Tuesday, October 28, 2008

D&D Nth Edition: The Skill System

In thinking about Skills, I've come to realise that although I really like the basic framework of the skill system from 3e, I don't like the scale that it uses and encourages. What I'm talking about here is the way that it forever scales upwards - so long as characters keep gaining levels, there's no end to how good a character can get. It's fine if you want your game to get superheroic (and D&D 3e does that when you get to the upper levels) but superheroic isn't what I want from D&D. I prefer D&D to hew closer to its pulp fantasy roots, where the protagonists may have been highly skilled, but were generally human in their intrinsic capabilities. That is to say, if you want to do something outside the scope of human ability, you need a spell or a magic item, not more training.

I'm also really not fond of the many situational modifiers and subsystems, and I hate fiddling about with skill points. I want something much more loose and freeform.

So I need to rework the 3e system to work the way I want it to. Here's what I'm thinking:

First off, every skill is going to work off the same Difficulty Class chart. It should look something like this:

Easy Task = DC 10
Moderate Task = DC 15
Difficult Task = DC 20
Very Difficult Task = DC 25
Nearly Impossible Task = DC 30

I haven't actually crunched the numbers to work this out yet, but that's the gist. The DM can just assign a difficulty quickly at the table without going to the book. Sure, they can do that anyway, but I know that I like to follow the rules as much as possible. I'd rather change the rules to suit me than ignore them at the table.

The roll will be the same - 1d20, add your stat modifier, add your skill modifier, try to hit the DC. The stat modifier won't be changing much, except to say that it will be slightly lower than in 3e. But as I'm ditching skill points, the modifier there will be significantly different.

Without skill points, however, I need some other way to measure a character's ability. I'm going to base it off a character's class and background. Say you're a Fighter, and you were a sailor before you turned to adventuring. Looking at the 3e Skill list (and this is by no means the one I'll be using) you would get a flat bonus to the following skills:


Profession (sailor)
Survival (ocean)
Use Rope

So for all the skills above, the character would be rated as Trained and receive, say, a flat +3 bonus to all his checks. Characters can become Experts or Masters in any given skill, and receive a higher bonus. If a character has a skill on his class and profession lists, he'll begin as an Expert in that skill. So the system provides for advancement while still having a ceiling. A rubber ceiling to be certain, since I'm not having a cap on Ability Scores, but in practice I don't expect the numbers to get too high.

That leaves me with the question of Thieves (or Rogues if you prefer). Skills are their bread and butter, and they need to better at them than the other classes. One answer is to allow their bonuses to increase as they gain levels, but I don't like this - it falls into the same super-heroic trap that 3e did, and makes things worse by limiting such actions just to the Thief. The answer comes with the Thief's set of class abilities from old editions, and how they allow the character to do things that others can't

Let's take a look at those abilities now: Open Locks, Pick Pockets, Find/Remove Traps, Move Silently, Hide in Shadows, and Climb Walls.

The trick here is to think of these abilities as extra things that Thieves are capable of, not just things they are better at than other characters. Take Move Silently, for example - other characters can move quietly and sneak up on monsters, but the Thief is the only class that can move while making absolutely no sound at all. Hide in Shadows is much the same - other characters can hide behind objects and out of sight, but the Thief can hide in a shadow and nothing more. Climb Walls allows the Thief to climb smooth surfaces with no hand holds.

Find Traps I'm tempted to allow as an automatic chance for the Thief, and Remove Traps as a chance to just intuitively know how to disable the thing. Any character can try actions that might disable a trap, but the Thief might just know how already.

Open Locks is a bit harder, but I'm toying with making the Thief the only guy who can jimmy locks with sticks and chicken bones and such. Anyone else needs tools.

Pick Pockets is the hardest one to apply this thought to. I may just leave it as is, and give the Thief a higher flat bonus.

So that's how Skills are going to work in my D&D Nth Edition. If you've got any feedback, let me know - the more people I have trying to dissect this thing the better.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

D&D: Nth Edition

With advent of 4th Edition, and my general unenthusiastic response to it, I have come to a conclusion: there's not a single edition of D&D in all its forms that suits me perfectly.

I like the stream-lined core rules of 3rd Edition, but dislike all of the fiddly bits and the ridiculous prep-time for DMs. AD&D (both 1st and 2nd Edition) have my favourite flavour and rules effects (i.e. what the rules are trying to do), but are a bit too random in the implementation of those rules for my tastes. The various forms of Basic are great to play out of the box, but a bit lacking in complexity, especially for PCs. And OD&D is a great free-wheeling system, but it's a little too vague. 4e has a few nuggets I like bolted onto a system that's only barely recognisable as D&D. So what's a dedicated role-player who loves to kill orcs supposed to do in this situation?

There's only one thing to do: roll up my sleeves and write a version of D&D that perfectly fits my taste. I'll be calling it D&D Nth Edition - N for my first name, and N also for the mathematical representation of infinity, as I intend this to the be-all and end-all of D&D for me (apart from my Project of Insanity, which you can read about lower down).

The basic goal of my version of D&D will be this - take the way the rules work in older version of D&D, express them in ways more familiar to modern games, and sprinkle with touches of things that I like from all manner of D&D version and derivative games.

Here are some examples of my thinking on how to improve some of the major elements of the game:

ABILITY SCORES: I won't be changing much here, as the classic six abilities are about the only thing that have remained unchanged from edition to edition. I won't be using the Devil's Tool that is point buy, but I also won't be requiring players to roll 3d6 in order. I'm thinking that 4d6, drop the lowest roll and arrange to taste is where it's at, as that's how I've done things for many years.

As for the various modifiers, I'll be going for something that looks like the unified progression of 3e. I don't want the modifiers to scale quite so high, though, so the bonuses might begin at 14 instead of 12. I also have a problem with the way the modifiers scale downwards - it's easy to model very strong creatures, for instance, but very weak creatures can only go so far down.

RACES: I'll certainly be including the big four: Men, Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings/Hobbits. Half-Orcs I believe also have a niche. Gnomes I'm not so certain about - they're far too similar to Dwarves, and I don't believe that as written they're needed in the game. I need to give them some more thought.

CLASSES: For the moment I'm going to focus on the main four classes - Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User and Thief. Once these guys work, it's time to start thinking about the various sub-classes. But I expect that they'll look much like the classes from 2nd Edition, just with a rules set that looks more like 3e.

SKILLS: I do believe that D&D works better with a skill system in place, but I think the one in 3e is much too fiddly. I toying with the idea of including a list of common skill usages, and a universal chart that maps difficulty to a specific DC - so if something is easy, the DC will be 10 regardless of what skill you are using.

As for choosing skills, I'm tempted to make this function of class and background. Say your character is a Thief who grew up in the circus - he'll be good at all of the regular Thief-type skills, and he'll also know juggling and acrobatics and a bit of animal handling. I prefer it to be a bit more vague and loose. Also, skills won't be scaling up with level - characters will get their Ability bonus, another bonus if they have an aptitude with the skill, and that's that. I might also include a mechanic for training your skills up, but that's also something I need to think about a bit more.

FEATS: In more general terms, I think a degree of character customizability is desirable. Whether it's through a feat system similar to 3e, a power system like 4e, or even Skills and Powers from 2e I haven't decided yet. What I want to avoid is creating a system that discourages using certain tactics if you don't have the relevant feat.

COMBAT: Now, this is something I want to scale back in terms of complexity. 3e combat takes too long, and 4e doesn't look to me to be an improvement on that score. One thing I want to provide is a list of common combat maneuvers, such as a stunning attack or trip or disarm. Things like that are in 3e, but I want to simplify them massively. And feats will enhance these options rather than making them available, because anyone will be able to try this stuff.

MAGIC: Vancian magic stays, because it's part of the essence of D&D. I'm definitely going to rejig the spell levels so that they match with class level - for instance, Fireball will be a 5th level M-U spell rather than 3rd. This won't affect anything mechanically, but to me it seems a lot more intuitive to teach people.

Also, I want to take the spells back to how they worked in earlier editions. Sleep spells with no save, polymorph causing a chance of instant death, raise dead making you lose a point of Constitution, that sort of thing. Many of the problematic spells in 3e had drawbacks in earlier editions - 3e took them out and caused itself a lot of problems.

MONSTERS: Simplify! Simplify! If I can't get these things into two line stat block, I haven't done a good enough job. I plan to go through the various editions and try to boil each monster down to the most interesting and iconic abilities. I might also steal a bit from 4e in this regard, because it does do a lot to make the humanoid races a bit more mechanically interesting.

And that's a general look at my thoughts on this for the moment. I have a lot of other minor things I'm toying with, but I'll be talking about those in later updates, when I can zoom in more on the specifics.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My Biggest Influence

My first encounter with D&D-style fantasy, and with role-playing games I guess, was not with D&D itself. No, the first time I encountered anything even remotely resembling an orc was in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks that followed it.

Lo it was, some 21 years ago, that I found three books in the library of my primary school - The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, The Citadel of Chaos, and The Forest of Doom - the first three books in the Fighting Fantasy series. I was already fairly intrigued by monsters and swords and other such things, so I quickly snapped up the first of these and read it when I got home. It was a pretty mind-blowing experience.

My first adventure was far from auspicious. The set-up is that there's a warlock who lives inside the caves of Firetop Mountain, who has a whole lot of treasure that you intend to steal (presumably over his dead body). Of course he's guarded by all manner of traps and monsters... It's a classic old-school D&D scenario.

So my character went in, and very shortly encountered his first Orc asleep at the guard post. I'd never seen Orcs before in anything, but I quickly learned how to deal with them when the bugger woke up and attacked me - sword in the face! The adventure progressed, I fought a snake, found a key, and generally went the wrong way killing things as I progressed. After a harrowing section full of undead, with nightmare-inducing illustrations, I made it to the maze - and got hopelessly lost as teleport after teleport bamboozled me. I was unable to progress before bedtime claimed yet another adventurer.

From that night on I was hooked on fantasy, and D&D fantasy in particular. And even though the Fighting Fantasy tropes are obviously drawn from D&D, Ian Livingstone and especially Steve Jackson were always able to evoke a unique sense of the unknown. Perhaps it's the different medium at work, but magic in FF always seemed a bit more mysterious and arcane than in its RPG ancestor.

I'm still playing these things, and am currently engaged in an exhaustive exploration of book 2, The Citadel of Chaos. They're a godsend when a D&D group is unavailable, and those by Jackson and Livingstone are chock-full of old-school goodness.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Project of Insanity

I'm not playing any D&D at the moment due to family commitments, but I do have one of my patented Insane Projects currently underway. I'm gradually reading through every D&D product ever, and trying to fit every single thing I find into an ongoing campaign.

Here is a brief overview of how it is going to work. The campaign will start using the original rules from 1974. Piece by piece I will begin including additions and rules changes as the campaign progresses - for example, the Thief class will eventually be introduced, and variable weapon damage will replace the rule where everything does 1d6. As time progresses the game will move into 1st edition AD&D, then to 2nd edition, and so on.

The Basic D&D sets will be there as well should the PCs ever venture into the worlds that operate under those rules (such us the Known World) - because I'll also be incorporating every D&D setting via gates and portals and whatever other means takes my fancy. Even a few of the more significant unofficial settings will be there, such as the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. This is my attempt to build the ultimate sandbox campaign, with a wealth of information at my fingertips that will never run out.

As for adventures, I figure that the OD&D portion will mainly centre around Castles Greyhawk and Blackmoor, with a few oldschool products thrown in for authenticity (i.e. Rob Kuntz's Bottle City, Isle of the Ape, the EX series). Once things progress to AD&D I'll try to include as many official modules as I can, and from there it will be pretty simple to figure out what modules go with what edition.

For anyone interested, I've been charting my progress in this thread. I've just finished dissecting the OD&D boxed set, and will sortly be posting a round-up of what the campaign currently looks like.

Oh, and my players? Don't click the link.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Thus strikes the Thief of Fate!

After 20 years I have realised one my greatest goals in life - I have finally finished Bard's Tale III.

Let me paint the picture for you - it's 1988, a couple of days after Christmas in the Warrnambool Super K-Mart. I have a fistful of money, the princely sum of $30 - to my 10-year-old brain it's a fortune. My face is pressed up against the glass in the computer department, salivating over the various RPGs on offer. Pool of Radiance is beckoning me with it's AD&D-ish goodness (and it didn't hurt that I had recently enjoyed the novel in my youthful folly). But looking over I see another pack, with Bard's Tale I, Bard's Tale II, and Bard's Tale III inside. I'd never heard of them, but my rudimentary grasp of value-for-money informed me that I would be getting three games instead of one. And the graphics on the back looked awesome! (I was soon to discover they were for the Amiga 500 and not the Commodore 64 - a common ploy).

So I got these games home, read the highly amusing manuals, and booted up Bard's Tale I: Tales of the Unknown. Hmmm. The graphics were disappointing, and my painstakingly crafted party was decimated by Nomads before I could even make it to the Shoppe to buy equipment. Somewhat disheartened, I cranked up Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight. Killer intro sequence! But again the game was very difficult. I managed a foray into the starter dungeon this time, only to fall foul of sundry assorted monsters in short order.

I was desperate not to have spent my money incorrectly, and so I loaded up Bard's Tale III: The Thief of Fate. Again, awesome intro. And the graphics! Yes, it's the standard 80s RPG layout - characterstats in one window, messages in another, and what your characters see in another. The general scenery was nothing to write home about, but where the graphics of BTIII excel are the monster portraits. They have so much character, grinning and snarling and waving their swords about. From the moment that I put a posse of Black Hobbits to the sword, I was hooked.

Here's the plot: in Bard's Tale I you saved the town of Skara Brae from the evil wizard Mangar. Some time later, his boss the Mad God Tarjan has come back for revenge and blasted Skara Brae to ruins. So it's up to you to travel the dimensions until you finally get your vengeance on the Big Guy.

I spent a lot of time playing this game during Primary and High School - probably more than any other. It took me forever to get anywhere. I probably spent a good three years tooling around in the starter dungeon before piecing together the clues that allowed me access to the real starter dungeon. It was another year or so before I beat that dungeon and travelled to the first of the alternate worlds, and by the end of uni I was in the third world. It was a slow progress, and I was beginning to believe that beating Bard's Tale III would be one of the great unfulfilled dreams of my life.

In the meantime I had returned to the previous two games in the series and completed those - my initial thoughts of them had been a touch dismissive, and now I'm a huge fan.

But back to Bard's Tale III, I decided a month or so ago to really knuckle down and crack this baby. And, rather disappointingly, it only took me about two weeks. I'd built this game up in my mind sa the king of unbeatable RPGs, but in truth it's not that difficult - it's actually a significant step down from Bard's Tale II. But despite the slight disappointment there are some great moments in the game.

One of the ways that the Bard's Tale series emulates D&D really well is that, at its heart, Bard's Tale is a game of dungeon survival. You enter the dungeons, and you need to keep track of your resources - not just hit points, but spell points, light sources, bard songs, and so on. And you absolutely must make a map, or you'll be hopelessly lost. This game is responsible for reams of missing graph paper from my school's mathematics department, I can tell you.

There are some really fun and interesting worlds to explore in BTIII. Kinestia, with it's dwarven tunnels taken over by robots and the mysterious Urmech, was an unexpected change of pace. The Nazi Soldiers encountered in Tenebrosia were an awesome addition, and a neat bit of foreshadowing for the greatest part of the game - Tarmitia. Tarmitia is a realm of war, and it involves a lot of travelling through time to famous warzones - Hiroshima, Troy, Rome, etc. One minute your fighting Cossacks, then its Nazis, then its Mongols, and the list goes on. It's pretty wild stuff, with a puzzle that will have you going back and forth for a few hours.

The final world, Malefia, was a slight disappointment. I was expecting something balls-hard, but it barely scratched the surface of some of the irritating dungeons from Bard's Tale II. That game had dungeons packed full of teleporters and spinners and darkness zones and antimagic zones and many other things designed to make you rip your hair out. The hardest thing about the Malefia dungeon was mapping it, as there were a lot of portals up and down to navigate.

The final series of fights was quite a challenge, though. Too bad Tarjan himself was a bit weak - my rogue backstabbed him to death before he even got a shot in. I never even got to see his picture! And I objected slightly to the end sequence as well. I'm sure I was supposed to be pleased by the fate of my characters, but what IO really wanted was for them to continue their adventures!

Nevertheless, this is a bona fide classic, and now that I've finished it I feel a little empty. I don't think I'll find another game that I'll want to finish as desperately as I did this one, and a part of me wishes I'd never completed it.