Tuesday, August 27, 2019

E&E3: XP Tables and Basic Class Design

I still haven't quite figured out how to compactify the monster chapters yet. It's one of those nagging feelings, like I'm missing a puzzle-piece. I both hate and love that, because I know it will come to me eventually.

In the meanwhile, I thought I'd do a quick post on the (more or less) final form that the character class chapter has taken. Just a few notes and hints and things that I consider relevant or fun.

The 1st version of Engines & Empires was out-in-the-open-covertly Rules Cyclopedia based. All of the class tables went up to 36th level. All of the demi-humans existed as racial classes (though none of them were ever dual-classed: the original E&E elf was explicitly just a cleric with elf racial abilities, for example, in the same way that a BECMI dwarf is a fighter with dwarf abilities).

In the 2nd version of E&E, I kind of halfheartedly broke this up by treating all human characters as single-classed but able to pick any class and take it up to 10th level; and all demi-human characters as automatically dual-classed and able to take both classes up to 8th level, with one of their classes fixed by the choice of race (e.g. elves had to be mage/something and you couldn't dual mage with tech, so elves were either mage/fighters or mage/experts).

In the latest version of E&E, I've abandoned any pretense to race-as-class. It's a little more complicated, but in the end I think most players prefer to have the options. So here's how it works now:
• After players roll stats, they select one of five kindreds: human, elf, dwarf, goblin, or ogre.
• As in the 2nd version of the game, each kindred other than human has a favored and a disfavored attribute score, and if the disfavored score is the higher of the two, you swap them. That hasn't changed.
• But now, any kindred can pick any class (but only one—there's no more dual-classing). The classes are fighter, ace, mage, tech, and scholar. (The scholar serves as a kind of fighter/mage or cleric).
• There are no level limits, but non-human kindreds do have favored and disfavored classes. Humans favor all five classes and advance in them normally. Everyone else has two favored classes in which they advance normally (e.g. ace and mage for elves, or fighter and tech for goblins), and the other three classes are "disfavored" for that kindred and take a −10% XP penalty. If your prime requisite is high enough, your prime XP bonus will cancel out this penalty, but if the prime for that class also happens to be a disfavored attribute for your kindred, that can really mess you up. In short, there won't be a lot of elvish techs or goblin mages running around without an XP penalty (but you can certainly play them if you want to).

And that's pretty much it. Any character can take any one class up to level 10, but if it happens that your favored class lines up with your favored attribute, you're more likely to have a high prime requisite and advance a little faster; and if you try to play against type, you might wind up advancing a little slower. But it will never be more drastic than ±10% of earned XP.

In fact, standing back and looking at the race-and-class system like this, it resembles Basic Fantasy RPG more than any other edition or retro-clone.

But I do limit levels to 10th, for a few reasons. Some of my main sources of inspiration (Beyond the Wall, Dragon Fist) at least stop their tables at 10th, even if they don't explicitly limit character advancement. And I find that a campaign is only really fun up to that level. But stopping there also means that 9th level doesn't have to be some special cutoff like it is in Basic, where suddenly there are no more level titles or hit dice and the XP table kinks linear. I've dropped all of that for E&E3 by making the last experience level "just another level," like so:

Ace XP
Tech XP
Fighter XP
Scholar XP
Mage XP

Ace Titles
Tech Titles
Fighter Titles
Scholar Titles
Mage Titles
Chief Engineer
Top Gun
Master Chief
Lord Paladin
Great Sage
High Magus

Doubling the XP at 10th level holds the endgame off for just a bit longer, and it puts those 10th level spells and inventions a little bit further out of reach for a while. But I do really like how elegantly the five XP tables line up with one another when arranged like so. As for the level titles, I'd already posted those here before, so no real surprises there.

Regarding attacks and saves, I decided to "de-granularize" them and make them work pretty much exactly as in B/X, including the "3-point kink" on the second step up the table that went away between B/X and BECMI. That is, the attack levels for all classes are now:

To-Hit Bonus; Class & Level
+1 ; Fighter 1–3, Ace and Scholar 1–4, Mage and Tech 1–5
+3 ; Fighter 4–6, Ace and Scholar 5–8, Mage and Tech 6–10
+6 ; Fighter 7–9, Ace and Scholar 9–10
+8 ; Fighter 10

Saving throws follow a similar pattern, except that these are now the same for all classes, as they were in E&E1. After doing an analysis on all the save tables in B/X and BECMI, it turns out that if I wanted to average all the saves together to make a single saving throw number, the differences between the classes really do disappear, and the fighter doesn't have "the best saves" compared to the other classes, not really. (In E&E2, I made saves improve at the same rate as attacks to give fighters an advantage in this category, but in actually, that advantage shouldn't be there for a single save number. It turns out that Swords & Wizardry basically had that part exactly right all along.)

But I did want to keep to B/X-style simple, chunky steps. So saving throws now divide all of the characters into three clear tiers:

ST 7-in-20 (35%): Levels 1–4
ST 9-in-20 (45%): Levels 5–8
ST 12-in-20 (60%): Levels 9–10

Finally, regarding the character classes' actual special abilities:

One thing I definitely wanted to keep from the previous two versions of E&E was the absence of weapon and armor restrictions by class. Any class can equip anything. I just like it better that way. So to preserve the fighter's niche of damage output and tanking, they have two special abilities: they can attack twice in melee if the player accepts a to-hit penalty on both attack rolls (the penalty starts out at −5 and gradually dwindles down to −1 at high levels: in other words, in this B/X based game of mine that only goes up to level 10, the fighter never actually quite reaches the point where he can just freely make two attacks per round at no penalty, like a 13th level AD&D fighter or a 15th level B/X fighter); and fighters have a reserve hp pool of 2 hp per level that they can use to heal themselves between encounters (like a paladin's lay on hands, but it only works on the fighter himself; I don't think it's too unbalanced if it's based on the ability of a fighter sub-class).

The ace class is our rogue expy; in addition to extra skills (as is tradition), they have two class perks: whenever initiative is simultaneous, aces act as if they've won the initiative and go first anyway (although enemy aces on opposing sides still tie); and once per day per two levels, an ace can "gamble" on a die roll (attack, save, or skill check), rolling twice and keeping the better roll, and if he happens to roll doubles (meaning, no benefit from the use of the ability), that daily use of the ability is retained rather than used up. (This also serves to push aces into saving their limited uses of this ability for skill checks, rather than combat, since skill checks in E&E3 work as they did in E&E1, rolled on a d6 against a skill rank, rather than under an attribute on d20 as in E&E2).

The mages and techs work as they did in E&E2, with mages having magic and techs having technology. Scholars are like mages that give up all the wizardry and druid magic (keeping only the really priestly-feeling magic) in exchange for better combat stats.

* * *

Oh, and I almost forgot about alignment! Yeah, so… after E&E2 had alignment more or less "fixed" by your choice of race and class (I hear tell that LotFP does a similar thing), I was all ready to keep that pretty much the same going into E&E3… when I decided, there really wasn't a point, it's not a mechanic that ever affects anything except the occasional interaction with a sapient weapon (and I hate sapient weapons and try to avoid them where possible). So (again, making the final product resemble BFRPG even more strongly), I've all but eliminated alignment as a player-facing mechanic.

It still exists in the game: a couple of magical effects target Chaotic creatures. But as things stand now:
• Alignment is a Big Fat Cosmic Deal that mortals barely comprehend. If you're not a mage, your character may not even know that alignment is a Thing that Exists in-universe.
• The three alignments are now called Chaos, Balance, and Order. Mortals never have a permanent alignment, though they certainly may find themselves allied with forces of Chaos, Balance, or Order at a given time, according to circumstances.
• Most creatures, in fact, do not have a permanent alignment. The exceptions are weird-ass aliens and cosmic, planar beings. Abominations and Demons are always of Chaos. Fae and Angels are always of Order. (Yes, Fae are of Order. The realm of Faerie is all about stagnant, unchanging preservation. A place where a mortal can dance away ninety years at an elfin dinner party and never notice the passage of time, then crumble to dust the moment he returns to the material plane. Remember, kids, that Rip Van Winkle shit is horrifying.) Elementals and Nature Spirits are of Balance. And practically nothing else in the game has an alignment.
• The only mechanics that actually interact with alignment are the occasional spell, like a Protection Circle vs. Chaos (which will ward off abominations and demons but do jack-all against anything else, no mater how evil or psychotic or undead or lol-randumb), and the very occasional magical item, like the Holy Avenger sword (double damage to Chaotics). But stuff like this is rare.

So… yeah, that's pretty much all I wanted to talk about. Maybe soon I'll make some progress in the monster department. Still taking suggestions there, if anyone's seen any kickass, really compact bestiaries lately. Until next time, slán go fóill.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Making Headway

Had my first class as a TA. My heart was pounding in my chest with terror at the start. By the end, I felt the same thrill that I feel when DMing: "This was fun, let's do more of this."

So that's cool.

Meanwhile, I'm now up to the point where chapters 1–3 of Engines & Empires (3rd edition, imagine that) are pretty much done. I'm now working my way through chapter 4, technology, which is probably going to be the easiest chapter to revise. I was pretty happy with it during the last go-around, and so I don't need to do more than tweak the text to bring it in line with other changes. (The biggest change here, in fact, is the encumbrance system. I have to switch things over from the 8×8 encumbrance "grid" to the four-column table, so all the encumbrance values of items and gadgets become simple kilograms. E.g., if a thing was EV 2×3 before, it's now just "6 kg" and takes up six cells in a column.)

But when I get to chapter 5, monsters, whoa-Nelly. Previously, monsters took up about half the book's page count. I love monsters, and I love the variety, but I do not need to keep this giant bestiary in the book. It's far too easy to slap some basic monster stats together on the fly, or to re-skin what's already there, and so I really want to trim this section down. (Especially the enormous section on animals.) In fact, I'm starting to feel like the best possible monster stat format is the one used by OD&D's little white booklets, where there's a big table with all the monsters' stats, followed by a very brief description of what each monster is and what it can do.

But, I'm not sold on this. My hesitation comes from a question of usability. Certainly, the big table followed by short descriptions is compact in terms of page-count, but is it functional at the table in those moments when you need to quickly flip to a monster stat-block and remind yourself what it can do? I kind of feel like it would suck (no pun intended for this example) if I had to flip to page 101 and look up the table of "undead monster stats" to see a vampire's AC or move speed, and then flip over to 103 and find the vampire's monster entry to remind myself how the gaze attack or the regeneration worked.

Then again, maybe that's just not a big deal. But I would appreciate some input from other DMs out there. Given the choice, do you prefer monster stat blocks to be whole and expansive (as they are in Holmes, B/X, BECMI, the Rules Cyclopedia, and the various Monster Manuals) or split up into a table of stats and then a block of descriptions (as they appear in the original little booklets, the 1e DMG, and many, many early OD&D and AD&D modules, especially the B-series)?

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Game Over

It is done.

The Table of Chaos is broken. Ascyet Vie Yannarg, Keeper of the Tablet and lich-cleric of Nergal, met the same fate as Ossithrax Pejorative. Neither Orcus nor Set will hold power over death in the realm of Karameikos, in the land of Brun, in the Known World of Mystara, year 1006 After the Crowning of the First Emperor of Thyatis.

Characters died. Most were in decent enough shape to be raised, particularly dwarf-cleric Bruenor, who was unceremoniously stopped dead in his tracks with a power word—kill right at the start of the battle. Poor Harold* the Sorceress, though, she got straight up lightning bolted off a cliff and into a bottomless abyss. And everyone knew what her fate must have been when her familiar, Aspen the tabby-cat, discorporated before their very eyes.

* Not her real name, but she owed lots of people money.

Silverhearte the elf survived with a single hit point. Of three characters that this player has run in three separate campaigns who have all been elves named Silverhearte, this was the first to survive past 3rd level, never mind surviving to see the end of a whole campaign.

Experience levels ranged from 4th to 8th at the end of all things. Most characters were solidly 7th level after calculating XP for the final session. The entire campaign lasted twenty months, a personal record for myself as a DM running OD&D as very nearly by the book as I could manage.

For my part, I think that I won't run another game of D&D (any edition) for a very long time indeed. It has been tremendous fun, most instructive, at times even enlightening, and increasingly tiresome to deal with.

It is probably also time for me to pare down my collection of gaming materials once again, as the pruning mood often strikes me after a long campaign like this, and only once before (when I sold off all of my 1st edition AD&D modules about ten years ago) did I ever for a moment regret it, and then only for a moment. Now I think it's time that I also divested myself of a lot of Classic D&D cruft that I've collected over the years, but which I never use. (I sometimes have occasion to end campaigns by giving away to players the spare Rules Cyclopedias that I somehow manage to accumulate cheaply over time; the tradition has carried on in this instance as well, as more than a few of my players have either expressed interest in Dungeon Mastering their own old-school games, or have already begun to.)

At the moment, I am tired, and a little bit shell-shocked. It is usually the case that the end of an action-packed game session will leave a DM with something like runner's high, as the adrenaline wears off. The end of a campaign, though, comes with a pleasant numbness. Self-granted permission to relax and not be "the DM" at all.

It is freedom.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Big Wrap-Up

This might very well be the last post I have time for before my final year of school kicks off. (Holy fuck, my final year of grad school… it's about damned time.) During this last year, I expect to be too busy to do much of anything involving gaming. On that account, my Barrowmaze campaign is wrapping up, and the last session will be played next Saturday.

The penultimate session saw a very large party (sixteen characters with levels ranging from 1st to 8th, being run into the dungeon by ten players) go full "balls to the wall," speedily ransacking a path from the northwest corner of the Barrowmaze to the northeast, using whatever divinatory means they had at their disposal (now considerable, between their two crystal balls and their 11th level patriarch ally who can commune). They started the session by fighting their way to the Pit of Chaos and chucking in the Fount of Law ("killing the spawn point," as they put it) and then making a mad dash for the lair of Ossithrax Pejorative (they ganked the draco-lich in two rounds flat; there is a bloody reason I bump the haste spell up to 4th level when I run D&D).

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Level Titles, Cont'd

Just a brief follow-up, this time.

While the zombie-OSR blog-space blows up over JB's rant against ability checks (my answer to his complaints boils down to the following: (1) yes, ability checks that work by rolling under a stat on 1d20 are a bad mechanic, but that's all they are, kind of a bad idea that doesn't really work because of the math, not Everything Wrong with D&D; (2) no, a character's class should not be the sum total of how a character interacts with the game, and while D&D can certainly function without them, Secondary Skills are a Rather Good Thing™ if you want to flesh characters out a little more and give them some detail—or maybe just let a fighter build a goddamned boat, because yes Virginia sometimes heroes are MacGuyver) . . . I hereby present the table of level titles I'm now using in my weekly Barrowmaze – Caverns of Thracia – Stonehell – Isle of Dread campaign (soon to enter its 20th consecutive month; a fair number of 7th level characters now, but nobody has hit level eight yet):

Level Titles

It's weird how campaigns evolve in their own way over time. I started the game with a fairly robust but complete little spread of twelve playable classes, six human and six non-human, but someone wanted to play a dwarf-cleric, so now we have GAZ6 dwarf-clerics. And the players running spell-casters wanted access to more necromancy spells ('cuz, y'know, Barrowmaze), and so the caster classes got re-organized to include a few sub-classes. And I got really nostalgic and missed having psionicists around. So now the system looks like this:

• Human Classes: Fighter (Str), Rogue (Dex), Monk (Con), Wizard (Int*), Cleric (Wis),  Psychic (Cha).
— Wizard Sub-Classes: White Wizard (casts arcane and druidic spells), Grey Wizard (casts arcane and illusionist spells), Dark Wizard (casts arcane and necromantic spells), White, Grey, or Dark Witch (wizard of any sub-class who uses Cha instead of Int as a prime requisite.
— Cleric Sub-Classes: Priest (casts clerical and reversed necromantic spells), Druid (casts clerical and druidic spells), Bard (casts clerical and illusionist spells).
• Demi-Human Classes: High Elf (fighter/wizard), Silvan Elf (rogue/druid), Orc (fighter/rogue), Hill Gnome (bard with a bit of fighter/druid), Forest Gnome (rogue with a bit of fighter), Dwarf (fighter), Dwarf-Cleric (fighter/cleric).

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Level Titles

I love level titles. They're one of those weird little aspects of D&D that make me go, "yeah, this is D&D!" whenever I see them.

I find it very, very odd that they've been absent from every version of the Advanced game since 2nd edition. I find it even stranger that they're absent from the Rules Cyclopedia (in spite of the fact that they do appear in the 90s boxed sets, the 1070 black box and the 1106 tan box, at least up to 5th level). Well, maybe it's not strange exactly, since it was obvious that by the time GAZ1 came out, the writers working on the basic D&D game did not like level titles and wanted to remove them (and as far as the Mystara setting was, the text of the gazetteers largely invalidated them).

But I like them and use them (though often in abbreviated form, say, changing a character's level title once at 4th and then again at 8th or 9th), and I thought that I might as well get around to putting them back in both my ongoing campaign and my personal rules.

I've written up a version of the monk and psychic classes that I'm using in my local Barrowmaze campaign that has level titles—yes, I've gone and added a psionic class to my basic D&D game, purely out of nostalgia for the way I played 2nd edition back in high school.

As I work through revising Engines & Empires, I've also decided to put level titles back there too. For each of the classes that are going to appear, here's what I'm thinking so far (NB, I'm re-naming the expert class to "ace" in the new edition to make the class sound more roguish and adventurous):

Fighter: Veteran, Swordsman, Duelist, Hero, Swashbuckler, Knight, Champion, Superhero, Paladin.
Ace: Apprentice, Journeyman, Tradesman, Expert, Specialist, Agent, Operative, Professional, Maverick.
Scholar: Collegiate, Baccalaureate, Master, Doctor, Fellow, Professor, Emeritus, Philosopher, Sage.
Mage: Medium, Seer, Conjurer, Magician, Enchanter, Warlock, Sorcerer, Archmage, Wizard.
Tech: Tinker, Wright, Craftsman, Machinist, Mechanic, Technician, Technologist, Engineer, Chief Engineer.

As I go through the rules, I find myself cleaning up a lot of stuff that didn't work quite right, and just plain putting a lot of stuff "back to the way it was" in the B/E editions. It's subtle in a lot of cases, but… ah, well, you'll see soon enough. Like, nixing critical hits, or putting prime requisite XP bonuses back in the game. It's just these little things that make D&D feel like D&D again.

Warm fuzzy feeling inside. You know what I mean.

Crap… this, uh, this blog post just sort of fizzled out like Strong Bad E-Mail #15.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Gaming today, and so very excited

After a couple of weeks of interruptions, in part due to my own burdensome schedule, and in part due to an over-crowded comic-book shop two weeks in a row (first from a card set release, then because of New Comic Book day), my D&D group's last regular meeting was April 20th. We squeezed in a short session, with only half the players able to make it, and at a different venue than we're used to, on May the 4th; but it really does feel like I haven't gamed in a month. Probably because I did at least a month's worth of schoolwork in the last week of the semester, and I've forgotten what fun is like.

Anyway, after many trials and tribulations on the high seas, and a second dead PC the last time we played, I expect that the party will at last reach the Isle of Dread today. And have I put the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan somewhere on the isle? You bet your sweet bippy I have.

It'll also be the first time gaming with a pile of new equipment: custom .75" grid battle-mat, a new hand-made DM screen, some numbered checkers to serve as monster tokens, and a snap-together felt-and-leather dice-tray (it is so choice; if you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up).

Yeah, baby. I'm psyched for this.

Red, blue, green, black, and gold panels,
for each box in the BECMI series.