Monday, June 27, 2016

Gods and Religions, Part 4: Reward and Punishment

This week in our ongoing discussion of Gods & Religions, we take a look at mechanical incentives for roleplaying characters of faith and devotion.  Ultimately, a character's relationship with their god is a matter of roleplaying.  But GMs are always on the lookout for ways to encourage more roleplaying and reward good examples of it.  If you want gods and religions to take an important role in your campaign, and you want to actively encourage your player characters' participation in that system, we've got some ideas for you.  Specifically, we have three complementary systems that encourage GMs to hand out mechanical rewards or punishments to characters roleplaying their way through a world of fickle and demanding gods.

First, there are minor ongoing benefits for characters who maintain the day-to-day trappings of their religion, including performing sacrifices, praying, and adhering to dietary restrictions.  Then there are greater one-time rewards for characters who perform exemplary services in the name of their deity.  And on the other end of the spectrum, there are punishments for those who transgress against the ethos of their deity.  Examples and suggestions are provided, but the rules are not hard and fast; a GM should feel free to adopt and adapt them as they see fit for their own campaign.

Faith Rituals
   Every god or religion asks something of its worshipers, something that affects their daily lives and marks them as a follower of that god.  They might make regular offerings, pray daily, wear certain clothing, or refrain from eating certain foods.  In return for maintaining faith rituals in this way, loyal worshipers are granted minor boons.
   The particular details of what a worshiper is expected to do and what boon they might gain depends on the god or religion in question and is at the discretion of the GM.  Examples are given below.  As a general rule, maintaining faith rituals should be a roleplaying choice that does not adversely affect the playability of the game; a GM should not demand followers perform onerous tasks that slow down the game overmuch or impose penalties that affect the efficacy of a character unless this is core to the concept of the deity.  Boons for maintaining faith rituals should be minor ongoing effects such as a +1 to a particular skill, and should be no more powerful than the boon granted by a trait.
   If a character fails to maintain their faith rituals, they lose the benefits of the granted boon until they have flawlessly upheld the rituals for a week straight.

Monday, June 20, 2016

4 Old D&D Design Principles That Are No Longer In Fashion

All modern roleplaying games, especially Pathfinder and 5th Edition D&D, owe a tremendous debt to 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which modified and codified the nascent rules of the game into (relatively) accessible hardcover books.  But that foundational work of fantasy roleplaying was built on design principles that are very different from - and often opposed to - those of modern D&D and Pathfinder.

I'm not just talking about THAC0, that infamously unintuitive system that had players and DMs consulting tables to see whether their roll could hit that powerful fighter with the mighty -8 AC.  THAC0 was just a mechanical system.  Below, I will talk about four design principles of 1st Edition AD&D that fundamentally shaped how player characters worked, why those decisions were made, and why they have since fallen by the wayside.

1. Average-Dude Character Stats
3d6 Probability Graph, via Jonathan Dobres
If you only started playing D&D this millennium, you've probably heard grognards talking about the rough old days when they had to roll just 3d6 in order (uphill both ways in knee-deep snow) for their character stats, none of this namby-pamby 4d6-drop-1 or even 5d6-drop-2.  "Back in my day," they might say, "if you got 11 Strength you'd give thanks to the dice gods, because at least you didn't roll a 6."

While there were certainly plenty of DMs who made their players roll 3d6 in order for their stats, and it seems to us to be a hallmark of such older editions of D&D, the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide actually discouraged this.  The four methods of rolling up presented therein are actually a lot more lenient than you might expect.  The first is the now-familiar 4d6-drop-1 method, with the scores "recorded and arranged in the order the player desires."  Method II has the player roll 3d6 twelve times and keep the six best scores.  Method III has 3d6 rolled six times for each ability score, keeping the best result, and Method IV has the player roll 3d6 in order for twelve characters and choose one of them to play.

So AD&D acknowledged that playing a character with 10s in every stat wasn't particularly exciting, but the game had other ways of enforcing mediocrity on the average character.  If you've only played 3rd Edition D&D and beyond, you might be surprised to learn that a 1st Edition character with 18 Strength got a measly +1 to hit and +2 to damage, compared to 3rd Edition's +4 for both.  In fact, a character only got a bonus to hit with a Strength of 17, and a bonus to damage with a Strength of 16. Characters who used missile weapons were granted +0 to hit with them whether their Dexterity was 6 or 15.  Characters received no bonus hit points from Constitution scores below 15.

Clearly some effort was made to help characters escape the mediocrity of the middle of the bell-curve, but why not just make the bell-curve less mediocre in the first place?  There are two ideas at work here.  One is that average should mean average, and there is no point rewarding mediocrity.  The other is that exceptional scores should be commensurately rewarded.  If only a 17 or 18 Strength can give you a +1 bonus to hit, you are going to feel pretty good about getting that +1 bonus.  This ensures that when a character has a great ability score, they will really stand out and feel heroic.

Why Not?
Rewarding exceptional ability scores is great, but if you give hardly anything to less exceptional scores then it is only worthwhile to be exceptional.  It also means most of what you can do is because of the bonuses granted by your class, level, and equipment rather than your own physical attributes.  The linear progression of ability score bonuses introduced in 3rd Edition - whereby 10-11 grants a +0, 12-13 a +1, and so on - is a far more elegant game mechanic that rewards exceptional scores without neglecting the middle-range.

2. High Character Mortality
Giant Toad by David C. Sutherland III, Monster Manual (1977)
AD&D was a deadly, unforgiving game.  It owes some of this reputation to classic tournament dungeons like The Tomb of Horrors and The Temple of Elemental Evil which were designed to be particularly deadly and not an example of typical gameplay.  It is often said that dropping below 0 hp meant death in older editions of D&D, but the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide actually includes the familiar pocket of unconsciousness running from 0 to -9 hp, with death coming at -10.  Even so, between deadly traps, poisons, and monsters, a regular campaign would often see plenty of character death, especially at lower levels.

The goal of a good DM has never been to kill their characters, so we shouldn't think that AD&D was designed specifically to be deadly.  It simply seems deadlier in comparison to later editions of D&D, with all their safety buffers meant to keep characters alive.  But death, or the threat of death, is an important part of these games.  Without death there can be only minor failures, actions are robbed of consequences, and combat is devoid of tension.

Why Not?
It turns out death was a little too common.  When low-level dungeons all but guarantee at least one character death, it can be hard to become attached to your character, and if you aren't attached to your character it's not much of a roleplaying game.  4th and 5th editions have implemented a "3 strikes" death save system for characters below 0 hp.  In general, the game designers have decided that it is better to have built-in safety systems to make the rules inherently less deadly, letting individual DMs decide whether or not to ramp up the difficulty for extra danger.

3. Race and Class Restrictions
by David C. Sutherland III, via dungeonsmaster
One of the biggest differences a 3rd, 4th, or 5th edition player will notice looking back at 1st edition are the race and class restrictions.  You had to meet certain ability score requirements to become any non-human race.  Most classes had ability score requirements as well.  Plus, each non-human race was restricted to only a few classes, and they often could not advance fully through all the class levels.

Let's say you want to play a dwarf fighter - a fairly reasonable request.  To be a dwarf, you first have to have at least 8 Strength and 12 Constitution.  To be a fighter, you need at least 9 Strength and 7 Constitution.  Furthermore, dwarves can only advance to 9th level in the fighter class, and then only if they have 18 Strength; if they have 17 Strength they can advance to 8th level, or 7th if they have a score of 16 or less.  If your dwarf wants to be anything other than a fighter, that's tough luck.  Dwarves cannot be druids, paladins, rangers, magic-users, illusionists, or monks, and only npc dwarves can be clerics.  The only other classes open to dwarves are assassin (up to level 9) and thief (strangely the only class a dwarf can level up fully in).  The other races face similar restrictions - only humans are unrestricted in class and ability scores.

Part of the reasoning behind these restrictions had to do with game balance (of a sort), and part had to do with preconceived notions.  Rather than attempting to make the races or classes balanced against each other, Gary Gygax chose to restrict access to them.  In some cases, this was to prevent "overpowered" character builds - presumably a dwarf who could reach 10th level as a fighter would overshadow other races'  10th level fighters, so that had to be restricted.  In other cases, this created balance by rarity - the paladin was a particularly powerful class, so only a human could become one, and then only if they had at least 12 Strength, 9 Intelligence, 13 Wisdom, 9 Constitution, and 17 Charisma.

Preconceived notions of these fantasy races and classes, often tied to the writing of Tolkien and derivative works, also fed into the class restrictions.  Fantasy was still a young and underdeveloped genre, and it seemed laughable at the time to think of a dwarf wizard, a halfling assassin, or a half-orc paladin.  These restrictions helped to shape the world that these games could take place in.

Why Not?
More recent editions seek to balance the classes in comparison to each other so that no single class can be too powerful.  More effort has also been put into giving humans some special bonuses so that they don't feel boring compared to other races.  And, critically, player choice is now king.  The restrictions on what races can play what classes have been lifted, and the rules now encourage creativity in character creation.  Want to play a gnomish paladin or an elven monk?  Go ahead, it's your character.

4. Uneven Experience Point Gain
AD&D Player's Handbook
If you've never played AD&D, you might be surprised to learn that common experience point progression is a relatively new development.  In 1st and 2nd editions, each class leveled up at different experience point thresholds.  In 1st edition, the thief reached level 10 at 160,001 experience points, compared to 500,001 for fighters.  Experience points were determined in general by how powerful the monsters were that the group killed and how many gold pieces they gained in loot.  Specifically, there were a bunch of complex formulas that make my eyes glaze over.  Here is a 'helpful example' from the text:
An ancient spell-using red dragon of huge size with 88 hit points has a BXPV of 1300, XP/HP total of 1408, SAXPB of 2800 (armor class + special defense + high intelligence + saving throw bonus due to h.p./die), and an EAXPA of 2550 (major breath weapon + spell use + attack damage of 3-30/bite) - totalling [sic] 7758 x.p.
2nd edition tried to simplify things with group experience points awards for achieving quest goals and individual xp awards for doing things related to their class.  A priest could earn 100xp per spell level if they cast a spell, but only if it was cast in such a way that "support the beliefs and attitudes of his mythos."  A rogue, meanwhile, gained 2xp per gp value of treasure they obtain and 200xp per successful use of a special ability (like detecting a trap or climbing a wall).  Since thieves still benefited from a very low xp requirement to level up, 2nd edition was particularly good for thieves.

This was another attempt at balance that didn't involve actually balancing the classes.  Wizards are powerful, so they take more xp to level up.  Thieves aren't as powerful, so they don't need as much xp.  It's a sloppy fix, but easier than balancing the classes.  As for class-based individual xp awards, this makes it so you earn xp for doing things related to your class, which sounds pretty intuitive.

Why Not?
As it turns out, this system is stupid complicated and involves way too much math, even for D&D.  If you get your classes even mostly balanced, it is so much easier to have them all level up at the same xp thresholds.  Even the simplified system that 3rd edition D&D implemented pales in comparison to the much easier to use xp system that Pathfinder developed.  Unfortunately, these systems are so simplified that they put the focus exclusively on killing monsters (and disarming traps).  There are suggestions for quest completion xp rewards, but if the only actual xp rules involve monsters and traps, that's how most GMs will use them.  For some groups, this can put too much emphasis on combat, while non-combat triumphs go unrewarded.  Maybe we should bring back those class-based individual xp rewards in some form...  But that sounds like a subject for a later post.


Modern D&D is built on the bones of AD&D, and these old design principles that we have since mostly abandoned still leave an impression on our gameplay experiences.  Our characters continue to dungeon-delve under the shadow of these old systems.  In some cases, players and GMs alike will try to hearken back to 'the old ways' in search of the magic that these early RPGs held.  Nostalgia for this gaming legacy permeates the game, even for those who never played the old editions.  Taking a look at where we come from can help us understand where we are now.

-your unintuitive d20 despot

Monday, June 13, 2016

Monster Monday: Giant Tardigrade, Resilient Little Buggers

Today's Monster Monday is the giant tardigrade, a man-eating giant version of the tiny creature often studied for its incredible ability to survive extremes of pressure, temperature, or radiation.  Tardigrades can even survive in the vacuum of space.  But can they survive a group of low-level adventurers?

Arnvida stops to examine the body.  Another desiccated sheep corpse, the same fist-sized holes punched into its flesh.  She looks back to the rest of the party to give a wordless acknowledgement of what they all know: something weird is killing Bolg's livestock.  But Perrin isn't paying attention.  He's staring to the west, mouth flapping dumbly, trying and failing to mouth some warning.  Arnvida follows his gaze to the stone well.  Two fat, trundling creatures - like pigs fashioned from a giant's toenail clippings - are clawing their way out on eight stubby legs, toothy tube-like mouths pulsing hungrily as if anticipating the adventurers' meat juices.  

The following text in gold is available as Open Game Content under the OGL. Open Game Content is ©2016 Jonah Bomgaars.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Races Revisited: High Elves

I've been itching to redesign the core races for a while now.  Part of the reason is 5th edition with its really appealing broad-strokes approach to game design, and part of the reason is that Pathfinder is almost 10 years old, based on a system over 15 years old, and it is starting to collapse under its own weight.  I want the playable races to be as simple and evocative as possible.  They need to get across the core idea of the race without getting in the way with too many extraneous skill bonuses or abilities that function in instances so specific that you forget about them when the time comes to use them.

Last time on Races Revisited we looked at dwarves and tried to distill their essence into a concentrated dwarven liquor.  This week, we turn to elves.  Specifically: high elves.  Why the distinction?  Older editions of D&D made it clear that elven players were of high elf stock, as opposed to the less civilized wood elves or evil dark elves.  1st Edition AD&D relegated the other elven races to the Monster Manual.  2nd Edition allowed players access to the other elven races "with the DM's permission (but the choice grants no additional powers)".  The designers of 5th Edition are, fortunately, big fans of sub-races as character customization options, and the 5th Edition Player's Handbook allows players to choose from high elves, wood elves, or dark elves, each one lending a slight twist to the base elven race.  I have chosen to treat high elves and wood elves as separate races for Races Revisited.  High elves are the aloof, magically-inclined elves who spend their incredibly long lives in shining, elegant cities.  Wood elves, by contrast, are the gritty forest-dwelling elves more likely to be clad in leather than mithral - the 2nd Edition Player's Handbook describes them as "wild, temperamental, and savage."  So look forward to wood elves in a future post, and scroll down for more high elf action.

One thing I noticed when researching past versions of elves was that elves were always described as having a special affinity toward bows, swordsmanship, and magic, but mechanically while they were given an incentive to use bows and swords, they had no inherent bonus to their magical abilities.  It wasn't until Pathfinder that elves were thrown a bone in the magic department, gaining a racial bonus to Intelligence and some bonuses to overcoming Spell Resistance and identifying magic items.  I take things a little further, as you will see below.

The following material given in gold text and its accompanying table is available as Open Game Content under the OGL.  Open Game Content is ©2016 Jonah Bomgaars.