Saturday, September 26, 2009

Lost Colonies Session 4

This session saw the first real attempt at wilderness exploration and a hint at a semblance of a plot. After losing his chitin armor to a roll on the Triple Secret Random Dungeon Fate Chart of Very Probable Doom, Hamlen very much wanted to find the material necessary to replace it. Knowing of a rumor that giant insects roamed the jungle to the south, the party set out to go giant insect hunting.

They bought several extra shields — to take full advantage of the house rule we've been using that a shield can be sacrificed to negate a hit. They brought along a pair of mules to haul the chitin they expected to find. They hired on a cleric to help heal wounds. They bought a potion of plant control from the alchemist. Finally, they asked some of the locals for some information about the area they were about to venture into. Fr. Valinor mentioned that he had not recently heard from a village priest in the vicinity, so the party decided to look him up.

After spending several days wandering and fighting some nasty, very poisonous insects, losing the hired cleric to a failed save v. poison and going through several shields, the party came across a pathway that led to the village they were looking for, or at least what remained of it.

The village was razed and littered with bodies. Among the carnage they found a few bodies that were not like the rest. They were albino, tatooed and had had their heads removed. They did not find the body of the priest.

They scoured the village for clues and found a trail that led to the lair of a wererat. Inside they found an albino body with a head still intact — covered by a magical golden mask. It carried a potion of a metallic liquid and a very rare iron scimitar.

The wererat was defeated by a creative use of a silver holy symbol, a bunch of wrestling and the revelation that the iron scimitar could actually damage the lycanthrope.

The village priest was found, bound, tortured and barely clinging to life. Later, Deacon Guron was told by the priest, a Fr. Taggert, that both the albinos and the wererat were after a relic, the eye of St. Gabriel. It had protected the village from giant insects and allowed them to collect valuable resins and saps in peace. Fr. Taggert hid the relic by gouging out his own eye and replacing it with the relic.

Our session ended with the party taking the priest back to Headwater and delivering their hard-earned chitin to the leather worker.

My players, being used to 3.5 and heavy-handed plots, immediately sniffed out the fact that these bodies and the mask were important. They began to ask my NPCs in earnest, what should we do? I have to admit, I was torn. I could have easily pointed them in a direction I wanted them to go, and they would have gone. This, however, is not the first time they have found clues to what is going on in the background. So far, they have showed little inclination to go where these clues point. I didn't want to force them in a direction they didn't seem to want to go. As such, I didn't push the issue and my NPCs simply said, 'find out more' and 'is there any information you want us to get?' We shall see what happens.

One last thing. Evidently, monstrous spiders in this campaign can speak. A random encounter turned into a very entertaining negotiation that ended with a very clever use of the potion of plant control. This is what I love about random encounters and the need to make things up as you go along — improvisation can come up with wonderful things.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Lost Colonies Session 3

One thing this particular group does very differently than what I am used to is their ready use of one-shot items like scrolls and potions. They have eagerly traded for and bought these items in quantity and burn through them regularly. I have encouraged this by awarding experience for using these items (reflecting the money spent to get them in the first place) because I have enjoyed their creative use. From my own experience, one-shot items were looked down upon and more permanent magical items like rings, armor, etc. were preferred. In fact, I have seen one-shot items often sold or traded in order to procure rings, armor, etc. Rarely, if ever, have I seen one-shot items actually used.

I don't know which is more peculiar — the ready use of one-shot items by this group, or my own disdain for them — but I do see a connection between computer games and this party's style. One-use items are common in all kinds of computer games, which encourage their immediate use. Unlike for myself, these kinds of computer games are a given for all of the players of this group. So, I wouldn't be surprised if this explained the difference in our styles of play.

Thus, when party decided to follow the underground river in the catacombs in hopes of finding Hamlen's beloved spiked club, the party used a pair of climbing potions to rig a rope system to get down a waterfall they eventually found. At the bottem they found themselves in a gigantic cavern covered in a fungal forest and gently lit by a luminescent lichen. Despite the fact the the goal of the quest (the spiked club) was discovered on the shore below the waterfall, the party decided to press on.

They encountered fungal zombies which burst into poisonous spores when killed. Despite two party members failing their saves, they pressed on.

They found a fortress carves from the rock of the cavern wall which was surrounded by a field of bones — evidence of a battle fought many years ago. Of note, many of the bodies did not have heads. The party chose to press on.

They found a hidden cavern with a tunnel and stair that went down. They chose to press on.

This tunnel twisted and turned and finally ended in a T-section. They chose to press on.

The party then encountered a powerful beast with a gaze attack that charmed those who fell victim. The party was quickly split between those who were charmed and those who were not. Only through with creative use of bed blankets and gang tackles did the party miraculously survive; however, the fight caught the attention of more denizens of the deep.

It was at this point that someone complained that this wasn't a first level dungeon. I simply responded that I hadn't forced any one to go anywhere. In a delicious moment, other players chimed in and not only defended me, but declared how much they appreciated the freedom that this style of play gives them — especially in comparison to the adventure path style they were used to.

In an inspired old-school moment, the youngest player in the group (the dwarf Thog) used iron spikes to help seal a door to prevent those monsters from getting through. However, instead of running away, the party decided to delve even deeper into the dungeon.

They came upon a huge cylindrical shaft with another cylinder within it. Both were covered in glowing runes and bridges connected the inner cylinder with the outer on several levels above and below.

Very quickly, the party was attacked from several fronts. Once again, instead of running away, they pressed on. The dwarf found a secret door, which hid a stair case going up. With much relief they finally tried to get out of the dungeon.

In this, they failed. The had pushed too far and too deep for the party to get out prior to the time I had to be home to put my kids to bed. Being merciful, I allowed the party to make a save or roll on the Triple Secret Random Dungeon Fate Chart of Very Probable Doom. The alternative was the certain death of several party memebers. Throg was captured, but alive somewhere in the dungeon and Hamlen escaped but suffered a horrible wound that reduced his Strength and he lost much of his equipment (fortunately he held on to the spiked club).

From my own perspective, this was a highly entertaining session. The party pushed me because they kept going in directions I did not expect. I can't really explain why they pushed so hard into the dungeon. I can see two very different possibilities. One may be because their experience with the far more powerful 3.5 classes made them overconfident. The other may very well be that without carefully crafted CRs that force spell casters to blow through their spells in order to survive any single encounter, the players felt free to push beyond what they normally would do.

Given the reality of the Triple Secret Random Dungeon Fate Chart of Very Probable Doom, however, I expect to see a bit more caution in the future.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Just Say No to Skill Checks

I have stated before that I don't really care for systems that use skills. It wasn't until recently, however, that I came to understand, in a succinct way, why I despise them so much. It comes down to this:

Skills and skill-like mechanisms primarily do not describe what a character can do, rather they describe what a player, especially a Referee, cannot do.

The Thief of D&D is an excellent example of this axiom. I have never been fond of thieves. Apart from my discomfort at their explicit association with illegal activities, I have played in too many campaigns where players with thief characters felt that they needed to break the law. Too many times has party cohesion been damaged by players who try to use their thief skills on other party members. Too many times have I been forced to kill entire parties because a thief dragged everyone into a fight with the city guard over a failed pick pocket attempt. But I digress.

The thief class is defined by their ability to use skills — Open Locks, Remove Traps, Climb Walls, Pick Pockets Hear Noise, Move Silently and Hide in Shadows. As a result these skills tended to become explicitly Thief skills — everyone else at the table was no longer able to use those skills. In other words, the thief class defines what every other player cannot do. It doesn't matter how well anyone describes how their magic user is going to disarm a trap, with the thief and his skills in the game, magic users aren't allowed to disarm the trap — they don't have the skill, so they can't roll for it. Ultimately, this kills creativity. Why bother to describe a creative way for anybody to disarm a trap when the rules will determine that you fail anyway? It doesn't matter if I have a degree in mechanical engineering and can describe exactly the way a trap might function, and exactly how to destroy or stop that mechanism. If my character doesn't have the skill, I am not allowed to disarm that trap. Mechanics start to define the character instead of the player.

There is a way to beat the system, however. Let me begin by giving an example of a great rule:

Love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and all your strength . . . and love your neighbor as yourself. — Mark 12:30-31

When Christ gives us these two commandments, He sets up boundaries beyond which we should not pass; however, within those boundaries we are allowed complete freedom. In other words, good rules don't limit freedom.

Skills can be used in a way that they don't limit what players, especially referees, can do. The key is to understand that you have the power to say no to the skill check. If a player successfully describes how to accomplish something they should be rewarded with success no matter what skills their character has. Don't force them to roll the die — don't kill the creativity.

To give a concrete example, let us look at the D&D thief again. One way to describe this mindset is to understand the thief skills as abilities, not skills. In other words, they are things every one can do, the thief is just able to do them above and beyond the normal adventurer. Thus, every other class can hide, move silently, etc. The thief is just better at it — if he fails to successfully describe how to accomplish a task — using the same criteria as everyone else — he gets a "save," as it were, by rolling the die to use his Thief skills. As abilities, as opposed to skills, they no longer determine what players cannot do.

Don't kill the creativity at your table. Just say no to the skill check.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Misc. Map

Life has intruded, and I have been unable to post anything lately; however, I do have a random map I'd like to share. Enjoy.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Another Weapon vs. AC Table

A friend of mine recently showed off his copy of 1st edition Oriental Adventures, expressing an interest in playing. I have to admit, I am not much of a fan of these rules, because I am not much enamored with the proficiency rules, and never have been. I would, however, be interested in doing a Ruins & Ronins campaign.

Like many, I am fascinated by medieval Japan (Yojimbo is one of my all-time favorite movies). What many may not know, Christianity did exist in Japan prior to the Tokugawa era. As many as 250,000 Japanese became Christian, particularly in the South where Europeans made the most contact. They were wiped out, however, by Tokugawa, who saw them as being a negative foreign influence. Thus, I would be able to explore this aspect of Japanese culture — its mystery and its own fascination with and repulsion of a Christian theology.

My inner geek, however, relishes in the idea of applying weapon vs. AC adjustments in a new way. Ruins & Ronins does three things that are significant in this regard. First, there are no shields, so there doesn't have to be any debate about how to understand them in terms of AC. Second, AC is determined cumulatively by pieces of armor. Finally, characters are given a Base Hit Bonus which goes up as they level. This allows for the weapon vs. AC table to consist of target numbers instead of bonuses and penalties.

Using the weapon vs. AC table in Oriental Adventures as a starting point, I immediately ran into a problem. The Nodachi has vastly superior bonuses across the board than any other weapon in the game. In a European context, this works because there is a tactical choice between the offensive power of the 2H Sword and the defense of a shield (especially if you use a house rule where shields can be used as ablative armor to negate a hit). In R&R there are no shields, thus there is no tactical choice — the nodachi is a vastly superior weapon that everyone will want to use because it makes no tactical sense to do anything else. Thus, I had to start over from scratch.

As I see it, there are four possible patterns for weapons vs. AC that allow for a tactical choice in combat:
1) Weapons that are better vs. heavy armor but worse vs. light or no armor.
2) Weapons that are worse vs. heavy armor but better vs. light or no armor.
3) Weapons that are worse vs. heavy, light and no armor but better vs. medium armor.
4) Weapons that have no bonuses or penalties vs. any armor.

Traditionally, 3 & 4 do not exist in D&D weapon vs. AC tables; however, there is some semblance of them in Chainmail. Since the point of this whole exercise is to add a layer of tactics to weapon choice, I want to use all four patterns.

Weapons can be categorized into three basic types based on damage: Blunt, Slashing and Piercing. These neatly fit into patterns 1, 2, and 3 respectively. This, however, does not allow for the use of pattern 4. I am contemplating using pattern 4 for martial arts, given that Asia is famous for its unarmed combat and it has techniques that can ignore armor — the abstract nature of 0e combat can understand these techniques as holds and throws, for example. Weapons can be further categorized by being one-handed or two-handed.

Here is a rough draft of a Weapon vs. AC table for Ruins & Ronins:

--------Weapon Type

Please note: All numbers are target numbers. MA can also be understood to be AAC. In terms of missile weapons, a Daikyu is considered to be a 2HP and all others are 1HP.

2H=2 Handed; 1H=1 Handed
B=Blunt; S=Slashing; P=Piercing
MA=Martial Arts/Unarmed Combat