Sundays now are lazy days for me. I either post something silly or other people’s work. Usually both. Today, it’s (loosely) using science to imagine a D&D creature. I did that with the Ixitxachitl and now do it with the pufferfish. Behold the pufferfish lich!
I don’t care what spells it casts. I’m not afraid.
I left D&D in 1982 due to the Satanic Panic and didn’t return until 2005, so my recollection of 1st Edition D&D (“1e”) isn’t precise. When I returned during the days of 3rd Edition D&D (“3e”), rolling for wandering monsters wasn’t a common mechanic (though I occasionally saw it in published mods). Without appreciating why it was used in 1e, I simply thought that the use of wandering monsters was stupid. If you have a cool monster on hand, use it. Otherwise, it’s a waste of a perfectly good encounter. On the other hand, if your wandering monster is the same creature that the PCs are facing from time to time in the planned encounters, then they add nothing to the game, so don’t waste time on them. That could make the game tedious. Now that I’ve reacquainted myself with 1e, I realize their point: They’re designed to discourage dawdling.
Searching for secret doors, examining magic items, counting your loot, and sleeping are time-consuming activities. DMs are expected to keep track of time so that, when a given interval of time has passed, they know to roll for wandering monsters. These random encounters often didn’t result in any treasure and drained valuable resources from the party, so they weren’t something that the PCs wanted. However, they didn’t make the game tedious because 1e combats were quick. So, the concern I mentioned above that they may not add anything to the game isn’t a serious one. Their primary effect was to drain resources, which, as I’ll discuss in the next section, serves a couple of connected purposes.
This isn’t something that goes over well with modern gamers. Modern gamers (and legacy gamers that have moved on) tend to explore every single room and grab every single piece of treasure they can. Anything less than complete is seen as a failure. I’ll give you a specific example. When discussing playing experiences with Lost Mines of Phandelver, the adventure from the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set for 5th Edition D&D (“5e”), players that failed to obtain the Staff of Defense would always be frustrated when others discussed it. Several of them that I knew would play the mod again with a character specifically designed to make use of that staff. Players would also take note in that adventure (and others) of forks in the road (so to speak), always promising to double back so that they covered the entire complex. Because of this mentality (I’ve been guilty of it myself), the D&D Adventurers League living campaign changed its rules such that every player could take a magic item found in the game even if there was only one. Everyone wants everything, so that’s what’s given despite how little sense it makes.
But Why Shouldn’t You Dawdle?
If this is what makes you happy, that’s fine, but my problem with this approach to the game is that it discourages immersion in the game world and can’t possibly work unless the risk of character death drops so low as to be negligible. As to the first point (which is a tangent from my main thesis), the logic of the game world becomes inconsistent. I can suspend my disbelief and accept a dragon that breathes a cone of cold, but I can’t accept the notion of a Rod of Cancellation spontaneously generating multiple copies of itself because multiple characters want it. The latter just doesn’t make sense, and no attempt is made to make sense of it. There’s no drain of resources to make it happen. There’s no need to visit the local archmage to make copies of it. It just happens.
As to the second point (now we’re back on track), a game where I know the DM will never kill me bores me. A game where I’ll get killed if I don’t think things through logically is far more fun. Sure enough, I’ve rarely seen character death in 5e. In fact, I saw far more character death in 4th Edition D&D (“4e“), and 1st-level 4e characters are intentionally durable. The more gamers become unwilling to suffer even the smallest of setbacks, the less we see them, which is why I stopped playing. There’s none of that in 1e. Can your characters survive? Sure, especially if you send the henchmen and hirelings in first. As I’ve been told, PCs can survive an entire campaign even despite the save or die mechanic (which I still don’t like). However, if you truly immerse yourself in the game, you’ll see that some actions are downright stupid and should get your characters killed. Game mechanics like wandering monsters discourage such stupidity, and as a consequence reward true immersion in the game world.
Your mission is to save the noble, not to grab an extra 5 copper pieces. Once you’ve got the noble, get the hell out of there. If this were a scenario in the real world, and you went for the coppers, your friends at your funeral would be discussing whether to submit your story to the Darwin Awards committee.
My favorite 1st Edition D&D (“1e”) adventure is C2: The Ghost Tower of Inverness. Also up there in the ranks is C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tomoachan. I’ve converted both mods** to 4th Edition D&D (“4e”) and 5th Edition D&D (“5e”). I’m always eager to run either one, and because I’ve done so multiple times, I made (and saved) maps for them.
** The last time I used the word, “mod,” for what others call “adventure” or “module,” I received an odd amount of pushback. One person even accused me of lying that it’s what I called them growing up, as if there could possibly be a motivation for something like that. I grew up in Montgomery County, MD, and every single person I gamed with called it mod. Some still do. We also occasionally used the terms adventure and module, but the point is that “mod” was the standard term. Your regional dialect, or even your specific gaming group, may have a different experience. I don’t care. I shouldn’t have had to write this aside, but if I didn’t, I might receive the same pushback over something that shouldn’t matter at all.
Dungeon Tiles were released during the 4e era, and I had tons of them. So much, in fact, that I had enough to spare. So, when I created the Dungeon Delves for synDCon 2011, I decided to take some of those Dungeon Tiles and permanently affix them to foam core. I’ve since used these for 5e as well. In other words, I’ve made good use of them. While unpacking recently, I discovered them. SPOILER ALERT! These cover only the Ghost Tower itself and a few iconic encounters along the four paths that lead you to it. Here are a couple of images of them.
For the other encounters, I can always use these. I bought a set.
With Hidden Shrine, I took a different approach, though not until 5e. I bought the hi-res images of the maps directly from their creator, Mike Schley. (You can see his work at https://mikeschley.com/.) I printed almost every room and hallway in the entire dungeon to cardstock (in color) so that I could use them as Dungeon Tiles. They’re exactly the correct size for minis. I also have several sound files containing phrases in Nahuatl that are either common (e.g., “Hello.”) or specifically used in the mod. They further helped set the mood. Here are some samples.
The problem with both of these mods is that they’re designed for competition. Each is designed for a set number of pre-generated PCs, 3 for C1 and 5 for C2 (though I created a 6th for C2), and the risk of death was unreasonably high — even by 1e standards — so that there would be one clear winner at the end of the convention. With both adventures, you can probably solve the “unreasonably high” problem (if you think that’s a problem) by having a normal party size.
In the foreseeable future, I plan to play only 1e, but I’ll make use of these maps nonetheless. “Theater of the mind” (i.e., gaming without maps) doesn’t bother me — it can be quite convenient at times — but I’m a huge fan of using maps. They help with the immersion that I often discuss, and they correct mistakes I make as DM in describing the surroundings. That doesn’t mean my 1e games won’t otherwise be theater of the mind. To me, that’s an inseparable part of the 1e experience. At least for now. 🙂
I’m waaaaay ahead on my blog writing, so this post, written on 2/18/2022, relates to a tweet from 2/11/2022, and is being published (assuming I don’t move my schedule around) on 3/3/2022.
The FASA Star Trek RPG (“STRPG“) is one of my two favorite RPG systems, so of course I had that one on the brain. STRPG was a d100, skill-based system, where players collected skill points based on their Star Fleet Academy (or other) training, and placed them into various skills. Their ability scores were also based on d100, so ability and skill checks were treated the same way.
The ability scores in STRPG had a one-to-one relationship with those of D&D, but STRPG added two extra skills: PSI (psionics) and LUC (luck). As you know, D&D has had different ways of dealing with psionics, none of which involved a separate ability score. In 1st Edition, a minimum Intelligence of X gave you a 1% chance of having psionic talents, opening up a new system of mechanics. I never played 2nd Edition, but from 3rd Edition forward, psionics became a class feature. If you took a psionic class, you had psionics. Otherwise, you didn’t (though some magic did psychic damage). Ergo, I didn’t respond with PSI. D&D couldn’t really use it.
LUC is a different story. There’s room for it in D&D. In a reasonably balanced system, LUC was a way of giving the PCs an advantage over the NPCs. There are other ways to do that (e.g., 3rd Edition action points, inherent mechanics), but a LUC score wasn’t a bad choice. If all roleplaying and dice rolls failed the PC, they could request one more shot at success with a LUC roll. If they rolled less than their LUC score, they succeeded despite those failures. Of course, it was up to the gamemaster to define what that success was, which could be partial rather than total. Considering how focused modern gamers are on player agency, I suspect that a LUC ability score should appeal to many of them.
BTW, if you’ve never read my blog before this post, I’ve probably left you in suspense.
For the record, my other favorite RPG system is 4th Edition D&D.
If I fail my LUC check, my love of 4th Edition could start a nuclear war.
Someone on Facebook asked, “As a DM, what rule do you most often forget?” My answer is easy for 5th Edition D&D: I never award inspiration. I’ve done it maybe two or three times, and only then because people asked me to do it. It’s a silly thing. Someone like me should constantly be thinking about rewarding character concept-driven role-play, which I believe is the primary purpose of the mechanic. In 4th Edition D&D, the analog to inspiration was the Action Point (“AP”), and I never forgot to award that because it was rewarded based solely on how many encounters you had. Every other encounter, you received an AP. Most players were on top of that and automatically gave themselves the AP.
In all editions of all games, my forgetfulness manifests itself primarily through running a PC. If my character sheet gets too complicated, I forget to use abilities, feats, spells, etc. My professional life is all about attention to detail. When I’m playing a game (or writing about one), I want to relax, focusing on acting out a distinctive character concept rather than my character’s mechanics. Ergo, I try to keep my character’s mechanics as simple as possible, venturing into complexity only when it serves the character concept.
Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?) Shadowrun and Pathfinder are also trademarks, but I have no reason to believe their lawyers are jackasses.
In 4th Edition D&D, the sizes used for creatures were Tiny, Diminutive, Small, Medium, Large, Huge, Gargantuan, and Colossal. I know that wasn’t for everyone, but I liked that. A lot. I liked that level of distinction and didn’t find it confusing or hard to memorize. In fact, in the game system Vic and I are developing, we added “Vast,” which is obviously larger than Colossal. Each of these sizes has corresponding space they take on the battle map.
4 squares (2 x 2)
9 squares (3 x 3)
16 squares (4 x 4)
25 squares (5 x 5)
36 squares (6 x 6)
Medium Space (Full Table)
As I said, I liked this system a lot, but I’ve toyed with a new terminology that requires some extra abstraction. Also, to be mathematically consistent, the top row (Tiny), should be 1/9 square, but I’m probably the only person who cares about that. Besides, that’s about to be adjusted.
Note #1: I wrote a long post justifying my position with a lot of math. It referenced exponential progression and irrational numbers. I trashed all of that in favor of just giving you my conclusion.
Note: This post isn’t intending to solve a problem. It’s just introducing terminology that expresses what most people already do intuitively, but tweaks that a tiny bit.
This should be an easy exercise for you. Imagine an encounter consisting not of a bunch of medium sized creatures fighting each other but rather of platoons of troops in a mass combat, or perhaps jet fighters in a dogfight, or starships flying at incredible speeds. Despite covering very different ground within game, the dining room table and battle map are the same size. Ergo, a 1-inch square adjusts its meaning depending on the size of the combatants and/or the distances they cover.
The terminology I use to reflect this adjustment is “n-space.” We generally run our games in Medium-space (because Small/Medium-space is too wordy), which means “one square represents the area a Medium creature needs to operate,” and other size categories are represented relative to that. For an encounter involving a larger base unit, we use, for example, Large space, which looks like this.
1/64 square = 1/26 squares
1/16 square = 1/24 squares
1/4 square = 1/22 squares
1 square = 12 squares = 1/12 squares
4 squares = 22 squares (2 x 2)
1 creature/4 squares
16 squares = 24 squares (4 x 4)
1 creature/16 squares
Large Space (Full Table)
You’ll notice a few things. First, the 1 creature/square entry now applies to Large creatures, which is the definition of “Large space.” Second, if you reverse engineer the math, you’ll see that 16 Tiny creatures (not 8 or 9) would occupy 1 square in Medium space, because they’re now (properly in my opinion) treated as taking half the space of a Diminutive creature. Finally, you’ll see that Huge and Gargantuan objects are lumped into the same category, as are Colossal and Vast objects. Again, unless you want me to show you some exponential progressions and irrational square roots, you’ll have to take my word for it, but rest assured there are still Huge creatures, so you don’t have to throw out your Huge minis and that Colossal red dragon you paid hundreds of dollars for on eBay. Their size remains relevant in Medium space.
If we didn’t pair Huge creatures with Gargantuan ones, we’d have to say, “12 Huge creatures fit in every 7 squares in Gargantuan space,” or “1.7 Huge creatures fit in 1 square in Gargantuan space.” No one wants that.
Well, if my goal is to simplify things, I haven’t yet met it. That table is still a lot to take. Fortunately, in Large or larger spaces, we don’t need to worry about the low-end cases, and in Large space, we probably don’t have to worry about the high end case either. This is because no one cares how many pixies fit on a starship (“A bunch; that’s how many!”), and a trebuchet isn’t going to fit in a pixie’s treehouse. We also don’t need the column explaining the math. So, here are the additional, easily-digestible tables you’ll need:
1 creature/4 squares
1 creature/16 squares
1 creature/4 squares
1 creature/4 squares
1 creature/4 squares
They’re nearly identical tables with three entries each, but with shifted labels. Your starship minis can be the same size as your human minis. You just need a few minis representing mobs or swarms of things (which you all have in your collection), and you’re good to go. Of course, this is what we’re all doing anyway. With just the slight tweak of how Tiny creatures are represented, and grouping larger creature sizes together in spaces larger than Medium space, I’m just introducing a terminology to define it. If this were explained in an RPG sourcebook, you could provide even less justification than I’ve done here. Most people want only the rules; they don’t need the math to justify it.
One last note: I could imagine adding Enormous space and Immense space as categories to a system like Star Trek or Star Wars because Vast space would be cosmic in size. I’m not sure that’s necessary, but if such a choice were made, it could work. Those two terms have the benefit of using a different first initial, allowing each size category to be expressed as a single letter without confusion. For that reason, Cosmic space wouldn’t work. It would create an ambiguity when referenced with Colossal space.
What do you think? Is treating a 3 x 3 creature differently from a 4 x 4 creature really that important when sieging a castle?
Last week, I discussed spell components. The conversations I had across Facebook and MeWe led me to a follow up post, and then down a rabbit hole to today’s topic.
4th Edition D&D (“4e“) didn’t track spell components for powers, and rituals had a set cost that didn’t even list the material components. Material spell components were abstracted, so a ritual caster could remove a specified number of gold pieces from the character sheet and assume the material components were available. Based on my linked posts, you’d think I’d have a problem with this, but I didn’t. In 4e, there were no go-to spells or rituals. Everything was balanced so that players chose their suites of powers based on the type of characters they wanted to play. Tracking material spell components (or casting times as in 1st Edition D&D) was unnecessary; characters were already greatly diverse. That kind of variety made for far more interesting combats, even if most of table were playing the same classes. In 4e, there was no place for the question, “What classes are you guys playing?” It didn’t matter. You could play what you wanted without affecting the game because everyone was different even if they were the same. As someone who played a ton of 4e, I never understood the claim that all classes played the same. Even within classes, they played differently.
Rituals weren’t used very often in my experience, but I think that was the result of adventure writing rather than an inadequacy of the ritual system. In fact, I wrote a Dungeon Crawl system for 4e, and on the now-defunct loremaster.org added a post on how to convert rituals to spells (or “near-spells”). Here’s a PDF that was the basis of that post. It’s not the final draft, so it may have some rough edges.
Nothing Is Certain Except Death and Taxes
As good as that was, 4e screwed up in a different but analogous way. When it came to feats, almost every class had go-to feats. In fact, there were feats that were go-to for most classes. This was known as a “feat tax.” Durable, Implement Expertise, Improved Initiative, Toughness, Weapon Expertise, and Weapon Focus immediately come to mind. This wasn’t nearly as large a sin of game design — other players generally don’t notice which feats a player has chosen — but for what it’s worth, 5e does a much better job with feats. I have trouble selecting 5e feats because a large number of them are valuable no matter what class I’m playing, so I know I’m going to make different choices than other players.
As I said in the prior posts, game designers need to pay better attention to whether their systems lead a majority of players to make the same choices. 4e proved that you can design a game of diverse characters in such a way that it doesn’t devolve into an exercise in accounting, and simultaneously broke that rule.
A couple of days ago, I posted about some things I found while continuing to unpack. One thing I found deserves its own post: the program for our first synDCon gaming convention (2010). When we decided we were going to put on a convention, we had a meeting of at least 20 people at the Cracker Barrel in Chantilly, Virginia. This took place after one of our Living Forgotten Realms game days at the now defunct Game Parlor. Only seven people decided to come on board as owners, with two quickly moving to Arizona before we could even get started, and then two others flaking out. It was basically Vic, Cassandra, and I doing everything.
The cover art and Gamers’ Syndicate logo were both designed and illustrated by Erik_Nowak, and he also designed this program.
I remember a meeting when there were just five of us. We had to decide who would be the number one person: the Convention Coordinator. I didn’t volunteer because I didn’t want to be too pushy, but no one else wanted to do it. This was typically unnecessary nerd angst on all our parts, because in the end it didn’t matter. Everyone had to work hard (until they flaked out), and no one was really the boss among us.
I’m proud of two things. First, look at that first page, and continue to examine the ones that follow. Even when we had seven planned owners, everyone was almost exclusively a 4th Edition D&D player. Nevertheless, our relatively small convention had a ton of variety in what was run. There were card games, board games, RPGs, and miniature war games. Within the RPGs, we had a ton of variety as well, and there were games run specifically for beginners. We also had a “synDCon special,” which was written by Erik and D. Hunter Phillips.
The second thing of which I’m proud was my idea (<patting myself on the back>). We had staggered slots. Instead of the typical 8am-12pm, 1pm-5pm, 7pm-11pm schedule for RPG games, we added in slots at 10am-2pm and 3pm-7pm as well. Again, for a small con, the fact that this worked out so well was remarkable. Many people took advantage of the opportunity to sleep in, try our Dungeon Delves for a couple of hours, sit in on a seminar or author book reading, or try new systems at the beginners’ tables. Another great idea of mine was to allow only 5 seats per game in presale despite tables seating 6 players. This made it far easier to sit players that didn’t preregister or wanted to change tables. No one had a problem with it, but a lot of people appreciated the flexibility.
This was a nice hotel, and it was conveniently located near a Metro stop (our public rail transportation system). And being who I am, I especially wanted a site in Maryland so that we could register for a federal trademark if it ever came to that. 🙂
Okay, yes, we definitely emphasized Living Forgotten Realms, but I’m still happy with how much Heroes and Rokugan and Pathfinder Society we had (these are living campaigns for the RPGs Legend of the Five Rings and Pathfinder respectively).
Note well, though, that there was more going on than the program states. We had a board game room, and open play for both card games and miniature war games. Saturday night, my cousin and I, a.k.a., Wet Paint, performed for a crowd of beer-drinking gamers some hits of the 80s and 90s. That’s when we played together, so our song set came from those decades.
Seriously, for a small, first-time convention, look at how much variety we had. I loved it, and I never saw it with conventions this small. We also had seminars featuring authors and game designers. Being in the DC area, we actually knew a lot of those people, so it was relatively easy to get them here. This, in turn, allowed us to do this . . . .
We received a small amount of support from most of these companies, and others were actually present. Our prize for the first person to buy a convention badge was a ticket to GenCon. GenCon gave those away to conventions all the time; no inside track was necessary. However, we also had, for example, a member of Green Ronin participate in a seminar and run the (then-new) Dragon Age RPG, and Rob Hobart (AEG), the head of Heroes of Rokugan, ran a seminar and (I think) a few games.
We chose a great venue, and synDCon 2010 was a four-day convention. Yep, four days. Just like the big guys. Monday was a holiday, and adding that day to the schedule didn’t increase our costs noticeably. Of course, by cost I mean financial cost. My feet were sore (which is why I was sitting for the Wet Paint performance), and I ran, at best, on four hours of sleep a night, with only two on performance night. I’d say it was a success considering that we got hit with a snowstorm right before the convention, scaring off a lot of people.
The following year, we moved synDCon 2011 to mid-April to make sure we’d have better weather, but we had late snow that year. It wasn’t as bad as the previous year, but it still affected attendance. Infuriating. However, synDCon 2011 was an official convention within the circuit of competitive Munchkin published by Steve Jackson Games. In fact, we may have done that for synDCon 2010. I really don’t remember at this point. I just know we had a great time both years. Unfortunately, it’s too hard a thing to run with, for all practical purposes, two people running the entire show and Mother Nature chasing us around with snowstorms. This isn’t to say that there weren’t a lot of other people that did a lot of work. We had a lot of help, with a few people being organizers for Living Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder Society, and Heroes of Rokugan, and we still had decent numbers. However, in the end it falls on the organizers, and there were only two of us. Both Vic and I would rather not have a convention than do one half-assed, so we didn’t have a third one.
Would I like to bring it back? Yes. Do we have the financial means to do so? Probably. Do I see enough people getting on board to make the workload manageable? No. There are very few people I could trust to see it through, and I’m not getting any younger.
Save or die in RPGs refers to the notion that a character can be in a position where their life relies on a single saving throw. This is quite common in 1st Edition D&D (“1e”) but was completely eliminated in 4th Edition D&D (“4e”). Despite my enthusiasm of returning to 1e, I think its demise was a good thing. Much like ordinary swings of a sword, devastating but really cool attacks could be unleased on a character without taking them out of the game immediately.
For example, one of my favorite monsters is the medusa, so I want to use them to their full potential and (relatively) often. In 1e, however, one medusa could take out the entire party before they could say, “The Amazon commercial with Medusa is stupid.” That’s quite a buzzkill, and it can destroy a gaming session. In 4e, however, I had no issues unleashing that petrifying gaze upon the group. On a successful attack roll, those in a close blast 5 were slowed. A failed save on their next turn left them immobilized. Finally, if they failed a second save on the turn after that, they’d be petrified. At any point in that process, a single successful save ended the effect. Poison and other fatal (or effectively fatal) effects manifested similarly. A rare few monsters had abilities with aftereffects, which were brilliant. If at any point you successfully saved, it would end the primary effect but would trigger a secondary effect requiring its own save.
I’m not sure how I’d eliminate save or die in 1e, or even whether I should eliminate it. Messing with something so deeply baked into the game could create issues. Or not. 1e is remarkably adaptable to house rules. To start, though, I’m going to keep it.
So, make sure your henchmen go into each room first.