Saturday, December 31, 2011

New magical item: The Gambler's Dice

This is a unique and powerful non-artifact magic item, system-agnostic but written with 4e in mind. I was inspired to finish it considering the recent "Got Loot?" blogging festival, though this is something that has been incubating in my mind since at least last April. It is my attempt to bring a sort of Fortune Cards-like aesthetic into the game, without being overly intrusive, but also having consequences. It utilizes FUDGE dice, which are special six-sided dice which have two blank faces, two faces bearing a "-" and two faces bearing a "+". It was very influenced by the Deck of Many Things, among other things, and I'd hope that its implementation and manifestation could be relatively flexible to manage in-game. Players can come across individual dice, as with cards from the DoMT, or else the entire set, whichever would seem more appropriate within the story. The item, which is a set of four ivory dice inset with golden suns and silver moons, will appear to be just an ordinary, if valuable, set of dice for a game called Canicerre (can-i-sair). It will be common in the area of the world where the dice are found, but relatively rare elsewhere. I use a combination of locales from 4th edition (Bael Turath features in the story), but also a newly invented locale (the Alvastratian Empire), which I figure for story's sake existed in the same larger geographical area as Bael Turath, but perhaps pre-dating both it and Arkhosia. There is no reason why any or all of it could not be relocated to somewhere more familiar to Pathfinder fans, such as Varisia or Katapesh. I'm less familiar with Golarion and I write chiefly for 4e (being the fantasy RPG with which I am most familiar), so it becomes my "implicit" setting. Similarly I use Tieflings and Eladrin in the story text, but the storyteller himself is suspicious of those attributions. They could readily be renamed to something more appropriate.

The dice themselves should be presented, at first, as simple treasure. They are made of a valuable material (ivory), appear to be very well made and of high quality, and two sides are inset with gold, and two sides are inset with silver. It would be assumed that a reasonable player would see the value in these, at least as loot to sell for gold or silver back in town. Likewise, the location they are found in should be relatively unremarkable; maybe they spill out of an old boot that is carelessly knocked over while one of the PCs is looking for something else. Maybe they are simply set atop a table within a cave that had been at some point previously been occupied but currently seems abandoned. However, the true value of the dice only becomes apparent once the PCs attempt to sell them. When presented to a shopkeeper, especially if asked what they are for, the following monologue might occur. Alternately, if one of the characters is particularly well versed in local history, they may know the following already:

"It's an old Alvastratian game, it's called Canicerre; it's simple. Let me show you. There are four dice, they each have these symbols on them, right? The sun represents a positive turn of fortune, the moon a negative; yeah the Alvastratians were sun worshippers, what do you want? You put all four dice in a cup, and you shake it around. You try to get one die to pop out; a lot of pros get up to some pretty fancy shaking to make it happen and land where they want it to. The rest of the dice stay in the cup, and you quick turn it over and smack it down on the table so they're under the cup, still covered. Everybody bets on whether the overall outcome will be positive or negative, and then the cup is lifted. Positive and negative sides cancel each other out, blank sides don't have an influence one way or the other. If the outcome is neutral, everyone gets their money back. If it's moons, all the people who betted suns lose their money. If it's suns, all the people who betted moons lose their money, get it? It's split up evenly from all the losers to all the winners, so if you're betting on an unpopular outcome, you stand to win more money than if you go with everyone else on it. If everyone bets one way and the result is the other, the person rolling the dice gets it all; it's the only way they can win since they can't ordinarily take bets, and it doesn't happen very often, but when it does, oh man, it can be a lot of money. There was a saying back in the old days in Alvastratia, 'rich as a roller.'

"But these dice, these are special. You probably don't know what you have here. See, there's a legend about these dice. They say that there was a guy, a gambler, who lived in the port of Arkash. Arkash was in Bael Turath, so tradition says that he was a Tiefling. Makes sense to me, since everybody knows that Canicerre is a Tiefling game anyway... At least they're the ones who are always playing it anywhere they go. Anyway, there was a gambler, nobody knows his name any more. I guess it's not important. And this guy, he gambled on everything. It was just sort of his nature. He said that if he had something, it was his to lose. If someone else had something, it was his to win. And he was always fair. If he lost, he lost graciously and moved on, never held any grudges, never carried any superstitions or excess baggage along with it. Winning and losing, that was the only thing that mattered. He wasn't even known, so the stories go, for being particularly daring with his bets, I guess he just liked to leave everything up to fate or something. I don't know.

"But one day, as the story goes, he met a traveller. Now, a lot of people say it was an eladrin, but I don't know if that's so much that it was really an eladrin or if they just want some sort of trickster figure and eladrin fit but anyway, doesn't matter. This traveller is in town for a few days, watches the Gambler gambling on everything, finally approaches him. He pulls out these ancient, ancient looking Canicerre dice, inset with gold and silver, obviously well-worn but still in great shape, and says "I'll play you for these; they have a value far beyond anything you will ever possibly know." The Gambler, he's impressed by the dice, they're good looking, but he doesn't buy the yarn about any 'immeasurable value.' But a game's a game, so they go in to it. They drop in to a gambling house, the traveler hands a dealer there the dice. See it used to be polite if you were in a new town to at least make the gesture like you're contributing to the local economy, you know, give the dealer a chance to win, yadda yadda. Anyway, the dealer drops them in the cup, and the eladrin (or whoever) gestures to the Gambler, and says 'your call.'

"The dealer swirls the cup, pops a die out, it's the sun facing. Nevertheless, the Gambler says 'favor only shines at night.' See, there are a lot of traditions with the game; some people just say positive or negative, some people say suns and moons, this guy gussied up his calls with a little poetry, guess he did it so often he had to keep it interesting. Whatever. The eladrin (whatever) says 'suns' to give the opposite bid. You know, it's polite if you're playing one-on-one to pick opposing bids, otherwise there's a lot of stalemates going on. Also it's usually smart to pick the facing symbol anyway because the odds are a little in favor of what's already showing. The dealer nods, lifts the cup. There are two moons and a sun. Stalemate. Since they're not playing for money, the dealer sweeps up the dice and drops them in the cup. One pops out, it's a sun again. Yet again, the Gambler says 'dark as night, never bright.' The eladrin nods, and replies 'the sun will forever shine.' The dealer nods, lifts the cup. Again, it's two moons and a sun. Once again, the dealer scoops up the dice, pours them into the cup, and swirls it around. He pops a die, it shows a blank face. The eladrin says 'ah, intriguing! Why don't we raise the wager? If I win, I make one request, which you must abide by for the rest of your days. If you win, I remain here in your service, until I am discharged by your command.' The Gambler says, 'no sir, we began this game over these dice, and these dice are what I'm playing for. If you want to make other wagers, we'll resolve this one first and then we'll talk.' The eladrin nods and raises his hand to gesture that the Gambler make his bet. The Gambler says 'three moons hang alone in the sky, never to meet, never to die.'

"See this is another thing I forgot to tell you about the game. Sometimes people will make a wager based on what the exact configuration of the dice will be, and then they can win more of the pot than usual, but they weren't playing this game. I guess he was just making that bet for poetic purposes, it wouldn't have had any effect on the game one way or the other, just that he had wagered on 'moons' instead of 'suns.' The eladrin says 'three times three is a risky wager indeed!' Do you see where some people might think that this character might have been an eladrin, by the way? Who talks like that but them? Well, I suppose halflings do, but nobody wants to listen to a story about a mysterious halfling. Anyway, he says 'a three times three is a risky wager indeed!' I said that already, but there's a reason for that. You know, if you bet the same thing three times in a row, there's an old superstition that you'll always lose on your third time, but this Gambler, he wasn't swayed by any superstition, so he just says 'that's my wager, and I'm standing by it.' So the dealer lifts the cup, and sure enough, plain as anything, three moons are facing upwards. The eladrin stands up, pushes his chair back from the table, and says 'the dice are yours by your right, and they are parted from me duly. Good day, and good luck.' And he walks out. Nobody ever sees him again. Nobody sees him leave, like as soon as he walks through the door, he's gone. Course it was in Arkash and nobody sees anything in Arkash, at least not without the jingle of gold in their ears, so that's not really all that remarkable. A lot of people, they like to play up the mystery there in that part, like ooooh he was a ghost or something, but I've seen plenty of ghosts, and this doesn't sound like a ghost.

"Anyway that's just the beginning of the story. I could probably talk your ear off all day about this legend, s' popular with the kids and all (course some people add in lots of moral lessons like 'don't gamble' or more dubious ones like 'don't gamble with eladrin' or some such) but anyway, long story short is Gambler finds out that he got a lot more than what he bargained for. He'd only use these dice, you know, for special occasions. They were nice, you don't just sit out in the dusty street and roll ivory dice inlaid with gold and silver, but whatever, you know what I mean. But he came to realize that, not only did winning or losing with the dice seem to bring him bigger wins or losses, but the effect seemed to last for days. And now like I said, he was no superstitious man, but when weird things happen often enough, you start to think like something weird is going on. When he won with the dice, it was like he couldn't lose. He'd have streaks for days where everything he played, he played well. When he lost, he lost everything. Got to a point where the streaks scared 'im so much he all went up and almost quit gambling altogether. Didn't like the ramifications. Occasionally he'd try to offer the dice up as a prize, just like the eladrin did, to try to get rid of them. But he'd always win. No matter what he bet, the dice were always in his favor any time he tried to get rid of them. Started to think they were a curse, never used them. Gambling lost its flavor for him, these dice weighing down on him, never knowing whether they were actually cursed or magical or anything like that, or whether he was just getting old, and eventually he just up and disappeared, they found the dice on his table, four moons staring up at the ceiling, like he was there one minute and gone the next. Nobody ever saw him again, nobody claimed the dice as their rightful property, eventually the shopkeeper in town said he'd put 'em up for sale, use the money to pay for a gravestone (they just assumed if he wasn't coming back, he was probably dead), and that's where the story leaves off. Nobody knows what happened to the dice after they sold, but they say there's a plain gravestone standing in Arkash today, no name on it, just standing there like it's proof that someone was there. Where'd you say those turned up, again?"

The Gambler's Dice can be represented, in the real world, with a set of 4 FUDGE dice. The plus side represents the sun, the minus side represents the moon. The mechanics otherwise are exactly the same, each sun cancels each moon, and any left over beyond that denotes a winner. The large majority of games will result in a draw, and it is customary among most gamblers to either raise or withdraw their bets during these instances. Canicerre can be played in-game at any time, for gambling purposes or for a quick-and-dirty method of divination (will the immediate future be favorable or unfavorable? by what degree?). It is only with the Gambler's Dice that things get "dicey." Beyond their use as a gambling tool, they can also be used to influence fate. At any time, as a standard action, as a daily power, in or out of combat, the player in possession of the Gambler's Dice may roll the dice as long as there is a reasonable surface upon which to do so. The character does not need to be able to see the results of the dice, and the effect generated begins instantaneously. It is up to the GM to determine the effect of the outcome, but it should be in line with the overall "score" achieved by the roll. In other words, a roll that evens out to zero will probably not have any effect at all, +1 might make an attack that otherwise might have just missed hit, +2 might save the player from a status effect or an environmental mishap, +3 might drastically alter the strength of an opponent or the treasure encountered, and +4 will likely be some extremely unlikely, massive, and potentially game-changing event, like a god suddenly taking direct interest in the character and personally guiding their hand. Conversely, -1 might make the character's next action fail, or prevent them from achieving a critical hit on a natural 20, or something of the like, and so on. A -4 result will be catastrophic for the character. They may be pulled into a demiplane of suffering, they may be struck down where they stand by a freak accident, but the outcome should not only be dire for the character, but for the entire party. This result should also result in the dice being "lost" and unrecoverable by the party.

The Gambler's Dice are not an "evil" item, but they are chaotic in their function. It is unclear whether the dice were invented to be magical, or with any sort of magical purpose in mind, or whether they "developed" on their own. They do not function like an artifact; they do not possess any degree of "intelligence" and do not attempt to influence or direct their possessor's behavior. But nor are they a "good" item, for they do not always act in their holder's favor, letting instead the dice fall where they may, and then influence the world around them accordingly. Primarily any effect is negated every time the dice are re-rolled, but the dice roll has no effect one way or the other if attempted more than once in 24 hours. Otherwise, the effect will subside in 1d4 days, waning in influence over time. As a static magic item, they grant the possessor +1 Streetwise (or, for Pathfinder, Knowledge [local]) and -1 Diplomacy as long as they are somewhere in the vicinity of the person. For the purpose of this mechanic their "owner" is defined as the person who last touched them with their bare hands, although if that person should travel any appreciable distance away from the dice (such as leave town), "ownership" passes to any character who is nearest or currently in possession.

Beyond this, the significance, importance, and back story for the dice are entirely up to the Game Master, and entirely dependent upon their own campaign to let the mystery of the dice develop further (or not). Perhaps one of the PCs will decide to roll the dice when they are first found absentmindedly. If this occurs make note of the results, and have their influence (if any) be felt, but be unclear about whether it is the dice that are influencing how things have suddenly turned, or something else about where they are or what they are doing, then reveal it when they learn what the dice are.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Got Loot Blogfest: Wichtrift, a unique item for Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition

About a year ago, I had a game where the players were in a dungeon populated by relatively powerful undead and incorporeal enemies (usually shadow or ghost). The cleric and the wizard were doing just fine; radiant attacks from the cleric usually did some tidy damage, and area effect spells like Burning Hands, Scorching Burst, and Fire Shroud handled the waves of insubstantial enemies more tidily; trading amount of damage for extent of damage. However, only a little bit in to the adventure, I realized that even with the cleric dishing out maximum damage against the undead, the other players didn't have anything available to them to rival it, and were getting a little frustrated. I created this item an an optional tool to be wielded by someone who was not able to dish out radiant damage, and hid it behind a puzzle in a secret compartment. I tried to write the rest of the adventure so that it would not be negatively impacted by the players not finding the item, but if they had found it, it would definitely make the dungeon a lot easier.

The setting was that they had been sucked into a pocket dimension within the Shadowfell, which had been created by an ancient Shadar Kai sorcerer-king, as a side effect of his mad attempts to establish and maintain control over his domain, which had been beset by demons. Once the players hit Paragon level they would have been able to find out who he was, why he was under attack, and who was ultimately behind all of it, but the campaign fell apart. He was the last of a now forgotten dynasty, when the Shadar Kai were still a relatively young race and not yet as given to decadence and excess as they are now; his fall, in my game, was one of the events that quickened their transformation into what they are. The two symbols of his dynasty were a magic orb and a silver misericorde.

The magic orb, despite being very beautiful and expertly crafted, was not all that powerful (it was essentially just a +1 orb with a +1d6 crit bonus), but the misericorde was the special item. It was called Wichtrift, and was created by the sorcerer-king's ancestor, the founder of the dynasty. It was crafted so keen and with such care, that it could slice through spirit-stuff as if it were solid flesh. Paradoxically, it would pass through solid flesh as if it were insubstantial. The kings of this dynasty were cruel, and increasingly insane, and they would use the knife to split the escaping spirits from those whom they had slain, and then magically bind them back together into increasingly grotesque abominations, and enslave them to do their bidding. The dagger was therefore extremely powerful, but also stained by a hideously violent and atrocious past. I wanted possession of it to create a moral quandary for the players, and for it to even cause expressions of fear from the ghosts who inhabited the place since they had been created by it and knew its power. The cruellest irony of it all would have been that the king, who had entombed himself, still living, at the bottom of this structure, would have been vulnerable to the weapon. I also wanted to give the players the opportunity to use the dagger for good, so at one point they encounter a "friendly ghost" who only wants to be freed from his place, where he had been eternally bound, and they would be able to use the dagger to do that. If they'd have held on to the dagger or the orb, by around level 12 or 13 when I had planned them going into the Shadowfell for the first time, those items could have become very powerful bargaining chips with some of the major powers in Gloomwrought and abroad; even if they didn't know exactly what they were, they would have been able to tell that they had originated in the realm, and were very ancient.

I wanted the knife to be based in an unusual stat so that it wouldn't be obvious how it dealt damage, and would also be easily wielded by even a character who was not usually martial by nature. Given its creation from and capacity for evil acts, charisma seemed a good fit. Despite this, it still deals radiant damage, however this radiance does not originate from faith in the divine, but sadistic cruelty of character. Other than that, attack rolls are resolved as normal, as if it were any other knife. I marked it as level 4, but only because that's what level the party was when they would encounter it. Based on what it does, probably 5 or 6 would have been a better fit, but given that its intrinsic power does not increase over levels, it doesn't really much matter. The name originates in Old Germanic and Old English and I take it to mean "soul-divider," a reference to its ability to slice spirit asunder.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy RPG review

Taking advantage of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess anniversary sale on, I was able to get the PDF "Grindhouse Edition" for $1.35, instead of the full price. I've been meaning to read this game for a long time, partially because James Raggi has graciously linked to my blog from his since nearly immediately after I started this blog. I suppose the "Carcosa" in the name was what got him; I've also noticed that there is a new edition of the (in)famous eponymous RPG being released by Lamentations of the Flame Princess Press. If a PDF copy of this book were to mysteriously appear in my inbox, I would definitely feel honor-bound to write a review of it; just saying.

The "Grindhouse Edition," according to the LotFP Press site, is a box set, available for purchase online for about US$40, and which comes with three books (a total of some 360 pages), a set of dice, and some pre-printed character sheets. I'm assuming this is how it distinguishes itself from the "regular edition," which, incidentally, seems to be between printings? Two of the books are pretty standard: there is a player's guide and a GM's guide (called the Referee Book). The third, however, is labeled "Tutorial," and walks a new player through the mechanics of the game by a couple linked solo adventures. The PDF version of the Grindhouse Edition only has scans of the box cover, the box back, the three books, the OGL, and the character sheets; alas, there are no scans of dice.

The tutorial book, I think, is a phenomenal touch. Rare is the RPG solo adventure to begin with, and the "choose your own adventure" style, I think, is particularly compelling. I think that this tutorial guide really does well to introduce new players to the "world" that this game takes place in, which is a bit darker and grittier than run of the mill fantasy RPGs. Most importantly, the adventure is LONG; it will keep you occupied for quite some time, which is a huge plus if you're forced to "game alone." There's also a very long "example of play" which does what most similar, shorter versions in other RPGs fail to do: actually give you an idea of how the game works, by working through multiple encounters, start to finish, and not just a sampling. Before even reading the player or referee guides, I'm already getting a sense for how the game works, which is great.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess advertises itself as a "weird" fantasy game. This is, to say, that some of the fundamental assumptions about fantasy role-playing will be perverted, subverted, or just plain wrong. It is a far more dangerous, unsettling, and unnerving world than "mainstream" fantasy, and, at times, it may seem that the "impartial" GM might be acting against your best wishes as a player. Sometimes, this might also be true. It encourages horror, violence, and mystery, and does not shy away from unsettling imagery or situations. It is, therefore, self-consciously a "mature" RPG. Much like other "weird" role-playing games (and I'd throw Cthulhutech, Trail of Cthulhu, Call of Cthulhu, and other games including the word "Cthulhu," for instance), misdirection on the part of the GM should be assumed. However, just as in those games, this should not automatically mean that there is a competition between the players and the game master; the game master presents a challenge, and the players have to be smart and clever and just damn lucky to overcome it. This being said, the Referee's Guide presents a pretty good collection of tips for how to encourage this sort of play, as well as a pretty detailed run-down on how to pave the way as the game master to ensure that adventures in the world of the Flame Princess are memorable. And, of course, the tips don't only apply to this game.

There are a few things to note for anybody who might be transitioning from having played Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition. First and foremost, levelling takes a lot longer. The next thing to note is that there really is not much of an implicit setting, "points of light" or otherwise. Much of the referee's guide consists of tips on how to develop your own game world; even past the introduction, there is not even much on encouraging GMs to keep it "dark." That, if anything, is the implicit part. The adventure included at the back of the referee's guide provides a very good case in point: at one point, a player may not even know whether they are actually in control of their character or not. LotFP succeeds when it tries to disarm the players' assumptions; it fails as soon as the players begin to suspect that the GM is actively acting against them.

A brief mention of something else entirely must be made at this point. Throughout all of the books, there is very graphic (both violent and sexualized) art peppered in among the pages. LotFP apparently wants to make it very clear that this is a "mature" RPG, and inappropriate for children. This is a sharp contrast to Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition, which markets itself to ages 12+, and Pathfinder, which markets itself to ages 13+. However, both Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder are very mainstream titles. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, decidedly, is not. But this also distinguishes it from an RPG which I'd consider to be both "mature" and "mainstream," Cthulhutech, which certainly includes "racy" imagery, but nothing to this degree. As far as "read an RPG in public" day is concerned, you might want to leave LotFP on the shelf, as it may raise more than a few eyebrows. Some people may find the imagery offensive, distracting, or objectionable, but for the most part it is not outrageous or over the edge. But all the same, do consider this fair warning.

One very prominent feature in character creation is starting off PCs with a static number of hit points. Dwarves get 6, clerics get 4, fighters get 8, and so on; essentially they get their maximum HD score. Then, after level 1, hit points gained are the designated class hit-die, plus constitution modifier (for a while). There are a few funky irregularities about HP gain, but those are well noted. Functionally this means a level 1 fighter will always have 8 hit points, and a level 20 fighter will have between 49 and 113 hit points, unless I severely flubbed my math skill check. More or less, though, once players reach level 10, they will be gaining HP much more slowly than they were before that point. The overall effect here is that characters gain HP early on a bit faster than similar games, but then after level 10 they gain them more slowly. One would expect this to level off at the end, but I'm not going to actually do the math. Lower-level characters will definitely need this little boost, as creatures tend to be a bit more devastating when they hit.

Experience is gained primarily through the acquisition of wealth. The players' book notes that a game where the characters get most of their experience from vanquishing foes is not ideal, and in fact, labels those sorts of characters "psychotic." Furthermore, not all styles of wealth acquisition were created equal; there is a list of what nets XP and wealth, and what simply nets wealth. To me, this seems a bit unbalanced. If you are told that you aren't supposed to go out killing monsters, but you only gain XP from collecting mineral wealth off of enemies' bodies, out of their lairs, and out of abandoned habitation structures, it creates a game where the adventuring party does more scavenging than fighting. Of course, in a game world where, with all else being equal, most characters of any level will probably not survive the encounter with any given eldritch horror, this almost seems to be a necessity.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess takes place in a "magic poor" world, where magic-users (why can't they just be called wizards?) are inherently dangerous (and probably insane), and magic items are vanishingly rare. Characters will not go on a quest to find a +1 sword, they will be on a quest to find the +1 sword. Magic items, by their definition, give characters an advantage over situations tilted against their favor, and when considering that an adventuring party may only see two or three magic items over the course of their entire lives, the loss of this advantage will be palpable. Also consider that the world of Lamentations of the Flame Princess is considerably more deadly than the "stock" fantasy RPG setting, and the absence of any advantage will be even more obvious. Players are told to not become too attached to their level 1 characters, and to not mourn their loss if they die, but, all the same, characters will stay level 1 for a disproportionately longer time than with similar RPGs, given the slow levelling inherent with the system. But where guile is preferred, if for not other reason than self-preservation, it seems that players playing certain classes might be underwhelmed by the experience. This seems to be especially uninteresting to the "fighter" class, where it says in its description in the book that fighters live for fighting. If they're not supposed to go out and get into fights, what do they do? Spoils should be secondary; a side-effect of doing what they want to do, and players will probably be loath to send their characters in to a situation where they are quite confident they are going to die, just because it makes sense for the character's personality.

Experience is evidently also not gained by hunting, scavenging for food, or succeeding on skill checks, and it is not mentioned (or if it is, I don't see it) whether there are experience bonuses above and beyond wealth accumulation for succeeding on a particular quest. Not only do individual classes not gain special experience for taking advantage of their own particular class traits, they still level at different rates. Since experience is always divided evenly between all player characters, there will always be an imbalance between what the characters are capable of, which is aggravated by the fact that the others will not level quickly enough to catch up before getting thrown into a situation that is above their ability. The ideal situation would be to have 2-3 fighter characters, 2-3 specialists, and a cleric and/or wizard to pad out the battle capabilities of the group, plus a paid retinue of hired thugs to help if things get grim, who nevertheless will probably flee in terror at the first sign of anything remotely unusual. Strength in numbers seems to be almost a necessity.

Returning to wealth for a moment, it is, at least, very easy for clerics and magic-users to find ways to spend their vast stores of wealth gained from adventuring. There are myriad opportunities in creating magic implements, potions, scrolls, and the like, as well as researching new avenues of religious or magical knowledge. Less certain is what other classes are spending their dough on, but it seems that hiring henchmen, as well as maintaining a household with appropriate staff, is the intention. There are even rules on how to invest money, and what the returns will be. Capitalism, industry, and commerce are heavily emphasized in the players' book, but one also must maintain the knowledge that the individual handling your investments might, at any moment, mutate into a fish-faced monster that sprays black acid out of its eyes, and its croaks cause paralysis. Suffice to say, not all financial gambles will be lucrative.

But perhaps all of these critiques are just based upon a bad imagination on my part. It is obviously an adventure game, obviously styled after AD&D and what came before, and the system seems pretty streamlined and straightforward, with no major surprises (Death of THAC0 Day should be a real holiday). Most of the skill tests are resolved by rolling one or more d6's, rather than rolling a d20 against a chart; many other incidentals are resolved with a d% check. For the most part it is a "chart-lite" book; players will be able to tell whether they have succeeded or not on an endeavor just by the result of their roll, more often than not. Perhaps a better comparison would be to one of the early James Ward games like Metamorphosis Alpha or Gamma World, where instead of "save or die" your option is simply "die."

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a "tough" RPG. There is very little opportunity for advancement, advancement progresses very slowly, and there is a high likelihood that any given adventurous endeavor will end in failure and/or death. Ordinary incidents can turn deadly at the drop of a hat, and seemingly benign situations can (and will) turn bizarre and dangerous without any provocation. "Winning," as far as LotFP is concerned, is "not dying this session," and by that definition winning seems to be very hard to do.

Does all this mean that I don't particularly like the game? No. I'd be willing to try it.  I don't think this is going to replace my "default" fantasy RPG any time soon, but I think, much like with Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, it would be a fun diversion to run in a one-off, or 2-3 session adventure setting. "Weird" works for me, and in a "weird" game, deadly is very often necessary. In a Weird World, there are entities that can destroy the world without even taking notice, not to mention the puny things that may be crushed underfoot in the process.

One last comment to make is that there is no standard set of stock monsters to choose from, and this is explicitly mentioned in the books as intentional. To keep the world as "weird" as possible, the GM is encouraged to create custom monsters for every situation (and is given guidelines to do so). However, LotFP does concede that it is compatible enough with other OSR/OGL games that many can be reskinned and dropped in to it without too much modification. There is even a conversion guide between several other d20-based games for how this might be managed, but if you're expecting to use it completely stand-alone, you don't want to be in for a shock here.

In conclusion, Lamentations of the Flame Princess (though at the end I still have no idea who the Flame Princess is, nor why she is so upset) sets out to do something specific, and makes no apologies nor pulls any punches concerning what it's trying to do, and I have to, at least, give it props for that. The world is rough around the edges, to say the very least, and I can imagine that quite a bit of houseruling would be necessary for a lot of situations, but the product that is presented is well-organized, well-presented, and imaginative. Perhaps the most important contribution that LotFP provides to the RPG world is a reminder that nothing is sacred and that all plans, no matter how meticulously wrought, have a habit, in the end, of unravelling.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fantasy Flight Games' Warhammer 40,000: Black Crusade review

One of the biggest complaints I saw about Dark Heresy was that the starting characters were way too underpowered. While I sort of like the idea of starting off with seriously weak characters and having them either get tougher or perish, just like so many of the characters in the Warhammer 40,000 novels, I also understand that a lot of people aren't going to want to go through the pretty long process of building a character, and then having them geeked in the first encounter with anything larger than a rat.

Black Crusade does not have this problem. In fact, most Dark Heresy characters would be absolutely pulped by a starting-level Black Crusade character. I'd love to roll up one Chaos Space Marine, and 3-4, maybe even 5 Dark Heresy characters, and run a PvP match. Corruption by Chaos seems to have some pretty powerful benefits as far as overall power is concerned, even if you're not winning any beauty contests when you're done..

Character creation is very complex in Black Crusade, given that you have to track what Chaotic abilities are associated with which of the Ruinous Powers. As you're creating the character, every time you tack on an ability or a trait, you have to check to see where it falls on the Ruinous spectrum; certain chaos gods are opposed to each other, so as you build allegiance to one god, you set yourself in opposition to others, and therefore taking powers granted by those other gods will end up costing more. As the game goes on, and you continue to grow your character, your allegiance to your god from character creation may shift to another one, which might even earn the ire of the first god. It's hard being evil. It does, however, lead to a lot of possibilities in game play. the powers of Chaos are forever forming allegiances with each other, and then stabbing each other in the back.

The chapters on equipping your character are pretty big, if for no other reason than they have to provide materiel for both the heavy-duty Chaos Space Marine armaments, as well as the more practical equipment for human characters. Then of course they also need to provide cybernetics options for corrupted Adeptus Mechanicus characters alongside everything else. One of the most exciting sections of the book, however, is the (unfortunately) short section on daemon weapons. I sincerely hope that they release more options and traits for daemon weapons, because this was one of the most anticipated sections of the whole book for me. What is there, however, does not disappoint: you get fun traits like "Impossibly Sharp," "Fuelled by Slaughter," "Enfeebling," "Shrieking," "Mind Eater," and "Sorcerous Force." The bulk of the text is an outline of the process of actually creating a daemon weapon by summoning and binding a daemon into the blade (paving the way for characters to attempt to make their own, an awesome roleplay possibility), then it ends with five example daemon weapons that can be dropped straight into the game.

Honestly one of the coolest chapters in the book is the one on options for psykers. As with everything else, psy powers are divided by evil god, with of course no section for Khorne, who hates psykers. Beyond that, there are the standard categories of "divination," telekinesis," and such. Players who want to play corrupt psykers I don't think will be disappointed, but all the same I hope that they release another book with expanded psyker options. There is, however, absolutely no reason why psy powers can't be lifted from other books and given their own "evil" spin.

Fully the final third of the book is dedicated to covering matters of interest to the GM. There are tips on managing compacts between characters and non-player characters (including daemons), handling balance (since the PCs are quite powerful), managing crossovers with Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, and Deathwatch, and how to handle terror and insanity.

The rest of the book contains a chapter on daemonic corruption and boons granted by the Dark Gods, a setting guide (including a rough overview of the Imperium, the Calixis Sector, the Koronus Expanse, the Jericho Reach, the Screaming Vortex, the Ragged Helix, etc), and then a short section on monsters, and a sample adventure. The background chapter is thorough enough that I don't think one would need significantly more information to start a game, but probably most people who would be willing to drop sixty dollars on this book are probably also in to 40K to begin with.

I would imagine that Black Crusade characters would probably have a much larger chance of running in to xenos forces out of the gate than Dark Heresy characters. Fortunately, indeed there are some sample enemies statted out for eldar and necrons, but probably running a xenos-heavy game would require some Rogue Trader supplements. I'd say that probably the least complete-feeling section in the book is the enemies chapter, but at the same time I understand where they are coming from because practically everything within the Imperium and abroad are opposed to those aligned with Chaos. That being said, any GM running a combat-heavy game (I sort of can't imagine a Black Crusade game that wouldn't be combat heavy), will probably need some Deathwatch or Rogue Trader books to pad out their collections, or else get really creative with statting out their own enemies. You do get stats on many different agents of the Imperium, so those could probably be pretty easily skinned over to create a pretty broad spectrum of meat (or blood for the blood god, if you're of the khornate persuasion) to throw in the way of your Black Crusade players.

Overall, I'd say that Black Crusade is probably the best of the four sourcebooks, as far as I'm concerned, and it seems like it will mesh especially well with Dark Heresy, no matter what side your players are rooting for. If you're running a Dark Heresy game, you could use Black Crusade to create very complex, interesting, and dangerous villains, just as if you're running a Black Crusade game, you can give your players the opportunity to crush an aspiring band of acolytes, perhaps even corrupting them and forcing them to become unwitting minions of Chaos (did I mention there's a whole section on creating and running minions?).

Monday, November 7, 2011

Pathfinder Beginner Box

This article has been edited from its original form.
I've been interested in Pathfinder, based mostly on the hype about it across the blogosphere, and when I learned that they were releasing an Essentials-style Beginner Box for the game, I planned on getting it. There was a stack of them on the counter at my FLGS, so I figured that there was no time like the present and picked it up. The first thing that I noticed about it was that it was heavy. The cardstock of the box seemed very solid, and it seemed to be quite full of contents. This was a good sign; 35 dollars is about the limit on what I'll pay on impulse, and it turned out to be worth the money.

The first thing I opened in the box was the baggie of dice. I was pleased to see a full set of 7: d4, d6, d8, d10, percentile, d12, and d20. The Essentials box only came with 6; percentile rolls are generally not part of D&D4, so it's not surprising that they did not include one of these dice. The next thing I noticed about the Pathfinder dice is that they just felt like ordinary Chessex dice, whereas the Essentials dice felt less substantial, like knockoffs. To test this, I weighed them.

PF D&D4 Chessex

For the most part, they were pretty similar. But, as you can see, the Essentials dice were actually made out of lower quality material; they feel less substantial in the hand, less dense. Just as a "test" I also weighed a Chessex set that I bought at DragonCon; they were identical in weight to the Pathfinder dice. I think, without any other evidence, that the Pathfinder dice are just Chessex dice rather than cheaper knockoffs.  The only other baggie in the box was a set of standee bases, for the cardboard standees. I set that aside.

On top of the stack is a sheet which suggests to new players which book to read and which book to avoid, whether they want to be GM or player. One of the remarkable things about this set immediately is that directly on the inside of the front cover of the "Hero's Handbook" is a step-by-step checklist, with page numbers, on how to build a new character. I don't think Wizards of the Coast has ever discovered how useful this is; even in the Gamma World books, which are relatively well laid out, you have to dig through half the book to find the character building process. Having an easily located and organized guide for building characters is very useful, especially for a beginner's guide such as this, to make generating characters more quickly and easily just in case their lower-level beginner characters don't survive the process. Like in older versions of D&D, character death is a lot more common in Pathfinder than it is in 4e.

Identical to D&D Essentials, the "Hero's Handbook" starts off with a choose-your-own-adventure style setup in order to help new players get an idea about how the game works. Unlike Essentials, however, the Pathfinder starter adventure does not help you select your class, only get a feel for how the play works. It is, therefore, entirely optional. It is well written, easy to follow, and exciting as a solo adventure. It does help bring the game alive; immediately after it is an "example of play" using stock characters going through an ordinary series of actions, which also gives something for new players with which to compare their experience with the game.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to explaining what a role-playing game is, what races and classes there are, and then how to level the characters up to level 5, very similarly to how the pregenerated characters for the D&D4 quickstart rules had instructions for leveling them up to level 3. It has very thorough descriptions of skills and feats, as well as decent lists of spells and prayers to customize wizards and clerics a little bit from the get-go. Finally there are equipment lists for the sorts of things that might be available to first level characters, but what impresses me the most is that each item has a small icon next to it of what the item would look like.

The book ends with a "crunch" section; how to actually play the game, the mechanics and format of play, combat, etc. Miniature relationships, as relevant in combat, are presented very similarly to how they are in the D&D4 books, and players of 4e should have very little trouble understanding that part of the rules. I have a suspicion that the crunch section was written with a D&D4 audience in mind, based on the remarkable similarities in appearance. I would place myself within that audience as well, since I never played D&D3, and I can say that to me, it is very easy to follow.

Overall, there is a lot more art in this Pathfinder starter set than appeared in the Essentials box, and the binding is stronger; the books have glossy covers, instead of just paper. It was also 15 dollars more than the Essentials box. The Pathfinder box has gate-folded folios with prefilled character sheets, with helpful descriptions of what each field on the character sheet means in the (sizeable) margins; then there are blank character sheets with which to actually build characters (although it is completely feasible to just use the prebuilt characters right out of the folios). The folios do have a lot of description about what sort of things that type of character tends to do, what skills they excel at, and what sort of people might want to play that sort of character, which is helpful. It's a different technique from what was employed by the Essentials box, but I don't think it's necessarily better or worse.

However, Essentials really was the "bare essentials" to start a game; you are required, nearly immediately, to buy the Rules Compendium and Heroes of the Fallen Lands (another 40 dollar investment at the bookstore) as well, whereas the Beginner Box for Pathfinder guides characters through level 5 and, though the characters' progress is "tracked" exactly as in Essentials, there are flavor options that were lacking in the Red Box. The adventure in the Red Box was a good enough introduction to the world of Dungeons and Dragons, but seemed more as a "teaser" than any attempt at an immersive experience.

The Game Master's Guide contains a moderately well detailed starter adventure, quite detailed tips on how to start, prepare for, run, and continue an adventure, how to build maps, run encounters, develop your own "game world," how to use terrain, traps, hazards, and exploit NPCs effectively. There are many magic items and monsters to peruse, again with helpful icons and images to help visualize what the items look like. All in all, it was a very nice, concise way to get GMing explained, without having to buy a separate Dungeon Master's box.

Next in the box is a large, thick, glossy folded cardstock double-sided map. The creases are very well-set, and I am finding them nearly impossible to smooth out, which is a liability for the very light-weight standees that will be set upon it. Here at least I think there is a point for Wizards of the Coast's thinner paper foldout maps. They flatten effortlessly, though they deteriorate much more quickly. Besides trying to carefully reverse the creases and work them out, or place a large pane of glass over the top to keep it flat, I can't really see much utility in the map, and since the cardstock is very thick it seems like the printing around those creases will get overstressed very easily and very quickly begin to look bad. I can't see myself ever using this map though so I am just going to leave it there. I like the idea of printed maps more than I actually like the actual utility of them. Usually I prefer to draw a diagram out on my Chessex mat and try to fill in the details verbally.

The rest of the box has die-cut cardboard standees for male and female characters of each race and each class, so no matter what sort of character you generate using the Hero's Handbook, you have an individual standee to represent them. Which would only be a problem, I suppose, if you have two people who are dead-set on being a male human fighter, or something like that. I really do genuinely like how they have individual standees for each player character possible, and it also helps that they are all very distinctively dressed, and the art is phenomenal. The rest are monster standees, similarly styled.

Overall, I would like to laud the extremely high quality of everything in this set. It would have been nice, at very least, if they could have also included a cheap dice bag to keep the dice in, but for 35 dollars you do actually get a lot of really good looking material. The game, which has a reputation for being a bit complex, is presented in a remarkably simple format, and it seems like beginning to play the game from this box set would be quite effortless. I'd say that everything, from the art, the books, the writing, what is actually contained, the box itself, is of a higher quality than the Essentials Red Box, although the price is 15 dollars higher. I do have a preference for standees over tokens, because to me they look less out of place mixed with actual pewter or plastic miniatures than the flat tokens do.

I can't see how a product like this would be at all useful to people who already had the Pathfinder core rulebook, but then again that is not the target audience. No matter what, this is intended to be a "gateway drug" for the significantly more expensive core book, and there would be, I expect, quite a bit of adjustment from the Beginner rules to the "full" rules. One thing Essentials has going for it is that, between Heroes of the Fallen Lands, Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, the Dungeon Master's Kit, the Rules Compendium, and other "Essentials" line products, you can play an entire 1-30 campaign without ever leaving the protective Essentials Umbrella. The Pathfinder Beginner Box provides very simplified rules to begin the game, but provides no transition guide for moving on to the "big kid" book.

I do not think the scope of it would justify any further comparisons to Essentials, although the presentation is very similar. Instead, I would say that the Pathfinder Beginner Box provides an extremely thorough set of "quick start rules" for both the player and the game master, as well as tools to set up and run a game with only like a half hour or hour of prior reading and preparation (generating characters, reading rules, etc). It is more detailed than the Essentials Red Box, and probably makes running a game without any other material much easier.

In my original version of this, from nearly 2 months ago, I was reviewing a damaged copy of the box. Many complaints I had were not about the content of the product, but the appearance of the product. Later I contact Paizo, who suggested to first contact my FLGS owner and see if he would be able to replace the damaged merchandise, and then if I was unsuccessful there, to contact them again. This is noteworthy because I received an email from their customer service representative less than two hours after I had sent my original email; fortunately the game store owner had opened a copy of the box for himself as a "demo copy" and he swapped out the undamaged books from his copy for the damaged versions from mine, saying that he didn't care so much what the books looked like since they were just going to get damaged anyway by customers manhandling them. Nevertheless I appreciated Paizo's very quick and courteous response, and that (combined with the quality of the product) encouraged me to buy the Pathfinder core book a week ago (it is now January 2). It hasn't arrived yet, but I have been enjoying reading the online SRD (another very useful feature of the Paizo product constellation).

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Horror in Holyoke: A Savage Worlds one-shot Halloween adventure

A group of friends are invited to a killer Halloween party at their friend Jared's house. His parents are out of town, they've taken his little sister with them, and he lives out in the middle of nowhere, so there are not really any neighbors to complain. Only, very quickly into the night, Jared is nowhere to be found. And what is that orange glow, growing on the horizon?

pdf, 9 pages, hosted at Download Link.

Does not include pre-generated character sheets.

The Village Above the Sea -- A 2nd level Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition, adventure for 3-4 characters

What begins as an end-of-summer sojourn in a seaside town ends up being far more sinister. The PCs discover a terrifying secret that threatens the entire village, but can they find the source and stop the threat from getting far more out of control?

pdf, 22 pages, hosted at Download link.

An entry for Jeff Dougan's blogging carnival, On a Night in the Lonesome October.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG Beta Rules: The Demi-Human Classes

For my final installment of Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG races, I will look at all three of the "demi-human" races. In DCCRPG, we see the retroclone-classic race-as-class construction. In other words you can be a cleric, a fighter, a thief, a wizard... or an elf, halfling, or dwarf. Apparently all elves, halflings, and dwarves act the same, much like how in science fiction humans are incredibly diverse, but all aliens have monolithic, undifferentiated cultures. Additionally, with the "character funnel" mechanic in DCCRPG, if you want to potentially have a dwarven, halfling, or elven character, you need to preselect those races for your 0-level characters, because, as far as they're concerned, dwarves, halflings, and elves have no job prospects besides their prescribed roles.

As far as I'm concerned, this is one of the ways in which the character funnel fails most utterly. You're supposed to start with generic townspeople sort of characters, which you then assign a class to should they survive, but dwarves, halflings, and elves don't get this option. You already know what their class is going to be; it's a dead end situation, no different than if you had just simply chosen, without the character funnel, that you wanted to play a dwarf, halfling, or elf. In fact, you can easily abuse the character funnel by just making all your 0-level characters dwarves, halflings, or elves. Or you can just skip it. DCCRPG seems very dedicated to making everything random, which is just not something that everybody playing it is going to want.

Dwarves themselves do not have much to distinguish themselves. As a class, they are remarkably similar to warriors, having the same attack die mechanic, as well as also having access to Mighty Deeds of Arms. In fact, under "Mighty Deed of Arms" in the dwarf section, it doesn't even bother describing it, referring instead to the description under the warrior entry. Dwarves have a racial ability of "shield bash," which deals negligible damage against a harder threshold (d14 instead of d20 to hit), as well as the ability to see in the dark. However, they are slower than humans. Of course, it also says that dwarves can smell gold and gems, and can navigate underground flawlessly without a compass. While this would likely be pretty handy in a dungeon crawl, it seems a bit... strange. Dwarves are limited, lastly, in their ability to spend Luck.

Like warriors, dwarves have to specialize, at character creation, with one weapon, and then can only use Luck towards attacks with that weapon for the rest of their lives. Overall, dwarves are very similar to warriors in skills and mechanics, only they are slower, weaker, and spend a lot of time sniffing gold. They have +1 on Willpower saves compared to the warrior at any given level, but that is basically where they distinguish themselves. Dwarves only crit on a 20, use a lower crit die per level compared to the warrior, and do not have access to most of the abilities that make warriors really stand out. Additionally, they have fewer hit points and gain fewer hit points per level, but I suppose this is supposed to be balanced out by the fact that they all are running around with shields and are therefore marginally more difficult to hit. Dwarves, at the end of the day, are just a crippled version of the warrior class. They are described as being "demi-human," and one must assume that is in abilities as well as appearance.

Elves are described as being older than humans, yet also as "demi-humans" (but wouldn't that mean that humans are demi-elves?). It is said that they can cast spells as competently as human wizards, but that they will usually wear mithril armor, despite the fact that it gimps their spellcasting ability. Elves can see in the dark like dwarves, but in fact also have all other senses heightened as well. Elves can only spend Luck on one specific level 1 spell, no matter how long they live and no matter what all their other abilities are. They can't be magically put to sleep or paralyzed, but also can't touch or wear anything made of iron. This doesn't matter though, because it says that at character creation, elven characters can just buy mithril armor instead of steel armor at no additional cost. Elves are sort of like thieves in their mechanics, only are better at casting magic (and have an innate magical ability). They favor lighter, longer weapons, don't deal much damage and have very limited critical hit abilities, but are also much better at fighting than wizards, so overall are a much more balanced class than dwarves are.

Halflings are small, good at sneaking, can see in the dark, remarkably lucky, are great at fighting, and are the only other class in the game that can recover spent Luck. In fact, Luck is where halflings shine, since they can spend luck on other party members, as well as act out of initiative to do so. Additionally, halflings get a +2 bonus on spending luck, rather than a +1 bonus (although it is still +1 when spent on other characters). The problem with halflings is that only one halfling in the party gets all of these special Luck features. If there are any other halflings in the party, they don't have access to any of this. It doesn't say what additional halflings' Luck features are, but, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, one has to assume that they will still recover Luck, get the +2 modifier on their own rolls, but can't help allies. Halflings are said to excel at two-handed fighting, but not in any way that is very far superior to warriors fighting two-handed. I don't see any modifiers for halflings or dwarves being any more difficult to hit on account of their small stature, so there doesn't seem to be any advantage, as far as combat is concerned, to being short. One only gets a penalty in speed.

In short, there is no reason in DCCRPG to play anything besides a warrior. Wizards get transformed into tentacle beasts, sweat excessively, and grow tails and gills and have to cut large pieces of flesh out of their bodies in order to continue casting magic. Clerics have to destroy all of the party's possessions in order to keep getting boons. Dwarves are like wizards with chronic fatigue syndrome and bad knees, elves are like wizards suffering an identity crisis, halflings are particularly incompetent thieves who have a tendency to come after you with two knives. Thieves and clerics end up getting off the easiest, but there is absolutely no reason in DCCRPG to play a magic user, or any sort of demi-human. Warriors get a whole extra chapter to describe all of their incredible abilities, but wizards end up looking like pustule-covered frog-octopus versions of Peter Pettigrew, finding it harder and harder to cast spells or read scrolls on account of the fact that their hands turned into flippers several weeks ago, and they are constantly exuding large amounts of sweat from all parts of their bodies. While this could all potentially be ripe material for roleplaying in a zany, off-the-wall one-off adventure setting, DCCRPG makes it difficult, in my opinion, for players to become too attached to their characters, because there are too many random penalties for playing any class besides warriors (who all look like Conan the Barbarian and get laid every night, or so it seems).

Monday, October 3, 2011

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG: The Thief

Returning to the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, today I'm going to talk about the Thief, as written in the July 2011 "Beta" rules of the game.  I'd read a lot of people were critical of the thief, but as you will see, I think those reservations are unfounded. I will be comparing the DCCRPG to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition Thief, for no other reason besides that's the book I have at hand, and the thieves from these two RPGs are mechanically comparable.

Thieves in DCCRPG have quite a few innate abilities, most of which are directly drawn from the D&D "stock." For example, consider things like Thieves' Cant, backstab, pick lock, read spell scroll, find trap, hide in shadows, climb walls, etc.; all of the thiefy things like you'd want. In fact, all of the thief abilities, like in AD&D2, are percentile rolls, rather than d20 rolls. In such a d20-heavy system, this seems a bit odd. A few people have commented that this was one thing they didn't like about AD&D, and wished that DCCRPG normalized the system a bit. Personally I am also baffled why you'd need percentile rolls for thievery checks, rather than just a straight d20 check like in D&D 4.  Since all percentile values are given in multiples of 5, could someone just set a d20 DC on the roll? certainly. 25% chance turns into a DC of 15; 5% chance turns into a DC of 20. Kill any modifiers on the roll (for now), and you have a straight n-in-20 chance of succeeding just as the Twin Gods Dogar and Kazon Gygax and Arneson intended.

I'm no statistician, but my gut says that the only reason for rolling two dice across a larger spread than one die across a smaller one is that it SEEMS like the d% system would give a slight statistical advantage of succeeding. It might be thought fallacy, so I did an experiment. I rolled a d20 against a DC15 threshold, and d% against a roll-under 25 threshold 30 times, each (successes in bold).

d20 d%
6 5
15 86
19 6
8 9
20 55
3 88
18 98
7 17
16 67
8 72
9 31
6 95
8 16
20 65
14 54
10 70
19 57
7 52
10 44
6 59
2 95
20 9
11 61
10 48
3 19
7 54
4 21
3 52
11 71

As you can see, in my experiment (I was rolling GameScience Precision dice on a hard wooden table covered in a thin cotton tablecloth), for both configurations I got 8 successes out of 30 attempts or...  roughly a 5 in 20 chance of succeeding. DCCRPG DOES concede that the Thief's agility modifier affects the success rate, where every +1 earns another 5% chance to succeed. AD&D2 is much less forgiving. Given the statistical harmony between a d20 roll and a d% roll, I see no reason, personally, to not houserule in substituting one for the other; instead of the agility modifier bonus being +5%, just leave it at the modifier value and add it to the d20 roll. The only caveat to this is that, while most skills improve at a rate of 5% a level, "Climb Sheer Surface" improves at 1%. But, given that it's a skill rated at 90% at level 1, I hardly think an improvement of a 92% chance would mechanically have much different than an unmodified DC of 2.

Another significant difference between AD&D2 and DCCRPG is the Thief ability to read spell scrolls. At level 10, Thieves gain the ability, in AD&D2, to read spell scrolls at a 75% accuracy. Failures result in the spell backfiring. In DCCRPG, Thieves gain the ability to attempt reading spell scrolls at level 1, albeit with an almost impossibly high rate of failure. Good and Chaotic thieves can make a spell check, but must use a d10 for the check die; given that the spell check DC is 10+(spell level x2), a first level Thief would not be able to cast a first level spell from a scroll, since their maximum roll would be 10, and the minimum DC is 12. It does say that clerics add their Personality modifier, and Wizards add their Intelligence modifier to spell check rolls, but it does not say that Thieves add any modifier to spell checks, so therefore though the possibility exists, and considering that there do not appear to be 0-level spells in DCCRPG, it is actually impossible for a first level Thief to succeed on a spell scroll. This quickly changes, since by level 5 Thieves may use a d14 (usually) to attempt a spell check. Neutral Thieves apparently have an easier time casting from scrolls, because at level 1 their check die is a d12, and by level 5 they have already advanced to a d16.  The pattern set from the level 1 to 5 table is every other level the check die improves, so at level 10, if the pattern continues, the Good and Chaotic Thieves would be rolling a d20.

Backstabbing is not particularly different between DCCRPG and AD&D2, despite some apparent opinion to the contrary. The only rule is that "when attacking a target from behind or when the target is otherwise unaware, the thief receives an attack bonus." This is actually more generous than the AD&D2 provision, which also states that the victim must be humanoid.  Additionally, AD&D2 only has a damage multiplier for backstab successes, whereas DCCRPG automatically awards a critical hit.  Critical hits reward a roll on the crit table, which can occasionally be very damaging, but also can be uneven. The luck of the dice can mean the difference between an additional 3d3 or 2d4 damage, or a result of "Foe is reduced to making wet fish noises" without a real benefit (except, perhaps, that it can't call for help?). Being a longterm fan of MERP, rolling critical hits on tables is very appealing to me, but I can also see why many people would just want an additional attack die, or a damage multiplier.  It's hard to hit with a backstab in DCCRPG; but so it is as well in AD&D2.

The last thing to discuss regarding the DCCRPG Thief is the issue of Luck. All DCCRPG characters have Luck, and all can burn Luck points (permanently) in order to avoid something particularly sticky from happening on a failed or botched roll. Thieves luck out (heh heh) on this one: they are the only class that can (slowly) recharge Luck points; evidently to be more in accorance with their Tricksy™ nature. Additionally, the Thief gets to add a die roll modifier to checks when burning luck, instead of just 1:+1 like for every other class.

Besides all that, the D&D Thief and the DCCRPG Thief are more or less similar. Overall, I like the DCCRPG changes to the Thief, and I think it makes the class more playable and more interesting.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Wizards of the Coast's Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium

Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium fulfils a need that D&D 4e has had since its inception: cursed items. While I could go on and on about how it has tons of really great new weapons, weapon powers, weapon feats, magical items, and flavor text, what you're really buying it for are the cursed items. I suppose I should back it up just a little bit. MME is presented, loosely, in the fom of a book written, but then later redacted and then destroyed, by the archmage Mordenkainen. He adds in some nods to his archmage buddies (including Tenser, of Tenser's Floating Disc fame, and Bigby, as in Bigby's Grasping Hand), but mostly pontificates about himself. It's a nice stylistic flourish that makes the book more fun to read, and also is an excuse for the authors to have a bit of fun in writing it. All throughout the book, there are little sidebars with knocks about certain items by Mordenkainen, which, for the most part, are pretty entertaining, and each chapter is introduced with a longer monologue about the topic in Mordenkainen's distinctive style.

The book does have some good mundane and magical items in it. It unlocks the "superior" training feat, as well as specific weapon-based special attacks utilizing superior weapons training (and superior weapons); along those lines was something I suggested myself in one of the early days of this blog. It goes into much more detail with arcane implements, with new wands, orbs, holy symbols, tomes, staffs, foci, and totems, for all sorts of character classes that can utilize such things. Up to this point, one could easily call Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium "Adventurer's Vault 3" (which it is) and be done with it. However that would completely belittle the fact that this book is organized and presented in a far superior way to either of the Adventurer's Vault books, and is ultimately a lot more useful than those books (when it comes to wondrous items, and other magic doodads). However, my favorite thing about Adventurer's Vault 2, immurements, did not make it back to MME, which was a bit of a disappointment.

The last part of the book concerns itself with artifacts and cursed items. It defines artifacts, broadly, as those sorts of items which are more important, narratively, than mechanically. Many of the examples they list are items created by or formerly owned by the gods, and which possess extremely potent innate abilities. However, the introductory piece on artifacts makes it clear that their proper place is as the "McGuffin," an otherworldly item which moves the plot in the adventure forward, and so therefore the PCs' possession of that item may be very brief. This is a concept which I think is pretty cool, and I think the only thing lacking is variety in examples. I think there were about two or three items per tier listed.

But the cursed items are exactly as you'd expect. Many are an obvious nod to earlier, more deadly editions of D&D, recreating some infamous items for the 4e world. One of the best comments that the book makes, however, is for DMs to consider: cursed items, by and large, are extremely powerful magic, requiring a lot of time and effort, and sometimes a lot of resources to bring together. Therefore cursed items should not be used lightly, or indiscriminately. Because of the considerations involved with the manufacture of cursed items, one must assume that most are made, specifically, for the torture and punishment of one specific individual. Cursed items for cursed items' sake, therefore, would be gratuitous. But this warning about considering the cursed item's past also is a very strong reminder to justify why you, as DM, are inserting this item into your adventure; what is its background, why is it there, who was it intended for, was it successful? The best part about cursed items is that they are virtually indistinguishable from the item that they are intended to copy until the curse is activated, in which case it is too late. Mercifully, though the cursed items usually cannot be removed after they've been triggered, it is not unnecessarily difficult to remove them outside of urgent situations.

Overall, a fan of older editions might criticize Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium's cursed items as not being nasty enough. But, overall, they fit well into the general schema of how things work within 4e. I believe it is by far the best in the "loot" series of books, but is also not remarkable when compared to the others. However, a completist will find it more than satisfactory, and if one were to only buy one of the three loot books, I would argue that the Emporium would be the one to choose. There has been a clear evolution of thought and style over the course of 4th edition's publishing history, and Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium reaps the benefits of this.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Wizards of the Coast's Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale

The first time I read it, i was ready to declare Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale the greatest book ever published under the Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition moniker. While my feelings at this point are much less enthusiastic, I will still readily declare that it is a fantastic book. By the title, one can identify that it probably is in line with the "Essentials" line of products, which to many people will probably make it sound next to worthless. While I do have my own reservations about Heroes of the Fallen Lands and Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, I do not believe that wholesale disapproval of the Essentials line is justified, since there are a few products (this included), that stand out, even above many "non-Essentials" books published over the last few years.

The title of the book suggests both that it is a sequel to the first Monster Vault (which it is), and that it will focus primarily on the Nentir Vale (the default setting for Essentials). Unlike the first Monster Vault, it does not come with a prewritten adventure which utilizes the monsters contained within, but instead takes a more organic approach, which I think is much more successful. The book begins with an introduction of some of the "powers that be" within the Vale, and then goes in to descriptions of the sorts of monsters found there (to build upon the first Monster Vault), and, in doing so, takes a narrative approach to describe why and where these monsters might be encountered within that setting, including often multiple adventure hooks to go along with them.

There are a few monsters in the book that seem a bit "tacked on," in that they initially seem inappropriate for the locales of the Vale, but through narrative description, their presence is justified. Many of these "tacked on" monsters were classics or peculiar ones from previous editions that had not yet been statted out, so their inclusion in the book I can understand, but the fact that the authors went out of their way to try to coax them into the narrative of the rest of the book made them really believable and appropriate. Foremost among these, for example, are the Cadaver Collector and the Penanggalan, which are pretty out there as far as creatures are concerned, but with the descriptions one can quite easily come up with ways to use them. Still, most of the statted enemies in the book are ones mentioned specifically in the introductory area, so that they are not just vague background noise, but actual, legitimate "threats." So therefore many of the described enemies are factions.

To me, the best part about the entire book are all the factions.  Factions are not a new concept in 4e; they've been used, with varying success, in almost all of the location guides (Hammerfast, Vor Rukoth, Gloomwrought, etc.), but I thought that the factions presented in this book were particularly colorful, interesting, and believable. Upon reading about many of them, I immediately had ideas in my mind about how to create an adventure featuring them as allies, antagonists, or even both at different times, as well as ways to transport them "out of" the Nentir Vale into my own game world and use them independently.

This last point brings up another aspect of the book: modularity. While it is ostensibly set in the Essentials world, in the Nentir Vale, there is not one creature, faction, construct, anything, that couldn't be lifted out of its "set" location and used elsewhere. There are a whole flock of creatures who dwell in and around the Witchlight Fens. Got room for a swamp in your campaign? Drop them there, even in the Shadowfell, in the Oblivion Bog.

The dragons in the book take a tack which has been more common in more recent D&D publications. Namely, that rather than ascribing them a color and a demeanor, the dragons are all given names and personalities. Calastryx is a three-headed red dragon; Shadowmire is a black dragon changed by his long residence within the Witchlight Fens. Dragons are among the most interesting (and enduring) enemies in the Dungeons and Dragons universe (they're even part of the name!), and so therefore the recent emphasis on individual dragons, who could be poised to be one-off adventure-ending opponents, or just as easily tier-long orchestrators and more distant threats, makes the seem a lot more interesting, alive, and, most importantly, usable.

A personal favorite from the book are the Felldrakes, low level monstrous drakes magically mutated by the corrupt wizards of Bael Turath to serve the empire and their Tiefling masters. These creatures specifically would feel right at home in Vor Rukoth, and actually I think would significantly improve the playing experience of a party exploring that city. Vor Rukoth by itself didn't seem unique enough; it had lots of locations and lots of adventure hooks, but still nevertheless didn't feel very populated, since there wasn't any time spent really getting in to the sort of things that had taken up residence there. Adding in marauding Felldrakes, gone wild from being abandoned for so long, would be a great looming threat for adventurers exploring the ruins there, and would be a great go-to creature to throw in to just about any encounter that needed a few extra jaws to chomp on the good guys. While the Felldrakes themselves are only levels 1 to 4, there are special ones described, Dark Drakes, that go up to level 8. Combining them in different ways and scaling the numbers up, one could pretty easily come up with felldrakes of any heroic or low paragon level.

Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale is probably the best Essentials-keyed product on the market, and even a strong contender among all of the monster manuals among the 4th edition products. Oh, and it comes with a two-sided fold out map (as everything seems to these days), and 8 sheets of die-cut tokens (ditto). All of these things are enclosed in a sleeve, rather than a box, so you have to be careful if you want to keep everything together to squeeze it well while you're taking it off the shelf, or else things might slide out the bottom. I could dock points for the packaging, but I'm sure they expected most people to throw the map in whatever box they have that has all their other maps, pop the tokens out and throw away the sheets, and to just file the book on the shelf. I don't use tokens, so I just keep all of it together for propriety's sake.

Winter Is Coming- New Monster [D&D 4e] The Iceshard Skeleton

This is a second entry in response to T.W. Wombat's  Winter Is Coming RPG Blog Festival.

The Arnerian Empire once stretched across thousands of miles in the furthest north, but now resides only in legend. Before their slow and steady invasion of their more southerly neighbors, it was assumed that nobody, and nothing, could survive in the impossibly high and hostile mountains known, aptly, as the Roof of the World. Tales of the brutality and unforgiving nature of the Arnerian Empire have been passed down from generation to generation and survived, even when descriptions of their people and their cities have been lost to the ages. Nothing, however, stands out as much in the imagination as the strange and terrible tales of the dark magic that the Arnerians were said to control. It is said that even the gods feared the powers that were under the Arnerians’ command; that their powers came directly from those beings from outside the gods’ domains, from the strange and terrible beings that occupy what we now call the Far Realm.

The secrets of the corrupt magic dreamed up by the Sages of the Arnerian Empire have been lost, many would say thankfully, forever, but their legacy in their creations remains. The most fearsome and terrible of their ranks were their Frost Giant slaves, magically bound to guard their lands, and tortured until death if they refused to obey or became derelict in their duties. But the torture for the Arnerian Frost Giants did not end at death: the Arnerian Sages had the flesh stripped from the giants’ bones, and then reanimated them in a state of undeath so they could continue to serve even beyond the length of their own lives. Any mind or spirit left from the Frost Giants were irrevocably lost; the giant skeletal forms did not recognize kin or kind, only the need to kill instilled in them by their masters, and the will to obey even the most terrible of commands. With the Arnerian Empire destroyed and lost beneath the shifting snow, the skeletal giants continue in their duties, directionless, without an empire to protect or commands to fulfill. Usually, the presence of one or more of these monsters is the only indication that there ever could have been a citadel or tower amidst the wastes, sometimes standing without moving for hundreds of years.

At first, the Frost Giants of the Verdenstak Mountains made war upon the abominations. Directly succeeding the downfall of the Arnerians, the giants sought revenge for their enslavement, laying waste to their wasted cities and trying to destroy everything that they had created. However, it became soon evident that wherever the skeletal monsters were felled, they seemed to eventually rise back from the rubble, and then even the giants began to shun the accursed lands. Now nothing walks among the peaks and passes at the Roof of the World, abandoned even by those who would wish to call these lands home. All the time, the silent, unmoving, unthinking guardians of the carcass of the Arnerian Empire remain, ready to confront any who dare trespass in their forgotten lands.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Winter Is Coming- New Monster [Shadowrun 4e] The Golo-Golo

This is an entry in response to T. W. Wombat's Winter Is Coming RPG Blog Festival.

The Golo-Golo is a creature with no accepted taxonomy, which has only been documented within the last twenty or so years, though as with anything, there are sketchy reports of sightings from before that time. The name is a bastardization of a pidgin Russian name, Golodnaya Gololed, hungry hoarfrost; a reference to the only time the creatures seem to be prevalent, which is on the heels of a particularly cold weather front. It has not been observed where they go when temperatures warm, because they are never found when the temperature on the ground is above freezing. It is thought that they have some degree of burrowing ability, or some other means by which to sink underground and keep their bodies cooled. Not surprisingly, it has been found that they have a particular weakness to heat or fire, and that is the primary means by which they are repelled.
The creatures themselves resemble a large, meter- to two meter-wide whitish-gray pancake, with no discernible orifices, sensory organs, or appendages on their dorsal side. Their skin is rough, similar to shark skin, but much more pliable (and remarkably resistant to puncture). However, caution should be taken when handling them, because their skin excretes a small amount of a venom which has a powerfully narcotic, soporific effect.

On their ventral sides, they have a complicated series of mouth-like organs which excrete digestive enzymes and also reabsorb the resultant digestive slurry. All around the edge of the animals are curved, venom-containing hooks, which the animal can either rapidly flip into an upward-facing direction, or else seem to involuntarily flip up if sufficient pressure is applied to any part of the dorsal side of the animal. The result is that if the animal is stepped on, the hooks flip up and pierce the ankle of the offender, and deliver a powerful dose of its venom. Within seconds, the victim begins to become dizzy, sluggish, and weakened, finally collapsing on the ground, usually only steps away from the animal. It then uses a rhythmic contraction of its muscles to slowly propel itself over top of the victim, where it will engulf them and begin excreting digestive enzymes from its many mouthparts. Since it continually exudes its soporific venom from its skin, the victim will usually not awaken while it is being consumed alive, and, ultimately, there is little that remains. It should also be noted that the venom seems to be remarkably volatile, readily soaking through layers of clothing and being absorbed into the skin, but also not remaining in the material for more than twenty or thirty minutes before dissipating.

The creatures do not appear to have any sort of eyes, but do exhibit a small degree of thermal sensing in addition to what seems to be their primary sense of detecting vibrations in the earth. Additionally, their ventral sides seem to have thicker skin, and more ability to resist heat than their dorsal sides, evidently a mechanism by which to resist the body heat of their prey while they are feeding. The animals seem to have no capacity to right themselves if turned upside-down, nor any ability to move whatsoever. A strange observed ability is that they seem to be able to move themselves through thick snow much more quickly than they can simply by wiggling across the ground. It is not certain whether this is merely observers’ bias, or if it is actually an innate ability by the creatures.

The most unique aspect of these creatures is their paranormal abilities. While they do appear to be dual-natured (this is debated), they do not seem to have any ability or desire to astrally hunt. They do, however, appear to have a marked ability to compel victims which approach within a 30 meter or so diameter to move directly towards them. The area of their psychic affect seems directly connected to their size, with larger creatures being able to influence victims from farther away. This psychic influence does not seem limited entirely to compulsion, either, as many people have nearly trod upon the creatures without noticing them, before being pulled away by a more observant (or less readily affected) companion. This effect seems to function in the astral plane, where they are frequently overlooked amidst the other astral noise of the area. Finally, it has been observed that there might be a correlation between frequency of blizzards and number of Golo-Golos in the area, indicating that they might have some sort of limited ability to influence the weather, based on some as-yet unobserved psychic link between the animals.

Transporting the creatures has proven to be an extraordinarily difficult endeavor, as well as creating an environment for them in which they can survive for more than a few hours, drastically limiting the ability for study in controlled environments. Nevertheless, some very enterprising (and resource-laden) individuals have captured the animals and created enclosed environments for them as curiosities.

Note: both the Dual-Natured power and the weather control powers are optional, based on how the creature is intended to be used.

Average Size
B    A    R    S    C    I    L    W  Edge Ess  M  Init  IP
4     1     4    2     4    2    0     3       2      6    4     7     1

Large Size
B    A    R    S    C    I    L    W  Edge Ess  M  Init  IP
5     1     4    3     5    3    0     4       3      6    5     8     1

Movement: 2 / 5 (through thick snow)
Skills: Infiltration (5), Perception (4), Unarmed Combat (4)
Powers: Compulsion (Paranormal; Movement only), Concealment (Paranormal), (Dual Natured,) Enhanced Senses (Vibration), Hardened Armor (2/4), Immune (Cold), Magical Guard (3), Natural Weapon (digestive enzyme: DV 4P, AP 0, acid damage), Venom (Soporific; see below), [Weather Control (Blizzard)]
Weaknesses: Reduced Senses (Blind), Vulnerability (Heat, Fire)

Soporific Toxin:
Vector: Contact
Speed: Immediate
Penetration: -2
Power: 10
Effect: Disorientation, Stun Damage
Penetration is negated by a sufficiently high rated environment suit (such as the Mitsuhama EE Suit, AR55) which protects against environmental toxins. Effect is immediate, often within 20 seconds or less, with delirium and disorientation taking effect before unconsciousness. Stun damage from this poison does not carry over into physical damage.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG: The Cleric

This is apparently going to be part two of me talking about Dungeon Crawl Classics classes. Today, we're going to be talking about the DCCRPG cleric.  Let me just start this off by saying that I love clerics, and I am happy to see DCCRPG handle them in a way that is honestly pretty great.

First, clerics have a "failure" table just like wizards do. Unlike wizards, clerics do not suffer horrific, permanent mutations and deformities. Rather, they receive relatively minor, temporary effects to reflect the fact that, in failure, they have earned their deity's disapproval. Typically the time required to gain a deity's approval back is just 24 hours, but for some effects it can take up to 1d4 days. But like the wizard, it is resolved randomly, and so occasionally the required atonement action would not make sense with the character (for instance, would an evil god really want an evil cleric to go on a quest to heal the crippled?).

Also unlike the wizard, there are myriad ways for clerics to get around disapproval, and it results in them feeling like much more multifaceted, interesting characters. The base mechanic is that a cleric can cast a spell once per day, but then each additional time the spell is cast it is at a cumulative -1 penalty, ostensibly to represent the increasing burden on the cleric's deity to "intervene." And, of course, each time risking disapproval again.  Penalties can, additionally, be shaved back off by the cleric making sacrifices, usually to the tune of goods worth 50gp, per -1 penalty removed. Additionally, the GM can judge a "great deed, quest, or service to a deity" to be a sacrifice as well. In short, clerics are far more useful than wizards.

Clerics also have some neat little additional abilities for flavor, like how laying on hands works better on characters who share a similar alignment to the cleric than those of opposite alignment; additionally, healing someone of an opposed alignment can count as a "sin," which can curry disfavor from the cleric's deity. For some reason, on the deities list, Cthulhu is there, as a neutral deity, as "Priest of the Old Ones." Clearly, this is not your mother's Cthulhu.

The last perk of DCCRPG clerics over D&D clerics is that turn undead doesn't just turn undead. It has been reskinned as "turn unholy," and then you refer to your deity list to determine what, exactly, the deity constitutes as unholy.  Apparently Cthulhu doesn't like mundane animals OR monsters, OR werewolves, OR perversions of nature, in addition to undead, demons, and devils. So, in short, be a neutral cleric, since your "turn unholy" repels just about everything (...). Hopefully the finished product will have a LOT more details on the deities, because this is pretty sketchy.

The only thing I might add to the DCCRPG cleric would be, on the theme of making sacrifices to stave off penalties, for the cleric to be able to take a stricture which limits or constrains their ability to perform a kind of magic.  For instance, a lawful cleric might worship a god who specifically hates demons, might have an unlimited ability to utilize turn unholy against that specific kind of enemy, maybe at the expense of using any other kind of magic in the interim. Something, at least, to play with. Since there is no paladin in DCCRPG, the cleric sort of functions as both, and should be satisfying as either. The ability to play a neutral or evil cleric is an added bonus.

I went into this expecting to cut into the cleric like I did the wizard, but I'm surprised that honestly, with the system the game sets up, I feel like the cleric works pretty well. I have been reading, by the way, a lot of other people complaining about how single-minded the corruption table is, and a lot of people suggesting building their own custom corruption tables based on the wizard's patron... which seems like a lot of work, at the beginning, but also probably a lot more satisfying in the long run for the player.