Sunday 30 September 2012

Nowt as Queer as Folk Magic

There are two things ye must
know about the wise woman
Stray observation on the issue of why there is no folk magic system in AD&D: since magic does not exist one can invent any magic system for a game or book without worry and then that will simply be how magic works by fiat.

But once you try to add a second way for magic to work in the same setting you need to make them work together. For example, you need to explain why practitioners would not flock to the best one, where by "practitioners" I mean "PCs" and by "best" I mean "the one that kills monsters best".

This is pretty tricky unless you make all the changes purely cosmetic (which can be a let down for players when they realise that there is no "actual" difference) or you proceed with great care.

In AD&D, the standard system covers such a wide range of power from 1st level spells to 9th level ones that it's hard to find anywhere to fit a completely different magic system and if one did it would require a class to go with it, which also has to balance with the existing classes.

In other words: it's a total pain in the neck to have more than one magic system in AD&D and I think this is particularly the case for anything that resembles a folk-tradition with simple amulets, charms, potions, and other typical "wise woman" style magics - why would anyone bother playing such a character when they could play a normal magic user or cleric?

Thursday 27 September 2012

Trinkets: Three Charms

+1 to saves Vs going to jail
One thing that AD&D doesn't do much of from the book is petty magic. This is partly because of the nature of Vancian magic which has more than a touch of Newton and his calculus about it, which leaves little room for minor magics. The problems many have had in coming up with a decent system for cantrips is indicative of how hard it can be to squeeze magic into the game which implies any sort of "folk" tradition.

On top of that, the few rules for making items are pretty harsh and even then they leave a whole range of items (not just artefacts) as being beyond the power of player characters to make at all.

So, without worrying too much about where they come from here's a trio of little charm trinkets which a lucky and gullible character might pick up one day in a market or in trade from the gypsies in amongst piles of flashy but inert tat.

All of them come in various forms - lucky heather, items blessed by passing saints, amulets, a charm for attaching to a charm bracelet/playing pieces for educational Quaker games, etc. Distribute as you fancy.

Any of these will be sold for 1d20sp in a market, as will their non-magical counterparts.

The Protective Charm
Has 2d6 charges, adds one to all saving throws until used up (at one charge per saving throw, whether successful or not).

The Magic Charm
Grants 5% magic resistance against one school/form of magic (i.e., evocation, divination etc.). The magic works until the wearer is successfully affected by any spell using that form of magic, at which point it is "burned out" and useless. Will not resist beneficial magics.

The Lucky Charm
Like the protective charm above, but also operates as a personal bless spell in combat. 3d6 charges which are used one at a time on each save, each attack roll and each attack made against the bearer.

In all cases, these charms operate automatically so long as they are with their owner at the time the various rolls or attacks are made. I would also suggest that their magic is non-transferable once they are given to a PC or a PC's henchman they will lose their potency if given or sold to anyone else.

XP value: none.

Monday 24 September 2012

Magic Resistance

Handling the way magic resistance scales is one of the most common mistakes I make when running medium and high level D&D. Many a mind flayer has unfairly bit the dust because of this. So, here's a better system:
  • Divide listed magic resistance by 5 and add 12, so mind flayers become MR 22. Note this on your stat block/map key.
  • When a spell is cast at a MR target, the caster rolls 1d20 and adds their level. If they equal or exceed the above number then the spell succeeds. 
  • For dæmons, add 13 instead of 12 to the creature's score but also add spell level for their attacker.
Simple and fairly obvious, but there it is.

Other issues that come up with magic resistance are:

Does magic resistance prevent area of effect spells from working? In the general sense I would say no, while an individual monster may be unaffected by a fireball its companions will have to look out for themselves.

The exception is when a spell is specifically directed at a monster. In those cases, if the spell does not affect the target then it is completely cancelled. This would potentially include lightning bolt and fireball, as well as meteor swarm, darkness 10' radius or silence 15' radius, and so on, depending on the intent of the caster.

Does magic resistance dispel magic which is ongoing? This is tricky because the example given in the Monster Manual of shattering a hold portal spell (obviously based on the scene in the Lord of the Rings [the book, not the film]) simply refers to "certain" spells and does not define them.

I suppose like many DMs I've flip-flopped on this over the years but nowadays I would generally say that if a magically resistant creature encounters a permanent spell against which it makes its MR roll, then the spell is negated. So, walls of iron or ice as well as hold portal and wizard lock would be negated as would, somewhat more controversially, a glyph of warding. A wall of force would simply allow the creature to pass through, sealing behind it again, since it is not normally a permanent spell.

Even with this, some spells are not treated this way. Dig moves earth in a permanent way not because of on-going magic but because the earth is now in a different place and simply remains there, for example, so its effect is not subject to magic resistance at all. Also, of course, the magical effect must be directly interacting with the monster in question; a demon can not cure feeblemind nor cancel the resoration of a lost limb on someone else. Find familiar is not subject to magic resistance.

Does magic resistance work against special attacks? If they are listed as spell-like, then yes. Otherwise (eg, ghoul paralysis, most magic weapon effects) no.

Clerical turning? No.

Is a magic circle affected by magic resistance? No. Protection from Good/Evil is, as it is a general spell effect but the various magic circles which protect from specific beings always work against those beings regardless of MR or anything else.

What is "standard" magic resistance? This is just normal saving throws, which magic resistant creatures also get.

What would "none" mean, then? A creature with no magic resistance would get no saves against magic. This is the suggested method for handling Gamma World characters encountering AD&D spells on DMG p114. I used this system for the time my main group went to the Car Wars universe too.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Tasks and that

"If that's normal, I intend to be
a freak for the rest of my life"
Vivian Stanshall
Starting to get back on form with the new computer, so I'll continue some thoughts from the previous post on thieves and look at how I would resolve those rolls that were mentioned in the last part on DMing thieves. This in turn will lead onto a future post on how later versions of the game tried to systematize this issue and why those attempts ultimately failed to jell.

Ultimately, the game's the thing and any use of dice should be in the service of the game rather than fulfilling some letter of the law (although there are times when rules greatly aid fairness, such as combat). As such, when uncertainty, risk, or just plain luck needs to be resolved during play it is usually highly desirable that it is quickly dealt with and got out of the way.

AD&D is unusual, compared to the game designs that followed, in that there is no codification of how to decide the vast majority of chance situations that come up in play. When characters want to jump across a chasm, or climb a wall, or compose epic poetry, or arm-wrestle, or compete in archery competitions against King John's champion, or engage Gollum in a riddle, the DM is free (or obliged, depending on your point of view) to device any method for deciding the issue that they want.

There are hints in the books as to how one might go about this, but most DM's have their own systems and I think also that most DM's change their systems as time goes by and they invent new approaches. This post is about some of my solutions for AD&D task resolution.

So, here's the first part of the previous example:
Fighter: I check the door frame for anything odd; especially the lintel area.
DM: <rolls> There's something odd about it indeed. There's some sort of thin line running across the width of the lintel.
What is that "rolls" a reference to at the table? Let's reconstruct  the thought process I used:
  • The character is a fighter with some level of experience (let's say 2nd for sake of the example). S/he's faced danger before.
  • The player has specified the actual location of some part of the trap's mechanism and the character is looking at it.
  • The trap's mechanism is a blade which falls. Intended to catch anyone carefully pushing the door open in the middle of the night in the dark, the blade slot is disguised only by that assumed darkness.
  • The fighter's view may by chance be spoiled by the sort of lousy lighting adventuring parties often have at these levels.
Considering these factors, I'd roll 3d6 as a "quality roll".

This means that there is no real target as such, it's simply a way of tossing a coin with more finely grained control over the decision making. In short, as DM I'll look at the number with 3 being "as bad as this character could do" and 18 being "as well as this character could do" and decide based on a gut feeling (probably a 3 or 4 is needed to miss the slot). No numbers are added up or subtracted etc. Ability scores are not attended too, although I might make some allowance for very low Int.

The key thing here is that as DM you have a god-like view of the character. You know not only what the character's on-paper stats are but you probably know a great deal about their history and how the player imagines their personality. As such you are in a position to make judgements of how unlikely it is for the character to miss things or understand things that goes far beyond any formula or rules set. Saying that you should trust your gut feeling about such a roll is not a cop-out, it should in fact be the best way to do it - much moreso than turning the character sheet into an array of numbers.

Of course, any DM can be a dick about this sort of thing. So: don't be a dick.

Next we had:
Thief: I'll have a look too.
DM: <no roll> It's a thin slot.
This is simple: no trained thief is ever going to miss such a simple trap once they've said that they're looking right at it.
Thief: Probably for a blade. We'll hammer a couple of wooden wedges into the slot.
DM: OK. It looks like it's disarmed.
The characters have found the trap's main function point and suggested a perfectly good way of trying to disarm it. No need for any rolls here. I might on another occasion require some sort of a roll but this is a low-level adventure and I'm happy to let it go at this.
Fighter: Can I see how it's set off?
DM: <rolls as above> Nope.
Okay, well I notice that I've been a little unclear here. By "rolls as above" I meant that we don't roll a thief skill; actually I had in mind a different type of roll from the quality roll.

In fact, the fighter is no longer specifying anything about what they are doing which would give me any reason to think that they have a particularly good chance of working out the mechanism, although I feel that they have enough experience as characters to have a chance (it's a common pressure pad).

In this case I'd be inclined to see this as a contest between the trap-builder and the PC party.

Of (Demi-)Human Bondage
The factors I like to take into account when one character's ability is matched against another are: natural ability, experience, caution, and of course luck. I can't use the generic "quality roll" from above because it's too vague and the chance of being inconsistent is too great and my experience has shown that if one member of a party fails a challenge then the others will want to go and even inconsistency can lead to an argument which is a waste of time. I need something a bit more formal.

The system I've used for this recently is partly ripped off from Pendragon: there is a limit value and the player makes a roll. If the roll is under the limit, the character scores the value of the dice, if it exceeds the limit then they score zero. In my version, the player (or DM) picks the number of d6 they want to roll (representing how much they are forcing the issue) and the limit they are aiming at is some applicable ability score.

In addition, a character may or may not get a bonus equal to their class level to the final score.
For example: two clerics are engaged on opposing sides in an ecclesiastical court and making closing summaries of the evidence. Cleric A is level 7 and wisdom 16; Cleric B (an NPC) is level 12 and wisdom 14. 
It is in the nature of this particular contest that one side goes first and the other side knows how well they've done before responding.
Cleric A decides to push his luck a bit and rolls 4d6 knowing that an average roll of 14 will score but that going just three over this will mean that they've overstated the case and blown it. The player rolls a 16, the best possible roll and with their level bonus this becomes 23. Cleric B is now under some pressure, as he needs a 11 or better on the dice to win the argument. With the lower Wis of 14 4d6 seem too dangerous, so the DM picks 3d6 and rolls. The result is 18 for a score of zero.
Even with the bonus of 12 the judge has found the PC's argument too strong to be refuted and the party are not burned at the stake for looting holy sites after all. Hooray!
What ability score? When is level appropriate? These are woolly questions for the DM to decide but when I have a choice of ability score (e.g., Int and Wis may seem equally valid base scores) then I tend to use the lowest to discourage dump stats.

When to use the character's level as a bonus is another time when knowing the character is the touchstone. Some fighters may ride horses all the time, they get their level bonus to contest scores for horsemanship; others never touch the things and don't. Some characters are constantly haggling with stall-holders, others don't. Some players like making rousing speeches and others just rely on Cha.

In addition to these aspects of how a character is played, there should be a whole slew of things which are implied by their class. All classes do things "off-camera" during training and the periods between adventures. Magic users read books and dissect animals, thieves deal in stolen goods and look at a lot of architecture, fighters bind minor wounds and arm-wrestle, clerics learn masses of history (at least from the PoV of their church) and how to quickly dispatch animals. Obviously, even here there is lots of room for DMs to insert their view of their world and what is "normal" for the classes within it.

Once more, the DM's omniscient view of their own world and their own players gives them much more insight into what bonuses or ability scores are appropriate for a given character in given situation. Most magic users will not get an experience bonus when arm-wrestling, but perhaps a particular one will. That's fine.

It's also fine to say that a particular task has no "natural ability" aspect unless the character has had some training or practice - for example, a character who has just entered a strange town will not be able to "work out" where the richest merchant lives without spending some time there. In these cases, treat their ability score as 3 (to represent blind luck).
"Damashcening, you shay?
Well, if thatsh what it takesh..."

"Do take the fag out when
you're talking, 007"

My cracked-record example of these class-based abilities is James Bond. We rarely see Bond down at the shooting range or actually on holiday in the Alps or windsurfing etc. but we all know that if he's handed some "Playboy Spy" related task or equipment then he's going to perform at a ridiculously high level of skill in it from that instant. Similarly, we don't expect this "level bonus" to apply to things like reading ancient languages or metalworking because we know - as his GM knows - that these are things Bond has no interest in as they are unlikely to get a woman into bed.

So, to get back to the trap example, we have a fighter who has experience of traps looking for traps but who isn't sure what to look for. I feel that looking for traps is a generic "adventurer" ability and so the character gets their level bonus. The player rolls 2d6 (Assuming the Fighter is Int 10 and the player doesn't want to push their luck) and gets 7, plus 2 for level is 9.

I compare this to the target score which was based on a mid-level (6th) level thief with decent Int (14) and an average 3d6 roll (11) giving a total of 17. For a second level fighter of average Int that's actually out of reach so the roll is just for show.

Next, the thief character wants to have a look.
Thief: Can I?
DM: <rolls as above, fails, so re-rolls thief's find traps skill and succeeds> The door saddle and the flagstone in front of it are in fact one piece and there are some on the uprights of the door frame. Looks like a pressure pad release.
Obviously finding the trap is a class skill even if I didn't classify it as a generic adventuring one. But the party thief is only 3rd level and isn't over-endowed with Int either so their "normal" roll is unlikely to reveal anything. It doesn't, and the character falls back to their special class skill of "Find Traps" which in this case works and they get the info.
Fighter: There must be some way to turn it off and on so that the room can be used. I'd be happier finding that than trusting these wedges.
Thief: I can't think of how to disarm that; can my guy? 
DM:<rolls remove traps skill> You find that part of the door-jam pulls out with a click. That's almost certainly the trick.
In this case, I didn't feel that the players were giving any useful hints about what they were doing that might suggest that they were engaging with the trap-maker nor did they describe any action to justify a quality roll, but the thief always has their fall-back skill and that is enough in this case. I probably would have given the basic roll if one of the players had mentioned the door or door-frame explicitly.

Generally, I think the DM should err on the side of too few task rolls than on too many and should attempt to make it clear that thinking about the character's point of view is a better way to discover things about the world than just thinking about mechanics and skill points and so forth.

As well as thieves, the ranger has explicit skills although in this case they are quite high (base 90% of tracking outdoors is not to be sniffed at) but they too can be crippled by the perception that the only way to track is to have a ranger and roll d%. Anyone can track over sand dunes or soft soil. Anyone who looks will find dropped items discarded by a prisoner. And a ranger can too, of course, and just like the thief the DM should make sure that this special ability is indeed an additional one and not a replacement for the normal.

"I urge caution"
"Ignore Mr Trump"
Other Days, Other Rolls
I tried using a simple 3d6 against ability score roll for success, like the one in the dig spell, but it was problematic because, although it neatly balanced the rarity of the ability score with the chance of succeeding, it did not allow for experience. Also, it broke down somewhat once ability scores over 18 appear in the game.

The obvious solution - that the roll produced a score based on subtracting the dice result from the target ability and modifying by level is messy and involves subtraction, which is a bugbear for so many players as to almost instantly eliminate any mechanic using it from the table.

Of course, many DMs use a simple d20 and require a roll under an appropriate score and combined with the Pendragon idea that the quality of the performance was equal to the die roll or zero (if the die exceeds ability) this nearly gives a good basis for competitive rolling; one simply adds experience level to the total scored as a bonus. The problem here is that the d20 is too random for my taste. I don't mind it for combat where failures may be followed up by another try next round but for quick one-off rolls it seemed that luck was dominating ability and experience. So I combined the idea with multiple d6's and it seems to work quite well if the DM is flexible.

One thing I like is the ability to "play it safe" by rolling a few dice, or to "go all out" by rolling a lot of dice and risking a blow-out. What I don't like is the near impossibility of calculating the odds of success; one must just get a feel for the system.

The simple quality roll is something that I've seen done by a few GMs over the years but nevermoreso than in Bob Alberti's rules for Tekumel, which make them pretty well the only mechanic in the game. Again, I felt more comfortable with 3d6 than percentile because of the link with character generation and because there's just no need for 100 degrees of success or failure.