I Need A Miracle

I mentioned in my prior post that I had replaced the D&D Clerical spell lists and spells per day for the old-school D&D game I was running for the kids with a system that involved saving rolls to get miracles, and the Recursion King asked for a bit more detail, so here it is:

Basically, clerics get to pray for Boons, Blessings, Smiting and Miracles.  Boons are subtle aid to the Priest personally, Blessings are subtle aid to others, Smiting is subtle (and not-so-subtle) hindrance of enemies and Miracles are overt, even spectacular, interventions by the God.  Subtle effects are ones where the players can’t actually tell whether they worked or at least whether there was magic involved, so things like pluses to saving rolls, or a second wind (restoration of some stamina).  Overt effects are ones where there’s no doubt that it wasn’t just luck, something supernatural happened–so for instance, Cure Light Wounds would count as a miracle since the wound closes up and the character is restored to health.

The cleric announces what he’s praying for (“Grant me a boon, oh mighty one!”  or “I bless you in the name of my lord!”, etc.) and I secretly roll a saving roll.  Boons are the easiest, with other effects getting progressively harder to achieve, though since I still want low-level clerics to be able to heal even miracles aren’t that hard (I use 15, 16, 17, and 18 as the target numbers, with the roll getting bonuses for high Wisdom and for increasing level).  Clerics also have a secret stock of Faith, which starts each day equal to Wisdom.   If the saving roll is missed, then the effect still occurs, but Faith is reduced by enough to make up the difference; if there isn’t enough Faith remaining then the Prayer fails.  Every time the cleric makes the save without needing to draw on Faith, then the secret Faith score increases by 1, even if this would take it higher than the initial number.

This pretty much guarantees that the cleric will be able to do something each day, with higher level clerics being able to succeed more often.  It also makes it a bit wiser to not try for an outright miracle every time.  Because I don’t share the Faith score with them or tell them whether the Boons or Blessings had any effect (just figuring it into the subsequent rolls), they can’t calculate for sure what the odds are or even if they’ve definitely got some more divine help coming to them.

If the cleric succeeds, then I roll for the impressiveness of the effect.  This is still a little hand-wavey at the moment, but what I do is roll a d6, with high being good.  The roll is open-ended, so every time I roll a 6, I add and reroll.  The final score divided by 3 is the approximate level of power of the effect, judged against the usual D&D spell list.  That is, 1-3 is roughly equivalent to a 1st level spell, 4-6 a second level, 7-9 a third level, etc.   I try not to just pick a spell directly, but pick an effect that I feel is about right for that level of power.  This isn’t modified in any way for the level of the Cleric; I figure that the god is more likely to listen to the prayers of the High Priest multiple times a day than a rank novice, thanks to the High Priest’s long record of service but that once the god has directed his attention to the matter it’s entirely up to the god’s inscrutable assessment of how much to intervene so that first level Cleric is just as likely to get a truly astonishing intervention as the High Priest.

It’s true that under this system 1/6 of the time any priest at all will get at least the equivalent of a 3rd level spell, and 1/36th of the time even more, but at low levels they’ll likely only get one or two prayers answered per day before they’re tapped out.  A high level priest isn’t guaranteed a high level result, but stands a much better chance just from more attempts.  It would be easy enough to adjust it by including a level bonus for the effect as well, if high level priests weren’t getting their fair share of truly impressive interventions, but I figure it’ll be a while before I need to worry about that.  It would also be easy to flesh out what happens in terms of the prayer’s effect according to some kind of table, or even just picking exactly from the cleric spell lists, but for now I’m really digging the aspect that when a Mage casts a spell they get what they want, but if a Cleric tries sometimes they just might find they get what they need.

The Kids are All Right

Friday and Saturday I ran the D&D game that I talked about earlier, using D&D (actually LL/BFRPG) with a bunch of house-rules that took it a bit closer to Mac’s house-rules.  I could have run it straight, I suppose, but where’s the fun in that?  I did keep it close enough that I could use material published for D&D and retro-clones with only such conversion as I could do in my head on the fly, which let me use Amityville Mike’s Stonehell as the dungeon.  I even kept the name, explaining it in game a corruption of “Stone Hill” (which the PCs figured out by casting Read Script on one of the tapestries in the ruined banquet hall).

Overall the sessions went extremely well.  We got off to a slow start Friday when the youngest spent a bunch of time finding a place to buy and then purchasing a war dog.  I have no idea where he came up with the idea, but since that kind of creativity is something I want to encourage, I went with it…though it cost him all his starting money plus borrowing some from the party.  It turned out to have been a good purchase, saving their bacon at least twice Saturday when they finally found some non-empty rooms in the antechamber: first against the giant rats and then the Orcs attracted to the sounds of the fighting.   The kids were a little frustrated at first, I think, with how much of the area around the entryway was empty, but since a big part of this exercise was to get them used to the idea that there was not a single right way to play D&D (coincidentally the way their GM, who’s also their mom, runs things) I stuck to the key as written and just used their encounter with the Dwarves examining the Architectural Masterpiece to tell them what general direction to go to find trouble.

The party consisted of:

  • Umbry (played by the mom), a Rogue (Mage/Thief),
  • Hermia traveling under the name Horatia (played by the eldest daughter, 12), a Charlatan (Priest/Thief).  Charlatans are genuine Priests, but not of the false god they pretend to worship in order to bilk people.
  • Revenge (played by the middle son, 9), a Fighter
  • Oxy-lock (played by the youngest son, 7), a Mage
  • King, the war dog…Oxy-lock’s pet

Two of them “died”, reduced to 0 HP, but were saved by timely miracles from Hermia/Horatia.  Basically I scrapped the whole clerical magic system and replaced it with the ability to make saving rolls asking the god for blessings and miracles–so the equivalent of Cure Light Wounds counts as a “miracle”; the intent was to make clerical magic feel more miraculous and not just an alternate spell list for a different flavor of mage.  This worked really well in play, and the two characters who were saved from death by Cure Light Wounds were sufficiently impressed that they are now converts to Hermia’s make-believe God of Good Fortune, Horatio (yes, her god is Horatio, and her nom-de-guerre is Horatia, after the god).  She managed to cast it twice because she rolled really well the second time.

Another thing that pleased me a lot was the way the Morale rules (bog-standard D&D) ended the combats without always fighting to the death, and the way they negotiated with a captured Orc to get useful intelligence about traps up ahead and then didn’t slaughter him out-of-hand.  I did decide that the critical hit rules I was using were still a bit too deadly despite the fact that I deliberately avoided creating any kind of insta-kill or damage multiplier, so I’ve toned them down a bit for the future.

Everyone had a good time, and the mom was particularly pleased at how the kids were catching on to the differences between the way we handled things, despite many cries of “You’ve got to be kidding me!” from the youngest when rulings didn’t go the way he expected–but since he sometimes said that for things such as the fact his 7 STR Mage couldn’t wield the battle axe they got from the Orc chief, which wouldn’t have flown in his mom’s game either, I didn’t let it bother me.

I’m looking forward to running this again in the near future.

Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Pile of Crap

Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire is somewhere near the bottom of whatever scale it is that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is at the top of.  It’s not the very bottom, because it’s not painful to watch, just boring where it isn’t sophomoric.  It’s the kind of comedy where a flamingly gay character is regarded as inherently funny, just mincing around.  If you took away its trading in the broadest of stereotypes, there would be almost nothing left. It really strikes me as the kind of skit that a group of high-school students might have cooked up.

More than its low-brow humor not appealing to me, it’s not competently executed.  In one scene in particular, the staging completely kills the joke.  The dialogue has it that the evil provincial governor Dongalor kills a henchman who is threatening to report him to the Emperor, but mistakenly kills the wrong henchman; realizing his mistake complains to his right-hand man that he thought they had agreed to label the backs of all the chairs.  The staging, though, has the henchman who is threatening to report Dongalor to the emperor on the left of a conference table, the other henchman on the right, with the camera in between and both chairs “cheated” to three-quarters so that the occupants are visible both to the audience and to Dongalor up on a platform in the center of the stage.  So as it comes across, Dongalor is talking directly to the rebellious henchman stage left, then  suddenly moves downstage, turns to stage right and stabs a different henchman…and then has to be told by his assistant that he just stabbed the wrong guy. Then he launches into his complaint about labelling the backs of the chairs.  I suspect that what was visualized during the writing was that Dongalor would be striking over or through the backs of the chairs, with the occupants not visible to him, but not only did translating that onto the screen fail, apparently either nobody noticed or cared that the result looked utterly bizarre.

I had really been looking forward to this show since I first heard about it, and I really wanted to like it… but it could barely raise the ghost of a smile.  I counted two somewhat amusing bits in the whole thing, and even then the writers didn’t trust the actors to convey the joke without hammering it home with extra dialogue.  The density of jokes in Krod Mandoon is very low, but if you’re not going for Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker rapid-fire throw everything at the wall and see if some of it sticks parody, you really have to craft the jokes that you do have well and make sure that they’re sharp.

I have the second episode Tivoed, but I doubt I’ll bother.

D&D Alignment

Advanced Gaming & Theory: Pet Peeve: Detect Alignment

I THINK THAT EVERY body has a “pet-peeve” or something that bugs them about a game system itself. For me, that pet-peeve was largely spells used for detecting alignment. Now, this stems from playing the game incorrectly when our group was still learning, and not detecting our error, thus never fixing it. But this spell still bugs me to this day. It just seems like one of those things which was put into the game to make the Dungeon Masters life miserable.

Tim Ripper goes on to talk about how he deals with alignment, basically by neutering it. NPCs and PCs don’t actually know their own alignment, good characters can do bad things and vice-versa, the Detect Alignment spell is basically useless: easily fooled, obvious when it’s cast, considered a hostile act or even a prelude to an attack, and so forth.

But I have to ask, why have alignments in your game, then? What’s the point if they’re secret even from the players, you have to nerf certain spells to keep them that way, and even the GM can’t use them as a guide to behavior? I think it’s far simpler to just remove it from the game, which is pretty much what we did back in the day. Trying to keep alignment in the game without making it actually useful or having noticeable game-world consequences strikes me as more trouble than it’s worth.

Generally, there seem to me to be two and a half standard fruitful approaches to really using D&D alignment as part of the game world without running into the problems of having players run around casting Detect Alignment and short-circuiting any kind of real moral reasoning or thinking about the motives of the NPCs.

Approach 1 is that Alignments are sides in a cosmic war. Your alignment says which side you are on in the war, and nothing more. There can be honorable, maybe even admirable people and creatures on the Chaotic side, though perhaps few and far between, just as there can be complete rat-bastards on the Lawful side. Your alignment in particular says nothing about how you treat people in petty day-to-day things, whether you lie, cheat, give to charity, keep your word,  and so forth. Alignment detection spells detect which side’s uniform you’re wearing, as it were.  This was easier to pull off without confusing modern sensibilities when the alignments are just Chaos and Law, instead of the two-axis AD&D Law vs. Chaos and Good vs. Evil, but is still possible.

A subset of approach 1 (the “and a half”) is that humans and most other creatures don’t even really count in the cosmic war. Only supernatural entities and magic actually have concrete alignment, and that’s what spells detect. Ordinary mortals might have tendencies, but they’re really weak stuff compared to the real thing, and don’t register even when they’re conscious allegiances.

Approach 2 is that alignments are the Gods’ eye-view score card of your behavior: how the Gods view your actions according to their moral lights.  This makes Alignment, though perfectly concrete and detectable, more like having a prison record or past citations and medals for good works.  “Past record is no guarantee of future performance.”  Still, you’d have to be willfully stupid to ignore the evidence that alignment offers when deciding whether to put someone in a position of trust.  None of this namby-pamby alignment detections exists, but there are social taboos against using it guff.   You want a position of trust, you submit to the alignment check, just as today you submit to a background check in any kind of sensitive position.

What you don’t want to do, in my opinion, is make alignment exist, but be useless.  Either figure out the ways it plays out in the game world and deal with it (perhaps just giving up the cliche of the vizier “secretly” being evil), or strike it from the books and say that in your game world people steer by whatever their own personal moral compass is… different religions and philosophies advocate different things but there is no one universal measure, magical or otherwise, that can be applied.  Keeping it but figuring out all kinds of reasons that nobody does or should do the obvious things given its existence just magnifies its flaws.

The Pirates Who Don’t Buy ANYTHING

In light of WotC’s recent “anti-piracy” move to block all sales of legal D&D PDFs (including ones that I bought and paid for and still had downloads, thank you very much) I could write a whole rant about how the pirates aren’t even going to notice it happened, or I could outsource it to somebody who’s already done so and provided an amusing cartoon driving home the point to boot:

Twenty Sided » Blog Archive » The Truth About Piracy

The up-side is that at least now people might stop asking “Why bother with a retro clone and the whole OGL thing when you could just buy a PDF of one of the originals from Paizo or DriveThru? WotC obviously has no incentive to ever stop selling them.”

By the “What Pisses You Off Heuristic“, it’s probably an interesting psychological fact about me that I’m far more outraged by the fans that defend WotC’s actions as “just business” than by WotC’s all-too-typical idiocy.

Thinking of the Children

I’m going to be running a game for my friend Mac and her three children (ages 7 through 12) in the near future.  She’s been playing D&D with them for a few months now, and I’ve been a player for some of the sessions.  When I mentioned that even though I sometimes had a hankering to run the kind of dungeon-crawlish games that she runs, none of my regular players was into them,  she suggested that I should run for them sometimes.  Among other things, she’d like them to have experience with GMs other than her, so they don’t become one of “those kind” of players who insist that there’s only one right way to play, coincidentally the way their first GM ran things.

I’m not quite sure what I want to run, though.  Mac has been running what she calls D&D pretty much the same way, in the same setting, for almost 27 years now, but with house rules so extensive that it scarcely seems like D&D sometimes (e.g. rolling 3d6 lower than Dex to hit, armor doing damage reduction only, magic via a spell-point system, clerics using a different seemingly ad-hoc system, etc).  That’s what the kids and I have been playing, but I wouldn’t be able to run it even if I wanted to since so much of it seems to exist only in her head.  I gave the two elder children their own copies of one of the retro-clones for Christmas (Basic Fantasy Roleplaying Game, not to be confused with the Chaosium Basic Roleplaying) and the younger of the two has actually been using it, more or less, to create dungeons and play with his friends.  He’s already added a new Body Builder class to the game though I’m not sure anybody he’s played with has yet met its rather stringent stat requirements….

So my first thought was to run that, since the rules are sort of familiar to them, and I would rather spend my time playing the game than explaining the difference between the rules they have (or their mom uses) and the rules I’m using.  My second thought, though, is to use Tunnels & Trolls, since I’d kind of like to try GMing that…. but I know that there’s some stuff about it (particularly the very abstract combat) that may be just too different from what they’re used to.  Mac basically uses a blow-by-blow accounting of combat, with turns lasting a couple of seconds, if that.  So my third thoughts have to do with either swiping a couple of things I really like from T&T and putting it into BFRPG, or vice-versa.  One thing I always get hung up on is that I don’t really like the magic system in the retro-clones.  Magic as ammo loads just doesn’t thrill me, unless you go full out Vance with it as depicted in the Dying Earth… but then you have to tweak both the spells and the MU’s combat capabilities anyway.  And Mac hates Vancean magic almost as much as she hates point-buy systems where you can design a character that’s practically a super-hero from the outset.

And finally, my fourth thoughts are to go ahead and finish the retro homebrew that I was working on, which would finally give me an old-school inspired system that really fits the way I’d like to play as well as players who will be happy to play it….  as usual with me when I start a project I ping-pong back and forth, unable to settle on any one option. I have a couple of weeks, at least, before we’d first play, so I don’t have to decide tonight, but I should decide soon and start working on a dungeon for them.