29 June 2012

Of dice and dice trays

Behold! My collection of d20+ dice has grown.


Gamescience has said that they do still have the tool for making these, so go buy a few through Amazon or Gamestation and then tell Gamescience how much you’d like some d20+ dice in their newer colors.

Here they are hanging out in my new dice tray.

During the first session of my Skylands campaign, I found myself wanting a dice tray. A quick search turned up the “Quest for the Perfect Dice Tray”. A trip to Hobby Lobby turned up the same tray Aryk had found. I used sticky-back felt (also from Hobby Lobby) rather than foam in this one.

Behold my dice inking supplies!

Not pictured are...

  • The paint pens I destroyed by pushing the tip too hard whilst priming them
  • The piece of cardboard I use to test the paint pens
  • The mechanical pencil I’ve been using (with lead retracted) to try and remove the crayon from dice before reïnking them with the paint pens

The paint remover pen looks like it is going to be really handy for cleaning up inking mistakes, but I haven’t quite mastered its use yet.

I really appreciate the work that goes into inking dice now. So the last two sets I bought, I bought inked. Behold my blue opal and jasper dice!

After seeing a couple of d7 at the North Texas RPG Con this year, I finally gave in an ordered a couple myself. Which you can also see in the picture above.

The colors of the blue opal dice are subtle and the photos don’t do them justice. Here’s a close-up as an attempt, though...

Finally, behold the other dice tray I made!

This one used foam secured with foam glue. It also has a lid, which is nice. I’m not sure why, but I don’t like it quite as much as the other one.

28 June 2012

Coin pools

I’ve heard a few game designers say that, as a base line, dice rolls should succeed at least half the time. That got me to thinking... What if we start with a base 50% chance and each increase moves it half-way towards 100%? Is there a simple dice mechanic for that?

Yes, there is, and it was already sitting on my RPG shelf. Prince Valiant, The Story Telling Game (1989) by Greg Stafford uses coin pools. The player flips a number of coins and, if any come up heads, it’s a success. (Sometimes you want more than one heads, but let’s ignore that for now.) The higher the character trait being tested, the more coins the player tosses.

(Since I usually have more dice than coins these days, I just use dice and “even” counts as “heads”. Don’t grab those odd dice—d3, d5, d7—though. Loan them to your opponent.)

It’s a nice, simple mechanic. It is open-ended (on the “high” end), which can be nice. And the probability increments start course and only get finer as you need it to.

27 June 2012

Read magic

Some excerpts from the c. 1981 D&D Basic Set (Moldvay) and Expert Set (Cook/Marsh):

p. B16

Magic-users and elves may use one spell at first level. Unlike clerics, magic-users and elves must select the spells to be used from those spells they know. These spells are stored in large spell books. As magic-users and elves gain levels of experience, the number of spells they may use also increases.

p. B17 (the description of the Read Magic spell)

By casting this spell, magical words or runes on an item or scroll may be read. Without this spell unfamiliar magic cannot be read or understood, even by a magic-user. However, once a scroll or runes are looked at with a read magic spell, the magic-user becomes able to understand and read that item later without the spell. A magic-user’s or elf’s spell book is written so that only the owner may read them without using this spell.

p. X7

Magic-users may add more spells to their spell books through spell research.

p. X11

Magic-users and elves must be taught their new spells. Most player character magic-users and elves are assumed to be members of the local Magic-Users Guild or apprenticed to a higher level NPC. When player characters gain a level of experience, they will return to their masters and be out of play for one “game-week” while they are learning their new spells. Either the player or the DM may choose any new spells.

(I’m just going to say “mage” rather than “magic-users and elves”.)

So, there are three ways that mages gain new spells.

  1. Taught spells by another character
  2. Spell research
  3. Scrolls and spell books

Although, it is not explicit that mages can learn new spells from scrolls. Spells on scrolls can be used simply by reading them aloud instead of casting them in the usual way. There is nothing that says spells in spell books can be used this way. So the way spells are written on scrolls and the way they are written in spell books might be different.

Neither is it explicit that mages can learn new spells from a spell book, but it is reasonable to infer that, with Read Magic, this would be possible.

So, Read Magic allows a mage to use spell scrolls and possibly to learn new spells from spell books they find. A mage could, however, get by fine without Read Magic because it isn’t needed for learning spells from their master or guild or for spell research.

In my Skylands campaign, however, there aren’t high-level master mages available to teach spells to the PCs. There may not be any mage who can cast second level spells. They won’t be getting any spells “automatically” when gaining a level. I will let them learn spells from scrolls and spell books, and I saw this as the primary way that mages would acquire new spells. (I’m also letting them pick two spells at first level and roll for up to two more.)

If the players understood all this when picking their spells, I think they would’ve all picked Read Magic. (Maybe not, but I’m pretty sure none of them choose to not take it as a challenge.)

So, I think I’m going to give all mages and elves Read Magic. The one player who chose or rolled it will get to choose/roll another spell.

Later editions of the game did this: Every first level mage got Read Magic. But, if every mage gets Read Magic at first level, what’s the point in having the spell around at all? I could answer that, but I’m not convinced the answer justifies the spell’s existence.

Still, I’m not ready to go that far...yet.

26 June 2012

Learning the rules versus learning the game

This started as a reply to a G+ thread, but I decided to just post what I thought might be the best part here.

Learning the rules of chess didn’t teach me how to play chess. I learned to play chess through:

  1. Watching how my opponents played
  2. Trying things out for myself
  3. Finding books that didn’t teach the rules but taught strategy and tactics (not “the way to play” but “a way to play”)

Applying this as an analogy to role-playing games breaks down, but I think it’s the areas where it doesn’t break down that are interesting. In my experience, almost no game can be found in the rules even if it wholly emerges from the rules. In good games, that level above the rules is a big space where there are many approaches and few definitive answers. Often, the best approach depends upon the other players more than the rules.

That said, I do think D&D books could have done a better job of explaining the game to me. But I also think the people who were writing it at the time did their best.

And now—for TSR-era D&D—we have a few attempts at the analog to the books on chess strategy and tactics.

22 June 2012

Guidelines for my Skyland campaign

Since Brendan asked, here’s a run-down of the variant rules I’m using in my Skylands campaign.

I start with the c. 1981 D&D Basic & Expert Sets. (Those edited by Tom Moldvay, Zeb Cook, and Steve Marsh.) If you aren’t familiar with those sets, some of this may be unclear, but if you have some familiarity with any edition of D&D—especially TSR-era D&D, then I think you’ll get the jist of it.

Strength does not provide a “to hit” bonus; only a damage bonus. There is no intelligence ability score. The “full” Dexterity modifier applies to individual initiative. The wisdom modifier applies to all saving throws.

Speaking of saving throws, I’ve gone the Swords & Wizardry route of having a single one.

There’s none of that “lower one score two point to raise another score one point” stuff. But players can swap a pair of scores.

There are no ability score based XP bonuses or penalties.

The cleric class is renamed “crusader”. I use “mage” rather than magic-user.

There are no restrictions on the weapons usable by crusaders, mages, or thieves.

Thieves do not get a find traps or remove traps skill. The move silently, hide in shadows, and climb sheer surface skills are explicitly called out as extraordinary abilities. Anyone can move quietly, hide, or climb. And a thief who fails a move silently roll is still moving quietly.

No dwarves or halflings. (Which is more of a setting thing than a system thing.) There are gnome PCs. These are mainly following the guidelines for gnome PCs from the Rules Cyclopedia, but they also get cantrips (v.i.).

Elf lifespans are no longer than human lifespans. (The Basic/Expert Sets don’t directly address elf lifespans, though there is a side comment about them having long lifespans.) Gnomes lifespans are about half that of humans.

Gnomes and elves can see in the dark. It isn’t “infrared” or “ultraviolet” vision. It isn’t “low light” vision. It isn’t limited to some distance.

Multiclassing is allowed (but not encouraged). The player can divide XP earned between the classes. Generally, the most favorable aspect of each class is used. Note that max hp must be tracked for each class separately. The character will use the highest max hp value from their classes.

Max hp at first level.

The lawful and chaotic alignments indicate whether the character supports or subverts order and civilization. Crusaders must be lawful.

Players can select “secondary skills” as in AD&D. If multiple are selected, one should be designated “primary”. (I’m thinking about calling them “background skills” since “primary secondary skill” sounds silly.)

I’m using the cantrips from Mike & Liz Stewart. Mages & gnomes start with three to six cantrips. Elves can learn them if they find someone to teach them. There’s no limit on how many cantrips a caster can use. They don’t need to be prepared, and they aren’t “lost” when cast.

Elves and mages begin with two to four spells.

For determining initial cantrips and spells, we did this: First the player picks. (Three for cantrips; two for spells.) Then the player rolls. (Again, three for cantrips, two for spells.) Duplicates are not rerolled.

I’ve switched to a “silver standard”. Prices that are in gp in the books are in sp instead. Platinum is unknown. Electrum could show up. Coins are 70 to the pound.

Mêlée weapons follow this post where the price depends upon the “stats” and the description is left up to the player. And this post covers fighting with two weapons.

A natural 20 on an attack roll grants a free attack. (We already had three hits by one PC in one round during a tournament mêlée.)

I’m using the “shields shall be splintered” rule. Metal shields used this way end up damaged and unusable but can be repaired for half the price of a new metal shield.

I’m using my injury table. Four hours of sleep restore half a character’s hp.

One roll on the injury table for every 10 feet fallen.

1 sp = 1 XP. I’m using 100 XP per HD for monsters defeated. With my usual: Defeat is interpreted liberally, but you only get XP for defeating the same individual monster once.” There may also be XP awards for various achievements. (Nothing specific yet.)

Brand new PCs start at first level, but PCs that replace a dead PC start with half the XP of the old PC.

A player can name their character’s heir, which must include a name and a relationship to the PC. If, after the PC dies, the player creates the heir, that PC will have legal right to the former PC’s stuff.

I raised the chance of magic research failure to 20% with the possibility that rare materials or the discovery of arcane secrets might lower it.

Being raised from the dead will cost a point of constitution.

Update: At the end of the document I gave the players I tried to give the credit due... Dave Arneson, Gary Gygax, Tom Moldvay, Stephen Marsh, David Cook, Frank Mentzer, Dan Proctor, James Raggi III, Dan Collins, Erin D. Smale, J. Brian Murphy, and Mike & Liz Stewart. (I hope I didn’t miss anyone I borrowed a rule from.)

21 June 2012

Why do I prefer Moldvay’s D&D Basic Set?

Just curious: What is everyone's favorite version of Basic D&D? #dnd #basic

@DownToDM Moldvay’s Basic is my favorite

@guitar_geek Out of curiosity, why is that? I personally can't decide, so I'm just seeing what other people think.

There’s no way I was going to fit the answer in 140 characters...

I find the second D&D Basic Set (Moldvay’s) easier to understand than the first (Holmes’). Also, Holmes seems to stray farther from the original game while Moldvay seems to move back closer to it.

Really, though, these are trade-offs. These differences are part of what makes Holmes’ Basic Set special. It’s just that my preferences here fall in the direction of Moldvay’s set.

The third D&D Basic Set (Mentzer’s) makes an effort to go even farther and explain the game to anyone. From what I’ve heard, it largely succeeded. I simply have a hard time believing that anyone who is going to enjoy the game needs more than Moldvay’s set to understand the game.

I also like the scope and level of detail of Moldvay’s Basic with Cook & Marsh’s Expert Set. It feels just about right to me for a base to build off of. Also, I’m not a fan of how later printings of Mentzer’s Expert Set slowed progressions (like thief skills) down.

Of course, I can be accused of bias because Moldvay’s set was my introduction to the game. (Well, I’d seen a first edition AD&D Players Handbook, but I couldn’t figure the game out from it.) And, of course, all of this is really splitting hairs. And no matter what version of the game I’m playing, I like to have the others around as resources to draw upon.

Once I started playing Basic/Expert D&D again (c. 2006), I’ve found, however, that the Basic/Expert split is a pain in play. (And cutting the books up and combining them as suggested doesn’t really make it any better.) So, I have my complaints with it. Indeed, in the campaign we started last Saturday, I’m experimenting with a number of modifications.