Thursday, 10 November 2016

Character Generation: How Much is Too Much?

Here's a look at my game development woes. Complications like these are part of what makes adapting something simple like Swords and Wizardry or the Black Hack to a unique setting so appealing!

While the playtesting for my 3D System is going well, I have run into what might be a snag with the character generation section. The graduated success mechanic using 3D6 that relies on the interaction of six attributes and 12 skills has turned out to be intuitive and robust in play, but the system I created to generate those attributes and skills has me worried.


For a variety of reasons, I integrated the character generation with the setting. It worked well with the small playtest setting for the Archipelago in Island Crashers. Going through the process delivered the assumptions of the setting to new players without spamming them with text they didn't want to read. It took ten minutes to create a character rolling randomly and about twenty minutes to use the generation tables like a flow chart and choose everything.

For the Island Crashers playtest character generation takes up ten pages of a google document and 35 small tables on spreadsheets. The process of moving through them is intuitive and easy. Brand new players are having no trouble with it even though no one has taken the time to read the rules first. Each area of origin has its own background that informs the basics of the character. These areas also have unique tables with some starting careers more likely than others. The tables themselves tell the player a bit about where their character is from.

Good thing character generation only takes ten minutes!
I'll use a more familiar setting to make the idea clear. Say you were using this system to play in Robert E Howard's "Conan the Barbarian" setting of Hyboria. Characters from Conan's homeland of Cimmeria would have basic survival skills they learned growing up in an uncivilised area. They also would get a boost to their physical attributes because their life makes them harder than the civilised peoples. The possible starting careers for characters from Cimmeria would include things like blacksmiths, barbarians, hunters, bandits, leather-workers and maybe druids. The kingdom Conan eventually conquered, Aquilonia, would have a table of starting careers that includes nobles, merchants, soldiers, courtiers, servants, thieves, priests and wizards. A place of ancient corruption like Stygia would have a table of starting careers filled with sorcerers, priests, sages, slavers, thieves and slaves. The flavour of each of these lands is evident in the choices provided.

That's what I'm doing with my setting for the larger game that is using the working title of: "The Last World." The problem is the Archipelago is a small cluster of islands. Even Hyboria is only an area the size of Europe and the Mediterranean! The Last World is huge in comparison, with all kinds of different areas! These areas aren't heavily defined, with the implied setting leaving room to develop them through game play, but each country and some major cities have their own tables. I'm only about a third of the way through the character generation section for the places of origin and I already have 26 pages of briefs and tables in my document. The descriptions of the playable creatures document is another 9 pages long! I haven't even started on the tables of general career progressions. I'm worried about it being unwieldy, but I want players to be able to start as nearly any creature or culture they could encounter in the Last World and move through a plausible list of careers to create a viable character with a developed past and a list of useful equipment.

Shopping for equipment is the time-killer!

The point is to create characters similar in power to what you'd find in levels five through seven in OSR-type games. Like Traveller's character generation, the process creates a competent character with a background story that makes sense. I find the most fun in old school campaigns happens around those levels, but the early levels help define the character's development and flesh out their personality. That's another reason I make a ten minute game out of character generation. It delivers setting information to new players and creates a backstory for the character that will help a player choose how to play in a way that makes sense. It also anchors them to the world with their past.

In playtest it's worked well so far, but I'm worried all the flipping back and forth thought the tables in the larger setting will kill it. A PDF could be cross-linked/bookmarked, but using a book might become unwieldy. I was hoping to get this all into an A5 (digest size) hardcover!


So how much is too much? Does it matter that there are pile of pages to flip through as long as character generation stays around ten to fifteen minutes? Do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks in any event? I feel like the only way to find out is to finish it all and play using the full setting.



If any of this stuff intrigues you and you want to be part of the larger playtest for the #3DSystem , let me know!




Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Black Hack Class Hack: Sorcery!

I reviewed The Black Hack in my last post. I mentioned that I felt like I had a few Hacks of my own to add to the growing number of genre specific clones of David Black's Modern OSR fantasy RPG.

I think an Early Modern Era, historical, weird-fantasy hack would be a lot of fun to play. For such a game I like my magic dangerous and unpredictable. It's something I've talked about before. Mike Evans came up with a good system to make sorcerers' casting flexible with an element of unpredictability with the usage die mechanic, but it lacks the danger I think is needed in RPG magic.


The usage die mechanic (from page 8 of the Black Hack) assigns a usage die to any resource ranging from 1d4 to 1d20 to roll when it is used. A roll of 1 or 2 brings the die to the next lowest value for subsequent rolls. Rolling 1 or 2 on the 1d4 means the resource (in this case magic) is exhausted until that resource can be replenished. The sorcerer can gain back one die for six hours of uninterrupted rest.

For my take on magic cast with the usage die I took a lot more inspiration from Barbarians of Lemuria, then mixed in a little Dungeon Crawl Classics and the spirit of weird fantasy.

Any time a sorcerer casts a spell the player rolls a number of usage dice matching the magic level of the spell. The spells are divided into three levels of sorcery: 1 - the Forbidden, 2 - the Infernal, and 3 - the Inscrutable (I'm still not entirely happy with the name of level 3).


The first level of sorcery consists of forbidden formulae and ancient rituals that allow the caster to bend reality enough to do anything a fully trained and equipped person could do, only with more ease. For example: a warrior with a sword can do 1d8 damage to a foe by attacking them. A sorcerer would utter a spell of forbidden magic and merely point at the foe to tear away their flesh for 1d6 + caster level in damage. A sorcerer can use this magic to create a light source, open a lock or climb a wall in a moment because a person could do so with a few minutes and the right equipment. It matches up in power roughly to the first and second levels of spells found in the Black Hack.

The second level of sorcery is more dangerous because it exposes the caster and everyone around them to infernal corruption. The player rolls two usage dice and takes the lower result because these spells are more taxing for the sorcerer to cast. The danger comes into play if the player rolls doubles on the usage dice. Doubles result in a casting mishap. Since it is more likely to roll doubles on D4s than D6s or D8s, it is more dangerous for low-level casters or exhausted high-level casters to use this level of magic.

Infernal magic calls upon the dread powers of chaos to reshape reality in larger ways for the caster's benefit. These spells allow the sorcerer to do things normally impossible for one person. A sorcerer can use this level of magic to fly, to transform something or knock a hole in a stone wall. Infernal magic could be used to create a poisonous fog that does 1d6 + caster level in damage to all nearby foes, or allow a sorcerer to vomit a swarm of demonic insects onto an opponent to eat their flesh for 1d6 damage per caster level. With so much possible in a moment with a whisper and a series of gestures this corrupt magic is tempting to use. It matches up in power level to many of the third, fourth and some fifth level spells in the Black Hack.


The Inscrutable level of magic comes from the recorded whispers of malignant intelligences in alien dimensions. Their motivations are as unknowable as their form.

This third level of magic is difficult, requiring special components such as time, place, specific alignment of astronomical bodies, assistants to help perform the ritual, and a specific tome or artifact. The more powerful the spell the more conditions the GM should apply to its casting.

These are spells of tremendous power that come at a terrible risk to the caster and their world. With this magic the sorcerer could create an earthquake that could level a city or create a magic plague that could bring an empire to its knees.

It can also be used to undo lower magical effects such as restoring a character turned to stone. It could be used to create a magical item. It could create a passage through chaos itself to allow a caster and their level in companions to travel anywhere in the world in an instant. It matches up in power to some of the higher level spells available in The Black Hack.

When a sorcerer casts an inscrutable spell they are flirting with disaster and draining their power. The player rolls three usage dice and reduces their magical power by one usage die for every 1 or 2 rolled. Doubles result in a casting mishap. Triples result in a casting catastrophe. There is no table for this result, match the effect to the scale of the spell, but tearing holes in time and space that allow extra-dimensional invaders to pour through is one way to go. Accidentally transporting the whole party to Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa is another.

One thing I like from both BoL and 5e D&D is the cantrip magic. Cantrips as minor feats of magic that can be cast with little danger of exhausting a sorcerer's magic sounds like a fun addition to the game. Little things like moving small objects, changing the apparent value of a coin for a few moments, creating a brief wind to blow a door shut, removing a stain, lighting a torch, creating small sounds as a distraction, detecting magic, etc. For these simple spells the sorcerer could test Int for success. A natural 20 would reduce their usage die for magic.

The usage die available to sorcerers would depend on their level:
  • Level 1-2 would have a D4 usage die
  • Level 3-4 would have a D6 usage die
  • Level 5-7 would have a D8 usage die
  • Level 8-11 would have a D10 usage die
  • Level 12+ would have a D12 usage die
Image by Doug Kovacs for Dungeon Crawl Classics

I also roughed out a 3D6 table for casting mishaps:

3. 1d6 random people/creatures present become hybrids with another random creature
4. Earthquake for 1d6 moments
5. Random extra-dimensional invader/demon summoned (usage die in HD) and attacks caster
6. The minds of all nearby people randomly switch bodies
7. Random caster's relative teleported to close range with caster
8. All nearby gold turns to lead
9. Random caster's possession disappears
10. Roll on corruption table for sorcerer *
11. Roll on corruption table for sorcerer *
12. All nearby wood turns to glass
13. All nearby drawn weapons turn into something random (flowers, butterflies, etc)
14. All nearby metal super-heats for 1d6 moments (1 damage for small items, 1d6 + caster level for metal armour)
15. 3D6 HD of creatures put to sleep, centred on but not including caster
16. Random extra-dimensional invader/demon summoned (usage die in HD) - roll on reaction table from (page 8 of the Black Hack)
17. gravity reversed for 1d6 moments
18. Roll on corruption table for 1d6 of sorcerer's random allies

*There are plenty of these all over the blogosphere, I'll simply pick one while I playtest. This result is by far the most likely, so the greatest risk is always to the sorcerers themselves.

The Sorcerer as a character class is basically the same as the Conjurer outside of casting. I'll be trying this one out as soon as I get a group together to play The Black Hack. I think any player of a sorcerer that pushes their luck too far or over-reaches their level will likely end up in deep trouble.


Monday, 17 October 2016

Review: The Black Hack

To say that I'm late to the party with this review is a bit of an understatement. When The Black Hack Kickstarter funded back in February is was a mere blip on my social-media radar. I looked at it briefly, thought, "Ugh, a roll-under mechanic," and "Do I really need another retro clone?" then moved on. What I can say now with no reservation is it deserved a closer look.


As the year progressed multiple genre-Hacks using David Black's "The Black Hack" as a base cropped up. It wasn't until I saw what Mike Evans over at DIY RPG Productions was doing with his own sword, sorcery and super-science genre hack called Barbarians of the Ruined Earth that I decided I had to pay the Two US Dollars to get the PDF and find out what all the fuss was about.

I get it now! I understand not only why people love this version of tabletop fantasy role-playing, but also why it has spawned so many of its own hacks!

It is described as: "The most straightforward modern OSR compatible clone available."

It's a bold claim, but it has merit. The game fits comfortably into twenty A5 (half-letter-sized) pages, including the cover, acknowledgements page, Open Game Licence and character sheet. That means the game only uses sixteen pages to explain how to play.

With a core mechanic based on rolling under character statistics, the rules are clear and for the most part easy to understand. The writing is straightforward and economical. As a former journalist and a parent with little time to read rulebooks, I appreciate David Black's tight writing.


There is no art beyond the cover, but the layout and design is clean, with good use of white space and easy-to-use tables. It has two columns per page for most of the book. The typeface used for the body text is a standard serif font, offering no distractions or obstructions to reading. The headings and titles all use the distressed sans serif typeface you see on the cover. I like this particular choice as it embraces the "quick and dirty" nature of the rule system. The effective headings, bolded text and good use of white space makes it easy to reference the book for specific information despite the lack of page numbers.

The best use of white space is on the four pages of character class descriptions where each class gets its own page with a single column running down the middle of the page. This gives a special emphasis to these pages and leaves room to make notes around the text in the huge margins. It also allowed me to print out a few character sheets with the rules for each class on the back.

The rules themselves surprised me in their simplicity and flexibility. The core mechanic involves rolling under the relevant stat for any given action on a twenty-sided die (D20). Since stats are rolled on three, six-sided dice (3D6) player characters all start with a good level of competency. The balance of power from the difference between the levels of the player characters and the Hit Dice of their opponents (monsters) creates bonuses and penalties to combat rolls. The advantage/disadvantage mechanic that is a big part of the success of 5th edition D&D is also used to maintain the power balance and protect the specialisation of the different classes.


The rules are a solid blend of old school simplicity with modern improvements. The system simplifies resource tracking with the usage dice that also creates an unpredictable element to resource management. There is a six-item death-and-dismemberment style table for characters who are knocked "Out of Action." The sundered shield option to sacrifice a shield to escape damage is included as well. Encumbrance is streamlined with obvious penalties.

One interesting mechanic is how the players do almost all of the rolling, similar to Monte Cook's Cypher System. The player rolls under their relevant stat to attack and again to avoid attack. Because of this change, armour provides extra hit points instead of making it more difficult to be hit.

I didn't like it the first time I came across the idea of class-based weapon damage, but here it serves to eliminate the pages of weapon lists that you see in other clones while still having some variability in damage. I like how it assumes that fighters are more dangerous with weapons than other classes. It certainly makes sense when you look at fantasy fiction. Conan is just a deadly with whatever weapon he picks up and Fahfrd names all his swords "Greywand" because they do the same thing. The addition of the unarmed/improvised damage by class is smart. It means a balanced weapon of war like a spear or sword is going to be more effective than a chair leg or shield bash.

Spells are handled in a way I think will see more use of utility spells at lower levels. The player starts with the spell slots you see in most OSR clones, but the slot only expires during casting if the player fails an Intelligence roll. The total of spells memorised is restricted by level so players need to decide what they want to have prepared for fast casting and what they'll be pulling out their spellbooks for. It feels like the ritual casting option in 5e D&D without being so finicky. Also, this design choice creates uncertainty in the resource management of spells. If anything should be uncertain, it's magic!

The spell lists themselves are short, with single line descriptions filling one page each for divine and arcane spells. This is another good choice. Reading the spells I find the shorter descriptions far harder to misinterpret and stretch to irrelevant purposes than the longer ones of other clones and editions of D&D.

The monster entries are also almost always one-line per creature. Since they only roll damage, that, their hit dice and any special attack or defence is all you need. The list is two pages long and has creatures from one hit die up to twelve. With these examples, conversion of any other monsters should be no problem.


Player character progression by level is a nice innovation that works with the core mechanic. The player rolls a D20 for each stat and raises any stat they roll over by one. Each class has at least one stat which they roll twice for. Besides that each class also has a hit die that they roll for more hit points.

The game only has four classes including Warrior, Thief, Cleric and Conjurer. These four cover the basics and leave plenty of room for meaningful differences between party members. There are no rules for different fantasy races, but if you need them in your game it's not difficult to add them. With such a simple system, bolting on extras will be half of the fun!

That is why we see so many genre-based hacks of this system out there. The system is so straightforward and simple it would take some serious effort to break it. While reading the rules I came up with three genre hacks I'd like to do with it myself!

The example of play is one of the better ones I've seen. A player could read that one page and grasp almost the entire system.

I'm not surprised the game is picking up momentum. The Kickstarter had 604 backers. I don't know how many PDFs have sold since then, but The Black Hack community on Google Plus has 810 members as I write this review, implying it is only gathering more fans.

Still, the game is not quite perfect. I would change a few things that I don't like.

The cleric has a spellbook. This choice is not terrible mechanically, but for the sake of flavour I would call it a prayer book and refer to casting divine spells as performing miracles. It would create better separation between the cleric and conjurer.

The conjurer spells have "read languages/magic" as a third level spell. I'd put that back into the first level list and add "fly" to the third level list. Before I run this system I might come up with a streamlined version of the "summon" spell from Lamentations of the Flame Princess as well. If I can get it down to two A5 pages I think I'll slip it into my copy.

Armour points are used up during combat, but return after a short rest. Shields are included in this rule. I think shields should be persistent in their effect. I would give a character a bonus to their level for the purpose of defending against attacks from monsters of plus one for a small shield and plus two for a large shield. That way a first level character attacked by three hit dice monster could roll without any penalty to avoid getting hit instead of the plus two penalty for fighting a more powerful monster. The persistence would make shields particularly useful and would make the choice to "sunder a shield" to avoid damage a harder one to make.

Fighters get one attack per level every round. That is way too much rolling in combat for my taste. I like the speed provided by this system and after third level the fighter player would grind every round to a halt during his or her turn while rolling hits and damage. I'd replace this ability with the ability to use shields offensively against more powerful monsters so they get the bonus levels when attacking as well. I'd also allow fighters to roll to hit with two-handed weapons without the plus-two penalty. Those two changes should protect them as the most effective characters in any combat without putting the rest of the party to sleep every round.

Overall, these are small things and likely have as much to do with my gaming taste as anything else.

For two bucks this game is a steal! I printed my PDF out as a booklet on five sheets of paper. This thing will go into my bag for every face-to-face game I play. I'll probably put a small notebook in with it with some quick adventure generation tables and class-based equipment lists so I can use this game as a quick replacement if some players cancel at the last minute.

I think the best use of The Black Hack is probably introducing new people to fantasy RPGs. Its blend of old-school flavour with modern mechanics is a great doorway into the possibilities of tabletop role-playing. Its simplicity means no one is left behind and there's way less of the, "What am I rolling now?" and more, "I do X!"

Well done David Black!


Thursday, 12 May 2016

Dangerous Magic in Fantasy Gaming

I started reading the Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock just before Christmas. The magic in the stories and some other things that have come up while gaming has me re-evaluating magic in fantasy RPGs.

Back in the days of 1e and 2e D&D, when I played a magic user I would bend spells until they broke. I found ways to use spells that had little to do with their original intent but worked within their description. I drove GMs nuts with my descriptions of how my characters were using the spells because they'd would constantly need to make a ruling on whether it would work out the way I wanted or not. Things like casting an Enlarge spell on a wooden door in a stone frame so it would shatter as it grew too big for the space it was in, or casting a Knock spell to unlatch all the buckles on the enemy's platemail.

The newer games have either nerfed the spells or created far more explicit descriptions that don't allow for these interpretations of effects. That's progress I suppose.

I recently found myself exercising those old creative muscles again in a Fifth Edition game I'm playing. We're well into our second year of play and my Warlock hit 9th level. That means she can summon Elementals now. When I saw that ability as one of many on the menu to choose from at 9th level I thought about the Elric stories and all the things I could get an Elemental to do during the one-hour duration.

Now I look at the abilities of the different elementals and figure out what kind of things I can do with them. The reaction of horror from the other players when my character commanded an Earth Elemental to drag an opponent into the ground and leave him there was something of a surprise. I figure a Warlock has the moral flexibility necessary to bury imaginary bad guys alive.

Between the four kinds of elementals my character can solve a lot of problems. Combat and movement are two common ones. For instance, Air Elementals can carry your character through the air and blast your enemies. So much more fun than a regular Fly spell!

I've mentioned before that I'm working on my own fantasy game system and one of the priorities I have is to make the magic system more open. To design it to reward creativity and unconventional thinking. As wonderful as that is, it's taking a long time for me to test everything and make certain the game does all the things I want it to do (like be fun to play). Not to mention that a lot of people don't want to change their game even though they might like to bring what I'm talking about to their table.

The pulps that influenced the creation of the first RPGs leave their marks on the magic systems we take for granted now but the structure keeps magic safe and largely predictable. Magic was always a bit scary in those old stories. A good example of something that they brought into the structure is the creature from Robert Howard's first Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword," inspiring the Invisible Stalker spell. When you read Michael Moorcock's Elric stories though, they summon water elementals to create a fog to hide their navy or fire elementals to set fire to a town when attacking. They summon terrible creatures of chaos to get secret knowledge or help navigating the different dimensions. These creatures have their own agendas and goals. Sometimes negotiation is necessary and sometimes they simply oblige.

I know that Stormbringer has a magic system that works like this, but I don't play Stormbringer nor do I know anyone that does. What I think I need is an OSR/5e D&D compatible character class that uses magic from other creatures and does no magic other than summoning and binding them to the caster's will.

Using the Magic User/Wizard class as a base, we could get there pretty quickly. For whatever system you are playing in simply adopt all the hit dice, skills, weapon and armour restrictions, etc of the Magic User/Wizard class and swap out the spellcasting for summoning and binding magic that can be used any time.

"Summoner"
This piece is actually my own attempt at drawing. I'm hugely jealous of people who can illustrate their own blogs so I'm going to try to learn to do this. If you are interested in my journey in that department or you want to see the links to the reference model you can see it at DeviantArt


This makes it easy to drop the class into whatever game you are playing without disrupting the game balance as it exists. If you are playing LotFP you get a character that can use any weapons and armour, like the rest of them but the lower hit points and lack of martial manoeuvres balances out the magic abilities. In 5e, the proficiencies and characteristics fit the flavour created by that system and its assumptions about setting.

Although for 5e, it might make more sense to use the warlock as a base for a summoner class. Once I've tested it out it would be nice to see if it would work for an Eldritch Knight. Elric was a warrior first. He only summoned elementals for large scale effects or to save him from drowning. He fought for himself.

The magic of summoning should be accessible but dangerous. Since the entities often want to get to our world for whatever reason summoning them should be easy while the real challenge comes when trying to control the creature. I also like the idea that it gets more difficult to control new entities throughout a single day. That way there's a good reason to conserve the magic and use it only when it's needed. That escalating danger is a good reason for characters using this kind of magic to be universally feared by ally and foe alike.

I already have summoning magic baked into my own game and tests are going well so far. I'll be putting together an OSR Class for summoning soon, but since I'm playing mostly 5e and playtesting my original game I'll probably do one for 5e D&D first. If you beat me to it, send me a link!










Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Island Crashers!

Last month Brent Newhall threw up an impromptu Fantasy RPG design contest. There was only about two weeks to come up with an RPG that fit a list of parameters. He was tired of the same-old same-old in Fantasy RPGs. He wanted something without the standard tropes of Sword and Sorcery so the contest was to make a game without things that you'd expect to see: No swords, no dungeons, no guns, no boring monsters, no women in revealing outfits, no barbarians, no Vancian magic, and no elves/dwarfs/hobbits.

"Island" by Elbardo
Back when I first started the blog I mused about a mash-up between Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom and Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea settings. I never did anything with it before, but the more I thought about it the more it fit Brent's requirements. I had to lean it more toward Earthsea than I originally planned, since swords and the scantily clad are a big part of the Barsoom identity, but it would fit naturally.

With my setting decided and ten days left in the contest I cleared a few days to sit down and write. I have a scattered collection of hand-written notes for an RPG system that emphasizes fast, pulpy play that I've mentioned here before. I took that scattered mess, read through it, and then I wrote.

The 3D System is designed to facilitate the fast-paced pulpy play that I love. There is room to be creative as a player. Combat is usually decisive and brutal while having the robust quality needed to for the fight scene in The Phoenix on the Sword. Magic is freeform, making wizards almost as dangerous to partner with as they are to face if they overreach their ability.

"Ruins - Environment Sketch" by Jorge Jacinto

The character generation system is integrated with the system. If there is a weakness, this is it. Anyone who wants to run in their own home brew setting will need to adapt the character generation tables to fit their dream setting or rewrite them entirely. I plan to make at least one fairly generic version of the game that can be used for different settings but the implied setting is going to be baked in regardless. What could be a bug for some I see as a feature. In the process of rolling up a character a player should get a feel for the world that created that character. The character is a natural product of the setting and fits into it.

"Overgrown Temple" by Jorge Jacinto

The Island generator is also not as complete as I would like. I'll finish fleshing it out after the contest, but for now it has a lot of repetition and does not go to the 216 unique encounter entries that I originally conceived when I started it. There was not enough time to fill it out the way I wanted within the contest time but it will allow a GM to create a viable point-crawl on an island in 15-20 minutes.

"Turtle Island" by Khirono

The setting for Island Crashers is an Archipelago that is slowly sinking into the sea. The need for new land to settle sends explorers out into the blue for new island wildernesses to tame. Too bad they aren't the only ones interested.

I basically jumped on the contest to force myself to get the game into a playable form that I could share. I don't know how Brent will be choosing the winner or even when. The draft for Island Crashers is rough, but usable and the island generator should get you a couple of decent islands for your group. There are some subtle hooks to draw your party into intrigues in the Archipelago proper, but there's no reason why you can't start with something like that.

If you do take the time to read through the rules I'd like to hear what you think about it. If you actually give it a try, I'd love to hear how it went and what your thoughts are.

Thanks!

"Fantasy Island" by Peter Lee



#3DSystem




Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Game Master Player Character, or Why I Broke My Own Rule

I don't like Game Master Player Characters. They make me uncomfortable as a player and as a GM. I don't mean Non-Player Characters, but party-members controlled by the GM that get a share of treasure/experience and act as protagonists in the game.

The dangers of a GM PC are huge! The moment they do too much it stops being a game. Once the GM is controlling both sides of the action in the game it's just a story. That means the other people in the group go from players to spectators and that isn't fun for anyone. As a GM, a lot of the excitement for me comes from not knowing what the players will come up with in any scenario. I do my best to anticipate them so they are challenged and enjoy the game, but the surprises are where the magic happens. A GM PC threatens that.

An evocative image from the late Dave Trampier

There are some terrible reasons to add a GM PC to the party. Some of the worst are things like, "guiding the story," or, "protecting the plot." If you want alpha readers for your novel it will go better if you are honest about it. Don't trick your players into doing that for you. "So the GM can play too," leads to some terrible wankery as well. Even if you have the best of intentions as the GM, you know what is coming, the deck is always stacked in your favour. It's not a challenge and it's definitely not much of a role playing game if the only variable is the dice.

Sometimes people will want a GM PC if a "critical" character class is missing from the party. This sort of thing often happens in D&D when no one wants to play a cleric. GM controlled clerics that are essentially just walking heal-bots ("OK, Kolbar casts Sanctuary and prepares to heal you guys") can always be replaced with a cache of healing potions. Solid play can solve a lot of these problems too. Hit points are a resource that are spent during the course of an adventure. Clerics are one way to extend that resource but solid strategy and magic items can do the same.

Fifth Edition D&D doesn't have the same niche problems. Between the backgrounds and the feats it's not hard to cover off all the skills and abilities that are useful during an adventure. For example, I play a Warlock in one game with the Healer feat who does an excellent job as the party healer even though we have a cleric, because the cleric player would rather cast battle spells and fight.

GM PCs are a good way to mess up a game. I don't like them and I don't use them. You can imagine my horror when I realized I needed one for a game I'm running.

I'm running a game for a couple of new players who didn't want to play with experienced players even though there are a tonne of amazing, supportive players who are great to new people in the hobby. It's only them and a party of two people is a problem. It's too small to challenge without risking a Total Party Kill in every encounter. One bad round is the end of them. Creative play can allow a party of two to dish out plenty of damage in an encounter but they still only have so many hit points. The players chose to make stealthy characters which helps but there are times where even the most clever players end up with their characters in a pitched battle. They need at least one more character there to divide the attention of the opposing forces.

I didn't want this added character to overshadow the PCs but I wanted a character that could draw fire and have the hit points to stay in the fight. My players also didn't create characters that could cast magic, which is pretty common for new players. That's why I also wanted the character to have some casting ability to help show the players the possibilities and get them comfortable with the magic rules.

I thought at first a fighter or paladin who went with a protector martial role would be good. Add in the Sage background, the Magic Initiate feat and we have a wizard's apprentice who took up arms after his/her master was killed in the field.

As cool as that sounded, I decided to go with a straight up wizard. I knew I wasn't introducing her until they got closer to their destination so I could start her at 2nd level with a School of Wizardry already established. I made her an Abjurer. The defensive magic and extra hit points make her extremely hard to kill. I decided that a Rock Gnome with their extra knowledge of magical devices would be handy because she could not only identify the function of magic items, but also their names and history which makes them more interesting. Even a +1 sword is special if it has a history. The Rock Gnomes also have a bonus to constitution which adds some more hit points.

I decided the only fair way to make the character is with the standard statistics (15, 14, 13, 12, 10 and 8) and standard hit points. I'm fairly lucky when it comes to rolling so this keeps the character in balance with the party, stat wise. I used the standard HP per level instead of rolling as well. It's high enough to hit my objective without giving them the wrong expectation for what a Wizard can be. Either of them could have made this character. Also, if one of the PCs dies the player might want to take over this character rather than roll up a new one so I need to keep it all fair and balanced.

In our second session it worked out well. The players had a forbidden book, the Malleus Deus from the Tales of the Scarecrow adventure they did in the first session. This forbidden item allows a wizard to cast a selection of cleric spells. After their new party member explained how dangerous it was to even know the location of this dreaded item they wrapped it up and locked it away at the Keep's vault. After some play they decided they trusted the wizard enough to let her transcribe a couple of spells into her book before locking it up again so she could cast Cure Light Wounds.

Another one of Dave Trampier's images

After railing against NPCs covering traditional party roles I have a little wizard who can take some serious damage, cast some useful wizard magic and healing spells. Still, she has no serious offensive spells, with only Sleep and Hold Person she is strictly support. No chance of overshadowing the rest of the party or becoming some kind of mobile weapon. So far, when in melee she casts Blade Ward or Shield to keep herself in the fight since she doesn't actually have an offensive cantrip.

We're several sessions in and the players like her, considering her a part of the team. They say she is useful without being in the way of anyone's fun. Jeff is more reckless than Megan so he tries to get the NPC to break standoffs with a third vote. The first time it happened I was surprised but should have realized that they would get the third member of the team to cast a vote. I'm not comfortable with that because I don't want to guide the party, but I do my best to keep my GM ideas out of it and rely of the character's back story and experience to make those calls.

Now that they are closing in on fourth level and have a third player starting next session I'm looking forward to transitioning the wizard out of the party and into a friendly NPC living at the Keep.


Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Session Report: The NewBs become Players!

I'm running a small, 5e D&D campaign for a group of first-time players. Last game something amazing happened. They became Players.

It wasn't until after the session that I understood what had happened and I only thought it through because I was wondering what was making me grin so long my face hurt.

The transition from new person to RPGs to Player is a a subtle change. It has nothing to do with knowing what die to roll, the rules, or where to look for stuff in the Player's Handbook. It happens the first time a player figures out how to transcend the rules and make their characters more effective than they have any right to be on paper. That first wacky plan or strategy that bends what you have on the character sheet into something incredible. That's the moment when they stop imagining the board game structure in their heads and realize they can try nearly anything.



My gang is running through the Caves of Chaos in old Gazetteer-era Mystara. The party is small, with only three of them so they explore with great stealth and care. A common tactic is to send the party wizard's spider familiar ahead to recce the hallways and rooms before entering. The spider can get under most (but certainly not all) doors in the rough hewn caves and that makes the difference between a stealthy retreat and a TPK.

They encountered the hobgoblin guardroom at the top of the stairs from the goblin lair (room 23) from the goblin side. From there, they couldn't get any information other than the sound of a lot of voices. When they encountered it from the other side they found out there was around a dozen well-equipped hobgoblins (actually 13, it's hard to count from a spider's perspective). They slipped away, snuck up on some torturers, saved some prisoners and fought their way out of the ravine. The success of saving the prisoners increased their renown at The Keep on the Borderlands, but they kept thinking about that room.

They knew they couldn't take it in a straight up fight. The party has had close calls with goblins and it's obvious the hobgoblins are far tougher than the goblins. They started looking at their sheets and asking questions. The teifling could cast Thaumaturgy which, among other harmless effects, makes tremors in the floor. "That's pretty scary in a cave, right?"

The wizard had cast illusions in the past to improve their chances to hide from patrols in the valley so they asked some questions about how the tremors mixed with illusions of rocks falling out of the ceiling might work and the bold gambit was hatched: They would fake a cave-in and strike in the chaos. An elven thief, a tiefling monk and a gnomish abjurer against 13 hobgoblins.

I live in a mining town. Work occasionally takes me into the mines and I've been down as far 7,400 feet underground. While I have never experienced a cave-in (and I hope I never do), you can't go down to any depth without being aware of how dangerous it is. While sounds of tremors coming from the walls would not create panic in hardened warriors, it would induce immediate action. Adding falling rocks would create some panic and a lot of action.

With the hobgoblins spread throughout the room I decided their actions would be based on where they were. The two closest to the door the party was coming from would exit and run down the hall, away from the cave-in. The two closest to the barred door would get the door open and get out and down the stairs. The rest would try to get under the table or press themselves against the walls and between crates for safety.

Despite the monk never hitting once with his spear the entire session (he even dropped it once), the surprise round went well. Two hobgoblins went down to a sleep spell (and looked like they were crushed by rock!), another one dropped to the thief's sneak attack with an arrow and a fourth reeled from a nasty kick by the monk. I ruled that the hobgoblins couldn't use their martial prowess ability that gets them extra damage on each hit when fighting in groups because they were too distracted by the falling rocks to work together effectively. The removal of that advantage was key to the party survival as they took some lumps but didn't lose anyone. With the hobgoblins engaged in escaping the room the party was also able to attack them in smaller, more manageable groups.

The party won, quickly grabbed some loot and then ran for it through the goblin caves (and four goblins) to get away from the hobgoblin reinforcements coming to help after the cave in.

Certainly some critical rolls went in their favour, but the conception and execution of a plan that basically tripled the effectiveness of their plucky little band marks their graduation to seasoned RPG players. Now they'll be searching their environment for advantages and trying all kinds of crazy stuff to turn the tables on their more powerful foes. That is where player skill changes the game.



I know they've made the switch because once they got back to the Keep they started reviewing everything they know about the different factions they've encountered and how they relate to each other. They are discussing how they can make use of that.

From a DM's point of view the campaign levelled up. I need to be ready for all kinds of crazy stuff from here on out.

I couldn't be happier.