to your knees? When the saves represent literal specific things then it breaks suspension of disbelief. The 'three categories' of saves also seem very trite and videogamey.

But what of old school saves you say? Abstraction, and this indeed is why they are cool.

A Dungeons and Dragons is not like a aerial view action RPG that we are simulating with dice - good gods, it takes hours to fight a single combat that way. Instead it is much more like the surface of an atom. We have a general idea of what's going on down there, and we get bursts of specific information (say location OR velocity) and we use our imagination to draw the rest in our minds.

Take old school saves for instance. Paralyzation/Poison/Death magic, Rod/Staff/Wand, Petrification/Polymorph, Breath Weapon, and Spells.

But what do these mean? What do they represent?

Why that's the coolest thing about them! Nothing specific at all! All we know is success or failure - the actual means of that is up to you. (and your classes general ability to handle that specific kind of threat is built into the numbers)

Let's say your wizard makes a save versus spells - he inscribed arcane counter-spelling runes in the air before him to disperse the magical energies. 
Let's say your paladin makes her save versus breath weapon - she holds her shield up and her gods divine grace splits the fire of the dragon in either direction.
Let's say your thief makes his save versus rods/staff/wand - he holds forth his reflective amulet and the beam hits it and bounces away.

The point is, that the game *doesn't* tell you how you make your save - that's part of the discovery of what's happening and the fun. Logistically it's a lot more fun to come up with answers for why things happen then trying to plot out a specific sequence of events that is occurring every six seconds. Also, you've got a lot more room for awesome and rule of cool in your descrptions.

So how to decide which save to use for a trap? Paralyzation/poison/death magic has to do with 2 things - toughness and divine grace.
Rod/Staff/Wand has to do with rays, artificial magic generation, and device based effects.
Petrification/Polymorph has with emotional and physical resilience. Self-control is a big factor here.
Breath Weapon has to do with area effects, luck, and grace.
Spells is a catch all category and the general domain of magic.

Clerics have the best saves versus paralyzation/poison/death magic.
Mages have the best overall starting saves and the worst high level ones
Fighters start off with the worst saves (by far) but eventually have the best saves.
Thieves start off slightly better than fighters, but end up slightly worse at 20th level.

On the Dispersion During Travel

There is an excellent post here, on The Tao of D&D which resonated very strongly with me. The general sense of the post is that when people travel, they don't do it in rigid formation - especially  in formations where each person is standing right next to each other. (i.e. if they were to reach their arms out towards each other, they would overlap).

I've been in the military, and even when running in formation, there is pretty substantial give and take in just a two mile run. By 'pretty substantial give and take' I mean at no time was I consistently within 5' of the person who was supposed to be right next to me. On average I could have been anywhere between 5'-15' from them, and there were several points during the runs where it could have been even further than that - and this is not to begin to address the random variances in the distances of the people ahead or behind me which were much greater.  People get spread out and separated, and this is with a group of people who's job it is to specifically travel in a group, and live, eat, shower, and drill together to work as a unit.

The most recent time I (and other people at my table) traveled in the wilderness went on an 8 hour float and we often weren't in sight of each other then. And let me tell you, there was no small amount of risk on that float. It's just the nature of outdoor travel.

When this suggestion was brought up at the table, everyone was amiable to giving it a try. When they saw the effects of the result, an uproar was raised! This is unpossible! they said. I respectfully disagree, and this is why.

If you have a group of people who's individuality is literally drilled out of them so they can respond to orders without thinking and engage in all activities as a unit, march less than an hour and have distances between any one person and the group be over 100' at times, why is it realistic to assume in a game which models fantasy heroes (Elric, Fahard and the Grey Mouser, Cudgel, Conan, Gandalf) that they would stay in some formation when traversing the wilderness? Especially at a distance that's already incredibly close when standing still?

Now there were several arguments made:
One was "There is some chance that I would still be in 'formation'." I explained my multi-part response to this at the table. First, if you stay in formation and everyone else moves, what advantage is there to having stayed in formation? A chance of being on the square you started on in no way alters the final result. Now, I agree that having the random fluctuation without the starting square being a landing point is valid. It's a byproduct of using the grenade scatter rules without a to hit roll. (This actually gives me an idea.)

Second, this method (roll grenade scatter dice) of scattering the party does not objectively model your formation! It isn't at all related to any specific action you take to stay 'in formation' any more then a roll to hit in 1st edition D&D models any individual sword thrust, or hit points model physical health, or saving throws model how you avoid the damage. It is random, and the explanations for why things were that way come after the result is discovered. (Discussed . . . uh, apparently I only wrote that post in my head. Expect it to actually be written soon.)

Another argument that was presented is "It reduces the effectiveness of the player characters!"
Ok, first - well duh, that's the point! Second, if you take a gnome, put him in heavy armor, and then complain that it takes him forever to get into combat if he's not standing right next to the people he's supposed to heal, the solution to that is to accept the consequence of gnome+heavy armor, not say it's unfair when you are unable to engineer the situation 100% of the time so that it doesn't become a factor.

Another argument was "But the wilderness is filled with dangerous creatures! We'd never let our guard down." Again, this is provable false, as evidenced by the behavior of men in war zones. When the threat of death is constant, it's only a matter of time till it becomes normalized or you crack. When the first shot is fired, there isn't a fire team alive that's in perfect position, and they are just going on patrol, not marching 20+ miles a day.

Now, clearly when exploring a dungeon, or other small, confined, indoor, or exceptionally dangerous place I'm not interesting in screwing around with their formation much - the time and space scale are both smaller. But this is days of travel outside! The vast majority of encounters are with animals or other tribes. All of the bad things to date that have happened in the wilderness have occurred when we A) weren't using this system, and B) when the players were specifically aggressive against neutral forest animals (who happened to be able to spit acid, but what can you do? Neutral not in regards to alignment, but reaction.) It certainly isn't like they are constantly being attacked by dragons - it's more like they spent 10 hours walking and only saw one or two animal groups interesting or hostile enough to be of note.

One thing that I could have done, is make it more clear that yes, they could indeed cut their daily travel down to 1/5 of what it was and have a greater chance of traveling in "formation". I'm not entirely sure that this improves the situation however. The way we play, this would give them 5 wandering monster checks per 2 miles of travel (three of which are at night), instead of 13 checks for 10 miles of travel (three of which are at night). Making them cover 10 miles in five days with 25 checks instead of in one day with 13. (These numbers are a little off of the average D&D travel numbers, but they are internally consistent for our game).

This comes down to the fact that it authentically makes wilderness travel dangerous in a creative way. It makes sense why they would protest - it's dangerous! So is life and travel. From the original post - with which I agree 100%.

Whatever the reason, and whatever the argument, it is patently ridiculous for the party to think it can remain in the pictured formation above every minute of the day.  The chance of them all being within 5' of each other at any given moment is pretty nigh zero. 
 I'm not sure that the language is strong enough there. Absurd perhaps.

 The reason that the suggestion resonates most strongly for me is that it improves play in every way. It forces the players to be more creative, it increases the risk in encounters making them more exciting, and it's more interesting then the same unrealistic formation the party is in when they travel.

Session Eighteen

Travel has ensued
A small quest. Dimensional
invaders attack.

The above haiku mentions the bit that was left out of the last session post. Upon everyone reaching the Boarman city, there was a small quest done, where the players were sent to investigate a strange transparent pylon. There was a small battle against strange beasts, led by a heretofore unknown non-human.

That was what happened the previous week. This week however, they leveled up, and prepared to deal with the sea devils. They journeyed to the coast and set up a small basecamp. There were several encounters along the way, wild warthogs, some giant ants that were avoided.. There was a notable encounter against a small selection of acid weasels where one of the parties new bodyguards, a Gnoll fighter startled them and got blasted in the face with acid. 12d6 acid damage later, he was no more. So long Antis Aphex. :-)

  They discovered a ridgeline, that was actually the skeletal corpse of a gigantic wurm or serpent with a huge human skull. They discovered a plaque written in an ancient language talking about a legendary sword that slew this monster. They also discovered the enchanted sea bridge and that it allowed the to travel and breath underwater. They set up camp, and will begin their underwater forays in the coming weeks.

On Genre

This is only tangentially related to tabletop gaming, but The Escapist has published a Genre wheel describing the different kinds of computer and electronic video game cartridges and discs.

The Genre Wheel

It's interesting not only in their approach, but also, at least for me, it works very much like the color wheel; in that my favorite genres are in fact compliments of each other on the wheel. Give it a go.

Session Seventeen


Everyone was back last session, but it was a short one, cataloging their return to Agarbonu, the Boarman city. They had several encounters along the way, which they took some pains to avoid. They reached the city, and the sage gave them information about the Sahuagin threat. We have two of our players taking a bit of a hiatus, so we hope to see them in the future.

On Old School Hack

Tonight was our first session of Old School Hack. It was extremely awesome. I'm very fond of the system, it's quick and simple and quite enjoyable.

The best thing about it is the full on old school nature of the game. One of the players was asking how he searched for a trap. The answer being that you tell the DM what you are doing. The rules system was very light, leading to some silly conversations ("Where does it let me talk in combat?!") I didn't say anything at the time, because I like the combat system. Frankly, you can run large, dramatic, intense battles using it. The leveling system is nice, and the powers are quite cool. 

The theme was a little brighter then normal for the game. Sort of more of a fantasy kingdom, enchanted forest, then gritty survivalist world-ending play. The Dungeon Master said at one point that it was related to gender, but that's less of a factor then the outlook and tastes in fantasy. Plus, when you're behind the wheel of a game after a long time without running one, it can be a very intimidating experience. It was fun having them run the game.

I have several thoughts about the game:

  • People who have not played Dungeons and Dragons 0E, Amber Diceless, Fudge, or other dice light, story heavy games should definitely read A Quick Primer For Old School Gaming. Also here. and here. The answer to "Does the door look trapped?" is always no. :-p The game is in the description back and forth, not in the rolls.
  • It's a mistake to try and fit every action into a box. The game is less about rules and more about actual role-playing. It's my opinion that the most structured part of the game (the combat turn) is just a guideline at best.
  • On the other hand, there really needs to be a mechanic for re-rolling. Stats bottom out at -2 and max out at +5. When I got, not just way below average stats, but stats with no interesting character (-1 four times, and 0 twice) I was a bit upset. I only rolled higher than 9 twice, and never higher than 11. What the players came up with was having to pick a new class if I wanted a re-roll, which was pretty frustrating. I mean, I wanted to play the class I wanted to play. I would prefer there to be options for authentically bad stats (-3/4/5) just like authentically good ones, along with a mulligan option.
  • It's a great system.
I suggest everyone take a look.

On Supplimental Material

So, I've been kind of confused about the poor response to the treasure and psionic documents. I don't really have access to download numbers, but no one has commented on them. I have gotten a few comments (almost all good) from the threads I've started.

I then realized I use several resources, who's authors I'm sure I've never contacted. So, here are some links to what I have found to be very useful documents. If any of these links fail (in the future), please e-mail me so I can update this post. If you like them (or mine) perhaps you should draw some attention to them on your own blogs.

Random Magical Effects:
This was a surprise, when searching for the original link, I discovered not only the file I use, but an updated version. Each file has d10,000 (4d10) random magical effects for wild surges, chaos bursts, spell mishap, and alchemical mishap rolls. These may also be used for artifacts, wands of wonder, random magical side effects, and more. They are written by Orrex, who did manage to print his e-mail address in the version 2.0 of his file. There are comments that some of his entries are 'inappropriate' for fantasy games (Caster now owns a widescreen television), but those people are explicitly wrong. Gygax accounted for all this in his basic dimensional models. Also, what else is better to fall upon a casters head.

The links:
Version 1.2
Version 2.0

Character Traits:
I was unable to locate the source of this file. It's a listing of a variety of character traits as well as 400 personality traits. I've uploaded the file in the hopes that it will help someone else. Again, this is not my document.
Character Traits

This is a list of a variety of dramatic conflicts, along with their variations.
The Big List of RPG Plots

Again, I'm not the creator of any of these documents, just that I've used them and they have been very helpful.
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