Monday, September 29, 2008

Half of D&D's Core Classes Are Crap

OK. A conversation with one of my players convinced me to take a look at the D&D classes.

Let's talk the basics. Fighters vs Magic-Users vs Clerics vs Thieves.

Fighters and Thieves suck. They suck at first level, they suck at mid-range levels, and they suck at high levels.

What is the role of the Magic-User? To cast spells. Can they? Yes. 100% of the time, when they want to cast a spell, unless opposed by the situation (damaged while in the middle of casting), they can cast their spell. For the class that's supposed to be the weakest at low levels, they are the only class that can be counted on to actually do their jobs 100% of the time. And they just get bigger and badder from there. No subclass duplicated the powers of a Magic-User... an Illusionist has a different spell list.

Clerics? Well, depending on your version, they might not get that first level spell at the beginning. But they get to wear any armor, that "no sharp weapons" rule hardly limits them so much (especially in something like BFRPG where there are blunt weapon equivalents in damage to anything with a blade), plus they get to turn undead, and in AD&D they get followers and collect taxes just like fighters. No subclass duplicates the powers of a Cleric... the Druid is a completely different beast, just under the umbrella of "believing spell-caster."

Fighters... what can they do that's unique? Use an axe? ooooo. Clerics get to wear just as much armor, and a cleric's to-hit chart is very competitive for the first ten or so levels. Fighter saving throws suck ass compared to everyone else's. Fighters get on average 1 more hit point per level than clerics, 2 more than thieves. That's not really a lot. As they increase in level, their non-combat capabilities don't increase (unless we're talking followers, and clerics get those too), and clerics and magic-users begin to be able to combat mass amounts of foes, while a fighter might someday get 2 attacks. The "one attack for every level versus opponents of lesser HD" rule is useless. ooo, a 10th level fighter gets 10 attacks against goblins, is that supposed to be a power? Or just something to expediate the foregone conclusion?

And their basic competency... swinging a sword. Against a completely unarmored foe, everything else being average... 55% chance to hit. Right about half the time. A weak-at-first magic user casts his spell 100% of the time. A cleric with a crap wisdom, if using an unadvantageous edition, has an 80% chance to get their spell off (funny that the versions where a first level cleric can't cast a spell at first level don't have this spell failure for low wisdom, either), and the same chances to hit as a fighter does at first level, *and* can turn undead. yoinks, not such a great class here, and especially not at *fighting*.

And then the subclasses of the fighter give added abilities, with precious few drawbacks. They aren't "different flavors entirely," like the illusionist is to the magic-user or the druid to the cleric. They are power-ups and add-ons. The ranger is better at fighting a large selection of enemies, including all of the most usual low-level suspects. The paladin is far an away superior in abilities. You might point out the experience point requirement difference, but that breaks down.

At 5000 experience, you have a 3rd level fighter, 2nd level paladin, or 3rd level ranger.

At 25000 experience, you have a 5th level fighter, 5th level paladin, or 6th level ranger.

At 100000 experience, you have a 7th level fighter, 7th level paladin, or 7th level ranger.

I do not believe the "restrictions" on the paladin and ranger are meaningful unless we agree that the fighter has no compelling qualities of its own. "Sorry, you're not a paladin anymore, you're just a shit fighter now!" The magic item restrictions of a paladin? HAH! Yeah, what other magic items is a fighter going to use? Paladins don't retain wealth... except enough to support themselves, their entourage, and their hold. Gee, how very restrictive, they can't blow all that money on whores and stuff like a real fighter. (Do paladins get experience for the discarded wealth and tithe? If not, how is it a meaningful sacrifice? Simply not being able to give it to the magic user for research?) Does anybody, anywhere, enforce the "will join a party with non-evil neutrals only on a single-expedition basis," or do we get the "Bob's a paladin, *groan* everyone's got to be Good." As far as ability score requirements... doesn't it compound the effectiveness (or pitiable quality) of ability scores to give their basic bonus AND then give access to whiz-bang class abilities?

I think the fighter itself should be beefed up. UA's weapon specialization is there, someone obviously saw the problem, but it takes up an extra proficiency (and that is one of the fighter's few advantages in AD&D, the breadth of possible weapon usage, certainly not the effectiveness once using a weapon), and they go ahead and give it to rangers.

But that's only AD&D, and shit, it's UA, and if you start introducing UA stuff, you'll get some dunderheaded fucknugget demanding to be a Barbarian and that's a shitwagon nobody wants to start riding. ("Our barbarian and our paladin can only adventure together once because the barbarian is neutral, and the cleric has to pretend to be a fighter that 'just happens' to like a mace and the magic user is just some guy hanging around because the barbarian will kill them both if they start being useful and casting spells.") (And what kind of half-ass design cancels out the restriction on using magical weapons at the exact same time that the ability to hit creatures affected only by magical weapons?) (ARRRRGGGGHHHHHHH)

Thieves... oh my god, what is this? Combat effectiveness is zero. Yeah, they can backstab, but they need to strike by surprise. Look at a first level thief's class ability chances.

Pick Pockets... 30%, if everyone involved is the same level. Open Locks? 25%. Find/Remove Traps? 20% (and TWO ROLLS to get the trap cleared). Move Silently? 15%. Hide in Shadows, 10%. Hearing a frickin noise is only 10%, and that caps out at 55%, for the highest level of thieves. Climb Walls actually looks useful at 85%. These are AD&D numbers, mind you. In Mentzer D&D, most are even worse.

Really, when thieves were introduced in the Greyhawk supplement, it's almost like Gary was screwing around with people. "It's too arbitrary to figure out if we find traps or pick pockets! Our referee is unfair! We need rules!" And Gary said... "OK, here's a class! It's CRAP! Hope you're satisfied never succeeding instead of figuring it out yourself!"

Seriously, what is a thief's core function to a D&D party? If your answer is anything different than "climbing that wall right there," then there's a problem.

And yeah, thieves have the "most advantageous" experience point table... but really... let's do another comparison.

At 100,000 XP each, you will have a 7th level cleric, a 7th level fighter, an 8th level magic-user, and an 8th level thief. That "quick advancement" crap doesn't get you very far, does it?And as an 8th level thief, you're still at 57% to open a lock and 55% to find and remove traps. Wow! Aren't you supremely friggin useful to a party closing in on Name Level! Your cleric, wisdom granting, might be able to cast Find Traps SIX TIMES! Your magic-user can cast knock and/or levitate only three times though. I hope your 62% Move Silently and 49% Hide in Shadows gets you close enough for your one-time Backstab attempt... which will have less of a chance to hit than your fighter friend performing a normal attack, and if you're seen, which you will be 50% of the time, your crappy armor class is going to leave you quite exposed to the kind of enemies you're all fighting at 7th-8th level.

... and let's hope there's no Assassin or Monk in the party (who, at 100,000 experience, will be 7th level, with the assassin needing 1 measly point of XP more to get to 8), or you're completely redundant.

So... can we agree that there is a problem? And I do have a couple of solutions that I can think of off the top of my head, and these solutions are based on making the characters more generally useful and effective without making anybody a superman.

For fighters, and just the core fighter, not any subclasses... give an extra attack. So levels 1-6, it's 2 attacks per round. 7-12, 2 attacks per round, and 13+ it's 5/2. And fighters use the monster to-hit matrix, which doesn't give much of a bonus for most of the level spread compared to what the fighter was before, but for example a seventh level fighter is going to be measurably better at, you know, fighting, than a 7th level cleric. Extraordinary strength scores will no longer be necessary to be an effective fighter, although frankly a fighter with such a stat might be friggin scary with these new rules. Maybe best to use this in place of the 18/xx scores in AD&D.

The thief... Easy. Start the thief off with 10% in all categories, and give all the increases as optional points to move around. For example, AD&D, 10% base in all abilities, and then 125 percentile points to distribute as desired. If a thief's going to be a one trick pony, let the poor dude choose which trick it's going to be. And then as levels increase, maybe the guy can become a two-trick, then a three-trick pony instead of some wandering mass of mediocrity while every other class is whomping ass. Is the process of play or the balance of power going to chance because Sneaky the Thief has a 90% open locks at first level? Or can actually be counted on to find a trap? I think not.

Or, if those solutions for the fighter and thief seem too radical... be simpler. Just say fighters use the matrix four levels higher, and use thief skill charts for the character's level +4. Surely a +15% chance to hit at first level for the fighter, and a +20% chance to find traps for a thief, won't kill anything? But at 7th level... the fighter is hitting 30% more often than a cleric (and having an extra attack every other round to boot), and the thief has a 70% chance to hide in shadows for his one effective combat move.

Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Dump Stats: Why?

Depending on your version of D&D...

Strength affects plenty of in-game situations. Combat effectiveness is a big on. Carrying capacity (*if* your game is using encumbrance; many don't), chances of opening doors (how many referees actually require people to roll this to open any old dungeon door?). Strength is very important no matter what class your character is.

Dexterity is another fun one. Adjustments to missile combat, initiative modifiers, armor class modifiers, these are all huge things for a character. Very important no matter who you are, and if you're a thief, hooboy!.

Constitution directly affects hit points. Again, another universally vital stat.

And... that's it. Really, most D&D campaigns can just leave it there. Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma are useless in many games.

A defining feature of traditional gaming is challenging the player, not the character. You don't roll to solve a riddle... you the player have to tell the referee at the table the answer. You don't make a Diplomacy roll, you the player have to role-play the situation and convince the referee with a compelling argument. So we have...

Intelligence. If you're not a magic-user, what use does this have? Hell, in some versions of D&D, the difference between an Int 9 magic-user and an Int 18 magic-user is zippo. In AD&D, there are the intelligence effects on learning spells, but impose those and you'll quickly be thought of as a dick who's hamstringing an already weak (at the beginning of a campaign, anyway) class. Intelligence gives some languages, yeah... but... so? If a referee wants you to talk to that orc, that orc will be able to talk to you, right?

Wisdom. If you're a cleric (and only some versions), this is vitally important. If you're not... well, again, referees who utilize charm and other spells that take control of a character away from a player is generally frowned upon, so that saving throw adjustment just might never be used. And the adjudication of illusions is a 35 year old calamity that people can't seem to agree upon. So... wisdom... *fart*

Charisma. It has no class abilities tied to it whatsoever (unless you are a paladin, and even then it's a checklist item... yes/no and no more), and if you don't use henchmen, what good is it? Who uses reaction rolls anymore? If you're a referee and the player gives some eloquent speech to convince an NPC of something... ignoring the speech and making a roll based only on the character's charisma might be seen as a dick move. But if you base it at all on the player's persuasiveness and effort, what good is the stat? And if is it based on charisma, why would more than one person in the party need a high charisma (besides "what if the party splits up?")?

So what to do? I want Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma to have equal mechanical importance as Strength, Intelligence, and Dexterity. Or if that isn't possible, at least make it so players will be very happy to have a high score in one of these stats and unhappy to have a low score. "Aw darn, my 18 strength and constitution fighter has a 5 Intelligence... shucks!" Yeah, real heartbroken. But you try finding a player who won't be upset that his 18 intelligence magic-user only has a 5 dexterity or constitution (he might be a little more OK with a 5 strength up until the situation is really bad and he needs to defend himself).

So... what to do about this? I have some ideas for Charisma which I'll be laying out there shortly (but even these aren't perfect and doesn't much prevent the "only one guy needs the high score to gain the benefits/prevent the penalties for the party), but I'm stuck on what to do about Intelligence and Wisdom to make them mechanically important to everyone without infringing on the ability of the players to fully role-play based on their own ability.

Help me out.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Veteran of the Psychic Wars Part II...

... I feel like someone's just found a Japanese soldier on a South Pacific island who hasn't heard that World War II is over...

Check this shit out.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Role-Playing Games and Their Modern Simulacra, take two. OUT NOW

It's OUT NOW:

"Looking to instill a little fear in your game? Then look no further!

Nothing brings the thrill – and terror – of discovery to a game like new monsters. Faced with the unknown, mighty-thewed heroes tremble in their hauberks, wizened wizards fumble with their spell books, and even the most audacious of rogues hesitate before plunging into battle.

Nevermore worry that your players have memorized every monster’s stat, power and weakness. Nevermore resort to tired fantasy clichés, and worn out monsters fought a thousand times before. The Random Esoteric Creature Generator ensures that each monster your PCs cross is unique, unexpected, and best of all – unknown. With an unlimited number of horrific combinations, this is the last monster book you will ever need.

Bring terror back to the table with the Random Esoteric Creature Generator!

Rules Set: Systems-neutral, designed to be used with any RPG

Writer: James Edward Raggi IV
Developer: Harley Stroh
Cover Art: Doug Kovacs
Graphic Designer: Peter Bradley
Editor: Ken Hart

GMG4375, 32 pages, $12.99"

Six Page Preview: Here. Three Page (different pages!) Preview, including the full introduction here!

Reviews: Here. And Here. And Here. And Here. And Here. And Here. And Here. And Here. And Here. And here.

(For info about the original LotFP printing, check here.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Reasonable Dedication To A Hobby

Ever bring your RPG along materials on a first date?

The reasons I did so weren't as bad as that question makes it sound. To get from where I am to where I needed to be is a bus or train ride that takes a half hour. And you never do know if the person is actually going to show up (my experience is notification of cancellation happens right at the time you're supposed to meet someplace, if it ever comes at all), and the last thing I want to do is sit in a bus going home being all grumbly. So yeah, my backpack is full of campaign materials pretty much any time I go out to do anything beyond "Go to the corner store for groceries and come back."

Reasonable, I think.

So we get to the part when we are discussing hobbies and such. Some gamers are very careful never to reveal their hobby to strangers, lest they be looked down upon. Me, I'm tired of getting to know someone and only then finding out they think less of me because of one of my passions... and I want to make sure it's clear that Sundays are off limits because I've got the game. (Actually, I tend to hit all the "never talk about this stuff in polite company" subjects as soon as possible so if I am going to lose someone over something like this, it happens immediately without wasting my time... a bit of politics, religion, music fanaticism, RPGs, pro wrestling, comic books, girls... I'm trying to communicate about myself, not some facade of who I think some girl might like me to be...)

She's not horrified, but she's not all that clear on the role-playing thing... so... (this is the
part where I deserve to get my ass kicked, as it is a definite "first date no no") I break the books out of the bag and start showing her things instead of just explaining. The whole "shared imagined space" thing makes a lot more sense when you can pull out a dungeon map and the key, and a couple of character sheets. And I'm sure the binder full of maps of the campaign world I've been using since 1990 was a big hit. And pulling out my copy of the Creature Generator and saying "I did this!" never gets old.

(All gamers should publish something in print form... Any decent print shop, Kinkos included, can make the booklets, so write something, print out 50, mark them up a bit and set yourself up a Paypal button, and spam away on the boards! We're creators and participants, not passive entertainment receivers...)

... and it looks like there will be a second date, so no harm done, I think...

(and if you read this, no, I'm not going to blog about every date we have... unless they involve RPGs... :P)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hmmm. HMMMM.

I spent most of my free time this past week combing through Jason Vey's Spellcraft and Swordplay.

A D&D offshoot, the game has a lot of marvelous ideas, but there is one little thing that especially stood out to me: A character's chance to hit is not determined by class and level, but rather by what weapon is being used against which armor. Class and level just give more attacks, not a greater chance to hit. "Armor Class" isn't a measure of an armor stat or anything like it is in every familiar D&D version... it's just a stand-in for armor type. It might as well be "Armor Class Plate," "Armor Class Chain," etc, instead of numbers. All of the monsters' attacks are assigned a weapon type as well, and their armor classes map to the same ACs the PCs use. This fixes the major goof of AD&D 1E - the weapon versus AC type charts are utterly useless when dealing with monsters instead of NPCs.

In addition to passing along errors I'd spotted, I also had a lot of game design questions (or "differences," or "suggestions," heh), and I started thinking of a way to use this with my other ideas I've had lately. I've never been entirely happy with D&D's combat mechanic, as I believe the abstraction of the system makes it impossible to say exactly what real actions are taking place until the final swing (really, you can roll a 20 to hit, roll maximum damage, and never actually touch the guy; it's just that his luck is running out)... and not only is it never considered this way during play, but the fact that missile fire is run the same way but isn't abstracted (one roll to-hit is one arrow fired)... ay ay ay. Vey's system doesn't solve "the missile weapon problem" but I do believe aids in making the abstracted combat system feel abstract.

But my mind began to work and twist, as it often does. Combine this with Wednesday's post, I scratched up some notes for a D&D-ish variant.

Standard six ability scores, using the BECMI penalty/bonus scheme. I can't figure out how to prevent Intelligence and Wisdom from being dump stats though (I have a ton of ideas about what to do about Charisma... been reading too much Dying Earth to leave it to die).

Four alignments:

Pious (character has been baptised), Heathen (character believes in a pantheon of anthropomorphic gods), Fae (believes "magic" is just part of nature), Infernal (character's soul is, justly or not, damned). Every character must pick an alignment, although animals have no alignment.

Each alignment will give it certain powers against supernatural elements of other alignments. A 0-level pious commoner could "turn" Odin, for example.

Three PC races: Human (the only things on Earth unable to sense the Fae), Elf (can not touch iron or steel, invisible to men), and Dwarf (unable to stand sunlight).

Three classes: Fighter, Spell-Caster, Outlaw. Magic is basic D&D-style, but spell-casters have completely different spell lists depending on their alignment, with absolutely no overlap ( Read and Detect Magic become class powers rather than spells)... and most of the damage-dealing combat spells go under the Infernal spell list...

Combat... taking the idea from S&S, but reconstructing the weapon-versus-AC table to greatly expand the weapons, include monster attack and armor types as unique entries (rather than calling a monster's bite a dagger or sword for purposes of the chart), re-doing all the actual chart numbers of course, and using a d20 (rather than 2d6 as S&S does). All damage and hit dice are d6s, as per OD&D. The first of a character's attacks that hits in a round does d6 damage, every additional attack that hits just increases the damage by one point. "Light" weapons roll 2d6 and take the lower number for damage, "heavy" weapons do the same but take the higher number (that from here).

This would mean that the entire monster roster would have to be re-written from scratch, and the weapons and armor on the equipment list need to be chosen carefully, and that's where the bulk of the detail and time would need to go. Otherwise though, the rest of the rules would be standard. The easy thing to do would be to just copy-and-paste large swaths of BFRPG or Labyrinth Lord, but even though they've declared pretty much all their text "Open Content," I bet I'd catch some shit for it. :D

So then there's the question of what to do with such a thing. The writer in me wants to design a setting as part of this idea to really hammer home what I intend the alignment system to mean as far as gameplay, but in all honesty it's a quick pastiche I came up with after reading a couple of books. The smart thing to do would be to just put the rules out there and let the referee make his own setting assumptions. This is a key point, as modern game design will point to the setting and the meaning of the rules as being the definition of the game itself, whereas traditional game design realizes that's too intrusive and the meaning is given through individual interpretation and game play by the local group, not the hoity-toity game designer. It's a pretty big divide, I think.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Thinking of what could have been...

"I think Orm the Strong would have given all his wealth for such a son as you - not that Ketil and Asmund were weaklings. And failing that, he must be glad indeed to see you joined with his daughter."

I think D&D's greatest fault is its taking influence in such a hodgepodge manner from all sorts of sources... but then focusing game play in a manner influenced by very specific sources.

For all the Tolkien trappings and the Lovecraftian vibe in places and the easily recognizable bits taken from dozens of authors, it's difficult to "get" D&D without having read Leiber or Vance or Howard. That's the core. Loot the place and be a magnificent bastard.

But of the people who have ever played D&D, who ever read Leiber or Vance? Or real Howard? Hell, as my post a couple months back showed, I'm still catching up and I've been playing this game for almost 25 years. Invariably though, whenever people read these guys... the light comes on. "Ohhh... THAT'S what it's all about." More Vance and Leiber, as Conan is pretty much in the public consciousness as a concept.

But what if some of those other influences had become "D&D Prime"?

Imagine elves that can't handle iron or steel. Or that the gods can be turned by any commoner invoking the name of Christ. A magical world that can't be seen by humans unless the magic creatures give them sight... but the humans are able to learn the ways of that magic just as well as the natives. Unbreakable oaths and an understanding that victory means death for the heroes and villains alike. Situations like those set up by the quote at the top of this post.

Or better yet, what if all of these influences had been factored in and made canon choices, by design, from the start?


Saturday, September 6, 2008

One Fine Day in Helsinki... Part Two

Ahhh... pure girl bait.

My copy of BFRPG is cooler than yours.

You'd think she would have been stopped for autographs. But no...

Someone stat up this creature...

Pulped Justice

A couple sessions back I ran the Ruined Monastery adventure (James Maliszewski's contribution to Fight On! #1). In my version, Melchert was a half-goblin cleric, and the purpose of the Monastery and this level was to seal off and guard the lower crypts, which were of ancient and evil origin.

Anyway, they capture Melchert alive. They charm him and question him. And when they have their information... they pass judgement. One of the clerics, armed with a maul, takes a full swing at their bound prisoner to finish him off, execution style. It did so much damage I ruled that it completely crushed his head, sending skull bits, brains, and teeth all over the room.

And considering what he was and what he worshipped, this was considered a righteous act by most, if not all, of the people in the room.

This past session, the PCs were deep in the crypts and cut off from escape by THOUSANDS of undead that awoke behind them. To find a way out, they searched several VIP crypts... and found a vampire. (Mind you, the party was all 1st level save for one 2nd level character). The vampire made them a simple deal: He'll tell them how to get out but they have to transport his coffin to an agreed-on location two days' journey north. Or, he can just kill them.

The fun part is one of the other party members was in another room... and found the way out on his own.

So the vampire's deal changed. "Transport me or die."

So now two party members, including a cleric (not the same one that executed Melchert), are oathbound to transport this vampire's coffin, and protect him from harm.

The complications to throw at them are rather obvious, wouldn't you say?

And the taint of the evil cult's temple and crypts below the Monastery, previously guarded by Saint Gagyx the Grey, has seeped into the world.

Reader Participation

For players:

  1. What would you have done when the righteous cleric, a member of your party for purposes of this question, declares she's going to execute the helpless worshipper of evil?
  2. What would you do realizing two members of your party, undoubtedly good people, are transporting an evil creature, basically to freedom, and are oathbound to do so and make sure no harm comes to it?

For referees:

  1. How would you handle the execution as a referee? (We're using BFRPG, so there are no official alignments, although I still keep track of basic Good/Evil stuff "unofficially." But your game may use alignments, and this cleric had acted roughly NG through previous play... and my players pretty much thought of the execution as a Lawful act, if not a Good one.)
  2. What difficulties would you throw at the characters transporting the vampire?