Thursday, May 19, 2016

My next campaign will K.I.S.S.

It looks as though, at long last, The Shade Isle Campaign (v3.0) is winding down.

The player characters are all 10th level, pushing 11th.  As soon as Deliah (the party sorceress) learned the teleport spell, she used her crystal ball to start scrying distant campaign-villain Prince Svartsen of Dolheim so that she could execute a good ol'fashioned scry-'port-gank.

They've destroyed all of the eyes of Izatu-Bal and used the empowered fiend-bane blade Fyndattr to shatter the Ruby Wall in the Temple of Evil Chaos (in a certain borderlandsy keep-like thing that tends to have such things).  They've brought peace and prosperity to the towns of Sægan, Dwerport, Dämmendell, and Rorgan, and become elf-friends to the Grugach tribe of the Dimmenwald (where Connor now resides as Arch-Druid).

They've slain Anarxis the dragon, who turned out to be the Frankenstein-esque creation of a sad, mad alchemist, one Massimo Grigio, who was pining for the hand of the dwarf-queen Zirabeel of Ezulor and needed a means of eliminating all her other suitors and admirers.  A plan which backfired spectacularly, of course, since it led to the death of the queen and the fall of the dwarf-kingdom a century back.  But with Anarxis dead and his treasure-hoard claimed, the dwarves are now restored to Ezulor, and their kingdom of old will grow strong again.

Most of Shade Isle is downright civilized now.

There are a few scattered mysteries yet unsolved here and there, mostly related to the copious evidence that the player characters have uncovered of a Paleolithic alien invasion/visitation.  And the lower levels of Shade Abbey.

The last time I ran this campaign, the player characters reached about 10th level, by which time they were looking at some stairs down to the 7th level under Shade Abby and just went, "nope".  They went back up to the surface and retired to lives of luxury and responsibility.

This crop of characters have, so far, looked down some stairs and pits and other passages down to the various 5th sub-levels under Shade Abbey and have decided that they have better things to do up on the surface.  They are 10th level, functionally invulnerable, and very close to retiring to lives of luxury and responsibility.

I seriously doubt that the campaign has more than two or three sessions' worth of life left in it.



And so it goes: a D&D campaign is really only ever as interesting as its campaign overworld, not its dungeon.  The dungeon is the excuse to grind for treasure and magic, but the real raison d'être for all that seeking of wealth and power in the underworld is so that the characters can then turn around and spend their wealth and exert their power on the overworld.  If the possibilities of the overworld become exhausted (generally because the player characters are now powerful enough to rule everything within their sight), going back into the dungeon becomes pointless.

In other words, most players and player characters aren't really in it for the mystery-solving and the exploration per se.  They're in it for the power-fantasy.

Now, me, I like mega-dungeons.  I love the notion of a whole campaign revolving around a single deep dungeon—especially a mysterious place full of secrets and clues, itching to be put together like puzzle-pieces.  And thanks to this most recent iteration of the Shade Isle Campaign, I've even learned a few things about what makes a good dungeon campaign.  (Yup, even at this late date, an old veteran of a referee like me can still learn something from D&D.  Imagine that.)  This isn't exactly a campaign post-mortem (since the game isn't over yet), but I can at least point out a two big mistakes that I've made:

I shouldn't have dicked around with the experience table and the martial character classes.  By adding a big list of nifty abilities to the fighter and the rogue, I went and made them a lot more powerful than they ought to have been.  Meanwhile, I nerfed the ever-loving crap out of the mage and the cleric and the tech—and, actually, that's been great.  D&D magic-users need some nerfing, and my tech (as originally written in Engines & Empires) is a bit on the broken side at higher levels because devices-built-per-day aren't broken up by effective "spell level".

Meanwhile, I wanted to keep the level advancement slow, and so I made a table that required lots of XP to gain levels.  The result?  (I should've predicted this.)  Even using a silver-standard for the treasure, the player characters eventually needed literal tons of precious metal to go up a level and they were probably the functional equivalent of millionaires by the time the party was pushing 6th level.  They were certainly more than rich enough to start building their own castles before then.

So, two lessons learned: keep to the original XP tables, but slow advancement down by placing less treasure in the game-world.  (Hell, I might even switch to a copper standard just to keep things from becoming mind-numbingly unrealistic from an economic standpoint.)  And don't give fighters and rogues too many special capabilities, just so that players get a "fun widget" every time they level up.  Classic D&D is not a "fun widget" type game, and the martial classes are already capable enough as written.



So, what's next?  The players want more D&D (as opposed to some other system), and for now I'm perfectly happy to oblige them in this.

In fact, I want to run another dungeon-crawler, but I want this one to focus even more strongly on the dungeon-as-mystery or -puzzle.  That means making the town–dungeon dyad as isolated as possible.  Shade Isle was a self-contained sandbox, but one that practically invites the characters to get away from the first town and the big dungeon as quickly as possible and focus on exploring the wilderness instead.  To fulfill my next objective, I have to make the town and the dungeon inviting, and the wilderness as uninviting as possible by contrast.

But I also want to slim down on powerful class abilities for everyone, and even to cut back on my traditional use of six classes, one for each ability score.

I just need to pause here to digress about how blasphemous that is for me: those who follow this blog will know that I when I play D&D at all, I do so more as an homage to JRPGs than anything else.  From my earliest days with the Classic D&D black box, we made sure to add a black belt and a red mage (of sorts) to the class lineup, alongside the included fighter, thief, black mage, and white mage (*cough*) I mean magic-user and cleric classes.  (Since my high school chums and I were as much Tolkien fans as Final Fantasy fans, the inclusion of the elf, dwarf, and halfling classes in the rulebook never seemed like a discrepancy or an intrusion—they were just necessary "extras" for the sake of fantasy-novel genre-emulation.)

But more than any of that, I am a longtime kung-fu and wuxia fan, and the idea of not including something like a monk class is just so utterly alien.  I've occasionally played D&D without steampunk technology, but I can't recall ever having played D&D without martial arts and ch'i powers and ninjas and what-not.  I've said repeatedly on this blog that my OSR works (Engines & Empires and Retro Phaze) are chock-full of overt homages to Final Fantasy, Shining Force, Middle-Earth, and Oz—but if you look at them carefully, there's also a bit of Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and Dragonball worked into their DNA too.

In fact, I'm so entirely used to this "one class for one ability score" convention that I've cooked up and wedded myself to, that if I want to scale things back by eliminating the monk class, I feel as though I have to remove the Constitution ability score from the game altogether (much as I did when creating Retro Phaze).  And that, in turn, leads me onto a rampage of parsimony, wantonly taking a razor of Occam +3 to the list of ability scores.  Let Strength kill Constitution and take its stuff; while Intelligence and Charisma gang up on Wisdom together, tear it in half, and each take a bit for themselves (Intelligence gets the "sense" and "perception" aspects of Wisdom; Charisma gets the "willpower" and "spirit" aspects.)  And along with Constitution and Wisdom go the monk and the cleric, off into the sunset, like the unnecessary alternate fighter and mage classes that they are.



I waffle back and forth, from time to time, over the ability score modifier table and whether I should use it as-written from Classic D&D (with modifiers ranging from −3 to +3), or whether I should look back to earlier editions and stick with the Holmsean/originalist ±1 modifiers for scores outside the median 8–13 range.  In other words, do I want scores to "matter" mechanically a great deal, or not?

I've played it both ways.  With the as-written Classic D&D table, the scores matter as much as they do in the d20 System, and the players have the same attitude towards their ability scores—they care about having "good numbers" and do everything in their power to try and raise them up.  (I find this attitude frustrating, originally coming as I do from the "low scores are fun too!" school of AD&D 2nd edition.)  When the scores don't have significant modifiers and don't matter, though, something feels "missing"—broken, even.  Ability scores and their modifiers are an important tool for differentiating characters and adjudicating actions.  So this time around, I'm going to compromise, with a table that looks like this:

1 … −3
2–3 … −2
4–7 … −1
8–13 … ±0
14–17 … +1
18–19 … +2
20 … +3

We'll see how this plays out.  The same range of modifiers from B/X and BECM is present on the table, but they're spread out so that the vast majority of characters are going to have nil modifiers in most abilities, with the odd ±1 adjustment here or there.  18 still gets to be special (it's a +2!!!), but of course most characters won't ever have an 18 in anything.  (In fact, using this table, the odds of having no modifier are 67%; ±1, 16%; and ±2, half a percent.)

Meanwhile, with only four ability scores—Strength, Dexterity, Intellect, and Charisma—the best way to generate the scores, I think, would be to roll five numbers, pick the best four, and arrange to taste.  (With six attributes, there's more "wiggle room" to absorb a low roll; with four attributes, a really bad roll is going to seem to have more of an impact than it really does.  The extra roll helps to assuage player psychology.)

Then, to keep things somewhat low-powered and low-impact, here's what the scores will actually do:
• Strength modifies hit points (but only once, at 1st level—not at every level) and mêlée to-hit (not damage).
• Dexterity modifies AC and missile to-hit (not damage).
• Intellect modifies all saving throws and, as per usual, starting languages.
• Charisma modifies reaction rolls and follower morale, as per usual (but not number of followers, because that's artificial and silly).

As a stronger means of differentiating between characters, I'm going to go back to letting character race have a more robust mechanical impact.  I've previously talked about the fairy-tale races I'm using in my "Lands of Ælyewinn" setting—dwarfs, fairies, goblins, and ogres.  Here's how I'll translate them into D&D mechanics:

• Humans add +1 to each of their four ability scores.
• Dwarfs are +1 Dex, −1 Str, and as small characters can only wield light or medium weapons, but enjoy −4 to AC vs. large monsters and can move past such creatures unobstructed in combat.
• Fairies are +1 Cha, −1 Int, and get a bonus saving throw (which is sometimes the only saving throw allowed) to resist sleep, charm, hold, or fear effects.
• Goblins are +1 Int, −1 Str, and possess "tunnel-sense" that allows them to intuit their depth underground, sense subtle slopes and grades, and re-trace any path they've trod before.
• Ogres are +1 Str, −1 Int, and tenaciously cling to life and consciousness when wounded.  (In game terms: normally, when characters fall to 0 hp, they must "roll the bones" by rolling 2d3, dying on a result of double threes; ogres instead roll 2d4 and die on double fours.  Further, any character who survives rolling the bones normally rolls 1d6 vs. the result of the roll to see if they can remain conscious—they must beat the bones-result to do so.  Ogres use 1d8 for this roll instead, and if they stay awake, they can keep on fighting without bleeding out.)



Any race can belong to any of the four classes, Fighter, Expert, Mage, and Tech.  Naturally, the fighter's prime ability score is Strength; the expert's is Dexterity; Charisma for the mage; and Intellect for the tech.

The Fighter


Level
Experience
HP
Attack
Save
Special Capabilities
1
0
8
+2
7
Combat Training
2
2,000
12
+2
7
Heroic Fray
3
4,000
16
+3
8
1.5 Attacks per Round
4
8,000
20
+4
9
5
16,000
24
+4
9
2 Attacks per Round
6
32,000
28
+5
10
7
64,000
32
+6
11
2.5 Attacks per Round
8
120,000
36
+6
11
+1 to Strength
9
240,000
40
+7
12
3 Attacks per Round
10
360,000
42
+8
13

Combat Training: Fighters are +1 to damage with unarmed attacks and all weapons.
Heroic Fray: From 2nd level onward, when fighting enemies with 1 HD or less in hand-to-hand combat, fighters can make one attack per experience level against such creatures.
Multiple Attacks: Starting at 3rd level, fighters increase the number of attacks they can make per round with missile weapons or when fighting enemies with 1+1 HD and greater hand-to-hand.  "Half" attacks work like normal attacks but cause half damage, e.g. a 3rd level fighter makes two attacks per round with the extra attack causing half damage.
An 8th level fighter's Strength score goes up permanently by one point.

The Expert


Level
Experience
HP
Attack
Save
Special Capabilities
1
0
6
+2
7
Expertise
2
1,200
9
+2
7
10% Crit Rate
3
2,400
12
+3
8
4
4,800
15
+3
8
Expertise
5
9,600
18
+4
9
Crit ×3, Backstab +3
6
20,000
21
+4
9
15% Crit Rate
7
40,000
24
+5
10
Expertise
8
80,000
27
+5
10
+1 to Dexterity
9
160,000
30
+6
11
Crit ×4, Backstab +4
10
280,000
32
+6
11
Expertise, 20% Crit Rate

NB—My next campaign will use "secondary skills" (á la 2nd edition AD&D or Labyrinth Lord: Advanced Edition Companion) rather than fixed skills and skill points.
Expertise: Most characters start with one secondary skill.  Experts start with two and get more at each of the 4th, 7th, and 10th levels.
Critical Hits and Backstabs: All characters critically hit for double damage on 5% of attacks, and anyone who sneaks up on an enemy and attacks them from behind and unawares gets +2 to hit and crits automatically.  Experts can cause critical hits more frequently in combat (10% of attacks after 2nd level, 15% of attacks after 6th level, and 20% of attacks at 10th level); they cause more damage when they critically hit (triple damage after 5th level, quadruple damage after 9th level); and they get a better bonus to hit from behind (+3 after 5th level, +4 after 9th level).
An 8th level expert's Dexterity goes up permanently by one point.

The Mage


Level
Experience
HP
Attack
Save
Special Capabilities
1
0
6
+2
7
Sense Magic
2
1,500
9
+2
7
3
3,000
12
+2
7
4
6,000
15
+3
8
5
12,000
18
+3
8
6
25,000
21
+4
9
7
50,000
24
+4
9
8
100,000
27
+4
9
+1 to Charisma
9
200,000
30
+5
10
10
300,000
31
+5
10

I'll be using the magic system and the mage class from Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures.  I can't praise this system enough.  Within the OSR community, ACKS gets a lot of (well-deserved) love for fleshing out D&D's stronghold-based endgame.  But Beyond the Wall should get far more love than it does for actually getting "high fantasy" genre magic right.  (The only alteration I need to make to the rules is that all the cantrips and rituals depend on Charisma checks.)

The Tech



Gadget Slots
Level
Experience
HP
Attack
Save
Special Capabilities
Trivial
Simple
Advanced
1
0
4
+2
7
Technology
4
2
2
2,500
6
+2
7
Academia
4
2
3
5,000
8
+2
7
4
3
4
10,000
10
+3
8
5
3
5
20,000
12
+3
8
5
4
6
40,000
14
+4
9
Mr. Wizard
5
4
7
80,000
16
+4
9
5
4
1
8
150,000
18
+4
9
+1 to Intellect
5
5
2
9
300,000
20
+5
10
MacGyver
6
5
2
10
450,000
21
+5
10
6
5
3

Finally, the tech, for which I'll be using this 5th edition engineer class, which I'll readily admit is far superior to my own effort from Engines & Empires, and which is (happily enough) quite compatible with both OD&D and AD&D.  To simplify the tech class for the sake of old-school games, of course, I've stripped away the specialties/sub-classes, leaving only a handful of abilities.
A 1st level tech starts with schematics for five trivial gadgets and three simple gadgets.  More schematics can be learned simply by finding them (rather than by gaining levels).
A 2nd level tech gets a bonus secondary skill which must be an academic subject.
A 6th level tech can damage undead and enchanted monsters with his gadgets as if they were magical.
An 8th level tech permanently increases his Intellect by one point.
A 9th level tech can spend one to three turns reconfiguring up to three of his prepared gadgets, replacing them with other gadgets from his list of schematics known.



A few final notes.  The Ælyewinn setting uses a very simple currency system: 1 gold torr = 10 silver selds = 100 copper erns = 1,000 iron alms.  I'm going to set most prices in erns and alms and award 1 XP for every copper ern that they characters spend to no immediate mechanical benefit.  In other words, treasure can either buy stuff, or it can buy XP.  (This, with the caveat that 9th level characters do in fact earn experience for treasure spent on building their stronghold, which makes 9th level "special" in the way that name level is supposed to be in classic D&D… and there is no level above 10th in these rules, because there doesn't need to be.)

As a bone tossed to realism (along with my elimination of monks and fantasy martial arts whose effectiveness rivals actual weapons), I'm also going to alter armor a bit, as follows:
• No armor is still AC 9, but the weakest armor after that is a buff coat/doublet/gambeson, which offers very poor protection, only AC 8.
• Since the setting isn't medieval, leathers and mail are out.  Medium armor is brigandine or a jack-of-plates, AC 6.
• After that, a fitted cuirass or one-piece breastplate, AC 4.
• A full suit of armor is AC 2.  This is assumed to be field armor rather than thick jousting-plate.
• A shield improves AC by −2 most of the time; a character with a shield can also use it to bash (at −4 to hit for attacking in the off-hand, for 1d3 damage), but this reduces the shield's protection to −1 for that round.

Whew; I think that's everything.



Wow, once again I've written a small book in a single blog-post.  This has been a very long-winded means of saying that I intend for my next D&D game to "keep it simple, stupid".

4 comments:

  1. Sad to hear that Shade Isle is wrapping up. Thanks for running it. Even though I dropped out some time ago, it was one of the best campaigns I've played in.

    Henrik will likely spend the rest of his days in Dammendall, perhaps trying to turn his inventing way away from weapons design and back toward things that improve the quality of life, all while secretly pining for Frau Klackenklamp.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow, thanks, man. Needless to say, open invite any ol' time if you feel like dropping in on the next game.

    RE: Henrik's fate, since he wound up remaining at King Bjornstraand's court for the past three in-game years, it's safe to say he's become an influential fixture within the dwarf-kingdom and more than a mere arms-designer. Also pretty safe to say that since the other players "shipped it", especially Deliah's player, there would've been meddling enough to ensure that Henrik didn't have to pine. (Hell, Gibli the rogue wound up marrying a Gorgon that the party rescued from Shade Abbey.)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oh, I thought the game was ending because you were moving off somewhere!
    Well, I could certainly do that then.
    Also...I think it's funny that they shipped it...especially Deliah's player.

    ...and how do you...with a gorgon... no. No, I'm not letting my mind's eye go there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nah, I still have one more semester to go to graduate, so I won't be moving until next year.

      Delete