Saving Throws, Pulp Heroes and D&D

Every once in awhile, you’ll hear the complaint that lower level D&D characters don’t feel like the heroic characters from pulp adventures on account of how fragile they are. The low HP means that a couple of good hits will kill those lower level characters, whether in fights or to traps or even something as ignominious as falling down a flight of stairs.

One of my counters to this is that most pulp heroes would be at the lower end of mid-level, contra to what is suggested in many of those old articles where Gary and friends would stat up Cugel or Eric John Stark as being well into double digits with massive pools of HP to prevent low-level PCs from being able to meet and kill these characters just because they were there and they could (though I’m sure they did).

Another bug-bear of oldschool games is the saving throw, particularly in save or die situations. Why should a character with all of that HP be insta-killed?! It’s just not fair! A character who can take 8 full-on sword wounds shouldn’t be able to die just because he was bitten by a snake or had a rock fall on his head!  Besides, that’s entirely unpulpy, right?!

Well, take this from Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, at a point in his career where he’s probably level 27 and has a gorillion hit points:

Tarzan remained very quiet. He did not wish to frighten it away for he realized that one of them must be the prey of the carnivore sneaking upon them, but if he expected the thag to be frightened he soon realized his error in judgment for, uttering low grumblings, the great bull pawed the earth with a front foot, and then, lowering his massive horns, gored it angrily, and the ape-man knew that he was working his short temper up to charging pitch; nor did it seem that this was to take long for already he was advancing menacingly to the accompaniment of thunderous bellowing. His tail was up and his head down as he broke into the trot that precluded the charge.

The ape-man realized that if he was ever struck by those massive horns or that heavy head, his skull would be crushed like an eggshell.

The dizzy spinning that had been caused by the first stretching of the rawhide to his weight had lessened to a gentle turning motion; so that sometimes he faced the thag and sometimes in the opposite direction. The utter helplessness of his position galled the ape-man and gave him more concern than any consideration of impending death. From childhood he had walked hand in hand with the Grim Reaper and he had looked upon death in so many forms that it held no terror for him. He knew that it was the final experience of all created things, that it must as inevitably come to him as to others and while he loved life and did not wish to die, its mere approach induced within him no futile hysteria. But to die without a chance to fight for life was not such an end as Tarzan of the Apes would have chosen. And now, as his body slowly revolved and his eyes were turned away from the charging thag, his heart sank at the thought that he was not even to be vouchsafed the meager satisfaction of meeting death face to face.

Tarzan, with all of his HP was forced to make save-vs-death against some kind of charging inner-earth dire oryx. His saving throw numbers are probably really low at this point, and he probably could’ve made it with anything but a nat 1, but it was still going to be a case of instant-death regardless of how many hit points he has.

This ties back into the game theory that HP doesn’t represent actual wounds but exhaustion and the character’s ability to fight on under pressure in extreme circumstance. Of course, you also might say that it would not be very pulpy to fail your saving throw and be instantly killed, but D&D is a game, and without a genuine sense of risk, your game can end up in a boring slump where everyone knows that everyone is going to live no matter what, so why bother faking the suspense? And in those cases where your life is on the line AND YOU MAKE IT, how much more awesome is it? It makes those times when you could’ve lost your character but didn’t all the more special.

An Experiment in Adventure Design

Awhile back, I made the bold and audacious claim that the sort of fiction you read in the pulps are the sort of thing that you can easily translate into one off adventures with a couple of stat blocs.

Tomorrow night, I will be running Raiders of the Second Moon by Basil Wells as a one-off adventure using a stripped down version of D&D.

In this post, I’m doing some “Show your work”. I had a couple of stat blocs I threw out in my original post, but I wanted to do a little bit more with the idea, so I’ve cooked up a few things.

Major change is that instead of a lone American astronaut pursuing the Nazi mad scientist, it will be a squadron of soldiers who crash land in the Jungles of Sekk.

I’ve rolled up several pre-gens, given them a full fighter’s Hit Die +/- con mods, and written down range and melee bonuses. I’ve also unified saving throws to Reflex, Endurance, and Psych. Everyone will have AC 12 (7) to represent basic gear, though I’ve thrown in a couple pieces of medium body army that will give a slight bonus. I’m actually going to be using the Charisma stat in this – it will represent the soldier’s rank and spot in the chain of command. Captain of the expedition will be the Caller and can also veto particularly bad choices his soldiers suggest. If he dies, a lieutenant will take over and become the new Caller.

I’ve set up a hex-crawl of about 30 hexes (using sticky notes; most of them are just jungle, but I have one for the crash site, the ape-man village, the skull temple, etc.).

Here’s the fun part. I wanted to give the part a small supply of world war 2 weaponry plus a Banning ray (the large semi-portable stun weapons from Brackett that could be used as defensive anti-infantry weaponry) that will dwindle away as they spend up ammo and may eventually have to rely on bows and spears.

So, I statted up some gear that the Captain will be able to dole out to players.

Colt M1911 3 7 round clips. May shoot twice to add +2 to attack roll. 1d6. A couple of players will have extra magazines, but most who have these pistols will only have one magazine. Players can’t reload a partially spent clip or a magazine in the middle of melee, but they can quickly switch out a spent magazine for a full one and reload a spent magazine with clip. If they have few minutes, they can thumb-jam in some bullets into a partially spent magazine, but none of that vidya game reloading after every shot.

Smith & Wesson Revolver 20 bullets (6 chambers)/ can reload 2 bullets per round. 1d6+1.  The advantage and disadvantage of the revolver is its reload speed.  You can pop in a couple bullets and fire them off without having to deal with the magazine, but it’ll take you a couple seconds to fully reload.

Browning Auto Rifle 200 rounds (10 20 round magazines). (may attack multiple targets, -2 per target). 2d4+1 Each attack uses up a full magazine.

Thompson Gun (3 50-round drum magazines) – fires at a 45 degree arc, hitting all targets in area. Save for half damage. (3d4+1 secret) Each attack uses up a full magazine. Basically, this will be treated like a breath weapon. They won’t know how effective they were until they see the bodies; and there will be bodies!

M1917 scoped Enfield (1 6 round magazine) – Sniping: spend one round aiming or during a surprise round. Moving Target, roll under dexterity at disadvantage, stationary target, roll under dex. Instant kill. 1d8 normal.

Grenades – 2d6 blast save for half damage.

Bottles of whiskey – Restore a character’s HP to full

Packs of government issued Lucky Strikes – Restore an Earthman’s HP to full/ +1 dex in next encounter. Ape-men will not smoke the human’s fire sticks!

Emergency medkits – Restore a character’s HP to full/Recover character with no less than -2HP

Once they burn through their bullets, they’ll still have some trench knives, but the idea is that they’ll run out of ammo after a few big encounters with monsters and cultists and it will be a near run thing when the Nazi mad scientist shows up; hopefully they will have secured the friendship of the Ape-men who can help them.

All I have left to do is give the story one last refresher read and stat up a Spotted Narl!

Cute Knight – First Impressions

Despite its simplicity, I’ve really been enjoying this.

I’ve played through three times now and gotten three endings:

-Royal Knight

-Dancer

-Librarian

 

The Librarian path was basically a “bad end” because my character got depressed and gave up on her dreams. The goal that time around was a magic build, but it was hampered by the fact that I was too poor to study magic and too frail to earn a living.

Busking felt a little OP as a means of making money, since Charm and Luck are the cheapest stats to raise. It took more than one instance for ‘private party’ to register as code for prostitution (I thought a noble was asking for a performance at an exclusive gala – why else would he be paying over a week’s honest wages for a single night?)

Turned out that you could make a bit more money as a bartender or waitress, but without the chance for a big naughty bonus.

Even as a fighter, I relied heavily on busking to keep myself out of penury. The cost to become a decent fighter or magician makes the economics of being a dungeon crawler a bit questionable. If I’d known that winning the jousting tournament and accepting a job as a knight triggered the end-game, I might have turned it down because I really want to see how deep the dungeon will go and making a good fighter build is tricky.

I want to do more with the magic system, but again, making enough money to learn magic and not suck at it is a tough goal in its own right. I maxed out item creation with one character but never learned any recipes. I’ll also probably try out both a “tamer” class and being a villain. Part of why my Librarian ended the way she did was that she sucked at everything and got depressed before she could grind up her taming skill. Learning tamer hurts your charm (cuz you smell like animal crap), which also hurts some of your best revenue generating jobs, so I’ll probably have to find a birthsign that starts good at it and can get better, making enough money at other stuff that I won’t go broke or get depressed. My dancer ended up almost being a villain…

In Cute Knight’s morality system, killing anything that isn’t undead, stealing, and sleeping with guys for money raise your “Sin” stat which has a range of negative effects. No one will want to hang out with you in the square, the Church won’t let you stay the night for free, and if you’re really awful, the magical ward around the slums will register you as being a dangerous monster and keep you trapped unless you make sizable donations to the doctor or volunteer to help the sick and injured. Or you can hang out with bad guys and become a bad guy in the bad part of town. I’ll maybe see what happens going the bad guy route.

http://www.hanakogames.com/ckd.shtml

How to build a Bard in D&D

You really don’t need a Bard class in D&D, but some folks really like the flavor it adds to their game and setting.

Even without a class, it’s actually easy to build a playable bard in Basic.

Start with a Magic User class. Thieves don’t really get spells or magic items (high level play doesn’t count; you’re not going to play through over half a dozen levels of not being able to cast spells if you’re wanting to play a magic class).

But bards are rogues! What about the stealing stuff?

Play as a Magic User who steals stuff. Stealing is an RP choice, not a mechanic.

If you have a decent to high Dex character with moderate intelligence, go Magic User instead of Thief.

 

  • Magic Users can’t use bows, but they CAN use daggers. So, what you do is get a LOT of daggers. Throw some knives, take that Dex bonus on your attacks! If you’re using Holmes or a variant that uses weapon speed, you’ll even get an extra attack, meaning you’re able to dish out some damage as a ranged support character.
  • If you’re using Holmes’ magic system, treat your spellbook like a song-book. Your scrolls are your fake book – it’s not the full spell/song, but because you know it, you can use it to brush up.
  • If you’re using B/X’s magic system, spell imbuement is a flat cost. Costs the same to make a scroll as it does a single charge magic item. So, what you can do is imbue your instrument with charges. Just simply pour all of your ill-gotten wealth (you ARE stealing, aren’t you?!) into putting Sleep, Magic Missile, Whatever into your instrument.

 

You’re not going to get backstabs, and your hit dice and To Hit numbers are going to be crap, because you’re a Magic User, but this is about playing a Bard in a system where there’s no Bard class. (Perfect if you’re playing with a DM who hates Bards – you can be all “Aha! I fooled you! You said there was no Bard class, but I’m playing a Bard anyway!”)

If you want more flexibility in your weapons and armor, you can play as an Elf doing the above. Just enjoy never leveling up ever.

Big Monster Fight

Well, we may have found the solution to the balance issue we’ve begun to encounter in Gutters, Guilds, & Grimoires: bigger monsters.

Most of what we’ve fought has been fairly close to man-sized. Even the bigger things have been between bear and small elephant sized.

Last session, we fought something three stories tall.

Well, okay, some of us fought it, while many of us ran like hell.

We were completing a quest in someplace that was a pocket dimension, a moon, or some other part of the world (we never really figured it out), which meant freeing a celestial or demonic creature we called Jeff. We found Jeff in the middle of an abandoned village located between a fork in a stream surrounded by megalithic wards.

Since Jeff couldn’t talk (he could only sign yes or no), we had a hard time getting a complete picture of what was going on with him and the weird abandoned village. We found that he was trapped, the person who trapped him was nearby, we could free him, the villagers had not trapped him, he had not killed the villagers, he would help us if we freed him, and he would not hurt us if we helped him. We got a nice one point stat boost to luck for freeing him.

We set off to see if we could find the person who’d trapped him and we eventually found a wizard’s cottage. It was locked from the inside, empty, and had a hole in the roof. We dicked around way too long debating whether we should loot the cottage, wait for the person to come back, or decide that Jeff (or someone) had pulled the wizard straight through the roof of his own house.

Then we heard some crashing sounds.

Poking around the village was a thing described as being over 30 feet tall, having a three-eyed Cthulhu head and long spindly Salvador Dali Elephant legs.

Oh, right, I forgot to mention the other complication – the area was filled with obscuring mist and unless you had one of the sage torches with you, you could neither see in the mist nor were you safe from the mist folk who would tear you apart in four rounds tops. We’d left several torches lit along the path back to the mirror, but had only taken three with us. And the bridge across the stream consisted only of a series of rotting logs propped up by piles of rock, and several of the logs had already broken loose on the way over.

When the thing noticed us, we started running like hell. A few of us barely made it across. Others got swept down the stream a bit as the fell in, landing further down the shore out of the light and safety of the torches. Others eventually had to try to jump and swim for it, with most of the bridge gone, losing at least one torch in the process.

The thing used its tendrils to snatch up and try to eat people. Those who couldn’t get away ended up badly mangled and one was eaten. While they figured out that they could hurt it (a couple characters managed to cut off a few of its mouth tendrils and one guy even managed to tie its legs like an AT-AT) the thing was NOT going down easily and there was little indication that it was being more than really annoyed. After it had staggered a bit and fallen into the stream, the characters who’d stayed to fight saw more of them coming –they had just barely managed to convince ONE of the things that they were not worth trying to eat, but there was absolutely nothing they could’ve done once more of them showed up.

Eventually, everyone except for the character who was eaten had either run back or was carried through the mirror portal which we immediately sealed before they could come through. Hoping we don’t have to fight those things again any time soon.

The one really funny thing is that in the big battle against Lord Brinston’s armed guard awhile back, just about everyone in the party ended up with an open-faced helm, so everyone had really good head armor (4); were it not for those helmets doing damage reduction, everyone in the party who did not just run like hell would have had their heads popped off in no more than two hits and been eaten.

Fighting big monsters should be very different than fighting small and medium sized monsters, and it shouldn’t just be reflected in hit points. PCs typically won’t even be able to hit most locations on such creatures (I’ve always thought that if a DM has something like a dragon go toe-to-toe, blow-for-blow, with the PCs he’s running the encounter wrong). A big monster should keep its vital locations out of reach as is reasonable. Really big monsters absolutely should have subparts which could be crippled or destroyed; definitely makes things more interesting than the old Critical Existence Failure at 0HP.

Scaling Issues and Solutions in G3

One of the key features of G3 has been how the difficulty scales and play remains relatively balanced despite discrepancies between PCs’ levels of experience. While it is theoretically possible for a character’s combat potential to top out after 8 sessions or so, the overall fragility of characters in the system has kept things balanced and potentially lethal most of the time. With my latest character, we’re beginning to see a few potential strains on the system, though I think they can be easily addressed.

My current PC is the first true “tank” in the party. We’ve had a few fighter characters before and characters with high (for the system) HP, but my Man-At-Arms is the first time anyone has really tried to make the most of the armor system.

G3 does not use the same sort of passive defenses as D&D. Characters have a raw attack value that is never modified except by disadvantage or advantage. The point of Armor in G3 is damage reduction. Each point of armor reduces the blow by one, though all attacks (except by smaller creatures) do ping damage. So 4 points damage would be reduced by 4 points of armor to 1. The difference between that and 5 points of damage is that the one damage is seen as having penetrated the armor. In the former case, the one damage is representative of the fatigue/being winded/whatever, while the latter, the thing has actually hit you and probably broken skin or bruised you. It’s in the latter case where effects like poison, rot, or corruption would become an issue. (I.E. 4 damage against 4 armor, the ghoul knocks you back and you take your ping, 5 damage against 4 armor, the ghoul has scratched you and you roll for paralysis, even though you’ve lost the same HP).

With 11 HP and 4 armor on all body parts, my Man-At-Arms can take a lot of hits from just about anything before he’s in real trouble. That’s a huge change from when everyone in the party had 1 armor at most and died in 2 hits.

Overall, I think this has caused less strain on the system than people are expecting, because it’s only one character who’s able to tank like that, and we’re still fighting some things that don’t go down easy and can still hurt us really bad. A couple weeks back, we fought a Moth Knight, who must have had ridiculously high armor, because I put nearly 30 damage on him before he died. Plus, he would’ve killed me if he got more than one hit on me. (The rest of the party had ineptly tried and failed to stop me from killing the monster because I was the only person at the table convinced that it was not going to talk with us once it drew its sword; if they had stopped me from killing it and that wasn’t enough to satisfy it, it absolutely could’ve TPKed us, especially if one of its friends showed up).

Last night, we handled an old task of torching a hornets’ nest. On the way, we kicked the crap out of a werewolf, and the hornets’ nest was something of a pushover, and it got me thinking some about the way the system is balanced and how other GMs can keep their games from going out of whack.

While the werewolf seemed like a pushover, it should be noted that there were a lot of us and one of him; a lot of us are big damage dealers now, even if we are glass cannons in many cases. If my character didn’t end up with silver brass knuckles as a trophy for winning a tournament in the fighting pit against the #1 Seed, a Grizzly Bear, the werewolf may have recovered. Even so, I may have been turned into a werewolf – gonna have to find that out next session.

So, what happens when characters are getting too powerful – too likely to be able to hit for double damage and have armor to soak up most normal sized hits?

-More enemies. As a general rule, economy of action in RPGs means that more weak enemies are a bigger threat than fewer strong enemies. Our last really dire fight where someone died and someone else got maimed was a mass combat and involved a wizard trying to spell snipe getting arrowed.

-Ranged weapons are a major equalizer. A lot of fights where we’ve taken big hits have been ones where enemies had crossbows (which ignore some armor) and got a few shots in before we could close the distance. This allowed them to neutralize characters who could survive one hit but sure as hell weren’t willing to take another, so dived for cover.

-Enemies can make attacks for big damage, too. Attacking at disadvantage for extra damage is a way that characters with high attack stats can regularly do much bigger damage, and it’s this damage that can go way above and beyond normal armor soak. Against enemies with chain or better, the average attack from a weapon that does not ignore armor will ping for one; the average attack for extra damage will hit two over even the best armor. The armor will protect a character from a killing blow in almost all cases, but getting knocked down by half your HP in a single hit while wearing decent armor will really make you question how long you can go toe to toe with something.

-Enemies with Armor can make things a bit of a challenge; even two points of armor will keep most mooks from being cloven in twain by a single hit.

-One thing we’ve started to come up against has been enemies with damage immunity. We fought a lot of demons who just shrugged off our attacks; they had to be destroyed using environmental elements. This also gave us a chance to play with some of the combat tools that are not damage oriented.

Another issue we’ve come up with is that, after a certain point, damn near anything rolled is a hit. Advantage and Disadvantage add a bit of granularity on a situational basis, but sometimes you need a little bit more, so we’ve experimented some with doubling up on disadvantages. For instance, when the archers on the streets below were firing at the sorcerer in the window, who was trying to cast planar bolt in a dark room, the archers rolled at double disadvantage – one for the cover, another for the obscured target in the dark. Most missed, a few hit and killed the sorcerer.

Since you can trade advantage for various results, such as extra damage, called shots, disarming/disabling an opponent or somesuch, you really ought not come across many/any situations with multiple advantages on an attack roll, but additional disadvantages can be given to keep things from being too much of a gimme.

Anyway, we’re still testing and tweaking, and seeing what will and will not break the game. Getting a huge influx of loot didn’t quite blow things up like we thought it would, though most of that loot came in the form of weapons and armor. Taking a few decent swords and helmets to dole out among the party members kept the liquidity down. We’ll still have to see what happens if the party ever gets a giant cash haul.

One final thing we realized last session was, since the standard of living rules were implemented, all of the nobles in the city will probably be slightly tougher than us in a fight on account of being better rested. No normal professions offer enough daily income to get players into a bonus HP per day range, but a rich noble who can afford lavish living and wears full plate could theoretically take a couple more really big hits than the average joe. We’ve only fought one guy who that may have been an issue for, and he got ridden down by lancers in the street, so we never found out ourselves just how much that would’ve altered combat.

I can’t say when G3 will see public playtesting, since it’s not my game, but I’ll keep folks aware of any significant developments regarding it.

Jeffro Johnson’s Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons is Out Now

I’m a bit late to the party on blogging this here, but hopefully devoting several posts over the past couple of years to the work he’s done on this can excuse my tardiness.

appendix-n-coverIf you’re like me and holding out for the paperback, I hear it’s coming soon (next month or so). If you’re cool with e-Reader stuff, go ahead and drop some coin on this now.

I could go on at extreme lengths as to why this book is important, how it brought the Appendix N gospel out of the hands of the OSR and discussions on ‘purity of D&D’ into the broader Science Fiction and Fantasy community, rediscovering and evangelizing treasures that were lost from public conscious due to changes in publishing practices and the retail market.

This project is one of two of the most important external factors on Cirsova being where it is and what it is. James Hutchings’s Age of Fable game brought me into the OSR and blogging, and Jeffro’s Appendix N series led me to start a magazine.

You really need to check this out.