Tuesday, December 18, 2012


I don't normally intrude into the real world on this blog as that is not the intent.

The events at Newtown elementary were shocking and obviously terrible.  They hit close to home as I have close family members who work in elementary schools.  I want more than anything to see effective solutions that reduce the threat of violence to kids and people who work in schools.

I know that many people are asking a lot of questions and wanting solutions and dialogue.  I am professionally in the risk assessment and threat mitigation business, have qualified on and carried bona fide "assault rifles" for work, and personally know about losing friends and coworkers to violence.  My wife works with children, but on the weekends she is a certified firearms safety instructor (and a better marksman than me and many badge toting professionals, I might add).  We are familiar with the legal environment in Connecticut.  Please email me if you want facts or information that you feel the media are not providing accurately or clearly.

I won't ask you to join the NRA or donate to the Brady Campaign; I won't tell you how to vote or what to tell your Senators.  I can answer questions like, "What's the difference between an automatic assault rifle and a semiautomatic assault weapon?" or "how do you as a risk management professional mitigate the threat of random mass violence?" or "what is the likely risk impact/effect of proposal X?"

Post a comment with your email address and I'll be happy to have a private dialogue to answer  questions.

Back to your regularly scheduled intermittent gaming posts.

Where has your RPG hobby helped you out in life?

My post from Dragonsfoot:

I met my wife and the best man at my wedding through a gaming group.

I learned to quickly and intuitively apply statistics. Most people cannot figure the results of this type of problem: "Ok, I have a 4/6 chance of opening the door first try... Then a 2/6 chance of getting a surprise round... Then a 45% of landing a hit... And an 80% of it being a one-hit-stop before the goblin takes otu the hostage. So what are the chances of getting this done in one or two rounds?" Obviously that exact problem does not come up too often in life except for those on the SWAT team, but there are many events involving probabilities in life and most people suck at the math.

I learned to turn verbal descriptions into graphical maps/diagrams, and back again (mapping 101 and room description 101!).

I learned to put myself in the mind of another type of character -- or even a hideous cunning monster. I now do threat analysis professionally as a living. Most people are unable to even imagine how a suicide bomber or assassin or even common criminal thinks. Being able to break out of your own frame of reference is very helpful.

I learned how to game out multiple courses of action, including detailed tracking of costs/consumables/durations (name level magic user spell planning! AAAGH!) and determine which is best. THis is helpful for many things, whether it be figuring out how to plan a family vacation or a major business move.

I have been able to slip "antithesis of weal" into conversation a few times. I get to smile every time. That phrase is like a secret uber geek handshake, by the way.

I learned that knowing when to commit your last reserves, and knowing when to cut your losses and NOT open that "one last door" are keys to success. Not just in games, either. The key skill in D&D, I think, is having the judgement to balance risk and reward in both the short and long term. That is what "one more door" is all about. Evaluating risks and rewards in a rational, cool headed manner is an important life skill, but so is knowing when to gamble and hope for a natural 20.

Finally, I learned how 1E initiative works. It took four years and enough time to have earned another minor in my undergrad but I think I finally have it licked.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Exploration System Design Notes Part I

I wanted to pile on my previous post with a few explanations behind the choices I made.

SCALE:  My desire was to allow groups to make use of a wide variety of existing graphics and maps.  The 1:250K is a fairly common scale that allows a fairly large area to be depicted on a sheet.  These maps will often display an area about 60NM (1 degree of latitude) on a sheet 15" tall.  One of them should display about nine counties of terrain, making them perfect for exploring the area around an isolated community in a "points of light" type setting.  One could easily pick up some maps of a rural area like the hinterboonies of Afghanistan or Iraq (in a JOG) or remote Alaska (from USGS) and use those maps for a campaign.  I've found the USGS maps as cheap as $1 each.

RATE OF MARCH:  With this scale, a character moving at 12" (max human normal) covers 4" on the 1:250K map which is about 16 miles in eight hours for a pace of 2 MPH.  However, as you will see, the system allows double moves to be taken, putting these characters at a pace of 4 MPH.  This is a bit fast but most parties will be moving a bit slower and most terrain will be restrictive, substantially slowing movement.  It is not unreasonable given that some Army units (such as Airborne, Rangers, etc) conduct foot road marches with rucks at a 4 MPH pace (12 miles in 3 hours).  Obviously such a pace is not necessarily sustained day in and day out but we are in the right ballpark before modifiers.

MOVE IN INCHES VS INCHES ON THE MAP:  Obviously, the 4:1 reduction in pace (12" move = 4" on the map) is a bit confusing.  I could have gone with longer turns of 24 hours or so each, and then just done a straight 1" move = 1" on the map.  Indeed, that would work just fine as a variant rule for groups that want to accelerate overland travel.  However, I found this undesirable for a few reasons.  First off, if groups are covering almost a foot of space on the table every turn then you will rapidly need another map.  They will be off the 1:250K page in just two or three moves.  Next, the longer scale requires a higher degree of abstraction.  

With the party only moving a few inches on the map, a single sheet should last for several iterations of play.  Specifically, a party at 9" move will cover 3" on the map each iteration, which means it will take at least five turns to march from one side of the map to the other.  Factor in winding indirect routes, pauses for detours/shelter/rest, rough terrain, weather/night factors, and you're talking...  Hrm...  7+/-2 turns to cross the map.  You can play for days of campaign time on a map that easily fits on a corner of the typical kitchen table.

ECONOMY OF ACTIONS:  Dan Collins makes a good case for granularity in turns.  Specifically, he thinks if characters are taking multiple actions in a turn then the turn should be shortened until they take only one.  I chose to use the "standard" minor/move/standard action economy instead.

To increase granularity of turns and allow only one action, I would either need four hour turns with the same distance scale (12" move = 4" on the map), or I would need to keep the eight hour turns with twice the movement (12" move = 8" on the map), or some other ratio would be needed (12 hour turns with 12" on the map?).  Of those options I tend to like the four hour one the best.

The problem with allowing only one action per turn is three fold.
  • First, you get "slow poke" syndrome.  An entire party, fleet of foot at 12" move, is dragged down to 6" move when the dwarf comes along.  This either leads to crazy work arounds (how many mule-mounted dwarves have you seen?), handwaving of overland march speeds, heavy burdens for everyone ("Well, we're at six inch move anyways...  Plate mail for everyone, all the time!"), and racial discrimination for new characters ("No dwarves need apply...  Move along, sir...").
  • Next, players get an incentive to do nothing more than move every round.  After all, the party is trying to get somewhere, right?  Why would you spend an iteration doing anything other than moving in most cases?
  • Most of the scales other than the four hours and 12" move = 3" map cause issues with needing a really big map on your table, or necessitate going to a 1:500K chart which lacks the detail I'd want.
So, I decided to try out the old tried & true "Minor/Move/Standard" economy.  The way I envision a lot of groups using this economy is as follows:
  • A few folks use Minors
  • Everyone uses a move action
  • Slow Pokes use their Standard to Force March so as to keep up with the faster folks
  • Faster folks use their Standard to attempt a more interesting exploration option
This may be a bit boring for the Slow Pokes, but even they get to make a die roll for their Standard Action.

Well, that is enough for now.  I certainly envision putting more thoughts down later.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Exploration System

Over the last few posts I've explored some of the issues folks have with exploration.  So, enough griping -- let's take a stab at a solution.  This is my idea of a system that tries to address some of the issues with overland adventuring which can be plugged into WhiteBox or some other similar system.

One Watch or March = 8 Hours
3" of character move = 1" on the map = 4 miles (or a bit over a league)
Map Used = Any 1:250K scale map, such as a USGS 1 deg x 2 deg map or a Military Joint Operational Graphic

Each 8 hour Watch or March is broken into four actions which the character may take in any order.

Minor Action:  Minor actions are administrative tasks which taken little time to accomplish but do require some attention, thought, and effort.  An example would be a tasking taking around half an hour either all at once or in several smaller chunks.  They typically (but not always) do not have any chance of failure.  Specific examples include but are not limited to:

  • Breaking (departing) camp; one person can break camp for a small group.
  • Preparing a hot meal for a small group.
  • Significant changes to the order of march for any hirelings, henchmen, bearers, or pack animals.
  • Mark unusual area on the map.  The area can then be returned to without having to search for it.
  • Gather and purify water from readily available source (stream, lake, reservoir, etc).  You do not suffer any attack by thirst this turn.
Move Action:  Move actions take up substantial time.  About half the eight hour turn is spent on movement.  To determine a character's movement speed on the 1:250K map, take their speed and divide it by three.  For example, a character at 9" move will cover 9/3 = three inches on the map.  The party moves at the speed of the slowest individual.  Apply the following cumulative modifiers:
  • Inclement Weather:  Reduce base move by 25%
  • Extreme Weather:  Reduce base move by 50%
  • Night, Fog, or Other Reduced Visibility:   Reduce base move by 50% (unless mitigated)
  • Crossing Significant Contour Lines (up or down):  Movement Costs x 2
  • Crossing Stream:  Movement Costs x 2
  • Any off-road movement (with wheeled vehicles only):  Movement Costs x 2
  • Forest, Marsh, or Other Difficult Terrain:  Movement Costs x 2
  • Extremely Difficult Terrain:  Movement Costs x 3
Example of Play:
  • A party is moving at 9" during a sunny day.  They cover 3" on the map (9/3; 12 miles) when walking down a well-worn path.
  • If they decided to depart the path and move through the forest, then they would cover 1.5" as forest moves cost double.
  • If the movement through the forest is also night time movement, they would cover just under an inch (0.75" or about 3 miles to be precise) as their base move would be reduced by 50%.
  • If the nocturnal movement through the forest was also up a hill, movement is reduced to 0.375" on the 1:250K map.
Optional Rule:  "All or Nothing" Fractional Movement
Some groups may dislike measuring out fractions of an inch on the map.  In this case, determine how many sixths of an inch the group is entitled to move.  Roll a six sided die.  If the die is equal to or less than the number of sixths to be traveled, the group moves a whole inch.
Example:  After calculating all modifiers, our nocturnal forested hill climbing adventurers can cover 0.375", or about 2/6 of an inch.  They roll a die.  It comes up 2, so they can move an entire inch.  If it had come up 3-6, then the group would have stayed in place with no movement at all.
Optional Rule:  Trading Move Actions:  Instead of moving, a character may trade their move action for a minor.  After taking the minor action, roll 1d6 (1 = move action expended, 2-6 = move again!). 
Standard Overland Action.  Each character gets one standard action per eight hour period.  Much like movement, this is an action that takes several hours of time to complete.
Standard Overland Action Resolution.  Any action involving uncertainty below is resolved by rolling 1d6+ABILITY SCORE modifier (this is predicated on a White Box style +1/-1 modifier system).  The target number is 5 unless modified by terrain or circumstances. 
Special Case -- Fighters & Demihumans & Name Level Characters.  Fighters who have names (PCs and key NPCs) roll twice and take the best result.  If a fighter rolls doubles, immediately add one to the roll (indicating success on as low as a pair of 4s); if they succeed, then they gain bonuses as well.  Elves roll twice like fighters in wooded terrain, halflings roll twice in hills, and dwarves roll twice in mountains.  Finally, any name level character rolls an extra die when on their own claimed stronghold's land (a name level fighter would thus roll 3d6 on his home turf, taking the best result).  In the rare event that a character rolls triples, add two to the pips shown before checking for success or failure.  For example, a name level fighter who rolls 3-3-3 has an adjusted role of 5 (3+2).
  • Double March.  Move your speed again.  Characters who do not have names (hirelings, red shirts, mounts, etc) can only use this action unless some other rule allows (for example, some monsters or specific types of NPCs or classes of soldiers may have some other special ability).
  • Force March (STR).  Take a second move.  Instead of using your normal move, your base speed equals 3d6+STR inches (roll only 2d6+STR if at 6" or less).  Characters with bonus dice roll them and retain the best three (or two, for those at 6" or less).  This can be done to improve the overall speed of the group.  For example, a heavily burdened character at 6" move can Force March in order to try and keep up with fleet of foot lightly burdened comrades at 12" move.  Assuming the laggard rolls at least a result of six the whole group moves at 12".
    Doubles (can only be claimed by those entitled to bonus dice):  Increase everyone in the group's base move by 3".  This bonus applies only once even if multiple people force march.
  • Forage (WIS).  The character searches for food and water sources while on the move.  Success indicates food and water found for the day for one person and that character doesn't suffer any attacks from thirst or hunger.  Doubles:  Locate sustenance for the a number of people equal to the number of pips shown + WIS.
  • Hide Tracks (WIS).  The number rolled is the TN for anyone to follow your tracks.  Doubles:  Add +1 to the number of pips shown.  No other effect.
  • Overwatch (DEX).  The character provides security by conducting overwatch, skirmishing ahead or to the flank of the party and checking likely ambush spots.  If the party is not moving, then it represents a watch post being manned.  Success indicates that the chance of surprise for the whole party is reduced by 1/6 (does not stack with multiple individuals on overwatch).  Doubles:  If the party is not surprised during an encounter, take an extra combat round of action before anyone else can act.
  • Look for Trouble (INT).  The character scours the area for anything unusual such as a lair, signs of a strange monster, a dungeon entrance, or a forgotten temple. This skill can also be used to look for a specific hidden item or area.  Compare the die roll to this table:
    0:  Something terrible, awful, and baneful.
    1-2:  Negative terrain feature or hostile random encounter
    3-4:  Neutral terrain feature or random encounter
    5-6:  Helpful terrain feature or helpful random encounter
    7+:  Critically helpful terrain feature or positive random encounter

    Doubles:  No special effect other than improving the roll by one.
  • Navigation & Cartography (INT).  If the group is traveling in uncharted lands with no map, then the character makes one which is correct in all essential details with a success and the group navigates with no problems.  With failure, in uncharted lands the group moves one map inch (4 miles) in a random direction due to being lost; halve the distance in rough terrain.  Doubles:  Add a terrain feature to the map...  How convenient to stumble across a stream/path/clearing/cliff/sheltered campsite/abandoned hunting cabin just when you needed one!
  • Easy Does It (CHA).  The character takes it easy, using frequent breaks to stay fresh, unfatigued, and protected from the elements.  Gain a 1d6+CHA bonus to Survival Class until the start of the next turn, and everyone else in the small party gains a +2 bonus (does not stack).  Doubles:  Gain an additional +1 bonus over the pips shown.
  • Make/Find Camp (INT).  The character looks for a perfect campsite then sets up a protected shelter with all the creature comforts in the right spot.  With success, all members of the group gain a +3 bonus on Survival Class so long as they remain stationary.  This check is not cumulative if multiple characters succeed.  Doubles:  Gain a +6 Bonus.
Full Turn Action.  This action consumes all time and precludes any actions other than a single minor action.
  • Rest (CON).  Gain a 1d6+CON bonus to Survival Class until the start of the next turn.  Regain HP and spells per your edition's rules.  If sleep is interrupted, there is a 1/6 chance to lose rest for each hour awake, modified by +/- CON.  For example:  A character stands watch for three hours.  There is a 3/6 chance that they will not have a restful night.  With a +1 WIS modifier, there is a 2/6 chance they will not have a restful night.
  • Thorough Search (INT).  Make a Standard Overland Check.  Any hidden items (TN based on concealment of item) within a one inch map square (4 NMx4NM) are revealed.  If multiple individuals search the same area then pool all their dice together and take the best result.  Any "x2" terrain modifier or "-50%" movement modifier increases the TN by one.  Restricting the search area to 1/2" square grants a +1 bonus.  Restricting the search area to 1/4" grants a +2 bonus.  Doubles, Triples, Four-of-a-Kind, etc:  Consider the result to be a 7/8/9, etc.
  • Adventure.  Any delve into the dungeon or other similar lair is assumed to take a full 8 hour overland Watch.  Even if the group goes into the lair, skirmishes a few monsters then withdraws after just a few minutes, the remaining time is assumed to be spent donning armor, preparing gear, conducting inventories, counting treasure, binding wounds, etc.
    House Rule:  Count up the number of hours spent adventuring.  Roll 1d6.  If the d6 result is greater than the number of hours then the action is not expended.

Exposure, thirst, starvation, disease -- these historically have been the bane of all explorers.  And thus they are the bane of explorers in our system as well.  Just as melee combat features foes clad in iron, exploration brings its own challenges.  Players should see the environment itself as a significant adversary which tries to kill them every turn (every eight hours).  Just as the players get a chance to take actions, so does the environment.  While the environment is usually random and uncaring, it can sometimes be manipulated for good or ill by powerful beings with their own agenda...

Character Defenses & Survival Class (SC).  Just like foes try to hit a character's "armor class" to inflict injuries, the environment challenges a character's "survival class."  Survival Class and Hazards attacking it are rolled on a D6 sc rather than a D20.

Survival class has a base of 10, just like AC, but can be boosted or penalized by equipment and actions.
  • Constitution Modifier:  Apply bonus or penalty
  • Cloth or Leather Armor:  +2 SC against Exposure
  • Oilskin Parka (1 stone):  +2 SC against Exposure in inclement or extreme cold/wet weather; can be worn over armor (except plate)
  • Boots (1/3 stone):  +1 SC against Exposure
  • Wide Brimmed Hat (1/6 stone):  +1 SC against All Hazards.  Cannot be worn with helm.
  • Fur Hat (1/6 stone):  +2 SC against Exposure in extreme cold conditions.  Cannot be worn with helm.
  • Survival Kit (1 stone):  +3 SC against all Hazards.  What's in it?  Who knows, but it sure helps keep you alive.
  • Pocket Survival Kit (1/3 stone):  1 SC againt all Hazards.
  • Tent (1 stone):  +3 SC against Exposure in inclement weather
  • Tier:  +1 against all Hazards per every three levels (Level 0-2 = 0, Level 3-5 = +1, Level 6-8 = +2, etc)
Attack.  The environment will try to inflict harm.  Each of these "foes" attacks each character each turn in the wilderness.  The baseline attack is 1d20 + 1 per tier (every three levels) above the first.  All confirmed hits do 1d6 damage per tier of the environment.
  • Exposure & Fatigue.  Exposure & Fatigue strikes every Watch/March at +3.
  • Bonuses to hit:  Constant Bonus (+3), Inclement weather (+3), Extreme Weather (+6)
  • Thirst.  2/6 chance to attack each Watch/March.
  • Bonuses to hit:  Inclement Hot weather (+3), Extreme Hot Weather (+6), Raining (-3).
  • Starvation.  1/6 chance to attack each Watch/March.
    Bonuses to Hit:  Character Force Marched this turn (+3)
Example:  The PCs are adventuring in Sunshine Meadows, which is just a few miles outside a small sleepy starting town in an environment much like that of Jolly Olde England (Tier 1).  It has been cool and drizzly (inclement weather).  Each character gets hit with a Fatigue/Exposure Attack at +6 (+3 constant, +3 inclement weather), a Thirst Attack at -3 (rain), and a Starvation Attack at +0.  If any attacks are confirmed hits then the characters suffer 1d6 damage per hit.

Example:  The PCs are adventuring in the rocky barren hills outside Snurre's Lair, home of the Fire Giants and a suitable adventure locale for name level characters with challenging terrain (Tier 3 territory).  They are moving quickly along on an exposed, barren, windswept hillside in a choking volcanic landscape.  They suffer a Fatigue/Exposure Attack at +8 (+2 Tier, +3 constant, +3 terrain), a Thirst Attack at +5 (+2 Tier, +3 Hot Choking Weather), and a Starvation Attack at +5 (+2 Tier, +3 Force March).

Preventing Damage.  Characters have a few tools to avoid these hazards.
  • "A Good Offense:"  Just like it is viable to take out foes before they can grind you down, characters should take pre-emptive action to remove the threat of environmental hazards.  With a minor action, characters can gather water from a terrain feature shown on the map such as a river and remove the threat of thirst.  Foraging, a standard action, can remove the threat of both thirst and starvation.  The Weather is harder to control, but characters should try to avoid negative modifiers by seeking covered terrain in bad weather.  
  • "A Good Defense:"  Proper outdoors gear (boots, hat, and clothing, survival kit) grants a +7 bonus to SC against Exposure, the most dangerous Hazard.  Such an outfit is like being in Chain Mail with a Shield for outdoor exploration hazards.  Finding and making camp, a standard action, grants a +3 bonus to groups which remain stationary, which stacks with protection provided by a tent (+3).  Resting, a Full Action, grants an additional ~4.5 point bonus as well.  A properly equipped team in camp should be able to ride out most storms.
  • Consuming Supplies.  After having a hit assessed but before damage is rolled, players can consume expendable supplies to cancel any damage.  Remove one stone of water or of food to totally negate the hit from thirst or starvation, respectively.  Once the hit is confirmed, however, this option is gone. There is no option to do this for exposure damage, making pre-emptive action critical for fatigue and exposure threats.
  • Lodging in Civilization.  Lodging in an inn or similar accommodations negates any environmental threats except in the most extreme or unusual of conditions.

Each Watch/March, there is a 1/6 chance for a change in the weather.  If it is time for new Weather, consult the procedures below.

To generate totally new weather at the start of the adventure (or if you've forgotten the old weather), roll 3d6, discard the highest and lowest results and compare to the chart below.  If it is time for a moderate change then set one die out with the current result already showing and roll two new dice as well, then apply the same procedure.
  • 0:  Heat Wave (extreme weather)
  • 1:  Dry & Hot (inclement weather)
  • 2-3:  Sunny
  • 4:  Cloudy
  • 5-6:  Rainy (inclement weather)
  • 7:  Stormy (extreme weather)

    Example:  It has been rainy and the DM determines it is time for a change in the weather.  He puts out one die reading "5" as it is currently rainy and then rolls two more dice.  The results are "3" and "5."  One of the 5s and the 3 are discarded -- the rain continues!
Optional Rule -- Seasons:  In Winter, discard only the lowest result and retain the two highest.  Boxcars equals a result of "stormy" (7).  In Summer, discard only the highest result and retain the two lowest.  Snake eyes equals a result of "heat wave" (0).  Note that without this rule extreme weather will never come up except by DM fiat.  With this rule and the above weather patterns, one can expect a day or two of extreme weather each season, representing a terrible hurricane, nor'easter, or drought.
Optional Rule -- Climate:  Modify the table above for extreme climates.  For example, the volcanic area around the Fire Giant King Snurre's hall should have a higher distribution of extreme hot weather.  Alternatively, the DM can add or subtract "one" to all results.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


I found an interesting threat about D&D Next/5E on Enworld regarding exploration rules.

Apparently 5E has identified three core game tasks:  combat, exploration, and interaction.  The problem is that the game has historically focused on different pillars (I'd argue OD&D on Exploration and later editions more on Combat).

The thread identifies a few problems with exploration type tasks or skill challenges (whatever you want to call them).  I distilled them down into a few key points here and added a few of my own.

  • Participation -- Only Weakest Matters.  Historically exploration tasks are dominated by the LEAST capable member of a party.  It doesn't member of four of the PCs have sneak checks of plus three million if there's a stinky dwarf in plate mail clunking along.  In all editions I've seen this mitigated by either (A) copious amounts of spells (i.e. the wizard casts invisibility, fly, and silence on the dwarf...) or (B) "Team Sneaky" (the 100% elf & halfling party in 1E, a bunch of optimized characters for 3E or 4E, etc).  Even more simply, having a 12" move is irrelevant if there's a 6" move person trundling down the trail with you.  This is different from combat -- every D&D party that wants to someday have Sleep figures out how to keep the pointy hat wizard (useless in combat) alive for at least a little while in 1E.
  • Participation -- Only Strongest Matters.  Alternatively, some exploration tasks are capable of being handled by one PC (example -- climb a cliff to affix a rope for everyone to climb).  Then everyone else is pretty much irrelevant.
  • Lack of mechanics.  1E had a good number of mechanics for exploration but they've kind of dropped off.  Without concrete mechanics, player skill exceeds character niche in importance.
  • Lack of dynamism or two parties.  In a fight, the orcs swing back.  In exploration, the environment rarely gets a vote.  Who has honestly cared if it rained in an RPG?  This makes things very static and unsatisfying.
  • Risk/Reward problems.  Often exploration is harshly punished.  "Thou shalt not split the party!" is a hard learned lesson of 1E.  It also neuters the scout types.  Meanwhile, poor exploration often results in resource sapping random encounters.  The incentives need to be set up properly.
  • Details...  and irrelevant details.  Sometimes there is a huge emphasis on exploration related logistics.  I remember spreadsheet upon sheet for 1E adventuring parties tracking food, water, etc.  Sadly, once casters reach level X, various needs become irrelevant.   Create Water?  Create Food?  Heck, at some levels, you even get Airy Water (create Air).  Once the cleric has Create Food & Water the fiddly starvation rules are goneskies.  Likewise, "Knock" makes rogues fairly irrelevant for many tasks.
Up next:  some ideas to address these issues.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Still Around... Kind Of

Hello readers,

Sorry for my long and unannounced absence.  I have been very busy with real life.  I have not had the chance to do much gaming, either.

I am still tossing around some ideas for games and may get around to some posts here.  However I'm pretty aggressively scheduled from a work point of view so we'll see what happens.

In any event just wanted to briefly check in.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Whitebox: Elements

This house rule attempts to cultivate a player typology which then allows players to pursue -- and be rewarded for -- activities which they find personally satisfying.  All too often, a player who is primarily interested in, say, interpersonal relationships with the other players gets punished for table-talk, banter, exploring backstories of other PCs, etc at a table where Hard Core SWAT-style Dungeon Clearing is the order of the day.  Likewise, some tables focus heavily on role playing and the one player interested in clearing dungeons like its her job is punished for failing to talk about the feelings of the PCs.

The fundamental premise is that players can be described on two axis:  quality of interaction with the game world and with other players.  On each axis, players can either interact with or act on the respective aspect of the experience.  By identifying that axis explicitly, interesting abilities and rewards can be tailored for each player.

There is no need to balance these among the group.  The entire group may be one or two elements.  In solo or two player games, in particular, the interpersonal elements (air/fire) should probably be de-emphasized or avoided.


Characters may select one element to be their foundational basis.  The classical elements should be based more on player -- not character -- characteristics.  Elements determine two important things:  quests (used for gaining "bonuses" when levelling up) and a few special benefits related to focus and action points.

QUESTS:  At the start of each main quest, randomly determine (draw/roll) a side quest related to your character's element.  The quests have been linked.  This side quest can remain a secret (i.e. you don't have to tell other players).  If it is fulfilled at the end of the main quest, you gain one of the following rewards:

  • Action Hero:  Start next adventure with +2 Action Points (or class based equivalent)
  • Loot:  Cash reward equal to LEVEL*4^2, or appropriate magic item
  • Long Haul:  +1 to ability score of your choice
STATUS (Expend Action Point):  Each element lets the character spend a turn to gain access to or influence an institution or potentially helpful NPC.  A normal reaction roll should be made. There are three different forms:
  • Add wandering NPC of same tier (+/- 1 level) who comes to the PC's current location.   The NPC will stay in the general area and may make a few more spontaneous appearances until the completion of the current quest.
  • Add fixed NPC of one tier (no more than +3 levels) greater who has a fixed place of business in a local town.  The NPC will stay in business until at least the completion of the current quest.
  • Gain favor of NPC of up to two tiers (no more than +6 levels) greater; this is not a charm but the NPC will be favorably disposed (at least granting an audience) for the duration of the current quest.

  • Theme:  Interact with the game world.
  • Status (Expend Action Point):  Clergy (Priests, Monks, Nuns, etc) and Sages
  • Know Creature (Expend Focus/Full Round Action):  Target a creature within 12".  If the target fails a saving throw, you learn their current and maximum HP, HD, AC, the type of monster, broad emotional state, and major special abilities.  If they pass the save you learn nothing.
  • Treasure Map (Expend Action Point/Turn):  Gain a treasure map showing the way to some unique treasure or a key to solving a major quest.  The map could be a literal scroll, or it could be in the form of a useful guide or clue.
  • Theme:  Act on the game world.
  • Status (Expend Action Point):  Merchants (traders, moneylenders, caravaners)
  • Expend Focus:  ???
  • Cache (Expend Action Point/Turn):  Establish a secure cache, hideout, or small stronghold where a few people or valuable goods may be secured.  It could be a secure safe deposit box at a bank in town, a barricaded strong room in the dungeon, or a secret shack deep in the Black Marsh.
  • Theme:  Interact with other people at the table.
  • Status (Expend Action Point):  Nobles (Knights errant, landholders, aristocrats, etc)
  • Expend Focus:  ???
  • Language (Expend Action Point):  Your character learns a new language.  You will have an accent and lack proficiency of a native speaker but can interact with many more NPCs in the adventure.
  • Theme:  Act on other people at the table.
  • Status (Expend Action Point):  Commoners (farmers, shepherds, smiths, laborers)
  • Command (Expend Focus/Full  Round Action):  Move one of your allies a normal move which must end closer to you, or have one of your allies make a normal attack.  The forced move must not expose the ally to obvious undue harm or instant death (i.e. it is not a magical compulsion or domination).
  • Share Quest (Expend Action Point):  All other player characters may add your current side quest to their list of quests.  They can receive credit for fulfilling the quest.  You remain the focus of the quest (for example, if you have to convince the others to attempt a quest your way, they only gain credit for the quest for trying it your way -- not for trying it their way).

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Whitebox: Kicker HP & Demihumans

A quick analysis of whitebox starting characters indicates that demihumans have a significant advantage:

  • Elves:  +1 to hit vs. common humanoid foes. fighter/MU versatility
  • Halflings:  +2 AC most of the time, +4 AC vs large foes, +2 to hit with missiles, substantial save bonuses
  • Dwarves:  +2 AC  most of the time, +4 AC vs large foes, +1 vs common humanoids, substantial save bonuses
This is somewhat balanced by level limits.  However, lets face it -- many campaigns will never reach level 7 (out of 10), where the Dwarf level limit becomes an issue, for example.  The demihuman bonuses are also all stacked up at first level.  For example, a human fighter would have to get to level 5 before they are better than a first level halfling at missile attacks!  A dwarf or halfling in plate and with shield is effectively AC 21 against giants and AC 19 against man-sized foes, making them almost unhittable.

At a quick pick-up whitebox game, we decided to give human characters +1d6 HP at first level.  I think this is a decent idea:  it is different from a straight AC/to-hit/save bonus (which is what the demis get) and makes humans pretty desirable as first level survivability is iffy at best anyways.  It also is a benefit that fades out over time -- it is very significant for levels 1-4 then becomes less so, which is perfect because level limits kick in to balance demis at the mid to high levels anyways.

The issue with this is you can get REALLY lucky rolls.  For example, I was playing a MU and got a roll of 5 and 6 for HP:  11 HP at level 1 as a MU significantly changes the feel of the class.  I was somewhat fearlessly wading into melee with my quarterstaff in hand, safe in knowing that I could take a few hits.

I think going forward what I'll do is give human characters a +3 HP kicker rather than +1d6.  This accomplishes the same goal of boosting humans a bit at level 1 but prevents anyone but a fighter from getting double-digit HP right off the bat.  The random solution I suppose would be to give them a +1d6 HP "olympic scoring style" kicker but to roll three dice, discarding the lowest and highest and taking the middle.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Whitebox, HP, and the Sweet Spot

Level 4 to 7 has always been the sweet spot for me in D&D.  There seems to be a perfect mix of character options and HP as opposed to monster damage at those levels.

Looking at the math in White Box, a typical level 4 character has 4 HD/14 HP (Fighters), 3+1 HD/11.5 HP (Clerics), or 2+1 HD/8 HP (MUs).

They will probably range in AC from AC 19 (best case -- +1 plate, +1 shield, or standard plate and shield with a buff spell running) to AC 12ish (MU with protection spell running) in most serious combats.  An average AC is probably around 17.  Most monsters will probably have a BHB from +1 to +4, meaning hits occur on a roll of 15ish -- about 1/4 of the time.

At this level most monsters are doing 1d6 damage -- a few might do 1d6+1 (ogres).  A rare few do 2d6.   Therefore, the character should be able to take 2-4 hits depending on class (HD) and attacker.

This means that a character should be taking about 16 attacks (heavily armored fighter with average HP) before incapacitation, 12  attacks (moderately armored cleric with average HP), or as few as 4 attacks (MU) before being knocked out.

I think this is pretty much as we'd expect, especially given that those attacks should be parceled out over multiple rounds and several combats.  Smart fighters who have access to missile weapons and polearms may be able to get in a few rounds of combat without exposing themselves to enemy attacks as well.

In any event, even if the character gets whacked every time, there should be a smooth progression from "green" (>50% HP), to "yellow" (<50% HP), to "red" (<6 HP remaining -- one more hit left).  One round knockouts should be rare.

Monday, July 30, 2012

White Box: Playing Card Magic

This magic system replaces Vancian magic and interacts with the Tempo/Milestone rule discussed earlier.  If a character opts to adopt Playing Card magic, they lose the benefits of Action Points.  Instead of gaining Action Points, characters draw and use Playing Cards which represent various spells.  Spells are originally obtained and gained throughout an adventure exactly like Action Points (i.e., start with a number equal to Tempo and gain at Milestones throughout).

My baseline "class" for S&W WB is the Cleric.  I have built all classes around the cleric XP, HP, BHB, and ST charts, so use those charts for this variant caster.

SUITS:  Suits represent "schools" of magic as well as various classical elements.

  • Hearts (Water):  Healing; white magic
    Major Effect:  The target immediately regains 1d6 HP per [potency] and the caster regains 1 HP per [potency].  This increases to 2d6 at level 4, 3d6 at level 7, and 4d6 at level 10.  The caster may target themselves or another creature within range.
    Tapped Effect:  At the start of each turn, the caster gains 1 temporary HP per [potency].  This increases to 2 HP at level 4, 3 HP at level 7, and 4 HP at level 10.  These temporary HP do not stack and go away when the tapped effect expires.
  • Diamonds (Earth):  Wards; white magic
    Major Effect: Create a magical barrier that affects 1d6 per [potency] spaces in a contiguous barrier.  The barrier persists until the aftereffect is expended.  Any foe who hits the magical barrier must immediately stop their movement, although movement may resume the next round.  Undead, conjured, summoned, or other otherworldy creatures take 1 HP per tier per [potency] damage when forcing their way though the barrier.  Missile attacks from enemies through the barrier receive -1 per [potency] to hit.  Allies gain a +1 bonus to saving throws per [potency] against effects from the other side of the barrier.
    Tapped Effect:  Gain +1 AC and +2 on saving throws per [potency].
  • Clubs (Fire):  Smite; black magic
    Major Effect: Deal 1d6 HP damage per [potency].   This increases to 2d6 at level 4, 3d6 at level 7, and 4d6 at level 10.  This damage must be allocated to one target who may save for 1/2 damage.
    Tapped Effect:  Deal +1 damage per [potency] with all weapons.
  • Spades (Air):  Enchantment; black magic
    Major Effect:  Move any creature 1d6 paces per [potency].  This effect must be allocated to one target who may save in order to cut the forced movement in half (round down).  Targets may be allies who can choose to forgo a save.   If the campaign permits, vertical movement (i.e. flight) is permitted.
    Tapped Effect:  Move any creature 1 pace per [potency].  The target may save to negate all forced movement.  The target may change each round but must be within range.  Targets may be allies.  If the campaign permits, vertical movement (i.e. flight) is permitted.
    Variant:  Instead of outright forbidding flight, the DM may require each movement to end on a firm surface.  One can imagine huge leaps and bounds more easily than levitation.
CARD TYPES:  The type of card (number or face) affects its potency and quality.
  • Numbers (2-10):  These are the "bread and butter" of a wizard's spell book.  They are useful as they are often easy to cast due to lower target numbers.
    Effect:  The number of columns of symbols represents the potency of the spell.  For example, the four of diamonds has a potency of two as there are two columns of diamonds.
  • Aces High:  Basic aces are simple "cantrips" easily mastered by most wizards.  However, there are more advanced versions of these spells available.  The character may treat an ace as a low card (potency 1/casting cost 1) or a high card (potency 4/casting cost 11).
  • Jacks:  Represents Sulfur, the aggressive and offensive aspects of magic.  The power of Sulfur invokes mighty forces which are simply unmatched by any other known spells in raw power.Casting Cost:  The casting cost is 11.
    Potency:  5
    Special:  Range is equal to 6d6 + INT modifier + LEVEL/3 + 1.  While this card is in effect, gain +2 on casting checks for any other cards of the same suit or for any other knights.
  • Kings:  Represents Salt, the resilient aspects of magic.  Salt makes the caster a bastion on the battlefield, a fixture to which friends will rally and foes will recoil.
    Casting Cost:  The casting cost is 11.
    Potency:  3
    Special:  The caster conjures a powerful aura which moves with the caster.  All creatures within 2 paces (about 10 feet) at the start of the caster's round may be affected by the suit's effect (caster's choice to avoid friendly fire for friends or buffing foes).  The King of Diamonds effect creates a mobile 10' bubble of protection that moves with the caster.  Roll 2d6 instead of 1d6 and take the more favorable for all duration expiration checks for spells of the same suit as the king so long as the king in play.
  • Queens:  Represents Quicksilver, the most destructive and flexible aspects of magic.
    Casting Cost:  The casting cost is 11.
    Special:   Consider the card to be potency [3].  Healing (hearts), smite damage (clubs), and forced movement (spades) may be allocated to multiple targets (1d6 per target minimum) within range.  Wards may be split into multiple areas (1d6 per area).  The tapped affect can benefit both the caster and two targets within range (determined at the start of each turn).  You may "split" the major effects (but not after effects) of any other cards of the same suit as the queen so long as the queen remains in play.
RANGE:  Many magical effects are personal buffs.  Unless otherwise noted, the maximum range for other spells in paces (5') is equal to 2d6 + INT modifier (usually +1 or -1) + LEVEL/3 (round down) + 1 or line of sight, whichever is more restrictive.  Note that LEVEL/3 + 1 is often referred to as "tier" and is used for many other effects throughout the game, so it should be a familiar and readily available number.

CASTING:  To cast a spell, roll 2d6 + INT modifier (usually +1 or -1) + LEVEL/3 + 1.  The difficulty is equal to the number on the playing card.  Casting occupies an entire round.  Casters must remain stationary.  If struck by a foe during the same round as casting a spell, impose a penalty equal to the amount of damage dealt to the casting roll.
  • Immediate:  If your modified roll is equal to the number on the playing card or higher then the spell's major effect occurs at the end of your round.  Play the card in front of you straight up and down and assess the spell immediately.
  • Delayed:  If you fail to cast the spell but are only one short, then the spell is delayed.  Play it sideways in front of you at the start of your next turn.  The "tapped effect" described above goes into effect immediately.  Each round thereafter roll 1d6 at the start of each of your round (no action required).  On a roll of 5-6 the spell activates with its Major Effect; rotate the card to be straight up and down.
  • Fizzle:  If you fail and are two short, then the spell fizzles.  Your turn is wasted, the card remains in your hand, and nothing happens.
  • Negated:  If you fail and are three short, then the spell is negated.  Discard the card and draw another one.  Your turn is wasted.
DURATION & AFTER EFFECTS:  Immediately after a spell completes its major effect, the "tapped effect" goes into effect.  This can also kick in with a "delayed" spell prior to the major effect.  At the end of each combat round in which you have a spell active (i.e. card played, but not "delayed") then you must roll 1d6 as a free action.  On a roll of 5-6 then the card is rotated 90 degrees (tapped); if already tapped, then it is removed from play and the spell expires.
  • Concentration:  You may spend your entire round concentrating on the spell; in this case, roll a casting check exactly as above in addition to the usual 1d6 check.  If either is successful then the spell persists.  Ignore results of "delayed, fizzle, or negated."
SUMMONING  (OPTIONAL SUBSYSTEM): A sub-system for summoning will be introduced in a later supplement.

SPECIALTY CASTERS (OPTIONAL SUBSYSTEM):  Wizards by default are generalists who dabble in all types of magic and those are the ones who have been described here.  Some, however, focus their efforts on specific types of magic.
  • White Wizards:  Gain +2 on all casting checks for red cards and -4 on casting checks for all black cards.  When drawing spells or at any milestone, the player may discard any black card and draw again until they draw a red card.  Most white wizards are lawful.
  • Black Wizards:   Gain +2 on all casting checks for black cards and -4 on casting checks for all red cards.  When drawing spells or at any milestone , the player may discard any red card and draw again until they draw a black card.  Most black wizards are chaotic.
  • Suit Specialist:  Gain +2 on all casting checks for your chosen suit and -4 on casting checks for all other suits.  You may consider any card to be your favored suit but do not gain any bonus or penalty to cast it (for example, a specialist in Hearts may play the King of Hearts and get a +2 bonus; he can play the King of Spades and treat it as a Heart for all purposes but gets no bonus when casting).  If playing with Elements, the character's element and specialty must match.
NON-STANDARD EFFECTS (OPTIONAL SUB-SYSTEM):  Players may desire to cast spells in order to solve problems or create non-standard effects.  Such behavior should be encouraged but limited to prevent the need for excessive adjudication and delays of game.

To create a non-standard effect, rare and unusual components which cost 2 GP (or SP if on a SP system) per level squared.  For example, a fourth level caster will require 64 GP to cast a non-standard spell.  The DM may require spell components to match the suit or provide a discount for spell components which are suit-specific, for example, pearls for water/hearts or fire opals for fire/clubs.

When crafting non-standard spells, the DM and player should consider the following factors.
  • Suit:  This is the most important criterion.  Does the theme of the magic fall within the appropriate suit?  As a guide to suitability, players and DM may want to examine elemental correspondences to the four elements (earth/air/water/fire) (see appendix).  Sometimes it is helpful to use verbs associated with the four elements:
    Earth/Diamonds:  To Keep Silence
    Water/Hearts:  To Dare
    Air/Spades:  To Know
    Fire/Clubs:  To Will
  • Quality:  Face cards have unique qualities.  The qualities of face cards should be considered for appropriateness.  Number cards have neutral or no significant properties.  Face cards also help in constructing a "spell sentence" as the qualities can easily be converted to verbs:
    Jack = Sulfur = Initiate, start, begin
    King = Salt = Continue, maintain, extend
    Queen = Quicksilver = Transform, transition, conclude, destroy
  • Potency:  Exceptional, unique effects will likely require a potency 3 card or better.
  • Replication of other cards:  An expensive spell component should allow one element of another card to be replicated.  For example, an expensive spell component might allow any card to be cast at long range and at +2 potency over normal like a knight.  An expensive spell component might also allow the caster to substitute a different suit for the displayed suit.  Another possibility might be reducing the casting check difficulty.  Such usage is simple and likely will require only one card.
  • Combining Cards:  The most powerful effects may require multiple effects to be combined to form a "complete sentence."
One technique to use is to write a spell sentence with a verb, noun, and direct object ("I [VERB] [TARGET/DIRECT OBJECT]"). For example, say a magician is confronted with strange mystical writing on a fortified door.  He might say, "I understand the wards."  This likely requires a simple spades card (Air = To Know), with potency requirements determining how much of the message is decoded.  He might say, "I sunder the wards" which likely requires a simple clubs card (fire = to will), with potency requirements determining how effective the attempt is.  A diamond (earth) card might be generally useful as diamonds deal with wards generally.  An argument might even be made for a water card, as water is elementally opposed to earth (water erodes stone).

Complicated spell sentences are likely to require multiple cards to spell out everything.  In any event, assuming the caster's intent is clear and the sentence proposed reasonably relates to the spell card offered, the GM should interpret such attempts relatively favorably, although of course specific results may vary.  Even nonsense attempts may have some reasonable chance of success; however, it is rumored that mages who bend wildly inappropriate magic to their wills risk unleashing unknown and terrible forces, tipping the scales of karma to favor one's foes, or otherwise causing paradoxical difficulties.  The DM will have a sure method for adjudicating any questionable spell casting attempts.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Whitebox: Character Qualities

Characters select a quality at creation.  Qualities are independent of character class and ability scores.  It is wise to have a variety of qualities in the party.

Sulfur (Cardinal; Initiate and Begin) - Striker/Lurker“Omnipresent spirit of life"
Sulfur symbolizes offense and initiative.

  • FOCUS:  Start each encounter with Focus.  The first time you expend Focus in an encounter it is NOT expended/lost and you retain Focus.  Regain Focus only on a roll of "6" (not 5-6).
  • DAMAGE:  When you have Focus, deal +1 damage with all weapons.  This bonus increases to +2 at level 4, +3 at level 7, and +4 at level 10.  This bonus increases to +2 if attacking while mounted.
  • VICIOUS STRIKE (Expend Focus):  Gain +1d6 damage on your next attack.  This increases to 2d6 at level 4, 3d6 at level 7, and 4d6 at level 10.
  • MOUNTED & TWO HANDED WEAPON EXPERTISE (Expend Focus):  Roll twice for your next attack while mounted or for your next attack with a two handed weapon (not a polearm) and take the best result.
Salt (Fixed; Steady and Maintain) - Defender/Soldier“Fluid connection between the High and the Low”
Salt symbolizes a solid, fixed defensive approach.

  • BLOODY FOCUS:  Start each encounter without Focus.  The first time you take damage in any encounter, immediately gain focus.  Otherwise, regain Focus on a roll of 5-6
    • THICK SKIN:  When you have Focus, gain +1 AC and +1 to Saving Throws.  This bonus increases to +2 AC/+2 Saving Throws if using a shield.
    • HIT POINTS:  Gain +1 HP per HD.
  • IMPENETRABLE DEFENSES (Expend Focus):  Gain a +1d6 bonus to AC and Saving Throws until the start of your next turn.  This bonus increases to 1d6+1 if using a shield.
  • TAUNT (Expend Focus, Rider):  You may use this at the same time as Impenetrable Defenses.  Any foes in melee with you must attack you if it attacks this round (save to negate).
  • PIKE EXPERTISE (Expend Focus):  Roll twice for your next attack with a polearm and take the best result.

Quicksilver (Mutable; Transition and Destruction) - Skirmisher
Quicksilver represents fluid, changeable, and flexible tactics as well as destruction.
  • LATE FOCUS:  Regain Focus on a roll of 4-6.
  • ACCURATE:  When you have focus, gain +2 Base Hit Bonus (i.e. To Hit).
  • NIMBLE:  When you have focus, gain +2 AC against any Attack of Opportunity (if your game uses AoO).
  • PRECISE STRIKE:  Expend Focus to roll an attack twice and take the better result.  If you have not yet moved this round, you may make a move before, after, or during the strike which does not count as a charge.
  • BLADED EXPERTISE (Expend Focus):  Roll twice for your next attack with a one-handed sword or dagger and take the best result.
VARIANT:  If you are not playing with "Focus," then simply make the fixed benefit permanent and eliminate the burst benefits attained by expending Focus.

Behind the Scenes:

The three qualities are set up in a "rock paper scissors" style:  Salt trumps Sulfur, Quicksilver trumps Salt, and Sulfur trumps Quicksilver (Sulfur < Salt < Quicksilver < Sulfur).  For example, Sulfur's bonus damage is negated by Salt's bonus HP and robust defenses.  Quicksilver's accurate attacks can tear through Salt's thick skin.  Sulfur's bonus damage cuts through quicksilver's weak defenses.

To borrow a 4E paradigm, "Sulfur" characters are strikers or lurkers, dealing massive spikes of damage.  "Salt" characters are defenders or soldier-types, and "Quicksilver" characters are skirmishers.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Whitebox: Focus

One thing I love about White Box is that it is very free form.  One thing I dislike about White Box is that it is very free form.  It can be difficult to adjudicate exactly what a special action should be, what the odds of success look like, and what the consequences of failure are.

Enter the Focus mechanic.  Focus is binary; you either have it, or you don't.  There is no tracking of "points" or anything other than "focused" vs. "not-focused."  It is a renewable resource, and characters can be expected to have it a few times each encounter.  Focus can be expended for one of several effects.

Gaining and Regaining Focus:  Characters roll 1d6 each round.  On a roll of 5-6 focus is regained.  Most characters do not begin combat with Focus.  Focus is binary:  characters either have it, or they don't.  Thus it is impossible to gain multiple "points" of Focus.

Maintaining Focus:  If Focused, characters gain +1 to hit and +2 to saving throws (only use this rule if "Quality" is not used).
DM Trick Option:  If this is too hard to keep track of, give all characters +1 to hit and +2 to saves, and impose penalties if unfocused.

NPCs and Focus:  Only significant NPCs with names or special monsters have Focus.  Henchmen do not have Focus but their lieges may expend Focus on their behalf.

Expending Focus - Crazy Stunts:  Characters expend Focus to try an unusual, risky, or non-standard maneuver and be assured of a reasonable chance of survival.  In general, when using Focus, the consequences of failure should be limited to a modest amount of damage (1d6, perhaps with a save to avoid), wasting the round, or so on.  The chances of success should also be reasonable, perhaps around a coin toss.
For example, say a character wants to vault out of a second story window onto a horse's back with the princess to make a daring escape.  Without Focus, there is obviously a risk of taking 2d6 or 3d6 damage if the attempt fails.  With Focus, the character should have a reasonable chance to succeed (perhaps 3 to 4 out of 6, +1 if they have high DEX) with failure resulting in but 1d6 damage (save for none).
Maybe a character wants to jury rig a zip line across a long lava-filled crevasse.  Normally failure would result in instant death.  With Focus, failure might mean that the character ends up clinging to the side of the cliff or burned from noxious vapors but not instantly dead.
 In another example, a character may want to slide down a banister, vault onto a chandelier, and strike someone across the room with a sword in a dramatic display of swashbucklery.  Obviously a strict reading of the rules makes it tough to adjudicate this and success is very unlikely.  With expenditure of Focus, the DM should assign a reasonable probability of success and just say that the attack misses and the character swings around helplessly clinging to the chandelier if the attempt fails.
Expending Focus - Tactical Bonuses:  The intent for Focus is to allow players to try new and exciting things and take risks, not just to gain simple mechanical bonuses, but some groups may opt to use Focus for a slight increase in tactical flexibility and options.

In more conventional uses, characters might claim a small bonus to hit (no more than +2), a bonus to damage (roll twice and take best result), a bonus to AC for a round (+2), a bonus to saves for one round (+2), a bonus to grit and stamina (ignore 1 HP per HD damage for one round), or so on if it makes sense for the tactical situation and is narrated appropriately.  The list of appropriate "routine" uses is limited by the DM's discretion.

Optionally, focus is used by other sub-systems.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Whitebox: Tempo & Milestones


The purpose of "tempo" is to provide the basis for further subsystems which will ultimately replace Vancian-style magic.  It is specifically designed to offer more options and resource management for advanced players but to provide equal power levels for newer or less skilled players.

Tempo: Tempo measures the sophistication of a character's "bag of tricks." In general, new players (i.e., beginners) should start with low tempo scores ("slow fuses" or "low nova"). Advanced players should begin with moderate to high tempo ("fast fuse" or "super-nova").  You can think of it as the character's "metabolism" or pace.  Neither a fast (high) or slow (low) tempo is not necessarily strictly better or worse.  Low tempos will actually get more resources/special opportunities over the course of a full quest.  Choose one of the following ways to implement this score.

Action Points:  A generic mechanic which can be used with baseline White Box rules (or just about any other D&D system)


Tempo as a Derivative of Intelligence (w/ Advanced Group): Utilize the character's Intelligence score for Tempo. Convert the 3-18 INT score to a modifier per the following conversions: 0-1 (1), 3-5 (2), 6-8 (3), 9-12 (4), 13-15 (5), 16-18 (6), 19-21 (7). Using this option, the DM should consider allowing Intelligence scores to be increased over the course of the campaign or supplying items which increase the derived Technique attribute as player skill improves.
VARIANT (WIS FOR MU):  DMs may want to consider using WIS to determine "Tempo" for Magic Users, as INT is already important for them.  This is to spread out the importance of different ability scores.
VARIANT (DEX/CHA/CON):  DMs may want to select one of the non-class related scores such as CHA, DEX, or CON so as to avoid giving any class a built-in advantage.   These scores already tend to be relatively important for all characters, however. 
PROs:  Uses existing ability scores, turns INT into more than a dump stat
CONs:  Random, which means that technique score may not map nicely to player skill; magic-users have built in advantage unless variant is used.

Tempo as a function of Level (w/ Basic Group):  The Character's Tempo score equals their level (maximum of 7).  If the campaign will proceed to higher levels, consider spreading out technique increases to scale smoothly with level.
PROs:  Simple, allows character complexity to grow with player skill over a campaign
CONs:  Forces advanced players to go at slower pace with new players; all characters have similar resource expenditure curves and resource management issues/capabilities
Tempo as a unique and player-chosen attribute (w/ Mixed Group):  Allow the player to select a Tempo score, which is its own separate ability score.  New players should start with lower scores (ex, 2).  Experienced players should start with higher scores (ex, 6).  Players with moderate experience should begin with a moderate score (ex, 4).VARIANT (ROLL):  Add a new score and determine technique randomly.  Allow new players to decrease it, or experienced players to increase it.

PROs:  All tempo scores are theoretically equal in power so this gives players the ability to play the style of resource management they enjoy. 
CONs:  May not feel "old school," adds another attribute/ability score to the traditional "Big Six."


Starting a Quest.  At the start of each quest or adventure, the character gains a number of Action Points equal to their Tempo score.

  • Carry Over:  Points cannot be carried over from a previous adventure or quest.  Excess points from previous quests are lost.
  • Henchmen:  Subtract "1" from this initial pool of points for every Henchman (but not "red shirt" hireling) in the character's employ who is actively engaged in the adventure.

Gaining Action Points.  Action Points are gained at Milestones.  At a milestone, each player rolls 1d6.  If the die is equal to or greater than the tempo score, the character gains +1 Action Point.  The DM should allow around 8+/-2 milestones over the course of a typical adventure.
Behind the Scenes:  After the sixth milestone, all characters can expect to have gained 7 total Action Points.  This is the "breakeven point."  If there are fewer milestones than six, then high tempo characters have a double advantage over low tempo characters (they get more points and get them sooner).  At 8 milestones, a tempo 2 character can expect to have almost 9 action points, a tempo 4 character will have 8, and a tempo 6-7 character 7 points.  At 10 milestones, tempo 1-2 characters can expect to gain about 2.66 more Action Points over the course of the adventure than their tempo 6 counterparts, which is the largest spread likely advisable.

  • Traditional Approach:  The simplest way to award milestones in a traditional campaign is to treat each night of rest when spellcasters recover spells as a milestone for all characters.  In this case, the DM can expect each quest to take 1-2 weeks, and characters to undertake around 1-2 intense combat encounters per day (i.e. short adventuring days).  This is not unlike traditional white box; a low to mid level party with but a handful of spells and very limited HP does not lend itself to long adventuring days!
  • Story-Based Game:  Many DMs and groups want a faster moving game driven by a story or plot arc.  In that case, the DM should provide milestones as rewards for achieving objectives along the way to a quest goal.  In a story-driven game, the DM could break each quest arc into two or three acts, and provide around 3 milestones per act (1d6-1 milestones per act for 3 acts, 1d6 milestones per act for 2 acts).  That likely means one milestone for every scene or two.  An act is likely equivalent to a typical gaming session.
  • Hybrid:  A hybrid approach would be to award milestones for achieving signifcant plot objectives, for a full day of rest in the field or a night of rest in an inn, or as part of treasure/loot rewards.


In the simplest variant, characters expend an action point to reroll any die roll.

DMs may also allow a character to expend an action point to gain a +1 bonus to saves, AC, hit, or damage. This benefit lasts until the next milestone.

The D20 SRD gives a list of ideas which are generally appropriate if the DM desires expanded choices for action point usage.  Further sub-systems will give ideas for how to use Action Points.

NPCs and Action Points

Generally monsters do not have Action Points or use Milestones.  At the DM's option, certain "elite" NPCs (generally those with names) may have a limited number of action points available for use.  PCs should be able to expend Action Points on behalf of henchmen, but henchmen do not gain their own repository of points.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Whitebox and Septimus

I'm putting plans for Septimus, my own stand-alone game system, on hold.

Instead I am going to work on a series of interlinking house rules for White Box.

I think this is more usable for a wider audience and easier for me to implement myself.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Finding a Group

Our recent visit with out-of-town friends highlighted some of the difficulties in finding a group as a young professional to game with.

Our last "meatspace" gaming experience got terminated when we found that one of the players was a felon.

My ideal qualifications for a meatspace game and its participants would be:

  • Not a convicted felon.
  • 21+
  • Stable employment, understanding of issues associated with having a real job
  • Reasonable amount of time dedicated to hobby (i.e. 1-2 weekends a month tops for people busy with jobs)
  • Mature and responsible individuals who I wouldn't mind associating with in other contexts
My college gaming group was great and it would be nice to find other folks with similar interests.  The problem seems to be that obscure board games like Settlers as well as table top RPGs attract an... odd assortment of players.  I'm at a stage in my life where I don't want to deal with felons, drop outs, and people with severe hygenie/social issues.  I'd even be willing to compromise on game played, system used, campaign theme, modules played, etc to find a decent group.

Sadly it just seems that either the player base is odd or my standards are unreasonable due to having such a positive experience back in college with a core group of decent folks.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Mind Sub-System: Simple Machines

I'm still toying with ideas for a sub-system for characters that harness the power of human ingenuity.

I actually came up with an idea that I rather like:  Simple Machines.

There are five or six simple machines from history which were described in the Classical age and commonly referred to in the Renaissance (depending on what account you use).

Archimedes described the first three around the third century BC:
  • Lever
  • Pulley
  • Screw
Heron of Alexandria adds two more in the first century AD:
  • Windlass (aka Wheel & Axle)
  • Wedge
Finally, in the Renaissance, a Flemish engineer added one more:
  • Inclined plane (added later)
I rather like using these as the basis for a subsystem.  I think they have the right "flavor" or feel to them.  I see a few challenges.

Appropriate Tokens:  I am not aware of any game which uses these items as tokens, or any set of tokens that would work right off the bat.  There are a few solutions.  Obviously you could make a set of cards or just have a list with the current inventory checked.  I like tangible items for the subsystem, however.  Hands on tokens also allow players to imagine possibilities more easily.  So, instead I think I would make a trip to a hardware or craft store and pick up a few items.
  • Lever:  You need a board and a fulcrum for this.  
  • Pulley:  We need, at a minimum, a rope/belt and at least one axle.  A spool (as for thread) and a string or rubber band should work just fine.
  • Screw:  Easy.  Get a screw.
  • Windlass or Wheel and Axle:  A spool with a dowel or straw through it, or a bolt and flat washer type set up.
  • Wedge:  A small chisel should be easy enough to find.
  • Inclined Plane:  Also fairly easy.  Any triangular piece of wood, or a flat piece of wood that can be placed at angles.
I like the idea of these players actually having a literal bag of tools.  Put all of these bits of "junk" in a dice bag/crown whiskey bag/mini tool chest.  Dump them out on the table.  It'd be awesome!  It also lets everyone at the table visualize what is being done with the machines in non-standard applications.

Not Robbing Other Players:  One issue I have with the Thief in AD&D is that once you add the thief class, other players feel like they can't do things like search for traps (even via roleplay) as it is a "thief function."  Likewise, I do not want players to imagine that they can't do things like swing from a chandelier (basically a pully) or slide down a banister (inclined plane) or raise the anchor on a boat (windlass) just because they are from the wrong power source.

To mitigate that I would let folks with this power source do some unique and more powerful things.
  • "McGyver:"  Let the "mind" power characters use these simple machines even if reduced to improvised materials or no materials.  There is the extreme case of being stripped naked and thrown in a cell.  However, if I'd let a spirit character cast a playing card spell, or if a body character could invoke an aura or find a follower, then McGyver should be able to put together a simple machine out of chewing gum and bailing wire.  In such an extreme case the McGyver just finds overlooked materials that others would not or could not imagine being used.
  • Speed:  Let the "mind" characters construct and/or use these machines orders of magnitude more quickly.  Given enough time, anyone can assemble together a windlass that allows heavy loads (like adventurers or treasures) to be safely lowered up and down a sheer vertical mineshaft.  But only McGyver can do so in the midst of combat.  Each machine should probably have some sort of "instant" combat application as well.
  • Quality:  Anyone with common sense can probably put together a simple machine with a little mechanical advantage.  For example, a simple one rope/one axle pulley has a mechanical advantage of one (it just lets you change the direction of a force).  A somewhat more complex gun tackle has a mechanical advantage of two, basically doubling the work that can be done.  A complex threefold purchase pulley has a mechanical advantage of six.  Any Joe Schmoe can put together a machine with low mechanical advantage, but maybe it takes a specialist to get mechanical advantages of four, five, six, or better.
  • Chance of Failure:  A jerry-rigged device probably should have some sort of (substantial) chance of failure.  Maybe McGyver's machines are fool-proof!
Ultimately it is probably the ability to be exceptional at all of the above:  being able to quickly throw together a machine which works very well, is very reliable, using improvised or no special materials.  Such ingenuity would really be close to magical and would represent extremely creative human genius getting work done in the physical world.  It doesn't mean that other characters can't take time to improvise a lower quality machine, or slap together a shoddy piece of junk in a hurry, or spend time and money (materials) to "get it right."

Combat-specific applications:  In a fantasy adventure game with life-or-death stakes, these special powers  need to have a specific combat application as opposed to vague sorts of effects which can be discussed/negotiated out of combat.  I also like the idea of a combat trap or terrain modification.  The mechanical effect of the "combat application" or buff should be somewhat less than the effect of the other power sources.  However, the terrain effect should be potent.  Furthermore, if the terrain effect/trap is not triggered, then it should be recoverable.

    Purpose:  The point of a lever is to multiply force.  I push down with 15 lbs of force, 30, 45, 60, or 150 pounds go up.
    Combat Application:  A straightforward bonus to damage seems appropriate.  Do to understanding the masterful application of leverage, the player optimizes their weapon usage to maximize the force of their blows.  Forced movement might also work:  I step to the left three feet and throw a foe three yards away.
    Combat Terrain:  Simple damage dealing trap, using mechanical leverage to magnify the impact of a relatively small object.  This is the principle that some snares for small game work on.  Some other folks have written about levers as a trigger device for many traps.  Alternatively, could be used as a super crowbar type thing to break open barriers/doors.
    Purpose:  The basic point of a pulley is to redirect force.  I pull sideways and something goes up.  At a more complex level, block and tackle systems multiply that force AND redirect it.
    Combat Application:  This is a sort of mechanical jiu-jitsu.  Allow the character to redirect incoming blows and avoid damage.
    Combat  Terrain:   The classic net trap!  When triggered, everyone in the net is scooped up and into the air (or in another direction, depending on where the pulley is).
    Purpose:  Screws convert rotational force to linear force.  Screws have often been used to fasten items together.
    Combat Application:  Screws prevent things from moving.  So perhaps the player can "fasten" their character to anything else:  they can lock their feet to the floor and prevent being swept away by an avalanche, pin themselves to a foe and stay locked in mortal combat, etc.
    Combat  Terrain:   Attach two objects together.  Or, a trap, that when triggered, sticks the victim to that spot.
    Purpose:  A windlass transfers or focuses force, generally with a lot of motion on the outside wheel and a lot of force on the smaller inside axle.
    Combat Application:  Sacrifice movement for attack bonuses.  Or, sacrifice attacks for movement bonuses.
    Combat  Terrain:  Wheels can be used for timing or resetting a mechanism.  For timing, imagine a gear that clicks along until a trap is triggered or reset.  For resetting, imagine a wheel turned by water, gravity (say, a heavy weight on a rope pulling it around).  So, I would let this be used in conjunction with another mechanism/terrain to both time and reset it for multiple uses once triggered.  I.E. as a "complex machine" featuring multiple simple machines.
    Purpose:  Wedges convert force in one direction to force in perpendicular directions.  Wedges are often used for splitting objects (axes) or stopping them (door stops).
    Combat Application:  Gain bonus to armor penetration.
    Combat  Terrain :  Super doorstop.  Place to lock a door solidly in place.
    Purpose: Inclined planes raise and lower loads by spreading out work over distance and/or time.  
    Combat Application:  I like the idea of spreading out some sort of unpleasant consequence or task over time.  For example, delay taking a hit or paying some sort of cost.  Another option might be to let someone take a double turn but then run a risk of losing future turn(s).
    Combat  Terrain:   Make difficult terrain easier to pass over.  Put a slide over a steep drop off or slope, allowing rapid but safe descent.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Gaming Weekend!

My best friend from college came down to visit for a little vacation and we were able to dust off some games.  It was great to get a chance to play old favorites and some new ones as well.

We discovered Seven Wonders, which is a fun and fast card-based resource game without the hatred inspired by Settlers of Cataan.  We also played Empire Builder, which is a substantially slower but still fun railroad game.

I also introduced Swords and Wizardry White Box and we played a short adventure.  It was a lot of fun and it was probably the first time we've gamed with someone else for about three years.

Overall it was great to see an old friend and to do some gaming.  We had a great time.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Mind Sub-system: Wonders of the World

I'm still alive (despite the lack of posting) -- just been very busy with work and other matters.  I've still been putting some brain bytes towards a good game sub-system for characters based on the mechanical arts or "mind."  I've got an idea I'll post now and another which is percolating and will come in a bit.

Why not use the Wonders of the World?  What better symbol than the ultimate achievement of man's engineering prowess?

  • Great Pyramid of Giza 
  • Hanging Gardens of Babylon
  • Temple of Artemis
  • Statue of Zeus
  • Mausoleum at Helicarnassus
  • Colossus of Rhodes
  • Lighthouse of Alexandria

Pros:  There are seven.  This means that one can be allocated for each of the seven classical planets and mechanical arts.

Cons:  There are seven, so this removes the ability to use the Wonders as a theme for a game.  There also aren't any obvious tokens which can be used.  You'd have to use some sort of custom token.  The wonders also have a lot of baggage and/or vague meanings.  Finally, unlike the playing cards in particular, they are hard to combine for additional complexity (suit + numbers).