Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Word About Weapon Choice

If all weapons do 1d6 damage, shouldn't I be a cheapskate and just buy daggers?

No. Don't be stupid. If you are swinging a dagger and the other guy has like a claymore you are in bad shape. We represent this by giving you a -2 penalty to your AP, because you just don't get as many opportunities to slip past his guard when his guard is like the length of your entire body. Get your self a grown-up weapon!

On the other hand, if you're bold enough to leap past that six feet of pointy death and like wrap your legs around the guy and just keep stabbing at him until he stops twitching, the advantage is yours, because it's really hard to use a claymore or a spear or something to scrape a crazy bastard off your chest. So that's useful.

Also, different weapons are good for different things. Like, chopping and stabbing isn't the best way to go against things that are already dead. They don't really bleed and the meat you cut off is probably just slowing them down. For those guys, you want to whack 'em with something blunt, like a mace, until the bones are powder. Stuff like that.

Melee for Metalheads Part 1: Getting Close Enough to Kick Ass

Since some of my players have lousy eyeballs or poor attention spans or both, and they happen to play fighters, I'm re-writing my melee house rules just for them.

Dude, a fight broke out! All those slavering monsters want to eat your lungs or something. Go kick some ass!

Where am I?

Either you're "engaged in melee," meaning you're standing toe-to-toe with some other guy that wants to kill you - or some slavering monster that wants to eat your lungs or something - or else you're "not in melee," meaning you can mover around a lot more freely so you can decide who you want to go toe-to-toe with. Or maybe throw stuff or something, whatever.

But if you're not in melee and you want to be, you need to get moving.

How Far Can I Move?

If you just want to move around the battlefield and not do anything else, you can run up to your Exploring speed. That's useful when you're chasing or running away from the monsters. 

If you want to do something useful, like charge into melee or pull a flask out of your pack, you can only move your Encounter speed. That's way slower than running, but at least you can still attack.

If it's your ass that's getting kicked, you can try to leave melee, but the monsters might not let you off the hook. You can either withdraw, which means you back away but you're still ready for a fight, or you can retreat, which means you just want to get the hell out of here.

If you withdraw, you only move half your Encounter speed, but if a monster advances you get First Strike - you get to attack it on its own turn and maybe kill it and be all, "You shoulda just let me walk away."

If you retreat, you get to move your full Encounter speed, but if a monster advances you're boned - it gets +2 AP and ignores your shield. But hey, if the monsters don't advance on you, you're not in melee anymore, and you can run for your life or drink your potion or whatever you wanted to do.

And if the monsters chicken out and try to get out of the fight, you can let 'em go or you can advance on 'em at full Encounter speed, and try to cut 'em down while they flee your awesome wrath. Just pay attention to if they're withdrawing or retreating, so you know if they've still got some fight left in 'em.

Next time: how to kick all the ass. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

20 Questions for Partholon

 Brendan of Untimately has organized a fantastic set of simple rules questions  that should make it easy to translate between referees. Here's the answers for Partholon:

Ability scores generation method? 3d6 in order, make a one-time swap of any two scores.
How are death and dying handled? At 0 hp, you are incapacitated and might die. If you survive, you will be saddled with a hampering injury. Details here
What about raising the dead? Bring offerings to a sacred grove of dryads and score a good reaction roll. 
How are replacement PCs handled? So far: promoting a retainer to PC status. PCs can also designate heirs to their wealth (minus 10%). New characters always start at 1st level.
Initiative: individual, group, or something else? Group d6 at start of encounter, high roll wins, ties lead to roll-off. Groups alternate for remainder of combat.
Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work? Natural 1 always fails and natural 20 always succeeds. If you're trying some fancy stunt, the referee may interpret rolls more elaborately.
Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet? It could save your life at 0 hp. It's definitely helpful when green slime or spiders are dropping on you from above.
Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly? Yes, absolutely. Ranged attacks target the melee group, with hits distributed randomly among the combatants.
Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything? I'm often surprised by what the party manages to kill, as well as what they have to run from. Setting things on fire is usually a good idea one way or another. 
Level-draining monsters: yes or no? Yes, but you can recover the lost levels with extensive bed rest. 
Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? Usually a failed save just means you take massive damage, so it's likely to be fatal, but there remains a slim chance of survival. 
How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked? Pretty strictly, but I use a simplified encumbrance system similar to LotFP.
What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time? With rare exceptions, XP and advancement is handled only during down time, and no training is necessary. Clerics get new spell access automatically. A magic-user will be offered a new spell by his/her mentor at each level-up through 4th level.
What do I get experience for? Treasure, defeating foes, unlocking new campaign resources.Magic-users get xp for money spent on each original project (e.g. the first time you make a given type of potion).
How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination? If the party is moving at mapping/sneaking speed, I assume they're looking for signs of traps. The locations of traps are therefore usually fairly obvious. How to get past them is a puzzle for the players to work out. Once a strategy is in place, dice rolls help to see if anyone goofs up. Influenced by Ben Robbins "Bad Trap Syndrome," part 1 and part 2.
Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work? Retainers are awesome, and I use B/X morale. 
How do I identify magic items? A magic-user with proper equipment can run some tests and eat up time and resources, and it might even work. Or you can just try doing things and see what happens. 
Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions? Not currently. Opportunities may be discovered in the future, though.
Can I create magic items? When and how? The rules I use are modified from LotFP. I'm also looking at the Crimson Pandect for additional refinements. 
What about splitting the party? I discourage it under most circumstances. As a tactic for outflanking opponents or investigating an enigma, it's fine. As a strategy for exploration, I'd rather not deal with it.

And I'm appending a couple of extras:
What kind of saving throws do you use? Modified from Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox, one target number based on class and level, with modifiers based on class and ability scores.
What's your base currency? Prices and XP are based on a silver standard.

Update: Beedo, of  Dreams in the Lich House, had some good add-ons.
How is alignment used? Among PCs, it's an ethical measure of just how trustworthy the character is, in a Sword & Sorcery or Spaghetti Western way. Among Monsters, it frequently reflects a more cosmological significance.
Are demi-human level limits enforced? Until the players find and make alliance with some demi-humans, there aren't any in the party.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Legends of Partholon: Death's Jester, Rakhir

If you see him in a dungeon, go the other way.
Names & Titles: Rakhir, the Red God, Death's Jester, the Devil Clown, Rictus Mortis, the Clown Prince of Chaos

Symbols & Depiction: Rakhir is imagined as a skull-faced jester in red and black. A skull with a jester's cap or even a harlequin pattern of red & black can be used to signify him.

Prestige: One of the few chaotic gods recognized in the Tyrhennean pantheon, he is regarded as the jester in Valkas' court. He is associated with death and the underworld, and the most absurd and tragic deaths are considered evidence of his uniquely sick sense of humor.

Veneration: There are special coins minted in Tyrhennea, stamped with Rakhir's likeness, that are reserved for offerings at graveyard shrines. As a patron of the dead, he is privy to their lost knowledge, and may be petitioned to reveal what he knows. Such revelations inevitably come in the form of riddles and puzzles, or more subtly as absurd (and even horrible) accidents that inspire insight.

Ancient Delian pottery has been discovered which depicts a skull-faced archer dressed in ragged red and black, shooting down warriors and kings. Gravesites in the distant north sometimes feature a human skull affixed with ram's horns, or statues depicting such a form, often with onyx and ruby gems in the eyes.

They're usually underground,and less cheerful.
Ancient ruins from the height of Agha-yin's dominion occasionally feature a "bone chapel," a temple or shrine dedicated to Rakhir, whose architecture incorporate real skulls and bones. The tradition was continued in ancient Arkhemea, and bone chapels have been commissioned by a handful of Tyrhennean emperors and aristocrats over the last two centuries.  

Legends: Rakhir is said to be charged by Valkas with enforcing the Law of Death, that the dead remain dead, and remain confined to their tombs and the netherworld. Unfortunately, it amuses Rakhir to see this law broken, and so long ago he gave mankind the forbidden knowledge to raise the dead. He is also said to interpret his duties rather loosely, so that the dead are permitted to haunt graveyards and tombs, and wherever their bodies lay unburied.

He appears in the tales of other gods and mortal heroes as a foil, where he may taunt them with valuable knowledge concealed by riddles. He is also depicted playing pranks with dire consequences, which may be as simple as slaying a hero's friend or loved one in a tragic accident, or something that appears quite harmless but leads to great and terrible things. The devastating war that destroyed the ancient kingdom of Ilion began with a prank Rakhir played on the goddess Yuna.

Rakhir has fathered three sons, all considered demigods: the Red Death, the Black Jester, and the Fire Clown. Each has been prophecied at least once either to conquer or destroy the world.

Artifacts: Rakhir is sometimes depicted carrying a kind of scepter bearing the likeness of his head. Many sorcerers believe it is his symbol of authority over the dead, or of his license to jest, jape, and defy the gods. Of course, any mortal who discovered such an object must question whether the Devil Clown has carelessly misplaced his scepter, or has merely set in motion one of his grisly pranks.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Combat Rules II: Melee

Edited because I realized something nifty I wanted to tweak. 


If not in melee, a character can move at at Encounter speed and still take actions (such as casting spells or pulling equipment out of a backpack, etc). This can be used to close into melee and attack. Alternately, a character can move at up to Exploring speed at a run, but can take no other actions.

A combatant in melee can maneuver around an enemy at Encounter speed, given sufficient room, while still attacking. Thus a party may attempt to 'wrap' around an enemy unit to outflank and even surround them. A combatant in melee may also choose to withdraw or retreat from combat in lieu of attacking. A withdraw action moves at 1/2 Encounter speed, and grants the combatant First Strike against an advancing enemy. A retreat action moves at full Encounter speed, but makes the combatant vulnerable against advancing enemies.

If a combatant chooses to advance against an enemy that is withdrawing, the enemy gets First Strike: it makes a melee roll against the advancing combatant as soon as contact is reestablished. Only if the combatant survives does he get to make his own attack against the enemy. In the case of advancing against an enemy that is retreating, the combatant gets +2 AP and ignores the enemy's shield (if any). If no combatant advances on a withdrawing or retreating enemy, the enemy is no longer in melee and can move as normal, including fleeing at a run.

Weapon Choice

I don't use variable damage or Weapon vs AC modifiers, but I do want weapon choice to matter. A few guidelines seem to be sufficient: Swords can be drawn and used in the same round. Blunt instruments are more effective against undead, where cutting and stabbing them generally does half damage.  Axes are normally bearded, and therefore are better at disarming and similar maneuvers. Spears and other long weapons can attack from the second rank. Bows are capable of indirect shots, arching over the line of skirmish to strike further enemy ranks. So on and so forth.

As a general rule, if a combatant is attempting to fight an enemy with superior weaponry (e.g. bringing a dagger to a sword fight), he is "outclassed" and suffers -2 AP. What constitutes "superior weaponry" may change contextually (e.g., once you've slipped past a pike's superior reach, it's the pikeman who is at a disadvantage).

Tactics, Stunts and Maneuvers

If two allies are attacking the same enemy, each enjoys a gang-up bonus of +1 AP. If the allies are on opposite sides of the enemy, they also enjoy a flanking bonus of a further +1 AP. Thus, if the party has completely surrounded a monster, each attacker enjoys a full +2 bonus.

Any combatant can declare a stunt in order to achieve some special result or advantage. Stunts are adjudicated by the referee. In general, if the stunt or tactic provides a clear advantage on par with outflanking an enemy, it's worth a +2 AP bonus. In rare cases, an overwhelming tactic may actually be worth as much as +4! However, stunts can be risky - a poor combat roll may leave the combatant at a disadvantage. The classic example is the fighter leaping off a balcony to attack foes below. This unexpected move could provide a substantial bonus, but an unfortunate roll - say a natural 4 or less - may leave the fighter sprawled at the feet of his enemies.

A combatant may also declare a special move, such as attempting to disarm, push, knockdown, stun, or break through an enemy line. The combat roll is made as usual, including the damage roll. If the AP roll indicates a wound, the enemy can choose either to accept the damage as rolled or to suffer the effects of the special move. On a natural 20, the enemy does not get the choice.

A combatant may fight defensively, foregoing all attacks to concentrate on defense, for a +2 AC bonus. A Fighter gains an extra +2 bonus which may be given to  an adjacent ally. Only a single fighter can defend a given character. 

A fighter armed with a spear or lance can charge the enemy if able to move 40 ft in a line and attack with +2 AP and +1d6 damage. This is most effective when mounted or unencumbered, but the movement can be split across two rounds if not interrupted (such as by being attacked in between).  

If the fighter is defending against a charging enemy and is armed with a spear or lance, he may "set the spear" to gain First Strike and +1d6 damage against the enemy. This counterattack can be attempted as long as the fighter is not surprised.

A PC with "best of 2d6" or "best of 3d6" damage can declare a massive attack. The attack suffers -5 AP, but if a wound is scored, the damage dealt is the total of all damage dice, not just the best. This maneuver is also known as the "Ash Smash," at least by Ash Slayum's allies.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Combat Rules I: the Basics

Philosophically, I regard combat as a complication in the exploration/treasure-hunting game that is D&D. Monster encounters are a risk that can totally derail an expedition, or use up valuable resources (spells, arrows, flasks, hit points, etc), not to mention eating up table-time (of particular importance with my Black Fog rules in play). The party is awarded XP for these encounters as a kind of consolation prize for the resources, or as a reward for good tactics & strategies that allow them to overcome the encounter at little or no cost.

The way that combat itself plays out has been fine-tuned over the years as I increase my understanding of what works for me and what my players enjoy. We have a thorough mix of Combat as Sport vs Combat as War perspectives, so I've tried to aim toward a middle-ground. My players like to meet monsters head-on, but they have also learned not to rely too much on luck or statistics to keep them on their feet.

The combat mechanics start from the Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox rules. Many of my alterations are inspired by the various editions of Basic D&D, from B/X through RC, with borrowings also from AD&D 1st edition and of course the OSR. A number of terms have been renamed either to guide interpretation of the mechanic, or to borrow terminology familiar to my players (so a number of terms have been borrowed from Warhammer 40,000 and Magic: the Gather, for example).

Mechanical Overview

The Partholon campaign uses ascending Armor Class. My calculations differ from those used by S&W, so that an unarmored character is AC 10, and the descending AC 0 is converted to AC 20. Similarly, my calculation of combat modifiers differ slightly, so that a level 1 PC starts with an attack bonus of +1. I do not use variable weapon damage, so all attacks deal d6 damage, and I don't normally use multiple attacks for monsters or for PCs. If a monster attacks twice in a round, that's a special ability.

A natural 20 always penetrates armor, a natural 1 always fails. I don't normally include critical hits or fumbles, but circumstances may call for similar outcomes - such as when a PC attempts some inspired stunt and the dice just hate him.

Time & Movement

A combat round is roughly 10 seconds of game time. A character or monster may move at Encounter speed and still take an action, or run at Explore speed without taking any other action. 

AP vs AC

Attack modifiers are termed AP, which stands for either Attack Power or Armor Penetration. AP is based off of class & level primarily. Dexterity modifies Ranged AP, and Strength modifies Melee AP only when a heavy weapon is being used.

If AP equals or exceeds AC, a wound is scored for 1d6 hp. A PC with HD 4 or better deals the best of 2d6, while a PC with HD 8 or better deals the best of 3d6 damage. A monster with HD 5 or better deals a full 2d6 damage, while a monster with HD 10 or better deals a full 3d6 damage. Monsters with these improved damage ratings may be able to split their attacks among multiple targets, rolling AP vs AC for each target and dealing a single d6 to each.

A damage result that is no more than the target's HD is very minor, suggesting the fatigue of fending off deadly strikes and the dull aches of repeated blows foiled by armor. Of course, this damage adds up, and an exhausted combatant may be unable to mount any meaningful defense. Being nickled and dimed to 0 hp is every bit as dangerous as being dropped by a few brutal hits.

In the course of a round, each combatant is understood to be making several physical attacks against an opponent, as well as parrying and evading incoming attacks. The combat roll abstracts the progress of the entire round to simplify the whole process. Rather than testing attack skill versus defensive skill, and then testing to see whether any damage penetrates armor, D&D checks first whether any damage is scored, and then interprets the damage roll to indicate the relative skill of attack and defensive routines in the process.


When reduced to 0 hp, the PC is not automatically slain. He collapses unconscious and must roll a d6 to determine his status. On a 1 or 2, he is revived after combat ends, but suffers a hampering injury for 2d6 days. On a 4-6, his wounds are more serious and may prove fatal. A roll of 3 is treated as a 1-2 result if he was wearing a helmet, in which case the helm is ruined but his life is surely saved. Without the helm, a roll of 3 is treated as a 4-6 result.

In the case of serious wounds, the PC will not revive after combat ends. The following turn, if he is not revived by magic, he may roll a d6 again. On a 1, he recovers on his own. On a 6, he succumbs to his wounds and dies. On a 2-5, her remains unconscious and must roll again the following turn. In any case, when and if he recovers from this state, he suffers a hampering injury for 2d6 weeks.

If a PC is already injured and receives the same injury again, the effect is extended. If the existing injury has less than two weeks remaining to heal, a repeat of short-term injury is upgraded to long-term. If the existing injury is long-term, compounding the injury makes it permanent. Adding a long-term injury onto a short term injury is a special case: roll a Save with a Con modifier. On a failure, the injury is permanent. On a save, the injury's duration is extended to 3d6 weeks.

Hampering Injuries
1 Arm rendered useless* Cannot put the afflicted arm to use.
2 Eye damaged* -2 Ranged, or blinded if both eyes have become injured
3 Leg impaired* Reduce speed by one level
4 Hideous scars -1 to Reaction rolls, Command, and Leadership
5 Enfeebled (broken ribs or similar) -2 AP, AC, & Carrying capacity, and run at x2 rather than x3
6 Skull-cracked Must roll Int or Wis to cast spells and becomes Berserker**

*In the case of arm, eye, and leg injuries, roll even/odds to determine left/right.
**Berserker characters become irrationally violent during combat. Must roll Wisdom to resist plunging into melee when combat begins, and must similarly roll Wisdom to withdraw or retreat from melee. While in melee, the character gets +2 AP and -2 AC.

I like my players to have some investment in their characters, rather than treating PCs as pawns to play with and discard during the game. At the same time, I want to give players a strong incentive to play smart and retreat from a fight that is going badly. So far I find this injury system serves both goals well.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Supporting Cast: Incanus

Incanus is not amused by your tomfoolery.
Gaius Incanus Figulus is a wizard of the Order of the Silent Circle, and mentor to Bill. In traditional Tyrhennean fashion, he goes by Incanus to all but his closest friends and family members. Even his former apprentices are kept at a rather formal arm's length. He is known in Blackhart's barony as a scholar of some breeding but unexceptional wealth, and his wizardry is not widely known. He upholds the principle that the needs of the community outweigh those of the individual. He's also an expert on fine wines, and maintains a respectable collection.

Incanus is of somewhat imposing presence and sober demeanor, with little appreciation for frivolity. He is diplomatic, compassionate to those in need, but harsh with those who who cause trouble, even to themselves. He has an unfortunate jealous streak, a miserly attachment to money, and a tendency to covet what others possess, but is a truthful man and always gives the gods their due.

Incanus is an expert linguist. In addition to the common tongue and his native Tyrhennean, he is fluent in the languages of Teyzir, ancient Arkhemea, and the Kruthar barbarians, as well as the tongues of both Dark Faeries and Water Faeries, and the arcane tongues of Thiolain and Cydereal.

He is trained in the swordsmanship of the noble class, and Bill can confirm that Incanus casts spells of at least the third rank.