Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On AD&D Assassins

This is a post I made over at DF. I figured it was worth reposting here. The topic is "A Guide to Playing Assassins."

I really think that the best guide to playing assassins is actually playing one, BTB, from level 1.

A starting assassin has no real thief skills, marginal HP, and only the option of adding a shield to their marginal leather armor. They can't hire hirelings and do the "level 1 fighter as the leader of men, a sergeant in charge of a squad" strategy. The assassins guild may be helpful, but I'd expect most help to have strings attached. They also have tough ability score requirements and incentives that make prioritizing DEX unlikely; that reduces AC, surprise, and dual-wielding possibilities. These limitations prevent them from using traditional fighter or thief strategies. What do they have?

Bonus XP and GP for conducting assassinations.
Low level targets are reasonable and pay a decent amount of dough. They also get bonus XP for doing the deed. This is even possible in a megadungeon setting; I can imagine missions like, "Assassinate the goblin slinger that hangs out with a band of thugs on level 2 of the dungeon." Depending on the campaign it may be possible for the assassin to power up through the lower levels.

Fighter-quality weapon selection.
While they only get three choices, I think fighter-quality weapons are very worthwhile. I think every assassin should have at least one back-stab capable weapon, so that probably means a long, short, or broad sword. The other two should probably include some sort of polearm; long weapons strike first, and 1d10 damage is enough to kill many low-level monsters. A polearm also lets you fight from the second rank and avoid heavy combat. The other should probably be some sort of hurled or projectile weapon. If lucky enough to have 17+ DEX, then a hand axe or dagger seems wise for dual-wielding.

Given that BTB (non-UA) only fighters get bows, it is a pretty big deal to be able to use a bow. Thieves don't get them, BTB (PHB only). Same thing for polearms. An assassin that chooses proficiencies unwisely is giving up a major strength.

Poison usage.
The DMG gives guidelines for different types of assassin poisons. Some are quite reasonably priced. While at first blush they seem lackluster, remember that 10 HP of damage is basically the same as doing 3 HD of damage. A poisoned arrow might be enough to slay an ogre outright, which is pretty impressive.

Disguise capability.
I don't have my PHB in front of me but I believe that even low-level assassins can use their disguises as a class function. This makes INT important, as speaking a wide variety of languages will be helpful for impersonating many different kinds of foes. It also makes CHA important, as getting good reaction rolls up front will be helpful.

Basically, my bottom line is that an assassin character has few mechanical advantages over thieves. The real key, if you play BTB, will be player creativity and tactical sense. Using things like disguises or setting traps will be the key to success, and that requires both player savvy and roleplaying skill to get away with. The only other option is to be relegated to second-rate fighter status, standing in the back with the polearm. While some situations may call for that (and while it may be the best of poor options in some tactical situations) I don't think many parties will be happy dragging along such a character. To be useful the player will have to use their creativity (if allowed by the DM in the campaign), or better yet, an extremely shrewd and opportunistic tactical sense.

Many players will try to be a fighter, charge in, and die. Others will try to be a thief, and realize that they are not sneaky or good at scouting. With the right DM, campaign, and player, an assassin could be enormous fun. I think they would shine in a smaller party, especially. While I would require them to be evil, evil doesn't necessarily mean dumb.

This is why I say the best education is playing BTB: players who can't hack it will die and try another class that they are better suited for. Likewise if the campaign is unsuited for them then that will become obvious quickly as well. Assassins are an advanced class meant for advanced players, similar to the other sub-classes.

Additionally: I would point out that an elvish assassin is quite possibly highly effective with a less skilled player, because of their inherent racial bonuses to surprise. This could mean lots of backstab and/or assassination attempts, depending on your DM. While more approachable for a less shrewd player, I am not convinced this is the best way to go; long term there is a level cap, and moreover there is no Raise Dead for elves that bite the dust so eventually you'll get unlucky, fail a save, and die for good.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Linky to AX Rebirth; Comments Policy

First off, my friend Dan is starting up a blog for an upcoming campaign. I expect some good writing there, probably more story and campaign-world building oriented than you get here at the Potion Shop, so it will be a nice change of pace. The first campaign Dan ran was my first and I can highly endorse his writing skillz. It will be added to the blogroll.

Secondly, I'm thinking of making comments moderation only. I don't want to moderate comments as it is a pain. However, I don't get that many comments anyways. I am just sick of getting Chinese Gold Farmer advertisements on here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

4E & Lasting Damage

I was thinking about damage in 4E today and had a quick thought. There are basically three types of damage:
  • HP loss
  • Healing surge loss
  • Conditions
In general, HP loss and most conditions are remedied easily with a 5 minute rest. Healing surge lost is remedied with an extended (8 hr) rest.

That fits nicely enough onto my scales:
  • 1 year (12 months)
  • 1 season (3 months)
  • 1 month: 48 leagues (consider rounding to 40, 45, or 50) -- ~850 x 1300 miles (empire or small continent)
  • 10 days: 18 leagues
  • 1 week: 12 leagues -- ~215 x 325 miles (kingdom)
  • 3 days: 6 leagues
  • 1 day: 2 leagues -- 36 x 54 miles (duchy?)
  • Morning/Afternoon/Night (1/3 of a day): 1 league, with one part usually reserved for downtime
  • 2 hour "chunks:" 2 miles (if you require 2 chunks/day for downtime)...or 0.5 leagues (if downtime is abstracted -- 12 x 18 miles or 9 x 13.5 miles (barony?)
  • 1 mini-chunk (~40 mins): 1/2 mile
  • 1 turn (~10 mins): 1 furlong (220 yards) -- 6/8 mile x 9/8 mile (manor)
  • 1 partial-turn (~3 minutes): 3.3 chains (~70 yards)
  • 1 minute (~60 seconds): 1 chain/4 rods (22 yards) -- ~130 x 200 yards (5 acres)
  • 1 round (~20 seconds): 1 rod (5.5 yards)
  • 1 segment (~6 seconds): 1 pace (~1.5 yards) -- 10 x 15 yards (perch, or 1/160th of an acre)
It also implies that there should be another type of damage which takes approximately a month to shrug off. It is roughly a scale factor of 1:100 between 5 minutes and 8 hours (which is about the same as four levels on my table above), so 8 hours * 100 = 33 days, which is more or less a month. This would be really nice for abstracting out damage in larger encounters, long overland travel forced marches, and so on.

The basic function of healing surges is to ration resources for the "one more door" question which is really a strategic question. The basic function of HP is to differentiate how durable characters are in tactical combat.


The simplest approach is to use some sort of "mega healing surge," where in order to take an extended rest you need to expend a Mega Healing Surge. This replicates a "one more door" effect ("one more hex?") but has the downside of making not only the 3-encounter adventuring day but also the 3-day adventuring month, which is probably undesirable.

I also shy away from using mega-conditions. 4E is finely tuned so much to the point that if you impose quantitative numerical penalties like -1 to hit or something that it will significantly degrade the effectiveness of characters in tactical combat. Note that a character with 1 healing surge is just as effective as one with 10 healing surges. Now, I would be willing to make an exception for some "mega-conditions," especially if rituals are brought into play to allow you to heal them. I would also be willing to use watered down conditions; for example, instead of "slowed" it might be "-1 speed;" instead of "weakened," perhaps -2/tier damage.

Another approach we have used before is "resistant healing surge damage." This is damage that basically knocks off healing surges and cannot be healed until you've hit a milestone. So, you can't just sit around and get better, you actually have to go do something adventurous.

I was thinking about one final option for long-term resistant damage and it is loss of powers. In general powers are nice but not essential perks. Losing a daily or encounter power hurts but it hurts a lot less than -1 to hit. One thing I don't like about this is that higher level characters tend to have many more powers than lower level characters, whereas healing surges increase relatively slowly.

Additionally, because long downtime is hard to get in many campaigns, I would allow ALL long-term strategic ailments (short of those with plot significance requiring rituals) to be thrown off after a month of rest, and I would allow one or some to be healed after a week of rest. You could also treat it like the death penalty and erase the penalty after active adventuring (3 milestones or something), or to encourage risk-taking you could allow an Endurance Check (with level appropriate DC) after a character completes 3 milestones in a day.

So, perhaps when one takes strategic damage, one picks up one of the following (roll 1d6 or pick if appropriate to the injury):
- (1-2) Power Down: Lose the use of any one power you know
- (3) Crippled: -1 speed
- (4) Frail: -2/tier on all damage rolls
- (5) Bad Magic: Start each day with -1 magic item power usage
- (6) Exhausted: Lose a healing surge (resistant, only restored after the strategic rest interval)

Those would all be significant blows to a character without being crippling. To remove each negative condition you'd need to do this:
  • One month of bed rest removes all such negative conditions.

  • One week of rest removes one such negative condition.
  • When a character hits their third milestone in a day, they may make an Endurance check. If successful, one condition is removed.
  • Certain rituals may allow these to be removed.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Real World Distances


Ah, D&D travel. I remember plotting out how many 24 mile days my character could cover back in the day. Not very realistic if you've ever done much rucking in the real world in rough terrain. Anyone that has ever done any walking knows that this is a lot of ground to cover. That's why I think my hexploration movement rates are fairly realistic. They are generally geared to allow characters on foot to cover 4 (perhaps +/- up to 3) hexes per time period with perhaps 6 hexes for light horse.

DW and I recently covered ~35 miles on foot over three days. We hiked the Resurrection Pass North trail. We had excellent weather, good trail conditions, and it is of moderate elevation. We were hiking with full packs; I estimate that I had around 3-4 stone in my pack + 1 stone of rifle and other misc gear and DW had ~2 stone plus 1/3 stone of shotgun. We are both 20 somethings in good health and decent shape, although we are definitely not super athletic by any means. We also had the benefit of excellent boots, synthetic fabrics, and good modern packs.

My formula would say that we could cover four hexes each day. Going to the day-by-day scale and we get hexes which are two leagues across. Over each day we should have been able to cover four hexes which is 24 miles (eight leagues). That means over three days we should cover around 72 miles. We only did half that on our trip. Is the formula bad, or should we have applied modifiers to ourselves?


I think it is the latter. The first modifier would be anything that reduces our movement allowance.

First, DW walks slower than me even unencumbered. Her normal move might be only three hexes, not four. Nothing about male vs. female here, but maybe she took some sort of flaw at character creation to get build points for musical talents or something, setting her base move to three.

Another factor would be encumbrance. With a four stone pack plus a 2/3 stone carried rifle in my hands I am definitely encumbered to some degree -- probably enough to lower my move. If my normal enc limit is average (4 stones) then carrying 5 stones of gear would drop my move by some amount. Likewise, DW is not very strong by self admission (she must have also dumped STR at char creation) so she might be encumbered with more than 2 stone of gear.

On day two we dropped packs for a few hours and went ahead with daypacks only. That might have earned up an extra MP but we were already fatigued and possibly moving slower anyways.


We were in hilly terrain with mixed growth (forest to taiga) but we were going up a pass so the elevation gain was pretty moderate. As a side note, if we were bush whacking, it would have been MUCH slower going. Going on a trail is much faster, at least twice as fast. I think this illustrates the importance of trails and how they should affect terrain modifiers.

Anyways, say each hex normally costs 1 MP to enter. The dense growth would have added +1 MP. Our gentle elevation gain might have merited 0.5 MP extra but certainly not a whole extra MP (it didn't slow our speed THAT much). The trail definitely mitigated the undergrowth penalty. So I think a cost of 1-2 MP per hex is probably about right.

One neat idea that crossed my head was to use contour lines as a way of assessing extra cost for elevation change. Rather than saying, "All hill hexes cost an extra MP to enter" you can say, "It costs an extra MP to cross any contour line." Some old school maps already have these (think of B2's map). It allows for a much more natural depiction of topography and doesn't limit you to static "Hill" and "Mountain" terrain, although it can make map drawing a LITTLE harder if you don't "get" topography. I'm comfortable with topo maps so I don't mind it much. The trick is just setting the major contour interval appropriately.

On our scale with 2 league hexes an appropriate interval would probably be around 500-1000', just as a WAG. Charge one extra MPs for going up and 1/2 MP for each line crossed going down (50% to lose a MP perhaps). Anyone that thinks going down is super easy is wrong, it is really tough on your knees and feet, especially when carrying a load.


What you end up with is a base speed of 3 hexes due to encumbrance, and a move cost of 1 MP per hex with perhaps 3 extra MP sucked up for crossing contour lines. So going with that we should have covered 3 * 3 -3 (for elevation) two-league hexes over three days: 6 total. That's 36 miles: which is exactly what we hiked, real world. If the DM had been generous and given us an extra hex for a half day of light load with daypacks then we'd still be close, but I spent my extra hex of move bushwhacking off trail a bit to explore rather than covering distance.

Here's a rough table of ROT's:

Average Unencumbered Move: 4 hexes on foot / 6 hexes mounted
  • Light Encumbrance: 3 hexes
  • Moderate Encumbrance: 2 hexes
  • Heavy Encumbrance: 1 hex
Base Cost to Enter Hex: 1
  • Light cover (tall grasses, light undergrowth): +1
  • Moderate cover/rough terrain (dense forest): +2
  • Heavy cover/rugged Terrain (dense swampy forest with alder thickets): +3 (use rarely)
  • Extremely Rugged Terrain (you're on the friggin' moon, and there is a swamp with alder thickets there somehow): +4 or more (use rarely)
  • Crossing contour line (uphill): Costs one MP
  • Crossing contour line (downhill): Costs 1/2 MP (roll D6, 1-3 = lose a MP)
  • Using trail: Negate effects of cover if on foot; some sort of bonus to fatigue checks?
  • Using path: Negate effects of cover if on foot or mounted; some sort of bonus to fatigue checks?
  • Using road: Negate effects of cover if on foot or mounted or with wheeled vehicle; some sort of bonus to fatigue checks?
This basically lets you use trails to negate penalties for heavy cover (with an obvious channeling effect), and it also makes using them even in non-cover a smart idea to avoid fatigue. Or you could just say that most off-trail areas except for wide open plains have even light cover, which is fairly realistic.
Even people on the great plains used roads and trails, especially for vehicles. A more complex (but less usable) table might have a column for each terrain assigning a cost for on foot, mounted, and wheeled traffic with trails/roads being especially important for the latter options. That represents the advantage of foot travel in rough terrain. It also allows you to say things like, "Mules are treated as foot in rough terrain" to make mules cooler than horses in some situations.

Another way to tackle it would be having two short tables:
COVER: None (+0), Light (+1), Heavy (+2), Legendary (+3)
FOOTING: Good (+1), Rugged (+1), Poor (+2), Legendary (+3)

So, the savannah (good footing) with tall grass (light cover) might be 2 MP to enter each hex. Up here, an alder forest (+1 or +2) growing on rocky rugged ground (+1) would be 3-4 MPs; if it is also a swamp (not uncommong) then it might be 4-5 MPs per square, which means the average guy would spend a whole day bushwhacking to go two leagues... Or find a trail in a hurry!!!


As a side note we did some packing with horses too for a few hours recently and they do appreciate trails too. They also don't go a whole lot faster than people do most of the time. I just want a game mechanic to represent the idea that light infantry r0xors in rough trackless terrain. The trail/paths/road mechanic does that, I think. A vast forest with only trails is a great place for elves to hang out. If human knights want to travel there then they better start hacking paths for themselves, which will also have the effect of neatly channeling all those said horses into predictable areas most of the time. Otherwise, a horse (6 MP, costs 3 MP to enter every non-path hex) will move slower than a light infantry (4 MP, costs 1 MP to enter trail-ed hexes), and then why bother bringing horses? If dwarves want to roll through with big wagons then they'll need an actual road, or else it will be painful hauling through the woods (probably 3-4 MP with costing 3 MP to enter each hex...).

If you don't have enough MPs to enter a hex then a few things could happen. First you could just forbid it; this is simplest. You could also allow it with a random check: say 1 MP is left and 2 MP are required to enter; you spend the MP and have a 50/50 shot of actually moving. You could also require the extra MPs to be spent with some sort of consumable resource ("forced march") and/or check. We basically forced march the last few miles on the first day; a good way to represent that would have been needing 1 MP to move a hex and 1 MP to cross a countour line and only having 1 MP left. We fatigued ourselves and it was dicey whether we'd make it to our site or just give up and set up camp where we were, so maybe we expended some willpower or emotional HP too.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Real World Visibility

I found another reason for slow blog posting: Alaska Summer. The days here are getting really long, so you'll be out doing stuff and think, "Self, it is only like 7 PM, I've got hours before bed! Then you realize you are mowing your lawn at midnight." Even though I try to be careful about living by the clock I continually seesaw between sleep deprivation induced coma and manic outdoor activity.

However, I have had a chance recently to "field test" two Hexploration related concepts.


First, we went down to Colorado for a mini-vacation and did the Pike's Peak thing. The view from Pike's Peak is about as good as you can get in North America, with visibility of around 200 NM on a clear day. It was enlightening to note what can and cannot be seen on a "strategic" scale. That would be 1 or 2 48 league hexes; imagine being able to see all of the heart of a small empire and parts of the periphery from one spot (yes, I am calling Kansas the periphery of the Mighty Coloradan Empire).

Also notable was what you can and cannot see. At the strategic scale only strategic features are visible. Mountains yes; foothills, yes; small hills and embankments, no. Highways, yes; roads, sometimes; trails, no. Rivers, yes; streams, sometimes; creeks, no. This led me to think of a few levels of terrain feature that match up with the scales of play (Strategic, Operational, Tactical). Perhaps you get something like this:

Major - Obvious on all scales
Minor - Obvious on tactical, operational scales
Miniature - Obvious on tactical scale
Hidden - Never obvious

So, if I'm on Pike's Peak, mapping at a strategic scale of some sort, then I can note other mountains, big hills, major highway, major watercourses, towns, and so forth, but locating a minor feature like a hamlet or rutted carriage road requires some sort of time, effort, and check (luck). Locating a miniature feature from there might be possible with lots of time, effort, tools (optics), and a hard check (lots of luck).

To illustrate this, imagine spot and stalk hunting. It is a hunting technique where you climb up a major terrain feature and look for animals. You start by glassing with binocs at 8-10 power magnification which lets you note minor features but scan large amounts of area relatively quickly. You then pull out a spotting scope with much higher magnification to investigate possible animals and evaluate trophies before setting out after one. If I sat on top of Pike's Peak with a 60x spotting scope I could probably locate a miniature feature like an individual cottage or a small trail in the woods, but it would take a LONG time, good conditions, and a fair amount of luck.

Next time you get a post on Travel Times & Distances based off some real world travel we did in Alaska. I've scheduled the post for the near future for your reading pleasure. Until then, I'll let you enjoy a photo from our recent trip!