Saturday, 2 January 2016

D&D Hack: Monsters

Or rather, monster stat blocks. Always something of a contentious issue. "Pathfinder is too complex" "AD&D is too simple"

Personally, I feel like 5e did pretty well with monsters. Their stat blocks aren't as dense as Pathfinder/3.x, and they capture the essence of the monster. It's a pity the Monster Manual has terrible lay-out. Why are Blink Dogs in the appendix? What's a quipper? And why the F*&% are all the "Giant" creatures together, but Succubus/Incubus aren't with the demons or devils? Doesn't matter, I'm ranting.

Justin Alexander, of thealexandrian.net, presents a very simple method for monster creation here, which relies on a table of default statistics.  The idea is that you have a few basic stats, and specify whatever other abilities or stats are crucial for the monster's flavour or identity.

This is, largely, what 5e does (though with less simplicity). Every monster in 5e has at least one interesting feature: wolves have Pack Tactics, goblins have Nimble Escape, orcs have Aggressive, and so on. These abilities tell you a lot about the creatures in question: wolves are better if they gang up, or at least work in pairs. Goblins are great ambushers (ironically, moreso than Bugbears). Orcs are fast on the battlefield, as long as they can see their foes.

The aim is for monsters to be more than bags of hit points. I've found that, as soon as monsters have a specific thing - be it a combat trick, a tactic, even a distinctive look - they're easier to run and more fun for the players.

I'll probably end up using Alexander's table often myself, but it's not very PocketMod-able. So, how can we define the defaults for monsters on one-eighth of a piece of A4 or letter paper?

First, in old-school tradition, monsters add their HD to attack rolls - unless they are "Martial" (add x2, for low-HD town guards and such), or "Clumsy" (add half, in the case of high-HD ogres who can't hit for shit).

AC and HD obviously need to be defined, as does attack damage. HD are probably going to be d8s, but in a 3.x game, it's probably better to use d10s, to compensate for the lack of CON bonuses.

Saving throws? In Labyrinth Lord, monsters mostly had saves identical to a Fighter of their level. Which meant that I needed the Save table on my screen. That's not PocketMod-able, but it did keep the stat block slim. So, we use the Fort/Ref/Will trinity that I think is the best set of saves ever (it's minimalist and intuitive). All monsters add half their HD to all saves, unless specified (Good = add HD, Poor = no bonus).

Speed is 30' walking, unless specified.

Skills... Most of the time, monsters won't need skills. But this is a great place to use the 4 M20 skills: monsters and NPCs don't need the fiddly detail that PCs need. So, if a monster needs a skill, pick Physical, Subterfuge, Knowledge and/or Communication, and give the monster a bonus equal to 1/2 or 1x HD. Easy to improv at the table, easy to note down.

Alternatively, you can just use the Save bonus for the skill. Monsters with good Reflex saves are generally going to be sneaky, and monsters with good Fort saves are going to be good at STRONG things.

Here's a couple of examples:

HD 2, AC 15, Attk 1d6+2.
Nimble Escape (Hide or Disengage as bonus action).
Reflex Good:, Fort: Poor.

HD 8, AC 11, Attk 2d6 (Clumsy)
Fort & Physical: Good, Will: Poor
Ogres are stupid, and tend to hit the closest enemy, or the enemy that hits them the most.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

D&D Hack: skills

Moving on from my last post: skills.

Pathfinder has a broad selection of skills, but I find the skill point allocation far too fiddly.
5e also has a good selection of skills, which is more concise. But most of my players find the skill proficiency mechanic too limiting.
M20 has far too few skills (4!!!), but I like the idea of overlapping skills that, by default, allow easy picking of the related attribute at the time of skill rolling intriguing.

If I base my skill list off 5e, then I can (for instance) collapse Acrobatics & Athletics into the one skill, and just call for STR or DEX as appropriate. Or CON, in the case of endurance feats.

So, what do I consider the minimum? I'll use the M20 skills as a base, and build up from there.

Physical: Athletics, Ride/Handle Animal (one skill)
Subterfuge: Stealth, Disable Device, Sleight of Hand. These, I feel, are the core trinity of rogue skills.
Knowledge: this is a tricky one, because some of the skills under this are Knowledge X skills, but there's also Healing, and perhaps Survival. Crafting? Maybe that can take a leaf out of 5e's book...
Communication: Persuasion, Deceit, Intimidation. Again, core trinity. But I miss the Gather Information of old, which is just a CHA check in 5e. I'm gonna borrow the Streetwise skill from Savage Worlds: it can cover Gather Information, but also a rogue's ability to find contacts, or a fighter's knowledge of his home town's back alleys. It's versatile, and that's what I want.

Here's my list so far:
-Animal Handling (as in 5e, this covers riding as well as training, etc)
-Crafting (specialties: Poison, Smithing, Carpentry, Masonry, etc)
-Deceit (Ye olde Bluff, but with a more generic name)
-Disable Device
-Intimidation (this doesn't just have to be CHA based - INT and STR are also options, based on the situation)
-Knowledge (specialties: Arcana, History, Nature, Religion. Streetwise covers K.Local, which I always felt was missing from 5e, and you can take others if you really want to)
-Perception (WIS based for Spot checks, INT based for investigation rolls. This way the rogue doesn't get shafted by needing another whole new skill)
-Persuasion (like Intimidation, this can be INT based for logical arguments or CHA based for passionate pleas)
-Sleight of Hand (I was just gonna fold this into Stealth, but there's way more applications than just picking pockets)
-Stealth (ye olde Hide in Shadows and Move Silently)
-Survival (for tracking, foraging, navigating, etc)

I wonder if there's anything crucial that I've missed?

Now, for skill mechanics.

At character creation, you can pick a number of skills (by class: Fighters 2, Casters 4, Rogues 6) to be proficient in. Proficiency bonus is equal to 1/2 level, rounded up (so that 1st-level characters get some bonus). In addition, all characters can (when levelling) choose to gain a skill point to allocate to any skill. Rogues can get 2 skill points instead.

DCs will probably be on the 5e scale, as I don't really want +20s on any kind of roll.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Thoughts on D&D design

So, I've been thinking a lot lately about RPG design. My goal is mostly towards minimalism. While I appreciate the mechanical elegance in Pathfinder, I found running it to be wearisome (especially with players telling me I was doing things wrong).

We played Labyrinth Lord (with Tomb of Horrors), and it played fast, but it has no mechanical elegance. A lot of people have tried to mesh the simplicity of design with elegance of design. 5e looks really good, but it has a lot of stuff. Certainly nothing close to Pathfinder and its ilk, but sometimes you just want something that's easy, where all of your character's stuff fits in your head, etc. 

Microlite has both, and I think it's great to introduce newbies to the genre (my wife's uncle took to the game like the proverbial duck last Christmas), but it has too little crunch. I like the mix'n'match feel of the skills, and I plan to use that philosophy -- but 4 skills? I don't think you can create meaningfully diverse PCs at that level. It's worse than LL.

When I was looking up M20, I rediscovered PocketMod booklets. I have 4 of these, and together they summarise: character creation and gameplay, spells (9th levels for 2 classes), monsters, and a GM's guide. On 4 pocket-friendly pieces of paper. How great is that?

So, what am I aiming for? Rules that...
--are short enough to fit on a few PocketMods (like, char.gen, combat, spells, GM stuff).
--allow for players to make meaningful choices when designing characters.
--allow players to make solid characters without system mastery or min maxing.
--simple enough that I have basic structure for anything, but room to rule everything if need be.
--can be played without any reference to the rules (with spells as the only possible exception).

Is this possible? I believe so.

Character creation is going to be modelled off Zak S's post "Since Nobody Asked Me...Here's My Type V", and simple combat with structural room for meaningful combat choices will be based on Sly Flourish's "Guide to Narrative Combat in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition".

Wednesday, 8 April 2015


The clouds that boiled and raged overhead were red, like the blood of mortal men. Bolts of acid-green lightning struck the barren, wasted plain that lay spread out beneath the rocky ledge where the young man knelt.
His golden robes were torn and stained, and his face bruised. But still he was proud as he looked up at his saviour. This person, who called itself the Kesh, was as unearthly as this plane. Where its head should have been floated a diamond of some strange material, like grey porcelain.  When the Kesh spoke, the words rang clear and alien in the young man’s ear.
“Whaat do you askk of usssss?”
“I seek vengeance,” the young man said. He picked a spot where the Kesh’s eyes might have been, and fixed that spot unwaveringly with his own golden eyes.
“Thiis has no meaning to usssss…” The voice was the same, but now there was another figure, dressed in the same shapeless black cloak, and with a head that was the same but quite different. Where the first’s was smooth and unbroken, this was twisted and bent in impossible, indescribable ways.
“I seek blood.”
“Yyou have sufficient for liiiiiife,” spoke a third. Neat fragments of that strange material orbited around the figure’s shoulders in a perfect dance.
“I seek conquest.”
Silence, but for the thunder.
“Thiis we alllso desire.” The young man got the impression that all three of them had spoken. “Contemplation we requirre. Waiit now. We shall send for you. Go noow.”
The three Kesh raised their hands, and an eerie green light washed over the young man. When it cleared, he found himself lying on cold stone, in a dark cavern. He shrugged, and began counting his coins.

Dragons are nothing if not patient.


The early morning twilight sent a cool glow through Scout Commander Vek’s tent canvas. He sighed, and gave up on getting any more sleep. Today was the day, and there was no point in putting it off any longer.
Wearily, he pulled on his boots, opened his tent and breathed deeply from the sharp frosty air. A dozen tents stretched before him, with the obelisk towering over them all. It was a spire of black rock, fifty feet tall, carved in the shape of a dragon. Some of the men had debated prying its glittering eyes loose, but Vek had strongly forbidden it. They were three long days’ march from Anembor Fortress, well past the shadow of Fire Mountain. This deep into the moors, the dragons’ territory, Vek didn’t trust anything. The obelisk was the last landmark the Archmage remembered seeing before his spell failed. Somewhere, within a few miles, they would find the battlefield.
“Wake, you sons of dogs!” he bellowed. “Every man up after the sun is on half rations!”
The sun’s first glimmering rays washed over two perfect rows of soldiers. The studs on their armour gleamed. Each one had a bow and quiver on his back, and a short sword at his waist. All of them had seen things, had lost so much in the past month. Their city, their home, had been rent asunder. Friends and families had burned. Today, perhaps, they would finally find some closure.
After briefing his lieutenants, the scouts split into three parties and began ranging over the hills. The ground was dry, with only sparse grass growing in the frost-hard dirt. Along one ridge, down the valley to the next, on and on they went.
“Hard to imagine anyone living here, isn’t it?” Scout Faedro asked of Vek.
Vek nodded, and took out his farglass. It was carefully wrapped in soft felt, for it cost nearly three years’ pay – if he broke or lost it, the Lord General would demand he pay for the replacement himself. Two or three leagues away, nestled in the shadow of a hill, was a structure. A wide stone terrace, two mammoth statues, a cavernous archway. Very distinctive.
“We’ve gone in the wrong direction,” Vek said. “Return to the obelisk, we’ll take stock with the others.”
Lieutenant Gaber’s party never returned; Vek declared them lost to some draconic sorcery, and led the rest north, on Scout Kaeb’s word.
“It was some kind of pit, Commander, but it didn’t look natural,” he said. “And it was the right distance, too.”
“Nothing about this place is natural,” Vek muttered.
When they crossed the last ridge, Vek thought they had dropped into some kind of hell. There was a hole in the landscape, nearly a quarter-mile across, and half that distance deep. Like some kind of crater, the earth had been scorched black, and glassy rivulets ran through the bedrock. Small green flames winked in and out of existence here and there, like malevolent spirits.

“What in Thor’s name could have happened here?” Vek whispered to himself. “What magic caused such destruction…”


In ages past, the ancient dragon known as Karalor the Gold came to the northern continent, and subjugated the ice dragons who laired in the northern moors. Here he built the great city Ilmyntra, and fathered several great houses of noble dragons.
In time, humans followed Karalor’s path north. Over decades they moved further and further inland, into territory claimed by the dragons. At first, the humans were humble and accepted the tyranny of the dragons. But, inevitably, they grew bolder and sparked conflict. The town of Ravolox became their bastion; it grew into a city and was fortified. Tower fortress were built along the moor border. Three hundred years ago, Ravolox was declared as the northern capital of the human kingdom, and the Rule of Ravolox was declared against the tyranny of the dragons.
The wars were fought for many years, back and forth: the tides of conflict turned for nearly a century. Near the end, Ravolox sent an army of fifty thousand – shielded by many magicks – through the moors and laid waste to Ilmyntra and its environs. For some time, Karalor had been in deep sleep. But with the destruction of his favourite brood-Houses, he woke and became a terrible force to behold. The army that had razed Ilmyntra was burned by him alone. He gathered what dragons had survived, and awoke all the sleeping dragons. All of them – wyrms and drakelings alike – flew south into the territory of men.
Ravolox was defended by knights who rode on griffins, and by many shields of magic. Without this, the city would have fallen. As it was, the city paid a terrible price for staving off defeat. Almost all of the sky-knights and half the wizards were killed – most of them by Karalor himself. Of Karalor’s twenty followers, ten died that week.

As soon as Karalor broke the siege, Ravolox put all of their remaining wizards towards destroying his army. The Archmage Zaedis was a master of scrying; he stayed in his tower, directing the other twenty-five survivors of the guild. Once the battle with Karalor was joined, Zaedis’ spell failed.  

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Reimagining HP for D&D 5e

(Aside: if you want to read the version of this I wrote at midnight after a session, it's on my Tumblr, here.)

I've always disliked tracking hit points for monsters, and I know that it irks my players sometimes. I've tried various methods, like poker chips or using percentile dice; but high-level characters & monsters have so many hp, and dice are liable to be knocked around. So, a solution, inspired by the Wound system from Savage Worlds.

Everyone (PC, NPC or monster) has a Wound Threshold, which is equal the average roll of your hit die and add your CON modifier (and any effects that increase your maximum hit points with level, as from the Toughness feat). Now, whenever you take damage, round it to the nearest multiple of that number. If it's x1, take 1 Wound. If it's x3, take 3 Wounds. When you take Wounds equal to your level (or number of hit dice), you start saving vs. death.

Healing works the same way. Round the number of hp healed that the cure wounds gives you, and heal that many wounds. If you take a short rest, you can heal a number of wounds; you have "healing surges" equal to your level, and regain half that number after a long rest. If you get hit by a wight, and fail the saving throw, the number of wounds you can take is reduced by the same number as you were hit for, etc.

Now, the practical effect of this is that it averages out damage taken. A solid fighter is likely to have a Wound Threshold of 8. So, if they take 4 damage, nothing happens. If they take damage between 5 and 12, they take a wound, and so on. In 5e, I've found that damage outputs are fairly high, and everyone is throwing around damage between 4 and 13 most of the time. Most monsters and most PCs have WTs in this region, so it all balances out in the long run. But wizards and sorcerers are more likely to take a couple Wounds at once, and fighters and barbarians are only rarely going to take more than one in a single hit.

To adjust the lethality of damage (because, I think, it's a bit swingier like this), you can fiddle with how you round damage. Up, down, or Swiss-style; my personal backup if Swiss doesn't work is if the damage is one or two below the Threshold, I'll round up, otherwise I'll round down. This keeps foes with piddly damage averages from constantly wounding fighters with 5 damage, while keeping wizards fragile. It'll take a bit of play-testing, I think. I mean, Ancient Dragons have d20's for hit points, so that's a WT of, like, 15, so they're going to require a LOT of HARD hits. But, then, that's kinda the point of a dragon encounter, right?