D&D Alignment

Thought I would post this here for posterity; I wanted to share my thoughts on why people complain about the 2-axis alignment system in D&D doesn’t work, why it gets thrown out, or has no real impact on the game.

To those saying alignment doesn’t work in 5e: D&D’s bi-axial alignment system has NEVER worked (at least it doesn’t seem as though it’s really worked as intended), but moral relativism totally kills it. Now, I’m not even talking about real-world moral relativism, cultural rot, yadda-yadda-yadda, but the trend towards standardizing monstrous and non-human PCs.

By using two axes, chaos moved away from, in the minds of gamers, opposition to Laws of Nature to opposition to the Laws of Man.

The Law of Man can be good or evil, but the cultural/moral relativism introduced by moving the adventuring party outside of the traditional heroic fantasy framework makes it even more difficult for the alignment system to usefully reflect anything about a party.

A “Lawful” party would act on behalf of the world of man against the world of fae/demons/tangible evils, while “chaotic” parties would treat with those forces for their own benefits. A “Good” party in the two axis system would act on behalf of the commonweal, or to its benefit.

But when everyone is playing half-demons, orclings, and priests of nebulous gods of mystic ambivalence, then, yeah, alignment means jack. The cultural and moral framework of elves, half-demons, fae-cat-girls, and all of the other dumb shit you see in post TSR D&D are so alien to the traditionally western framework of morality that both the 1 and 2 axis alignment systems were designed to model, of course it’s not going to actually work!

PC Bushi noted that it might be useful for stuff like Protection from Evil, but Protection from Evil was originally in a system without the Evil alignment axis! Evil was supposed to be so self-apparent to people who were around the table that it didn’t need to be explicitly spelled out what Evil was. The big problem with alignment is that the sort of parties people run today often look like out-of-depth monster encounters old parties had to fight: “You see two orcs warriors, a half-demon thief, a cat-man with a lute, and an elf wizard. They are the lawful-good party at table 2.”

While the alignment system has never been very good, a lot of folks complain that it doesn’t work without really understanding WHY it’s not even working for what they think it’s supposed to be use for or why so many DMs just toss the whole thing out entirely. A DM doesn’t have any justification for dealing with alignment mechanics for your blood-god-worshiping cat-elf being Lawful Good within the framework of its own culture. It’s easier to just ignore the implications of a system that was initially built upon an objective approach to morality within a cosmology rather than attempt to apply that framework to alien cultures and moralities.

Related Reading https://gamingwhileconservative.wordpress.com/2017/07/18/the-angry-gm-is-a-fking-coward/

Related (TL;DR) Reading http://theangrygm.com/conflicted-and-misaligned/

Note: More on this later, as I expound upon how D&D’s in-game cosmology accounts for much of the mechanical aspect of alignment and why it “doesn’t work” at the table in many folks’ games.

The Real Problem With Story Games

The real problem with story games isn’t that the game has a story. It’s not that a system has too much crunch or too little. Some people think that the solution to a story game is more crunch because they think that the problem is that the story game just doesn’t have the robust mechanics necessary for a gritty adventure. Except it’s almost never the mechanics that leave story games hamstrung but the attempt to use a game to tell a story rather than allow a story to emerge from game-play.

Games and gaming, and especially tabletop rpgs, are about player agency. It’s an interactive medium where the player’s actions and decisions have outcomes and affect the environment, setting, and conclusion. The problem with so many story games I’ve played is that players are denied agency, or at best given the illusion of agency, in the name of ensuring that the story is told.

So many story games I’ve played in, regardless of the system (yes, I’ve been in a B/X story game with next to no player agency), have failed at the “game” portion of story gaming. Instead, what players tend to get are story nodes with false challenges that amount to “roll high enough that you will be allowed to move to the next story node”. There’s not much actually determining what story node you’re going to next, nor is there any real penalty for failing to roll high enough other than delaying the inevitable progression towards the final story node.

No matter what, eventually, the rails are spotted, the lack of agency becomes apparent, and I can’t help but lose all interest in what’s happening.

In a recent game, there was a series of the aforementioned challenges. They were just window-dressing, though: cool things to ooh and aah at that had no real bearing on the outcome of the scenario. Yes, we might scrape a knee from failing a saving throw or two, but even failing every last challenge miserably would only ever result in insignificant damage to characters in such a way as to only delay, somewhat, the inevitable victorious conclusion of the story.

Imagine playing a racing video game: imagine blasting through an obstacle course at over 100 mph, narrowly avoiding all sorts of perils. You think you’re doing great, but then you slip – you run into a wall. Except you don’t. Your car bounces off and continues on, unaffected by your blunder. You begin to ask yourself, was I really doing well before? You begin to try to ram your car into walls, barrels, pylons, tank-traps, you name it, but so long as you’re holding the “go” button down, you keep on going, and the computer keeps the other racers just slow enough that none of them are able to overtake you despite your intentional mistakes. I can’t fathom anyone finding that to be a rewarding experience!

Now, I’ve also been in story games where the party did “lose”, but there, one had an incredibly drawn-out and ponderous route to reach the one point of the game where player action did matter, and it would all come down to one big fight, more or less regardless of how the players got there. And frankly, that’s not all that fun for me either.

Let players actually do things. Let them mess up and lose. Let them sequence break. Don’t make a game a series of rolls to see if you can tell your players the next detail you want to tell them. And if there’s an island that is obviously the important place everyone is supposed to go to and 5 minutes in a player says “Let’s find a canoe and go out to the island”, there’s no point in dithering around for two hours waiting for the “story” to reveal that you’re supposed to get a canoe and take it out to the island!

Guns of Pellucidar – Pt 3

The assault on the Nazi forward base went both smoother in some regards and rougher in others than I’d hoped. Rougher because I was using too many scales (I didn’t want a huge base, but I wanted the players to be able to tactically maneuver, so I used 500ft sub-hexes within an approx. 1.5 mile portion of the 6 mile hex). Smoother because somehow the party managed to pull it off with only three characters dying (the little Wehrmacht force made some really bad rolls).

The party wisely kept off the main game trail and skirted around a machine gun nest that could’ve mowed them down, had they taken it straight to the base. A jungle snake grabbed one of the guys and nearly killed him, but the medic managed to juice him up to keep him standing for the op. The snake didn’t last long against several guys with trench knives and bayonets, and the otherwise ineffective commu guy managed to put in the killing blow. Also, since they went counterclockwise around the outskirts of the base, they didn’t run into any patrols. Had they tried to go around the south side, they would’ve crossed paths with an SMG scout team.

The base was made up of 4 sandbag walls with light machine gun teams at the four corners of the base, each covering a portion of the treeline, two crude towers with observers and snipers, and some tents. The party approached from the northeast corner and not only did the observation tower abysmally fail their awareness roll, the machine gun team critically failed, so were busy smoking and chatting instead of watching the treeline.

The sniper tried to take a shot at one of the machine gunners, but just barely missed. That gave the signal to the mortar team, who began shelling the area where the tents were. The players quickly overran the gunners’ nest, but fooling around with the MG 42 and trying to get it and all of associated junk moved to the other side of the barrier cost a few guys their lives. Except for the sniper, most of the Nazis were lousy shots, and eventually the combined fire of a couple BAR gunners, the guys who got the MG 42 up and firing, the mortar fire creating confusion, and the other assault teams eventually honing in on where the fire was.

By the time the German patrols got back to the clearing to respond, all hell had already broken loose.

Really, this fight was probably a foregone conclusion from the outset for a handful of reasons. There were only about 60-80 Nazis in the hex in total, 50 of whom were in the sub-hexes the party was going through. The Allies put 130 men out of their 180-200 total, because it was a do-or-die op, so there were several teams in the hex reconning in force. They were going to win (probably), it was just a matter of how many PCs died in the process while I tested the upper bounds of how combat in this could scale.

Holes in my rules:

Suppressive fire doesn’t quite work the way I hoped in fire-fights. I need to figure a way for suppressive auto fire to pin guys who are in cover. Probably I will just allow extra attacks against targets that pop-up from behind cover to take a shot.

Sniping needs to be a bit more refined. Most of the sniping rules assume relatively close sniping range. I need something for longshot sniping. Enemy snipers will also make pretty short work of characters, since it’s not even an active save vs. death roll; the enemy sniper just has to roll under his dex, so the one sniper in the tower probably did more damage picking off the guys fooling with MG-42.

Movement rules are based on D&D and assume standard D&D distances. Doing a hex-crawl on a quasi-tactical level put it under some strain. The battle area was large enough that groups could move round-robin through several hexes avoiding combat all together, but the scale was such that folks could fire at one another from adjacent hexes and, in some cases, from multiple hexes away. The pain point was determining where in the 500 ft hex anyone was during a round and how that might have affected combat variables. By the time the minis were broken out, I got away with it by acknowledging that the positioning of the minis were not to scale combined with the fact that the party spent most of the fight pinned down but with much heavier firepower at their disposal than the Germans had.

 

I think that this will work out better for smaller-scale fights, like against a single strongpoint or pillbox, or against some random Aufklarung unit they might happen upon.

Also, so far this has been more of a serial wargame disguised as an RPG rather than an actual RPG, and I’m pretty okay with that for the moment. I’ve already acknowledged that this is basically turning into a tabletop version of Close Combat, which has definitely scratched an itch for me. But I would like to see a bit more roleplaying elements worked in eventually.

So long as the party stays in the immediate area of their base camp, they’re going to be under the orders of the commanding officers and answerable for all of their actions, so no murderhoboing, obviously. I’m hoping that they’ll eventually take up an opportunity to do some advanced scouting and get far enough away that they have to become a self-sustaining fighting unit in the wilds of Pellucidar, meeting some natives besides angry Lizardmen. I’d like to eventually peel away some of the military trappings bit by bit as it becomes more of a “dudes lost in the jungle, fighting to stay alive – also there are Nazis” game.

But I’m also finding that I’m already itching to be back on the player side of the table and break out DCC again…

More Pellucidar

So, my Pellucidar game is running smoothly and playing better than I could’ve expected. My initial theories on how combat would play out have all proven correct so far, but the next session will test how well firearms vs. firearms battles will work.

Friday, the party did some more mapping, with orders to recon the area immediately adjacent to their new base camp. While they pussy-footed a bit more than i would’ve liked, I can’t blame them for wanting to return directly to their camp after each encounter (though they were somewhat punished for it with the first hex).

The first hex they explored, they found some Draco Lizards; rather than leave well enough alone, they took the opportunity to use the giant lizards for some target practice, not knowing that they were up against 8 of them and had only spotted 2. Some of the other lizards came at them through and from the trees. While they killed and hurt a couple, they still got a few big bites taken out of them before they managed to drive the beasts off. A perverse desire to haul the carcasses back to camp meant they were slowed down enough to warrant an extra random encounter roll, which led to a pack of mountain lions ambushing those carrying the two carcasses. It cost the life of the medic, but a few rifle shots killed or drove off the big cats.

Fireteam got some fresh blood and kept exploring, managing to ambush an allosaurus on a game trail. If the allosaurus had not rolled a 1 on its perception roll and the players hadn’t got a free round to fire on them, at least one guy woulda been ate before the beast went down.

Last hex, I rolled for a Nazi base in a forest on my random terrain generator, so I asked if we could call it while I came up with some content for it.

I’m making a sub-hexmap for a relevant portion of the hex, where I’m putting in a small Nazi forward base. Along the game trails will be a couple of strong-points, and there will be a few patrols. The main base will be set in a clearing where they’ve pushed back the treeline and set up a few machine gun teams in front of a couple crude observation towers (scoped Mausers!).

This will be a damn tough fight if my players try to attack the base head-on. The first strong-point should be a warning, but if they just come out of the treeline, especially if they’ve alerted the base with a fire-fight, they’ll almost certainly be mowed down by MG42 fire.

I HOPE that they will remember that there’s a pack howitzer setup on a mountain top in the adjacent hex and that they have mortar teams at their disposal. Otherwise, the 30-50 Nazis hanging out in this hex will not only repulse the attack but almost certainly jeopardize the Allied base camp (which is apparently just a 12 miles south of another tribe of lizardmen! ::I rolled up to see what happened to the other NPC scout teams, and those guys didn’t come back…::).

I’m actually to the point where I may need to figure out how many guys are in the US company; they’ve lost one entire team, and probably about 15 or so other soldiers (so maybe 25-30 KIA/MIA). Some of them went back with the dirigible to pick up more supplies once the mountain base was established. Some of them will HAVE to stay back at camp to keep it secure. So, I guess if I want to really ramp up the scale, I could have as many as 100 soldiers dedicated to this particular OP. I’ll probably use some handwaiving for the NPC fireteams who will be a) reconning other parts of the hex, b) possibly flanking to get a better position for the assault on the base, c) getting into fire-fights with Nazi scouting teams, d) acting as “off-board” artillery as mortar teams.

This will be the first real test of the Star Frontiers Advanced Combat Order I’ve been using for initiative by side. Up until now, initiative hasn’t mattered too much, because whether the players win or lose initiative, you’d better believe they’re going to hang tight, guns ready, and shoot at whatever’s coming towards them. A couple times against the lizard men, the lizard men got some javelins in, but guns are always going to go off first against enemies who don’t have a ranged attack. With the Nazis, though, the players will be facing substantial fire themselves for the first time.

Crypt of the Ultralich Index Card D&D Booster Pack

I haven’t actually written up these cards or used them in a game, but I was toying around with this idea. This is an example of the sort of “set” I tend to write up if I’m in a game of Index Card D&D.

I’m a big fan of ridiculous spells and random effects. Several of my past spells have had bizarre effects ranging from “regain a few HP” to “take 30 damage and deal 60 damage divided any way you choose”.

So, uh… here are a few ideas I had while trying to stay awake Sunday on the drive back from Dallas.

Indestructible Dweomer of the Ultralich – Spell

DC: 0

Lose all HP. Become undead. Gain one spell die for each HP lost. Damage reduces spell dice instead of HP. Character dies when spell dice pool reaches 0. Gain following DC-4 spell ability: prevent damage from one source.

Lifecurse of the Ultralich – Trap

DC: 14

All PCs in a room regain all missing HP. All undead in a room must save against DC 14 or be destroyed.

Bloodsword of the Ultralich – Treasure

1d8 damage

+2 to attacks

For each 4 damage done using this sword, gain 1 spell die.

Urion the Ultralich – Monster

4HD x # of players

AC 13

  1. Casts random PC spell; if no PC spells, draw top card & use as spell, item or “summon”
  2. Turn random PC Undead
  3. Random Undead in room takes 10 damage
  4. Living heal 10, Urion takes 10 dmg, undead PCs take 20 dmg
  5. Summon 1d6 1HP AC 10 skeleton guards; PCs must att SGs
  6. Use or Attack w/random item

Monsters Vs. Mobs

In my experience, mobs have always presented the bigger threat to PCs than big-bad monsters. There are a number of reasons for this, some mechanical, some psychological. Why does this seem to be the case?

First of all, adventurers are usually prepared for a monster. They have often heard of the monster they will soon fight and have taken precautions based on the information they have gathered. Indeed, the reason they might be in a specific location is for the sole purpose of finding and dispatching said monster.

When fighting the monster, there’s often an economy of force which the adventurers are able to match 1/1 or better, whether it’s in terms of damage, overall hit points, or most significantly, perhaps, number of attacks.

One large monster will typically get to make 1 attack for every 3-6 attacks it receives; even if it is doing more damage and hitting more often, PC tactics can often compensate for hits and spread damage in an effective manner to minimize irrecoverable losses.

Mobs are different story. Even if the players are prepared for a big fight, they may not be prepared for handful of mooks that are waiting at the mouth of the dungeon to take the treasure the heroes just recovered.

The PCs’ economy of force may be matched or reduced. Mobs will often be attacking at a 1/1 ratio or better; the man-to-man fighting will also prevent use of certain tactics which the PCs might more effectively use against stronger foes who are fewer in number.

Oftentimes, the most devastating party losses come at the hands of a mob AFTER defeating a large monster. Why? Players assume an air of invulnerability after successfully dispatching single dreadful foe, but are brought low in an evenly matched fight when forced to fight one-on-one with few or no assists from fellows.

Does this jibe with the ‘heroic’ notion so woven into D&D?

I think it does.

Many iconic heroic battles throughout history and literature consist of 1-v-1 fights or one or a few heroically holding off a much larger force until they are wiped out.

On one hand you have Beowulf & Grendel or David & Goliath, while on the other, you have Benkei at the bridge or the Spartans at Thermopylae. One advantage of a game like D&D is that the game isn’t over for the player when the guy or guys left to cover the others’ retreat finally succumbs to the tides of battle. They can just roll up a new character. Of course, this doesn’t work if you’re building a fictional character franchise – Conan can’t be killed by mooks (though he and many other pulp characters have come close to being brought down by them many times). But I don’t think that characters dying to mobs is necessarily antithetical to pulp-style heroics, since those heroics draw heavily on earlier literary heroic traditions, ones where heroes DO die.

And when a character makes a heroic last stand,  that character is gonna be remembered.

Now, there ARE mechanics that do give PCs an advantage over mooks in ways that reflect those scenes of one character killing dozens. Fighters get extra attacks against single hit-die opponents. 1HD monsters and most human opponents should fall into this category. Mid-level fighters have a decent chance of cutting through several such opponents each round! Can they get overwhelmed? Absolutely! Lots of mobs are going to be tougher than 1 HD, but then that’s not like a hero being overwhelmed by mooks, is it? That’s more being overwhelmed by not one but several monsters.

Sometimes, heroes just need to run away. Plenty of pulp S&S stories start with the hero running from a fight that they know they can’t win, usually involving a large number of mooks who are after them. The difference between your characters who died and Conan could be that Conan knew when to run and you didn’t.

A Case For Perpetual Low-Level Adventuring

I’m a fan of the knife’s edge of low-level adventuring. I even dummied up an OSR system called HALLS (High Adventures for Low Levels System) based on the premise of a B/X-like system that caps out at level 4 but allows for a handful of XP sinks. I don’t think what I was doing scales well, however, and the vast amounts of XP required to level up in HALLS put a bit of a drag on that play-reward feedback loop that makes levelling such a focus of gaming.

I really think that the system my friend has cobbled together, loosely based on Warhammer Fantasy RPG, really manages to capture what I was unable to with the D&D based HALLS – a system that allows for constant and continual character development/improvement while maintaining that rain-slicked precipice feeling of the first few levels. Almost every session, we’ve been able to gain enough XP to put a point in something, but every adventure has a substantial amount of risk that doesn’t require massive scaling of monsters, NPCs and treasure hoards. Even my character, with whom I’d only missed a couple sessions over the course of maybe 20 now, while incredibly good at doing what they did (throw knives, steal things, do massive damage, and plan really great parties) I always had to stay cautious, because two solid hits would kill me; when I stopped being cautious, two hits killed me. It’s a system where you can’t afford to get cocky.

The new character I rolled up, though substantially weaker in many regards, was not so much weaker than the rest of the party that I was a load; on the contrary, my new character held his own and killed a cultist or two before fleeing to the back ranks after taking a crossbow bolt to the shoulder.

The way the system calculate character HP (grit), 1d4+3 + CON mod (max 3) + Profession mod (max 2), you’re never going to get a character who take a lot of solid hits. Weapon damage is all d6 based with modifiers (usually -1, occasionally -2, sometimes +1, very rarely +2). Armor reduces damage rather than detracts from to-hit rolls (allowing for a minimum of 1 ‘ping’ damage). You end up with combats where most characters can take at least 2 hits, 3 or 4 if a few are glancing, but you don’t have those long, drawn out mid-to-high level combats where everyone is slowly whittling away at dozens of HP in 1d8 increments.

The relatively low HP means you can throw weak-to-average monsters or opponents at the players, and it will ALWAYS feel like a challenge. Foe creation is incredibly quick. A monster statblock would consist simply of Grit, Movement, Melee, Ranged, Init, and a base save.

A human mook would be something like this:

Grit: 6, Move: 5, Melee: 10, Ranged: 6, Init: 0, Save 10

Let’s keep him simple by giving him a sword that does a flat 1d6 damage.

  • The mook could take 6 damage; any damage putting him below 0 would force a roll on the dismemberment table (for mooks, it’s easier to go with ‘not killed by the wound’/’killed by the wound’).
  • The movement of 5 translates to whatever scale you’re using. 5′, 10′ squares, 5 yard, 10 yard hexes, whatever – he moves five of them.
  • To hit in melee, he’d have to roll equal to or under 10. To hit with ranged, he has to roll equal to or under 6.
  • No mods to initiative, and if a situation forces a saving throw, he has a 50/50 chance to save.

Now, let’s try something more interesting; a spitting spider dog:

Grit: 6, Move: 5, Melee: 12, Ranged: 10, Init: 1, Save: 10

On the surface, it’s not much different. And that’s good! Because it means it’s easy to create new, weird things. But players will be terrified of it, because it’s a spitting spider dog. Instead of biting, the spitting spider dog might use a ranged attack that will incapacitate a victim with saliva. The target would get to make strength check at disadvantage when their initiative came up to break free. I just came up with that monster completely on the fly; took me 2 minutes thinking of something weird and gross that we’d probably run into in the setting. We’d probably fight half a dozen of them; if we got lucky, we’d get away with some scrapes, bruises and one or two broken limbs.

To give you a bit of comparison for what a PC looks like, my character who died looked something like this:

STR: 7, Con: 11, Dex: 18, Int:11, Cha:11, Luc:11

Grit: 7, Move: 4, Melee: 6, Ranged: 17, Init: 5

That 17 in range meant that I was good enough at throwing knives that I could attack at disadvantage every time to ‘buy’ an additional d6 damage (for 1d6-2 + 1d6), and the Init 5 meant I could make that attack twice per round whenever I rolled a 3 or higher on a d6 for initiative (0-7, where 8 or higher gets a second attack on the modified initiative roll -8; so, if I’d rolled a 4, I’d attack on 9, then again on 1). Now, I was a bit of a fluke, because I a)had a 17 natural dex that I bought to 18, and poured all of my XP into maxing out my ranged skill profession mod (combat skills can’t be modded higher than +8, and you have to have the advanced profession that allows you to reach those caps). But that’s what a character with nearly 1200 XP looks like (session XP was usually in the neighborhood of 70). Yes, I’d point-by-point built a killer who could put a knife through someone’s throat and skip off into the crowd before the guards showed up, but certainly wasn’t going to be able to take more than a couple blows. In a previous fight, she took a crossbow bolt to the arm; like most folks who take a crossbow bolt to the arm, she was done – time to hide behind the wall and hope her friends could finish the fight without her. The most I could’ve ever got my grit up to was 10, which would’ve taken a classes that would let me raise my Con by 2 and my Grit by 2 (possibly requiring anywhere between 400 and 800 XP depending on how I ultimately went about it). But that could’ve been the difference between suffering broken ribs and the disemboweling she ultimately succumbed to.

Every fight was life-or-death. It was exhilarating!

My DM is working on codifying his core rules into a consultable player’s guide. I’m hoping to convince him that this will be a worthwhile marketable system and offered to help him put together something if he were ever interested in commercially publishing it. I’ll admit, I had a few issues getting used to it at first, but I have a hard time imagining enjoying another system as much.