Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Re-Rethinking Epic Options

Some time ago, I made a post about [Epic] feats as normal feats. But I have since realized that this doesn't even go far enough: most [Epic] options in general (e.g., epic prestige classes) are terrible compared to regular options. (Major exception: Epic Spellcasting, which is just stupid broken. More on that later.)

So I think I will refine broaden my rules by ditching the specific [epic] feat options and adding the following more general rule, based on the Alexandrian's observation that the most powerful heroes in fiction are at most 5th level:

For the purpose of [epic] feats, prestige classes, and other options, a character is considered epic at 10th level instead of 20th level. After 10th level, regular feat slots may be used to acquire [epic] feats. All other prerequisites still apply.

A substantial majority of [epic] options still require 20+levels worth of ranks in skills, however. Rather than institute an across-the-board subtraction of 10 from all [epic] skill prerequisites (leaving many requiring fewer ranks than pre-[epic] things), or from all skill prerequisites (leaving many pre-[epic] things with no skill prerequisites at all), I will go with my old "add a new option and make it a feat" standby:

Skill Master
Prerequisite: Skill Focus in the skill selected
Benefit: For the purpose of of qualifying for feats, prestige classes, and other options, you are treated as though you have 15 more ranks in the selected skill than you actually have.

Additionally: Epic Spellcasting is completely broken. But I'm going to allow it just as it already is, except that actual epic spells don't exist. You can use epic spell slots only for metamagic'd versions of regular slots.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Blasphemy Rights

So I was mildly amused by this post on the Center for Inquiry website. You know why I was amused, right? Yeah, it's because a cleric can't cast blasphemy until level 13. Of course he's not amused! Blasphemy cast at a caster level of 13 weakens and dazes the level 12 cleric, no save!

But it did get me to thinking seriously about blasphemy as a vitally important component of free speech, and how it kind of gets shafted in D&D, saddled with the [evil] descriptor and only affecting nonevil creatures, just like the ur-priest gets saddled with evil as an alignment requirement. Not all gods are good! And even the good ones can be opposed on legitimate, non-evil philosophical grounds!

Anyway, let's fix it. My first inclination was to simply turn it from an evil spell to a good spell, but no, turns out that already exists (so do Lawful and Chaotic versions). We could just make a Neutral version (which turns out to also exist: word of balance in the Spell Compendium), but instead, let's make an antitheist version.


Righteous Blasphemy
Evocation [Sonic]
Level: Ur-Priest 7, Paladin of Freedom 4
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: 40 ft.
Target: divine spellcasters in a 40-ft.-radius spread centered on you
Duration: Instantaneous
Saving Throw: None or Will negates; see text
Spell Resistance: Yes
Any creature capable of casting divine spells (or which have spell-like abilities that mimic divine spells) within the area of a Righteous Blasphemy spell suffers the following ill effects.
HD Effect
Equal to caster level Dazed
Up to caster level -1 Weakened, dazed
Up to caster level -5 Paralyzed, weakened, dazed
Up to caster level -10 Killed, paralyzed, weakened, dazed
The effects are cumulative and concurrent. No saving throw is allowed against these effects.
Dazed - The creature can take no actions for 1 round, though it defends itself normally.
Weakened - The creature’s Strength score decreases by 2d6 points for 2d4 rounds.
Paralyzed - The creature is paralyzed and helpless for 1d10 minutes.
Killed - Living creatures die. Undead creatures are destroyed.
Furthermore, if you are on your home plane when you cast this spell, extraplanar divine spellcasters within the area are instantly banished back to their home planes. Creatures so banished cannot return for at least 24 hours. This effect takes place regardless of whether the creatures hear the righteous blasphemy. The banishment effect allows a Will save (at a -4 penalty) to negate.
Ur-priests and creatures whose Hit Dice exceed your caster level are unaffected by righteous blasphemy.


Additionally, here, have a feat (intended for Defiants, but any nontheist can take it):

Blasphemer [General]
Prerequisite: Must not worship any deity, character level 13th
Benefit: You gain righteous blasphemy as a spell-like ability at a caster level equal to your hit dice, usable 1/day.
If you are evil, you may choose to cast blasphemy instead. You may make this choice each time you use the spell-like ability.
Special: You may select this feat multiple times. Each time you do, you may use the spell-like ability one additional time per day.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Fun New Items: Goblet of True Mind Switching and Greater Helm of Opposite Alignment

Goblet of True Mind Switching
If this jeweled silver cup is filled with any liquid, and two creatures drink from it in succession, the minds of the two creatures are swapped, as with a True Mind Switch power. Neither individual loses a level. This ability functions once per week. If one of the bodies later dies, that body's current occupant dies, and the other immediately loses one level.
Moderate telepathy; ML 17th; Craft Universal Item, True Mind Switch; Price 200,000 gp.

Helm Of Opposite Alignment, Greater
As Helm of Opposite Alignment, but functions 10 times before running out of charges, and save DC is 17.
Strong transmutation; CL 12th; Craft Wondrous Item, creator must be 12th level; Price 50,000 gp; Weight 3 lb.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Questmaster's Box

This ornately-decorated 12"x7"x4" wooden box is frequently used by guildmasters to send items to random places, so that low-ranking guild members may be tested by requiring them to find the item.
The front of the box has two buttons and a dial. The buttons are labeled "Send Object" and "Retrieve Locating Stone"; the dial is labeled "Radius" and may be set to 5 feet, 50 feet, 500 feet, 1 mile, 10 miles, 100 miles, and 1000 miles.
If the box is closed and "Retrieve Locating Stone" button is pressed, the locating stone (a non-magical and otherwise uninteresting pebble) appears inside the box.
If the box is closed and "Send Object" is pressed, anything inside the box is sent to a random location within the dial-specified radius of the locating stone.
The locating stone can be sent away by the box like any object. If the locating stone is destroyed, the box keys off the last known location of the locating stone, before it was destroyed, and creates a new locating stone if "Retrieve Locating Stone" is pressed.
Moderate conjuration; CL 10th; Craft Wondrous Item, locate object, teleport; price 1500 gp; weight 5 lb.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cursed Item Design

A good basic principle of cursed items is this: take a standard item, and make it do what it's supposed to do except not quite right, or make it do something ironic in addition to the intended effect. Go for things that work just fine, if you're okay with the side-effects.

Examples, just looking through the Magic Item Compendium and coming up with things off the top of my head:

  • A bear helm that also transmits werebearism
  • A belt of growth that makes you grow, but none of your items grow with you. Any armor and clothes worn (except the belt) are destroyed, and your weapon still does its original damage
  • A blindhelm that also makes you permanently blind
  • Bracers of opportunity that provoke an attack of opportunity every time you use them
  • A cloak of the salamander that has a 50% chance of setting its wearer on fire (doing the listed fire damage every round until the wearer is dead or immersed in water) every time they activate it
  • A hair shirt of suffering that damages the wearer (by the same amount healed) every time they use its healing ability
  • A ring of negative protection that, instead of protecting you from negative energy, instead grants negative protection (i.e., vulnerability) to all forms of energy
  • A shirt of the leech that also attracts 1d4 leech swarms (Stormwrack, I think) every time the wearer enters water
  • A torc of heroic sacrifice that has a 25% chance of outright killing its wearer every time it's used
  • A metamagic rod that applies a misspelling effect to spells instead of a normal metamagic effect

Also consider cursed coins - nobody ever thinks to detect magic the money!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Interesting Locations

One of the biggest problem in my dungeons is a lack of interesting locations. My dungeons were an endless series of bland, uninteresting rooms, filled with monsters and not much else.

So I made a concerted effort to seek out ideas for landmarks and items with which to populate my dungeons. I compiled a list. I found discussion threads listing interesting features, traps, and puzzles, added most of the things from the Alexandrian's 101 Curious Items, added one of each cursed item (and some additional cursed items), added a vial of every basic potion, added some random additional magic items, followed the Alexandrian's advice in that post and made some interesting new locations with the help of the 1st edition DMG, added most of the lists from the 3.5e DMG and [i]Dungeonscape[/i] and other sources, and eventually had a massive list. Then, for every room in the dungeon, I rolled 3 or so times on this list of landmarks ("nothing" was a prominent option, so not everything had 3 landmarks; unlike in my dynamic random encounter tables, I did decrement "nothing" by 1 each time it was selected).

Here are some ideas to get you started on your list, should you chose to do the same:
  • A door that opens on someplace completely different in the dungeon
  • A dung heap
  • A metamagic rod that applies a misspelling effect to spells instead of a normal metamagic effect
  • A monster nest (roll on wandering monster table to determine whose nest)
  • A mound of rubble
  • A statue (roll on wandering monster table to determine what it represents)
  • A toppled statue
  • A trap
  • A trap that's already been triggered
  • Adventurer corpse
  • Bloodstains
  • Bottomless chasm with a bridge across it
  • Bottomless pit
  • Ceiling collapses (reflex 15 or 5d6 damage + buried) when anyone steps in the middle of the room. Ceiling is restored (and will do it again) if doors are closed when nobody is inside
  • Door that reverses the gravity for anybody who passes through it in either direction
  • Graffiti
  • Hidden treasure
  • Humanoid bones
  • Little bell and a hammer and a sign that says "Please do not ring this bell"; If bell is rung a huge fire elemental appears and attacks (works 1/day)
  • Monster corpse
  • mosaic of dozens of Olidammaras who attempt to steal gold (sleight of hand +10) from anyone who comes within 5'
  • Nonhumanoid bones
  • One-way passage, can travel one direction but not the other (DC25 strength check to pass 5' in the wrong direction).
  • Room full of lifelike statues. Pedestal which casts Flesh to Stone (save DC15) on anyone who touches it.
  • Some vertical elevation change
  • Tapestry which forcibly casts Rage (will DC15, duration 5 rounds) on anyone who sees it
  • Unidentifiable slime on the walls

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Multiheaded Characters

I've always kind of liked the idea of playing half an ettin. Get another player to play the other half, and be two characters sharing a two-headed body.

There are, however, two problems with this: the first is that the ettin is an ECL15 creature. The second is that there are no real rules for two characters sharing one body. Let's fix both of these problems.


The first is relatively easy to fix. Savage Species provides a Multiheaded template, which we can apply to some suitably monstrous creature. Applying it to mongrelfolk is too obvious. Well, hurm. What low-ECL (let's say less than 3HD and less than LA3) PC-suitable races have an intelligence and charisma penalty and a strength and constitution bonus? Let's check MonsterForge.

Abyssal maw demons, githzerai, gnolls snow goblins, neanderthals, orcs, whitespawn hordeling spawns of tiamat, and windrazor windblades. I don't happen to know what two of those are offhand, and I don't care quite enough to look them up, so let's rule out the demons and the windblades. I was about to rule out the spawn of Tiamat, but wait, what's Tiamat's defining feature? All those heads! So let's keep that in the running for now.

No, I'm not really absolutely sure what I'm looking for. I kind of want to replicate the feel of the ettin without necessarily actually replicating the ettin.

Multiheaded orc is a little too obvious, and I'm not fond of D&D neanderthals in general (If their name were anything else, it would be better, but they took generic cavemen and slapped a label which does not describe cavemen. Plus, D&D already has cavemen in spades, do we really need something that's the same as all the other cavemen except less green?), so let's rule those out. And I'd rather there be a reason. And if there's to be a fair amount of extra ECL, I'd prefer there to be a good fluff reason for it, so that rules out the gnoll.

Leaving us with snow goblins and whitespawn hordelings! Let's look up the details on these creatures. I don't happen to remember the fluff for the spawn of Tiamat, other than "Bahamut starts making dragonborns, so Tiamat retaliates by bangin' everything in sight". Or maybe it's the other way 'round. Let's crack Monster Manual IV and read!

Yeah, it's the other way 'round, the dragonborn are Bahamut's response to the spawn of Tiamat. And the spawn are not necessarily literally Tiamat's progeny, other than she caused them to come about.

I don't mind the fluff for the spawn of Tiamat, and will probably eventually use some of them in my game, but I don't think "the very weakest of Tiamat's spawn get the glory of imitating her in having multiple heads". I definitely will remember, however, that the multiheaded template is of particular merit, fluff-wise, for chromatic dragons and dragon-descended.

Okay, so, multiheaded snow goblins it is. To Frostburn!

Eh, let's ditch the throat sacs. If I wanted Kuo-Toa, I'd use Kuo-Toa. In fact, let's ditch all of the fluff and use only the crunch, we can refluff them as much as we want. In fact, let's forget the crunch and just use regular goblins, which are basically the same but have the benefit of being OGL.

So, taking the SRD's goblin and applying an extra head to it:


Two-Headed Goblin
Small Humanoid (goblinoid)
2 humanoid hit dice
-2 Strength, +2 Dexterity, +2 Constitution, -2 Charisma.
Small size: +1 bonus to Armor Class, +1 bonus on attack rolls, +4 bonus on Hide checks, -4 penalty on grapple checks, lifting and carrying limits ¾ those of Medium characters.
A two-headed goblin’s base land speed is 30 feet.
Darkvision out to 90 feet
+4 racial bonus on Move Silently and Ride checks.
+2 racial bonus on Listen, Search, and Spot checks.
+1 natural armor bonus
Superior Two-Weapon Fighting: Because each head controls one arm, the two-headed goblin has no penalty on attack rolls for attacking with multiple weapons, and the number of attacks and the damage bonus for each weapon are calculated as though the weapon were held in a primary hand.
Automatic Languages: Common, Goblin. Bonus Languages: Draconic, Elven, Giant, Gnoll, Orc.
Bonus feats: Improved initiative, Combat Reflexes
Favored Class: Rogue.
Level Adjustment: +2


Those extra HD aren't necessary, and we could bump that LA down by removing some of the unneccessary extra abilities. Let's say this isn't just a goblin with two heads, it's a new creature, so it can lose most of the goblin traits. So let's drop the racial hit dice and the natural armor bonus, drop the Move Silently and Ride checks, reduce the Darkvision to Low-Light Vision. We're going to wind up counting it as two characters, so the bonuses to Listen, Search, and Spot checks (from having twice the usual number of eyes and ears) will be made redundant with simply rolling the things twice, so drop those, too. Getting to act twice in initiative is better than Improved Initiative, and getting to make two attacks of opportunity is nearly as good as Combat Reflexes, so those can go. The Superior Two-Weapon Fighting is important and can stay, though. And let's even the racial bonuses out a bit, no more str penalty or dex bonus.

That, according to this, brings us down approximately to 0.5 ECL at 1HD. I guess we can give it something back. Let's make it Medium and give it a strength bonus. I think at this point we've taken a two-headed goblin and turned it into a two-headed orc. Let's give it, oh, I don't know. Vulnerability to sonic, what with having twice as many ears (yes I know that's not how sonic damage works), and let's say Fast Healing 1, I was just thinking the other day that fast healing is neat. Although, it gets twice as many turns, so that would wind up being Fast Healing 2, which is too much. Let's give it DR or energy resistance or something instead. Resistance 5 to electricity, that's what we'll do, what with having twice as many hearts. Shut up, that's perfectly cromulent. And let's round it out with, I don't know, Scent.

Oh yeah, it's no longer a two-headed goblin in any sense at all, so it needs a new name. Let's call it zweikopf, which is probably not good German, but whatever.

Okay, so:


Medium Humanoid
+2 Strength, +2 Constitution, -2 Charisma.
A zweikopf’s base land speed is 30 feet.
Low-Light Vision.
Superior Two-Weapon Fighting (Ex): Because each head controls one arm, the zweikopf has no penalty on attack rolls for attacking with multiple weapons, and the number of attacks and the damage bonus for each weapon are calculated as though the weapon were held in a primary hand.
Sonic Vulnerability (Ex)
Electricity Resistance 5 (Ex)
Scent (Ex)
Automatic Languages: Common. Bonus Languages: Draconic, Elven, Giant, Gnoll, Goblin, Orc, Undercommon.
Level Adjustment: +0
Favored Class: Barbarian.


...meh, good enough. Now, rules for two players playing one two-headed creature?

Well, it shouldn't be weaker than two separate characters. That's an easy trap to fall into. This isn't really just one creature. In general, it should be treated as two separate creatures sharing a square.

Some of the things you need to consider (and my solutions to them):

Each character buys/rolls ability scores normally. Each character gets the racial modifiers applied to their scores separately. Each character uses their own ability scores for anything they do, as if they were a separate creature. (Yes, it's entirely plausible that you might see a creature with one huge bulky arm and one tiny dinky arm. Which is fine; have you ever heard a description of a blacksmith? Same deal, and that only with one head.)

Each head earns experience and gains levels independently of the other.

Any feats or flaws taken by one head apply only to that character.

Each head rolls their hit dice and adds their constitution score every level. These hit points go into a shared pool.

Any damage taken by either head is subtracted from the shared pool. Any healing applied to either head is added to the shared pool. If this pool reaches 0, both heads are disabled. If it falls below zero, both heads are unconscious. Only one head rolls to stabilize each round, and the pool only loses one hit point per round when the joint creature is not stable.

Any other creature subjecting the zweikopf to any effect must choose to target one head or the other, though this choice may be random. Each head uses their own AC and saves. Any effect which targets multiple characters can target each head individually, as if they were separate creatures.

Any items worn on the feet, fingers, hands, arms/wrists, shoulders, body, and torso slots affect both characters. (Items that function only if both of a pair are worn still function only if both are worn.) Each character has their own head, eyes, and neck slots; any magic items worn on the neck, eyes, and head slots affect only the head wearing them.

Each head can wield and use a one-handed or light weapon with no penalties. Wielding a two-handed weapon takes more coördination than the two heads can muster.

Each head rolls their own initiative. Each head gets actions (move+standard or full round) as if they were a separate character.

Each head can move the body as a normal character. However, each head's move speed is half the listed move speed. Either head can choose to veto any movement attempted by the other; if this happens, the joint creature falls prone.

If a creature provokes, each head may make a separate attack of opportunity, as if they were separate creatures.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

You didn't miss, but you didn't hit him.

An incompetent DM will only ever say "you hit" or "you miss", when you hit or fail to hit, respectively. This turns combat into a pure numbers game, which is fun enough for some people but boring for most people.

A half-competent DM will, instead of saying "you hit", say "you hit him in the [location semi-arbitrarily chosen on the fly based on how much you beat his AC by and how much damage you wind up doing]!" This is more interesting, but still not perfect.

The rare good DM will also tell you how you miss. It's odd that this is rarer than the above, because it's actually very easy to do. You can set up rules for it in your head! A good DM will keep a general sense of the monster's various kinds of AC, and will declare how you failed to hit based on those, based on rules like these:

- If you rolled below 10 and didn't hit, you missed.
- If you rolled above 10 but below his touch AC, your foe ducked or otherwise deliberately evaded your attack.
- If you rolled above his touch AC but below his total AC, his armor or natural armor deflected the blow.
- If your foe has a dodge bonus, then you can use the word "dodge", and your foe dodged the attack if you rolled higher than 10+dex but lower than 10+dex+dodge.
- If your foe has a deflection bonus, same deal. If your foe has a shield bonus, same deal. If your foe has any other kinds of bonuses, same deal.

In general, a foe will let an attack sail past them if it would miss on its own. If it could actually hit them, they prefer to get out of the way. If they can't do that, they'll prefer to block it with something that can reliably do so, e.g. their shield or deflection bonus. If they can't do that, only then will they take it on their armor or thick hide (i.e., natural armor). And if they can't do that, then you hit.

This makes combat much more interesting, and communicates some information that the characters really should have, and which particularly smart players (if there is such a thing) can leverage. If they notice their foe catching most of their blows on his shield, they'll know to sunder it. If they notice their foe ducking out of the way of most of their blows, they'll know to cast grease to make him flat-footed. If they notice their foe catching most of their attacks on his armor, they'll know to use more touch attacks. And so on.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bounties of the Megadungeon

The following is a list of the current bounties offered at my megadungeon open game table, as they are presented to my players. Well, they get everything all nicely printed out on individual half-sheets of paper, but you get the idea. I hope some of them may inspire you for your own games.

Part of this is a lesson I have heard, but not entirely completely internalized: whenever possible, have something physical to hand your players. Tangible objects are supposedly much more interesting to them than mere descriptions in the air. As one hears often in Westeros: words are wind. This particular technique, the bounties on paper, suffer somewhat from still mostly just being words, though if you can interesting them up by trying to get as close as you can to the actual handwritten documents (mostly with creative font choices), that helps.

A side story: one benefit to using LaserTron tokens for mini bases: I had a couple left over (which I did paint on one side, intending to use them for swarms or miscellaneous markers or something), so when my players tried to squeeze money out of a particularly unwealthy viscount, I had five coins on hand to drop on the table and say "This is all the money I can spare".

My next idea to liven things up is to include bounties that are just pictures, no words. Not everyone who wants to post a bounty is literate, after all. Even Sir Bigglesworth counts as literate, if only barely. But this is a major challenge for the DM to try to convey instructions without using words, and to the players to understand.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Baggies of Holding

Because low-level characters being unable to carry all their gear is a recurring problem: here, have smaller bags of holding that even a newbie may be able to afford (depending on starting wealth).


Baggies of Holding, sometimes called Bags of Holding Type 0 and -1, act as normal bags of holding, but are even smaller and cheaper.

Bag Bag Weight Contents Weight Limit Contents Volume Limit Market Price
Lesser Baggie of Holding 2 20 2 250
Greater Baggie of Holding 7 90 10 1000

Saturday, July 16, 2011

On the Virtues of "Yes, And"

You may have heard the virtues of "Yes, and" extolled. If not at DMing school, then perhaps at improv comedy school.

The thinking goes like this: Saying "no" to a player discourages them and makes them sad and makes them not be having as much fun. (Saying "no" to an improv comedian not only makes them sad, it also disrupts the pace of the banter and throws everyone off their game and makes the act less funny, so the parallels are only surface-deep.)

Consider the following:

"Yes, and" > "Yes" > "Yes, but" > "No, but" > "No"

Always aspire to be as far left on this list as you possibly can. Whenever you make a decree, ask yourself "is there a good reason I'm here, and not one to the left?" Going one to the left if you can will make it more fun for your player and more fun for you. (A possible exception is players who ask for all sorts of stupid things for no other reason than because they suspect you'll let them get away with it. I'm honestly not sure how to deal with this kind of player. It may be that this is the only situation in which an unadorned "no" can actually be justified.)

Certainly, there are good reasons to find yourself somewhere on the right. Some things are just broken. Leadership, for example. This core principle is why I go with the "yes, but" of nerfing it, rather than the "no" of banning it outright. Similarly, rather than banning Divine Metamagic ("no"), only ban nightstick abuse ("yes, but").
Rather than disallow all flaws, allow them and make an effort to exploit them to the fullest possible extent -- if people take Shaky, throw lots of ranged and flying enemies at them; if they take Murky-Eyed, throw them against lots of enemies with concealment (This works out to either a "yes, but" or a "yes, and", depending on the adventurousness of the player).
You want to buy 50 flasks of lamp oil? Yes, but several sessions later you may find a factotum casting a scorching ray at them.

But it's still always more fun for everyone to go as far to the left as possible. You want your character to be a prince? Yes, and also take this plot I've hung on that hook for you.
You want to buy dragonhide armor? Yes, and what colour is it in case you come across somebody who doesn't take kindly to you wearing a relative? (Is "Yes, if you provide the dragon skin" a "Yes, and", a "Yes, but", or a "No, but"? Probably depends on how plausible the party killing a dragon is at their level.)
See how much more fun that is for you, the player, and the party than just "yes"?

As of this writing, I just told a player "no, but". I'm sadly in the bad habit of saying "no, but" much more often than I ought, though I've mostly broken myself of the habit of outright "no"s. The question was "Can I use this homebrewed flaw?" and my answer was "No, but you may refluff a WotC-published flaw to achieve a similar effect." (Homebrewed flaws tend to be terrible, or as I heard them described once, "pants on head retarded", so I am more prejudiced against them than I am against other homebrew, even if an individual flaw seems non-terrible on the surface. Not that I'm not prejudiced against homebrew in general. But this is prejudice, which is why my wording was "I'd rather you didn't, though I may allow it if it's a deal-breaker" rather than a flat "no". An empty justification, perhaps.)

The other day, I got to say "yes, and", and it made me feel good. A player asked if he could use Central Casting: Heroes of Legend (which seems awesome, by the way). I said (provisionally) sure, and when he rolled up a character, I got to say "Oh, hey, 'human nomads' probably means a nation of sailors who didn't bothered to recolonize the land when the Subsidence came, and 'light cavalry' means riders of sharks or dolphins or porpoises, and 'skiing' means 'water skiing'." It made me feel like I was World Head again.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Proper Housekeeping: How Many Rules Are Good?

There is a golden rule of houseruling that everyone should always keep in mind when they decide to enforce a house rule, and that is:

A house rule should always either a.) make the game more fun or b.) make the game more realistic while not making it less fun.

I will draw an analogy with John Stuart Mill. A (very) rough summary of Mill's ethics: Restricting freedom by declaring a thing unacceptable (e.g., passing a law against it) is inherently an evil act; the only way for banning an act to be good is if that act is more evil than the evil of banning it. Even more roughly: freedom is good and restricting freedom is evil, so the only acts it is good to restrict are those acts which restrict freedom even more. (The garuda of Perdido Street Station are explicitly Millian in this limited sense: the only crime in garuda society is "choice theft". Anything which restricts another person's choices is choice theft, and thus criminal.)

The analogy is this: a house rule is inherently an evil. Each house rule you add makes the game slightly more confusing and gives your players one more thing they need to remember. I am lawful neutral and have a strong "rules for the sake of rules" tendency, so this is a hard thing for me to keep in mind, but it's important.

So every houserule needs to have a reason to exist. As above, it needs to make the game more fun, or it needs to make the game more realistic while not making it less fun. Because houserules inherently make the game slightly less fun, this second clause should be read as "make the game more realistic while making it also slightly more fun", unless you're playing with a table full of hardcore simulationists for whom increased realism is automatically more fun (this describes me to an extent).

That said, I've decided to make an audit of all my current house rules, to make sure they all adhere to this rule.


• Ability scores: point buy 30, starting at 8, as on page 169 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
• All characters begin with 1,000 gold and an adventurer's kit containing a backpack, 5 torches, flint & steel, 50' hempen rope, a waterskin, and clothing of your choice (excluding courtier's outfit, noble's outfit, and royal outfit).
• All characters begin at 0 experience.
• Content from any 3.5e rulebook or supplement published by Wizards Of The Coast may be used (including some material for other campaign settings). Other sources -- particularly Dragon magazine, the Wizards of the Coast website, and official 3.0e sourcebooks -- may be permitted, with DM review in each instance.
• A character may have up to 2 flaws and up to 1 trait (but bear in mind that you should consider no flaw “safe”; I may deliberately throw encounters at you which prey specifically on your flaws).

These are not really "house rules" so much as they are "variables that it is necessary to define for every game". I could just say "begin play according to the PHB", with the standard 3d6 ability scores and starting wealth rolled by class, but those are rules that are so rarely used they almost count as house rules in their own right. (Plus rolling for ability scores is evil and sadistic and I would never inflict that on anyone.)

Incidentally, I picked that high starting gold amount for a reason: it's enough to get anything cheaper than a +1 weapon or armor. You can afford good stuff, increasing survivability at the painful low levels, without significantly changing balance (creatures with DR/magic will still be fully effective until after you've won a few fights, because you can't afford a magic item).

• Monster class progressions (e.g., from Savage Species) may be used. A character is not required to finish their monster class progression before entering another class; however, a character may not have more class levels than monster levels unless their monster class progression is complete. The “empty levels” that do not add hit dice may be reduced like level adjustment, as below. The experience cost to do so is determined by the final LA of the monster class.
• Bloodlines (from Unearthed Arcana) may be used. A bloodline level counts as a level adjustment and nothing more; it does not count as a class level for any purpose. However, bloodline levels may be reduced like level adjustment, as below. The experience cost to do so is determined by the bloodline strength (+1 for Minor, +2 for Intermediate, +3 for Major).

These are partially laying out some specific things that I will allow and which not every DM does. So, again, variables that need to be defined for each game, rather than house rules. They also lay out some minor changes and adjustments.

The "empty levels are level adjustment" thing is simply making explicit something that was previously implicit, so not even really a house rule, per se, because it's not even really a change.

The "bloodline levels are level adjustment" are making simple something that was unnecessarily complicated. The game already has class levels and hit dice and level adjustment (which are confusing enough), and Unearthed Arcana saw fit to create a new category that nothing else uses? Pshaw. Just use one of the existing ones. So this increases fun by leading to a net decrease in complexity.

• A character may have up to two base classes without an experience penalty, or three if one of them is their racial favored class (or if their racial favored class is “any”). After that, experience penalties for multi-classing apply.

I'm starting to rethink this rule. When I instituted it, I hadn't realized that prestige classes don't count towards experience penalties. With that in mind, the default rule seems fine - you get a class plus your racial favored class, which should be plenty for anybody who isn't going some bizarre build that calls for dipping half a dozen different classes.

I do want to discourage said bizarre builds, so I don't want to just say "no experience penalties for multiclassing ever" like most DMs do. Being restricted to one or two base classes is a little harsh, though - sometimes a 1-level dip is just the thing to make a build even playable. So two or three is a fine number.

But the bookkeeping for XP penalties if anybody actually does choose to go with such a build is a nightmare, so I don't want it to ever happen. If I really want to discourage such bizarre builds, I should just say you're not allowed to play a character with more than a certain number of base classes. However, the very fact that the bookkeeping for these XP penalties is such a nightmare will automatically prevent 99% of players from even bothering with them, so the problem solves itself.

In short: not using the penalties would be going too far, and keeping them as-is isn't any fun, so I think this compromise does fall into the "makes the game more fun" zone.

• A modified version of Unearthed Arcana’s variant rule for reducing level adjustment may be used. A character’s level adjustment may be reduced at any time (including at character creation), provided the character has enough experience. You may spend as much experience as you desire, but your total experience cannot go below zero. Your class levels are never reduced in this way, no matter how much experience you spend.
Starting LA : XP Cost
1 : 6,000
2 : 11,000; 13,000
3 : 16,000; 21,000; 23,000
4 : 21,000; 29,000; 34,000; 36,000
5 : 26,000; 37,000; 45,000; 50,000; 52,000
6 : 31,000; 45,000; 56,000; 64,000; 69,000; 71,000
7 : 36,000; 53,000; 67,000; 78,000; 86,000; 91,000; 93,000
8 : 41,000; 61,000; 78,000; 92,000; 103,000; 111,000; 116,000; 118,000
9 : 46,000; 69,000; 89,000; 106,000; 120,000; 131,000; 139,000; 144,000; 146,000
For example, a character with a +3 level adjust may reduce it to +2 by spending 16,000 XP, to +1 by spending another 21,000, and to +0 by spending another 23,000.

This... I unfortunately haven't had a chance to test this system extensively. It does, however, simplify and streamline the baffling-even-once-you-understand-it Unearthed Arcana system (the UA writers must have had a fetish for needlessly complex house rules), making it probably a good house rule.

• If your name is in the "Player Name" field of a sheet, only you may play that character. If there is no name in that field, anybody may play that character. You may claim or unclaim a character at any time.

I'm actually considering doing away with this rule, and saying that pregen characters are always fair game for anybody to play. But what if a player gets really attached to one? (Unlikely, I know, what with the players not having had a hand in their creation.) So this rule is definitely a candidate for deletion.

• A character is considered dead if he reaches negative his Constitution score or negative 10, whichever is further from zero.

I play with this rule because I played with it in the first game I played in. But what's the point of it? It doesn't make the game any more realistic (high constitution already means you're less likely to die, you've already got an extra hit point for every two points of constitution you have, plus it adds to your fortitude saves.) It makes a character slightly less likely to die in one hit if they're low on HP, which is I suppose good, but is it worth making a house rule about it, given the John Stuart Mill analogy? I don't think so. Definitely a candidate for deletion.

• An attack roll of 1 is a threat for a critical miss, which works just like the inverse of a threat for a critical hit: you roll to confirm the fumble, and if your confirmation roll would miss your target, you have critically fumbled.
If you critical fumble on the last attack you would make on your turn, various bad things happen (e.g.: you hit yourself or an ally, your weapon breaks, etc). If you still have attacks left to make when you critical fumble, you lose them, but nothing else bad happens.

The grounds on which people object to critical fumbles (usually "it makes no sense for you to be more likely to hurt yourself as you level up") apply only to unadorned "you hit yourself if you roll a 1". Everything about this rule is designed to answer that objection, and it does so admirably. But does critical fumbling as a concept actually improve the game?

Yes! I refer you to the tales my players still tell of excessively powerful monsters biting themselves to death in the chaotic throes of combat. And isn't the ability to tell stories of your exploits the point of D&D? The critical fumble rule stays.

• The reincarnate spell chooses randomly from custom lists. A creature is overwhelmingly likely to be reincarnated as a creature of its type and somewhat less likely to be reincarnated as a creature of a different but similar type.
Gender is random. The original form's racial hit dice and level adjustment are removed. Half the experience points for any previously paid off level adjustment are immediately refunded to the character. If a character is reincarnated as a creature with more than one racial hit die and/or a level adjustment, the racial hit dice and level adjustment are applied to the character. If a creature doesn’t like its new form, it has the option of refusing to return, in which case the spell is wasted, as with any resurrection spell.
• The experience of dying and returning to life leaves a person drained of vitality even beyond the loss of a level. Upon resurrection, a character is aged a number of years equal to 1d20 minus their Constitution modifier (a negative Constitution modifier can increase the number of years aged). The True Resurrection spell negates this effect. These years are added to the base adult age in the case of the Reincarnate spell.

The former of these makes the game both more fun (though many people will argue that allowing Reincarnate at all makes the game less fun; these people are spoilsports) and more realistic (living constructs, native outsiders, and monstrous humanoids coming back as humanoids? engineers not having a chance to come back as engineers? Nonsense!). It stays.

The latter is an attempt to stave off the revolving door of death, which enough people complain about that it seems to be something that makes it more fun for some. That makes it good. It helps that rules for resurrection and reincarnation will only be used very rarely, so they're not something the PCs really have to keep in mind.

• A wizard may copy any arcane scroll into his spellbook, even if it is not on the Wizard class list. However, to do so he must pass an additional Use Magic Device check as if he were casting the spell from the scroll. The Archivist must do the same for spells which are not on the Cleric class list.

This isn't so much a house rule as it is an answer to a question that actually did come up. Only wizards and archivists even need to pay attention to it.

• There are no negative levels. In place of each negative level bestowed, the victim immediately ages 3d10 years. The victim may immediately roll a fortitude saving throw at the same difficulty as removing the negative level; if this saving throw succeeds, the aging is halved. If the victim receives a restoration spell within 24 hours, the aging is reversed; otherwise, it is permanent.

This makes the game more fun (nobody likes negative levels). I guess nobody can really describe the effect of having your life sucked out by an undead monster, so it doesn't really alter the "realism" scale.

• When crafting an item or casting a spell with an experience component, you may spend as much experience as you have, but your total experience cannot go below zero. Your class levels are never reduced in this way, no matter how much experience you spend.

This: probably unnecessary. I don't know that it makes the game more fun at all. I could drop it, though it would require altering the level adjustment reduction rules for consistency. Definitely a candidate for deletion.

• Participants in combat act on a shared initiative. Each member of each group (usually there are two groups: the PCs, and whatever they are fighting) rolls initiative and reports the highest initiative from each group.
In cases where there would be a surprise round, initiative is not rolled. The surprising party simply goes first, and the surprised party begins combat flat-footed.

As far as I've been able to tell so far, this house rule improves the game. It certainly speeds it up, though I have several players who don't seem to understand the principle of it at all and simply wait until everybody else has gone. I'm hoping eventually the principle of coöperation will click in everybody's minds.

• If you are a prepared caster, casting a level 0 spell does not remove it from your mind. If you are a spontaneous caster, casting a level 0 spell does not use up a spell slot.
This does not apply to Cure Minor Wounds or Repair Minor Damage, nor does it apply to any spell-like abilities. If you use a level 0 spell or spell slot to do anything other than cast that particular spell (e.g., spontaneously cast Inflict Minor Wounds by sacrificing a different spell), it still unprepares the spell/uses the spell slot. If you apply a metamagic effect to a level 0 spell, casting it unprepares the spell/uses the spell slot, even if it doesn't change the spell's level.

This: also probably unnecessary. You can accomplish much the same end by just taking reserve feats. Who actually runs out of 0-level spells, anyway? Does that happen? Are 0-level spells so useful people are in danger of running out of them?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Monster PCs in the Open Game Table

So it was established that the best way to handle experience in the open gaming table is to just start everybody off at 0 and go from there, it sorts itself out.

But, I fool that I am, thought to myself, "But this kind of makes players unable to play characters with level adjustments or racial hit dice." Sure, there are various monster class progressions (and if you want to play a character that doesn't have a published monster class progression, I can just make one). But what of +1LA or +2LA? It would be awfully silly to make a one-level 0HD class progression, I'm not even sure how it would work (start with a racial hit die and then once you've completed the monster class progression you can switch it out for a class level? Inelegant).

And it's not great to just say you can start at 0XP with +1 or +2LA, because then you're stronger than the other characters for free and there's no reason not to do that, unless you don't want to deal with LA later on.

So I decided on this compromise: if you've got a character to level n, you may make a new character at 0XP but at level n, as long as n-1 of those levels are racial hit dice or level adjustment.

Sounds reasonable, right? Nope! Of the two players who have decided to take advantage of this offer so far, neither got it right. One missed the second part and made a character with two class levels (which I provisionally allowed because they were cleric and barbarian, so the character wasn't really actually much stronger than a level 1 character). The other made a character with a monster class level and a regular class level (which I'm allowing, as long as your monster levels are equal to or greater than your class levels, until you finish the monster progression), but didn't actually have a level 2 character in the first place (which I allowed, but the character conveniently died and was resurrected in the first session in which he was played). This is, uh, not auspicious. I'm going to call this policy a failed experiment and do away with it.

What to replace it with? Maybe nothing. Or maybe I'll do what Vaxia did (with pretty much great success) and say that, if you choose to permanently retire a character (e.g., if the character dies, or you grow so bored of them you know you'll never play them again) you can transfer 75% of their experience to a brand-new character. (In Vaxia, you could also transfer the experience to an existing character, but only in the form of banked XP that you had to work off through RP in order to earn. D&D doesn't really have a mechanic like that, so I'd just say brand-new characters only.)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Naming Conventions of High Seas

I discovered a suggestion that I have recently been putting to good use. The suggestion is basically "take a real name and change one letter".

I named Prior Trakis and Abbot Waxter of the Monastery of Pelor on Perch Hill after a pair of friends I have. Viblet Kewne is from a random regular-person name generator (the last name was Keyne or possibly Keene, and I can't remember what the first name was -- I don't think it was Violet. That just goes to show how effective this method is, if even I can't tell what name I started with). Jov Sauart is another with that method. I think I'll mostly use this for humans from Shell and a minority of mongrelfolk.


For Sahuagin, I use roughly the naming conventions from the third-party Slayer's Guide to the Sahuagin. The BBEG's dragon from my first campaign was a sahuagin cultist called Searches-the-blackest-depths-and-loves-what-she-finds-there, with other sahuagin going by such names as Reading-reading-hunt-with-book and Big-fella-kills-whales.


Mind flayer names, based on precedents from all over WotC canon, tend to be all Xs and Cs and Qs in unpronounceable configurations. Thus, the ascended mind flayer BBEG of High Seas, Quasxthe. And the level 1 mind flayer PC, Kibstellischa. And the old oracle of Ilsensine, Absterbossk. And the latter two, now that I consider it, contain no Xs or Qs and only one C. Huh. I think I used a mind flayer name generator for Absterbossk.


Omorashi humans, of course, have Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and other East Asian names.


I was reading Libris Mortis, and in the introduction, I discovered that the name is intended to be (bastardized) Celestial for "From the Books of the Dead" (you may hear people refer to this book as the "Book of Bad Latin" - it's actually perfectly acceptable Latin for this meaning). The interesting thing about this is that it implies (bastardized) Celestial = Latin.

Interestingly, before I discovered that, I had decided that Romus, the fantasy counterpart culture of ancient Rome, was ruled by a descended movanic deva. Obviously, the reason why the cives Romi (Romo? Genitive or ablative? "Of Romus" or "from Romus"? I'm not actually entirely sure!) have Latin names is because they actually have Celestial names, because Celestial is the state language of Romus, because Vozdael Arkhigael says so. (The capital is still called "Landrise" instead of something in Celestial because hey look a firetruck!)

Incidentally, my naming custom for celestial creatures was to look up words that describe them on wiktionary, consult the Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew translations for those words, string them together, and stick -el or -iel or -ael on the end of them. I'll probably add Latin to this system now, if I don't just switch entirely to Latin for celestials and leave the arabic/aramaic/hebrew for fiends. But there's precedent for celestials having this naming convention, so I think I'll stick with it, and just say that angels, archons, devas, demons, and devils all have names that are mixtures of celestial, infernal, and abyssal.


Mongrelfolk, going from Races of Destiny, have either weird or normal contemporary human first names, normal contemporary human surnames, and appended onto the beginning of the surname, a random three- or four-letter word. Peph Box-Cooper, Laurence Tepp-Stewart, Bob Har-Johnson.

Mongrelfolk place names, of course, are just silly, but generally bizarrely descriptive. The Disreputable City, the River Easy, the Don't Drink This River (aka the Poison River), Noodleton, Winkle Village, Stank Cave, Perch Hill, Mount Dis. Endeesy, of course, is a quick way of saying N.D.C., New Disreputable City.


Engineers have names randomly selected from both the gnomish and dwarven languages in Races of Stone.


Anything dragon or dragon-descended has a name selected from the draconic dictionary in Races of the Dragon. (Well, more specifically, this draconic translator, which includes the RotD list as the core of its dictionary.)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Keeping Track of Initiative

Even though I've concluded that the standard way of handling initiative is flawed and a group initiative system is better, I'd like to briefly cover some of the options for dealing with the standard initiative system.


In the first game I played in, one of the players kept a list of the characters on a small whiteboard, and kept track of initiative with little numbers next to each name. This is adequate, though there's a (very) slight delay every time you look at the board and do the math to figure out what number comes after 4 or whatever, and try to find that number on the board. It was the initiative-keeper's job to announce whose turn it is and who's up next.

In that particular group, this system was much improved when the initiative-keeper got an iPad, and the iPad initiative app, which is much cleverer. You sort the characters into proper initiative order, then you push a button after each player goes, and it moves that player to the bottom of the list. An easy, simple visual representation of how soon your turn is.


When I first started DMing, I used initiative cards (which, being a cheapskate, I created and printed myself). You put everybody's name on little cards, and write whatever initiative they rolled in one corner, and then sort them into order. After each player goes, take their card and put it at the bottom of the pile. These are handy.

Because I didn't at the time have any of the books or a laptop for consulting the SRD, I had to print out all the monsters I was going to use in condensed statblock form, so their statblock just joined the pile as their initiative card, as well as the place where I tracked how much HP each one had.

The downside of this system is that the players never know when they're going next. And the cards I printed were all different sizes, so sometimes people would get lost in the shuffle.


When I got a laptop, I started increasingly switching over to completely paperless DMing. Because I no longer printed out the creature stats, I didn't automatically have an initiative card for each one, so I had no reason to keep this system.

So, for a while, I flirted with the technique of keeping the list on the big whiteboard behind me. I usually play in classrooms nowadays, and as long as I have the whiteboard markers out, I might as well use this vast empty space of whiteboard for something. This introduces an additional problem, in that I always sit facing away from the whiteboard (for various reasons involving being surrounded by D&D paraphernalia), so I have to turn around to see who's up next. Plus, I really should have designated a player to keep the initiative, doing it myself is a bottleneck on the whole process.

Then, for a few weeks, I switched to keeping half-cards with each character's name folded over the top of my DM screen, sorted into order. There was a gap the width of a card or two between the card of whichever character is currently going and the card of the next character up. When it's your turn, your card crosses the gap. At the top of the order, everybody's cards go back to the other side. A slightly more intuitive visual display, where you can tell who's up next by who's next on the screen.

I probably would have stuck with that method for awhile, cumbersome though it is, if I hadn't decided to switch over to the group initiative system.


A side note, on the subject of initiative: if you're playing with group initiative, it turns out that if you run on "each group goes on the highest initiative rolled by anybody in that group", the PCs will go first nearly every time.

Consider this addendum: in any given group of NPCs, one of them took the Unreactive flaw (-6 initiative) and gave his bonus feat to another one, who took the Improved Initiative feat (+4 initiative). This should mix it up a little without significantly altering balance.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

HP Rolling Alternatives

Not realizing this seems to be common, so I'll just point it out here: the default rule is to maximize the hit points you get at first level. A barbarian gets 12+con, a wizard gets 4+con. Only at levels after first level do you roll your hit die.

I'm massively opposed to rolling stats, much preferring point buy. And it sometimes strikes me as inconsistent that I do roll for HP. The difference, I suppose, is that HP should even out to an average after enough levels. I might eventually switch over to half-plus-one (alternately phrased as average-rounded-up, though that's a worse phrasing given D&D's Always Round Down rule) for HD rolls, but until then, is there some way to make rolling HD better?

I've played in high-powered campaigns where if you roll below average on your hit die (after 1st), you simply take whatever is on the opposite side of the die. E.g., if you roll a 1 on a d12, you instead take a 12. If you roll a 3 on a d6, you instead take a 4. This obviously had the effect of substantially increasing one's hit points.

It has occurred to me to institute a system whereby, at each level (after 1st), you may choose whether to roll your HD as normal, or take your average HD (rounded up does seem to be the standard, but offering it as an option should probably round down, to make it a choice between the certainty of one result, or a random result that could be much higher or much lower but which will average out to slightly higher than the certain result; it may still be an even choice, because people supposedly tend to pick the devil they know over the devil they don't). But I haven't thought through this idea, and I don't think I'll ever test or implement it.

I've also heard tell of a house rule to this effect: if you don't like your HD roll (after 1st), you can reroll on the next die down (d12, d10, d8, d6, d4). You can continue to do this until you hit the d4.
This has the effect of making a high hit die mean more: not only are you getting a higher number to start with (on average, each HD step increases your HP by 1/level), you're getting more cushion in case you roll poorly. No more barbarian crippled by rolling a 1 for his level 2 HD! Well, he still can, but it's profoundly unlikely (unless my math's wrong (which it is -- see if you can identify why), he has a 1/23,040 chance under this system to wind up with a 1, where before he had a 1/12 chance).
I like this system, and may implement it at some point in the future. Especially because it benefits high-HD classes (i.e., melee) quite a bit and benefits low-HD classes (i.e., spellcasters) not a whit, which is good.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Warforged Forged For Things That Aren't War

High Seas has warforged originally designed for mining operations deep beneath the ocean, what with not needing to breathe and all.

The idea of warforged being used only for war has always struck me as a little silly: a sapient being is so much more versatile than that. It makes more sense to put the "war" part of the name from your mind, and think of them as robots like any other robots.


Which is to say, basically, this: think of a thing that's too dangerous or too low-oxygen or gross or tedious for feeble normal fleshy people to do; somebody made a line of warforged to do that thing.

Specific ideas to play with:
- undersea exploration/work
- space exploration/work
- exploration/work on hostile planes
- mining of any sort
- sewage treatment and sewer line maintenance
- household chores
- guinea pig (specifically thinking "test pilot", however you might go about incorporating that concept into D&D)
- research ("Librarian-bot, find me all the information you can on avocados...")
- law enforcement (or traffic enforcement)
- worshipping a deity to free up the rest of the community for more useful activities (along the lines of prayer wheels, the Tibetan devices which do your praying for you)
- worshipping a deity because the deity in question is such a distasteful one that you're trying to power it up with prayer but wouldn't be able to find very many human worshippers to do it

(Side note: most of those are pretty good if I do say so myself, but holy awesome those last two are an amazing idea and I must immediately incorporate them into my campaign setting.)


On another side of the d20 altogether, for an individual adventurer rather than an entire line of them: the notion of a warforged who broke free of his creators and is now his own guy is probably Drizz't-level cliche at this point, but there are still drastic variations on that which aren't common in D&D.

I'm thinking specifically this: (re)read I, Robot and the rest of Isaac Asimov's robot oeuvre, most of which take the form of logic puzzles or detailed explorations of a concept, where the concept is almost always a variation on "Robot X is Three Laws safe in every way, except for subtle defect Y" ("It can read minds"; "it's missing the 'or through inaction' part of the First Law"; "it's put into a situation where the laws conflict in exactly the wrong way"; "it has creativity").

I mention Asimov only because he put out the highest volume of the purest distillations of this trope. You could also consider things like Data, Marvin, or Kryten; basically any fiction that has a robot. Or just pick a random robot trope. There's such a wide variety of fiction to rip off, it's hard to know where to start!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Character Sketch I'll Probably Never Get To Use

Masuulael Lamakavodael

I may be an elemental embodiment of Law and Good, and no more capable of committing an evil act than you are of juggling anvils with your face, but that's my path, not yours. My path is not for everyone to follow, and I never seek to impose it on anyone. As long as you get to your destination eventually, you're alright in my book.

You see, killing, while an objectively evil act (and thus something I am usually not personally capable of), doesn't actually hurt you mortals. You kill a Good person, they go to one of the better afterlives, which are much nicer places than this cesspit of a Material Plane you've got going here, so you've done them a favour. Conversely, you kill an Evil person, they're immediately off to burn in one of the less pleasant afterlives, which is exactly what they deserve. And, of course, Neutral folks go to the more Neutral afterlives, which are about on par with the Material Plane, so it's sort of a lateral move.

So you go on, kill whomever you want, steal and rampage across the Material Plane. The bureaucracy of the afterlife has infinite capacity to get every soul to their proper place once they move on from the Material Plane. Including yours.

Now, if you were a vampire, or a lich, or a mummy, or a brain in a jar, or an illithid, or any of the other myriad perversions you folks have invented to avoid eternal justice, then we'd have something of a problem. All the abominations that clog up the natural workings of things and really tangle up the bookkeeping. Fiends rampaging all over everything on the Material Plane tend to muck everything all up, too. Never really quite seen eye to eye with the angels, either, though their hearts are usually in the right place.

- Lantern Archon Masuulael Lamakavodael ("Mal" to his friends)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A One-Session Delve in the Open Gaming Table

Interested parties have learned that the secluded monastery of Pelor on Perch Hill has acquired copies of several* volumes from the Evil Encyclopedia of Evil. Retrieve these documents by any means necessary and bring them to the temple of Quasxthe; ask for Viblet Kewne.**
* we suspect five, though the exact number is not known
** 1,000gp per volume

I mentioned in an earlier article that I created the Evil Encyclopedia of Evil to serve as a handy evil macguffin whenever I need it. This was the first thing I used it on (and indeed, I created the EEoE for this scenario).

Because I didn't ban it, most people were making evil characters. So I figured, okay, here, have an evil bounty (moreover, an easily-accomplished evil bounty, unlike the already-established "find merfolk to feed to Sir Bigglesworth's pet elephant" and "bounty for dead metallic dragons").

I don't think it was quite a conscious decision on my part, but it did wind up being completable in only one session. Which goes slightly against some of the originally-stated intentions of the open gaming table (among other things, "squeeze as much playtime out of as little material as possible"), but it worked out okay.


So, my first task: come up with a map for the monastery. After some searching for "monastery" and "temple" and "temple of Pelor" and so on, I found the Covenant of the Hallowed Doctrine Monastery, on page 111 of Heroes of Horror, and adapted it to my use.

Monastery of Pelor battlemap
1 entryway
a cloakroom (some bright yellow cloaks)
b weapon storage for guests (empty)
2 cleansing/purification room
3 dining room
4 dish room
5 kitchen
6 changing room
7 training room
8 arsenal (a few maces, one or two of some other things)
9 communal sleeping room
10 abbot's chambers
11 chapel, sacred vessel (BoED 37) on altar
12 greenhouse
13 smokehouse
14 gardening shed
15 stables
16 guest quarters
(light blue) duck pond
T tree
S stairs down

Randomly distributed around the grounds: 6 generic mongrelfolk (i.e., monks without monk levels, who I will henceforth call cenobites, which I'm sure is the name of some obscure prestige class, but that's okay). There was also a lantern archon in the chapel because lantern archons are neat, and Abbot Waxter (a cleric) and Prior Trakis (a paladin) in various places. (When the PCs actually got there, I discovered that I couldn't effectively open more than one character in Heroforge at once without slightly more effort than I wanted to go into in the middle of a session, so Waxter happened to be elsewhere at the time, probably ministering to Endeesy or one of the villages.)

So the players decided to take on this bounty. They somehow convinced the Lawful Good monk that it was a corrupted temple (I'm sad that nobody brought up Pelor, the Burning Hate).

So off they went! When they got to the monastery, the PCs came upon a peaceful cenobite weeding the garden, and after a brief conversation, promptly bludgeoned him into unconsciousness. Then, noticing some stables, the monk went to free the horses to cause a distraction, and came upon another cenobite tending the horses. There was a scuffle, and the cover was blown.

The rest of the party barged into the monastery itself, and bluffed most of the cenobites they found into going after the monk. They came upon Prior Trakis in the training room and the lantern archon in the chapel, and these two individuals would have none of it.

After a fair amount of battle, one of the cenobites had gathered up some injured others and escaped, the lantern archon teleported away to find Abbot Waxter, and Prior Trakis had been killed and his body looted (he had keys to all the doors in the place).

Then they went downstairs!

Monastery battlemap basement
1 confiscated objects room (iron door)
2 empty crypt (the monastery was too new to have anybody to put here, though I'm sure Prior Trakis is there now)
S stairs up
c cell (iron door with small window)

In the confiscated objects room, the party discovered copies of the Book of Blight, Compendium of Corruption, Opuscule of Offensiveness, Report of Wrath, and Volume of Villainy, which they divvied up amongst the party members. They also discovered a male erinyes in antimagic shackles trapped in the furthest cell. The erinyes promised to do each of them a favour if they released him. They released him. Some of the party tried to get the erinyes's true name out of him by threatening him with holy water, and he was filled with glee and mirth and applauded this diabolical effort, but denied it with the "no wishing for more wishes" exemption. (The erinyes told them to call him Feathers, instead.) They then arranged for following the favours:
1.) never hurt any of them
2.) tell them everything he knows about the Evil Encyclopedia of Evil (which basically turned out to be everything in the item entry on the subject)
3.) never use any of the Evil Encyclopedia of Evil
4.) steal the volumes of the EEoE from Viblet Kewne once they cash in the bounty, and never tell anybody (not even the party) where he put them
5-6.) the erinyes just gave each party member a feather and told them to break it when they want to cash in the last favours
(3 and 4 might have been merged together, and Feathers owes them three, I can't quite perfectly remember, though I'm sure I wrote it down somewhere...)

Then they returned to the city and Viblet Kewne was just as slimy as they expected. The engineer dragon shaman pretended not to have one of the books so he could keep it, but they cashed in the other four for a cool 4,000gp. Then they went to a tavern, and after a bit, Feathers popped in to report that he had successfully reacquired the books.

I gently suggested that everybody should probably move one step closer to evil based on the events of the session, though it was only a suggestion rather than a command and I don't think anybody did (one evil mission might just be temporary misguidedness, plus they still wound up keeping the books out of the hands of the slimy Viblet Kewne and in the hands of an erinyes who has made a verbal contract never to use them (and devils are all about the contracts, so everything should be hunky dory so long as Feathers stays away from Helms of Opposite Alignment, though even then he'd turn Chaotic Good, so they should still be fine)).

All the same, an evil job well done!


...at least until next session, when they'll discover the following bounty added to the list:

Information sought leading to the whereabouts of a band of evil adventurers who broke into the monastery on Perch Hill, terrorized the monks, and murdered Prior Trakis, a paladin of the faith. See Abbot Waxter at the Monastery with any information.
Be on the lookout for a group consisting of:
> an orc-descended man, in possession of a horse
> an engineer man
> an Omorashi human woman
> three additional human or elf men
Be warned: these individuals are armed and extremely dangerous. They may be in league with an evil erinyes devil – this creature is very powerful and should not be engaged without proper training. They may also be in possession of copies of several volumes of the Evil Encyclopedia of Evil – if found, these books should not be read and may be returned to the Monastery for an additional reward.
Authorized by Pelor’s Archbishop of Shell, Jov Sauart

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Apparel of Severing

These plain adjustable silver loops come in a variety of sizes, appropriate for neck, wrist, upper arm, torso, ankle, upper leg, or finger.
When the loop is cinched tight around some portion of a living organism, the loop splits into two, along with whatever it's fastened around. If you cinch a bracelet of severing around your wrist, for example, your hand immediately falls off. The stumps are flat, featureless silver. Through the apparel of severing, the severed limb is still connected (through a warp in the fabric of reality) in every relevant way (veins and arteries, nerves, muscles, etc) to the body, no matter how far away the limb is taken. Spells cast on one part of the body affect the whole as if they were still attached. The wearer of the apparel of severing can still control any severed limbs as if they were still attached, though movement is limited by the form.
The apparel of severing can be removed only with application of a remove curse spell, though this does not repair the damage, it only deactivates the connection. Missing limbs must be reattached or regrown with a restore extremity power or similar (or raise dead, in the case of a severed neck). If the two halves of the apparel of severing are in close proximity to one another when remove curse is applied, they become one dormant apparel of severing. If they are separated when remove curse is applied, each half has a 50% chance of becoming a dormant apparel of severing.
A limb that has been removed with the apparel of severing and glued back on with sovereign glue functions as if it were a normal limb (and negates any spell failure chance), though the apparel still occupies a magic item slot. If two people trade limbs (by using apparel of severing to sever matching limbs and sovereign glue to attach them to each others' stumps), then both are affected by any spell which targets one of them.

Choker of Severing
Also called the choker of headlessness, this is one of the most common forms of the apparel of severing. It goes around the neck and causes the head to fall off. In addition to the usual effects of apparel of severing, a wearer of a choker of severing has a 50% chance to negate the harmful effects of a vorpal enchantment, even if his head has been secured to his neck. If your head has been severed, your body can still move at its normal move speed, provided you can see it. If you cannot, you are treated as blinded for the purpose of your body's movement.
Not all possibilities are listed here (in particular, we shall refrain from speculating on non-finger uses for the ring of severing); only those which merit additional special considerations are listed.

Bracelet of Severing
Also called a bracelet of handlessness, this item is both a blessing and a curse for mages. It imposes a 15% arcane spell failure chance, but touch spells may be delivered through the severed hand. Particularly devoted clerics have been known to give a severed hand to their allies to perform healing without getting too close to combat.

Armband of Severing
Also called an armband of armlessness, this item imposes a 30% arcane spell failure chance.

Belt of Severing
If your legs have been severed from one's torso, your legs can move at your regular move speed, provided you can see them. If you cannot, then you are treated as blinded for the purpose of your legs. You can use your arms to drag your torso about at a 5 foot move speed.

Ring of Severing
If a thumb or index finger has been severed by a ring of fingerlessness, you incur a 5% arcane spell failure chance. Severance of other fingers incurs no spell failure chance. You may deliver touch spells through a severed index finger, but no other severed fingers.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fixing Leadership and Thrallherd

The Leadership feat (and, by extension, the Thrallherd prestige class, which is effectively "Leadership but better") is commonly recognized as potentially game-breakingly powerful. The common response is to just ban them, and perhaps that's a sensible response. I've never encountered any players who wanted to go to the trouble of figuring out how Leadership works just for its own sake; the only reason most people want to take it is to abuse it. "Has minions" is certainly a fun character archetype, but D&D makes it awkward enough to make it undesirable.

But it's never fun to take away options. So what can we do to fix it?


Well, the first two questions which spring to mind: what, exactly, is the problem with Leadership (and by extension with Thrallherd)? Does Thrallherd add any extra problems on top of that?

I don't know what most people use their Followers for, but they're not likely to be of much use for anything other than setting them up in a city running a business and funneling most of their profits to you, and if you want to take a feat to get a little bit of the pittance that NPCs can earn in a lifetime, that's fine. So the followers are not a problem.

While I'm on the topic of followers, I'll answer the second question before returning to the first. The main difference between the thrallherd and the Leadership feat is that the thrallherd can abuse his believers mercilessly with no penalty, while the leader takes a penalty to his leadership score if he does so. So the thrallherd can potentially have, for example, an infinite number of human sacrifices.

Solution: if that many people are going missing, the authorities are going to start investigating. Paladins and celestials are going to start coming after you, in large enough numbers as to constitute a genuine inconvenience.


So, having dispensed with any problems inherent to followers/believers, the main problem with Leadership the cohort. Specifically, that the cohort is effectively an extra PC (a couple levels lower than the others, but who doesn't take experience away from the party).

We can fix that by obeying the rules laid out on pp. 105-106 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. Specifically, two things: first, the player can attempt to attract a cohort of a particular race, class, and alignment, with no guarantee that this attempt succeeds; second, the PC can control his cohort's actions in combat, but the DM controls all the specifics of the build. So if the PC tries to attract a gray elf batman wizard, the DM is entirely free to hand him a goblin commoner instead.


So the problem is satisfactorily solved. Done. I would, however, like to consider actual modifications to the rules, for those who aren't satisfied with the above easy solutions, or for DMs who don't want to go to the effort of building cohorts and punishing Charles Manson PCs in-character.

To wit: limit the classes. Followers and believers can only ever be NPC classes (or, far better but slightly messier, tier 6 classes). Cohorts and thralls start as NPC classes (or tier 6 classes, or maybe let them take tier 5 classes), but you can take additional feats to improve the list of classes they can take.

So, feats:


Without the following feats, cohorts and thralls are limited to Samurai (Complete Warrior), Aristocrat, Warrior, or Commoner. Followers and believers are always limited to those four classes.

Improved Cohort I
Prerequisite: Leadership and character level 8; or thrallherd level 2
Benefit: Your cohort or thrall may take levels in Fighter, Monk, Ninja, Healer, Swashbuckler, Soulknife, Samurai (Oriental Adventures) Expert, Paladin, or Knight.

Improved Cohort II
Prerequisite: Improved Cohort I; and character level 10 or thrallherd level 4
Benefit: Your cohort or thrall may take levels in Rogue, Barbarian, Warlock, Warmage, Scout, Ranger, Hexblade, Adept, or Marshal.

Improved Cohort III
Prerequisite: Improved Cohort I-II; and character level 12 or thrallherd level 6
Benefit: Your cohort or thrall may take levels in Beguiler, Dread Necromancer, Crusader, Bard, Swordsage, Duskblade, Factotum, Warblade, or Psionic Warrior.

Improved Cohort IV
Prerequisite: Improved Cohort I-III; and character level 14 or thrallherd level 8
Benefit: Your cohort or thrall may take levels in Sorcerer, Favored Soul, or Psion.

Improved Cohort V
Prerequisite: Improved Cohort I-IV; and character level 16 or thrallherd level 10
Benefit: Your cohort or thrall may take levels in Wizard, Cleric, Druid, Archivist, or Artificer.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Pumpkin Smash

So I'm playing a little bit of Ogre Battle again, and it occurs to me: there's Pumpkinhead creature in most Ogre Battle games, and this creature's attack is unique among the game's creatures: it always reduces its target to half its former hit points (unless the target is already a.) at 1 hp, in which case it either kills him or has no effect (I'm not sure which and/or depending on the game); or b.) undead, in those games where undead have no hit point score, in which case the pumpkin smash is one of three ways to kill it (the other two being clerics healing it and hitting it with holy weapons)).

And so it occurs to me, what if we incorporated this mechanic into D&D? My first inclination was to create it as a spell, but the downside to that is the players might get access to it. The other option is to give it to some creature as a special ability, in which case the DM (in this case, me) has more control over when the power gets used, and moreover can tweak it on the fly. On the other hand, I'm more likely to get feedback on it if it's a spell, and feedback is the lifeblood of this little test kitchen.

I'm sure somewhere in one of the bazillions of splatbooks, somebody has made a "target loses half its current hit points" spell. But I can't find it with a cursory inspection, so let's make one of our own.


I think it'll be a Megiddo Mehida spell, because that's most of why I introduced Megiddo Mehida into canon, so I'd have somebody whose name I could stick to the beginning of new spells, because the "[Person]'s [Adjective] [Noun]" naming convention appeals to me, it feels old school. So Megiddo's... what? Pumpkin Ray? Smashing Pumpkin? Actually, I kind of like that. Megiddo's Smashing Pumpkin.


My next thought: it definitely should allow a save, I think to negate ("you lose a quarter of your hit points instead of half your hit points" is a little weird), unless I also make it a ranged touch attack, in which case the save should halve the damage, because otherwise there are just too many points of potential complete failure (spell resistance (which it should definitely allow, because it's a magical effect applied to your target, not an object conjured up and thrown at your target); touch AC; save) for it to be worth casting.

But what kind of save? Do we want it to be a mist or a projectile or a mind-affecting spell or what? Let's try to figure out what the least-commonly-targeted save is, and target that one. I pulled up SpellForge and sorted the list of spells by save. Any given result may well be off by an order of magnitude, but I only want an estimate. The estimate is that 177 spells and powers allow reflex saves, 391 spells and powers allow fortitude saves, and 786 spells and powers allow will saves. BUT, all breaths and most traps allow reflex saves, and all poisons and diseases allow fortitude saves. So that's not conclusive. Let's preliminarily say "not a will save".

Since I think I do want to make it a ranged touch attack (to allow more points of potential failure, because "you lose half your hit points", while not half as bad as "you die" (you lose half your hit points, you're still in the fight and can easily be healed; you die, you're out of the fight and it's more expensive to heal you), is still pretty bad (though, again, I don't want to add so many points of potential failure that nobody ever uses the spell, though a homebrew spell that is too weak is more desirable than a homebrew spell that is too strong)), which already incorporates the possibility of dodging out of the way (and because Mettle is much rarer than Evasion), let's make it a Fortitude save.


Let's call it a Necromancy spell, because in my mind it fits, especially if you've played enough Ogre Battle to be familiar with Deneb, creator of the Pumpkinheads.


It's obviously a Sorcerer/Wizard spell. Megiddo Mehida was a wizard/archivist/mystic theurge, so I'm briefly tempted to add it to the Cleric list, too, but clerics shouldn't get too many blasting spells. I'm tempted to add it to a domain, but archivists don't get domains (even if they can acquire the ability to cast domain spells with a permissive DM). What other class spell lists might it fit?

The assassin's list is entirely things to aid in sneaking up on and ganking people.
Blackguards don't get many blasting spells, but they do get a number of "be a dick" spells, of which this qualifies, so that's possible. I can certainly see Megiddo being amused at fallen paladins casting his spell.
Druids get mostly support spells, but I can definitely see a druid bludgeoning something with a magic pumpkin, so that's possible.
It certainly fits the hexblade's spell list, plus they need as much love as they can get, so onto their list it goes.
The duskblade's thing is "I'm in mêlée, hitting you with a stick and also hey look spells". I'm always a little taken aback that they get ranged attacks, too. But their spell list has no real coherent theme to it at all. Sure, they can have it, why not.
I can never quite divine what the shugenja's fluff is supposed to be, so better safe than sorry and leave it off their list. Same with wu jen and spirit shaman.
Warlocks get invocations instead of spells, and there doesn't seem to be much overlap, so that's a no.
Warmages get blasting spells and only blasting spells, but no spells quite so subtle as this (compared to half a hundred variations on "you do xdy damage on a ranged touch attack" and "target dies or nothing happens", yes "the target loses half his hit points" is subtle), so I think that's a no, even though warmages kind of need a little love (a sorcerer can be a better warmage than a warmage can, even though the warmage does get Edge).

Ehh, ok, let's call it Blackguard, Druid, Duskblade, Hexblade, Sor/Wiz.

Now, what level spell shall it be? Power word kill is level 9, but it doesn't allow a save or require a touch attack (though it doesn't affect creatures with more than 101hp). Megiddo's smashing pumpkin is much weaker than that.

The 4th level spell Phantasmal Killer is a much better comparison. It instantly kills the subject. It allows two saves: a will save which cancels all effects, and a fortitude save which reduces the effect to 3d6 damage. It's also [mind-affecting], so it doesn't affect half the creatures you might expect to encounter (most undead, oozes, vermin, many plants, et cetera). Two saves (of which one negates, one reduces damage to 3d6) is comparable to a ranged touch attack and a save (of which one negates, one reduces damage to half). The [mind-affecting] tag is worth a spell level or two, if it could affect every foe it would be a level or two higher. But death is, as established above, more than twice as much of an inconvenience as losing half your hit points, so that's a couple spell levels weaker. So let's call Megiddo's smashing pumpkin oh, say, level 4.

One situation in which Megiddo's smashing pumpkin is actually clearly better than Phantasmal Killer is against creatures which are immune to death effects. But these are relatively rare, and mostly very high level, and if you're high enough level to face something immune to death effects then you've got better options than Save-or-Dies anyway.

Yes, the poor Tarrasque is a joke (lollercoaster @ Toughness 6 times), but he's the archetypical CR20 monster. So: you cast this on him, you need to defeat his SR32 and his fortitude save of +38 (his touch AC of 5 is a joke). If you do, you do 429 damage. That seems preposterously powerful for a 3rd level spell, but Phantasmal Killer would do the same thing at the one level higher but better than twice as well.

Now consider a lizard. Defeat its touch AC of 14 and its fortitude save of +2, you do 1 damage. That's a joke, even for a 3th level spell. But then, if you're casting Megiddo's smashing pumpkin on a 2hp creature, you deserve to be pointed and laughed at.

So 3rd level is fine.

It doesn't quite perfectly fit the druid's concept, so let's make it a level higher for them. Blackguards and hexblades can't cast spells higher than level 4, and those only very late in their careers, so I'm almost inclined to bump it down to 2 for them, or at least for the hexblade. But is it a little too good for a 2nd level spell? Better safe than sorry, even with the hexblade.

So: Blackguard 3, Druid 4, Duskblade 3, Hexblade 3, Sorcerer/Wizard 3.

--- Let's throw it all together

Megiddo's Smashing Pumpkin
Level: Blackguard 3, Druid 4, Duskblade 3, Hexblade 3, Sorcerer/Wizard 3
Components: M, S, V
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Close
Target: One creature
Duration: Instantaneous
Saving Throw: Fortitude half
Spell Resistance: Yes

A moldy, rotten pumpkin flies from your hands and beats your opponent about the head and shoulders before crumbling into nothing.
Make a ranged touch attack. If it hits, the target takes force damage equal to half his hit points before the spell's effect, rounded down (put another way: his hit points are effectively reduced to half their previous total, rounded up). A successful fortitude saving throw halves this damage (leaving him with 3/4 of his previous hit point total).
Like any attack, this spell deals a minimum of 1 damage. If the target had 2 or fewer hit points, his hit point total is instead reduced by 1.
Material Component: A single pumpkin seed.


Now that we've got that done, we could create a pumpkinman monster, for even closer adherence to Ogre Battle. There are two possibilities: the easy possibility and the hard possibility.

The easy possibility is this:
Take the standard skeleton template.
Replace its head with a pumpkin.
It can cast Megiddo's smashing pumpkin as an at-will spell-like ability (save DC wisdom-based).
CR increases by +1.
It retains the undead type, but it is susceptible to spells and special abilities that target or affect plants.
You can use animate dead to create a pumpkinman of this sort by adding a fresh pumpkin as an extra material component.

The hard possibility is this: create a custom monster. This was my original plan, and I even found a CR calculator to aid the process, but then I realized I'm quite content with the easy version and I don't know that I could improve upon it.


EDIT: I have found a spell in the Spell Compendium: Avasculate. Ranged touch attack, subject is reduced to half its current hit points (rounded down) and stunned for 1 round. Fortitude negates the stun. This is a level 7 spell. That, um, is kind of crap compared to the 4th level Phantasmal Killer. I maintain my original judgement of the proper level of this spell.