Thursday, June 14, 2012

On Details and Dreams

I am of the opinion that a key -- possibly the key -- to good storytelling is knowing which details to include and which to omit.

One of the many recurring problems revealed by the analysis of Twilight by Reasoning With Vampires is that Stephenie Meyer doesn't know what details are relevant and what details are not. Many pages become slogs through a endless mundanities.

Similarly: why do you hate when people tell you about their dreams? Don't lie, everybody hates when people tell them about their dreams. I posit that you hate it because of the endless stream of irrelevant, time-wasting details.

Here's the thing about dreams: They don't (generally) have (coherent) plots. That makes it extremely difficult to judge what details are relevant and what details are not, so people just default to sharing every detail, which is obnoxious and nobody cares. "...and Lorne from Angel was there, except I kept calling him 'The Host' like it said in the credits, instead of 'Lorne' like he was always referred to, and also I think I briefly was Lorne, but then he got killed..."


Here's how to tell people about your dreams and have a remote chance of your victim not wanting to set you on fire: decide in advance what the point of your story is, then omit every detail that is not relevant to this point. If you can come up with no point, then limit your story to one or two sentences, at most. Actually, limit your story to one or two sentences even if it does have a point.

Example: I recently had a dream which combined several unrelated canons into one dream. My description of this dream was simply a list of the relevant participants and the canons from which they derived. End of story. Probably nobody cared anyway, but at least I didn't waste more than a couple sentences worth of anybody's time.

Another example: I had a dream which had the potential to provide the core of a brief joke, or thing that had the structure of a joke, in a "the secret to humor is surprise" sort of way. That joke structure was the point. (Though it wasn't necessarily actually a very good joke.) To wit:

"Dreamed that I dressed up in stormtrooper armor to inspire people to fight fascism. Everybody ran away when a cop started shooting rubber bullets into the crowd. The rubber bullets didn't hurt me, because a.) I was wearing stormtrooper armor and b.) they were actually marshmallows."

I left out (well, until people started saying "your dreams are weird", at which point the narrative shifted to "that's weird" and I provided additional details to support the "that's weird" conclusion) such details as: some friends of mine building Batman's computer, except we were calling it AIVAS; the fascism was apparently us not being permitted to fly a flag; and that I was hiding behind some innocent civilian until I realized the marshmallows weren't hurting me, at which point I went to punch the cop, which woke me up when I punched the wall.

Or, when I mention that my dreams are usually action-movie dreams: I once dreamed I was a cyborg fighting ninjas on a subway train. End of story.

Or, when the point is that I've been watching a lot of movies: occasionally my dreams will cut away from my POV altogether and show me things I'm not present for, like you might see in a movie. (Shining example: Once, while I was rescuing a princess, my dream cut away to show Darth Vader sending bounty hunters after me, then it cut back to me and bounty hunters were suddenly after me.)

These are not good dream stories, exactly, because there's no such thing as a good dream story. But, by virtue of each being short and omitting irrelevant details, I posit that they are as close to not bad as dream stories can get.


How is this relevant to D&D?

Well: When describing a scene as DM, try to omit details that are irrelevant. The lamp doesn't matter unless it's relevant to the mood (being e.g. too dim or too bright) or relevant to combat (e.g. leaving areas of darkness or shadowy illumination in portions of the room) or expensive (in which case the players will want to steal it). The inn's menu isn't relevant unless you want to emphasize the nature of the inn (maybe it's super-fancy, in which case mention foie gras and caviar (which are not necessarily historically luxury foods, but what usually matters is the reaction of the players, not historical accuracy), or maybe it's particularly rustic, in which case the menu consists entirely of the single word "grits").

That said: never ever hesitate to mention details that aren't sight. Mention how a thing smells or feels or tastes or sounds. Most DMs omit these things so often that just using them at all can serve to improve player immersion.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

On Qualifying

So I've been thinking about the Southern Magician and Precocious Apprentice feats.

Southern Magician is a regional feat from Races of Faerun. I allow people to ignore the region prerequisites of regional feats, though I might say that I wouldn't allow a character to take multiple regional feats with conflicting region prerequisites, on the assumption that many regional feats are probably balanced around a character being from only one region.

The relevant text of the feat is this: "Once per day per two spellcaster levels, you can cast a divine spell as an arcane spell, or vice versa."

"Psh," you might say, "That's a useless, crappy feat." And yes, yes it is.

Except for the mystic theurge's prerequisite: "Able to cast 2nd-level divine spells and 2nd-level arcane spells."

With Southern Magician, you can drastically reduce the level at which you qualify for Mystic Theurge. It still requires 6 ranks in two knowledge skills, so you'll never be able to reduce it below 4 (without Inspire Courage + Psychic Reformation shenanigans), but that's still better than the level 7 which would otherwise be the minimum.

Consider also Precocious Apprentice, from Complete Arcane. The relevant text: "Choose one 2nd-level spell from a school of magic you have access to. You gain an extra 2nd-level spell slot that must be used initially to cast only the chosen spell."

Precocious Apprentice allows you to cast a 2nd-level spell at 1st level. Southern Magician allows you to cast any divine spell as arcane and any arcane spell as divine. With these two feats, you meet the "Able to cast 2nd-level divine spells and 2nd-level arcane spells" requirement at level 1.

You'd obviously want to take a level in a second spellcasting class so you can actually derive some benefit from Mystic Theurge, and then you could Inspire Courage + Psychic Reformation your way into meeting the skill requirements, and take your first level of Mystic Theurge at 3, losing only 1 caster level in each of your casting classes.

This is all well-known trickery in optimizing circles.


Here's the important question: how much of this should a DM allow?

Mystic Theurge is one of those classes that a novice will look at and say "holy amazeballs, that's a ludicrously overpowered class!", and a more experienced player will look at and issue a resounding "meh". (Unless you involve Ur-Priest or Sublime Chord, in which case an experienced player will perk right up again.)

The problem is that, if you enter it as intended, even with wizard 3/archivist 3, the most efficient combination that even remotely resembles the intent of the designers, you're still 3 levels behind on both sides. You're breaking the First Rule of Practical Optimization: Thou Shalt Not Lose Caster Levels. Sure, you go to bed with more spells than a one-class caster starts the day with, but you'll be 1-2 spell levels behind for the rest of your career. Most optimizers agree the tradeoff is far from worth it, especially if your DM permits the 15-minute adventuring day (which he shouldn't).

If, on the other hand, you enter Mystic Theurge at level 3 (as a wizard/archivist), then you're only ever 1 caster level behind. Your spell level is on par with a sorcerer's, but you have more spells and the greater day-to-day flexibility of a prepared caster. That really is absurdly powerful.

Entry with Sorcerer 1/Favored Soul 1 is probably still tier 2, albeit extremely high tier 2; they get twice as many spells known and spells/day, but even that wouldn't bring their day-to-day flexibility up to the level of a prepared caster.


So, given that Sorcerer 1/Favored Soul 1/Mystic Theurge builds are probably at best on par with straight tier 1, it's a little incoherent to ban it without also banning all of tier 1.

But a Wizard 1/Archivist 1/Mystic Theurge build is approximately what you might call god tier, so not banning it would be insanity.

The obvious solution: make Southern Magician and Precocious Apprentice spontaneous-only. And, because casters really don't need nice things, let's make them mutually exclusive, just in case I'm wrong about the tier of Sorcerer 1/Favored Soul 1/Mystic Theurge, and thereby make it at least 4 of one, 1 of the other. Which is still 1 level earlier than prepared casters can enter; maybe this will make prepared casters not quite so much the obvious choice.


Precocious Apprentice
As in Complete Arcane, except:
Special: You can take this feat only as a 1st-level character.
You cannot take this feat if you have any ability to cast prepared spells. If you gain the ability to cast prepared spells, you lose the benefit of this feat.
You cannot take this feat if you have the Southern Magician feat.

Southern Magician
As in Races of Faerun, except:
Special: You cannot take this feat if you have any ability to cast prepared spells. If you gain the ability to cast prepared spells, you lose the benefit of this feat.
You cannot take this feat if you have the Precocious Apprentice feat.

Friday, June 8, 2012

On Grudges

Normally, my advice is geared more towards DMs than towards players. But today, I'm going to give players some advice, and DMs some corollary advice. I wish these things had occurred to me sooner, sitting on both sides of the table. The advice is this:

Players: Ask your DM, before the game starts, "Who should my character have a grudge against?"

--- Corollary:

DMs: Before the game starts, gently suggest to your players (but do not for a second consider forcing them) that they might consider including, in their backstory, some reason for a grudge against a certain group or organization.

Grudges are a truly excellent PC motivator.

I had a player whose PC had a grudge against Vecna, which was really handy when I had to include a cult for the PCs to massacre and determined that the cult would be a cult of Vecna.

I have a player whose PC has a grudge against slavers. So, suddenly, Nalf's Slave Market existed in Endeesy.

If your characters, before the game starts, have a grudge against whatever the primary foe of the campaign is, you don't need to put any effort at all into convincing them to do anything. They'll be the locomotive power in following your rails.

(Convincing the players to do things is a constant problem. Bribing them with cash gets old, and they never want to do heroics for the sake of heroics. One of many reasons why Chaotic Neutral is the most terrible alignment in the history of ever.)


On the other side of the table: I've noticed that, nine times out of ten, players will include a grudge against _somebody_ in their backstory. The aforementioned examples of Vecna and slavers. I've only done it a handful of times myself, but one of the anecdotes is telling by virtue of its abject failure.

Vand Alykko was the son of two adventurers. When he was young, a band of Githyanki massacred his family and grabbed a Githyanki Silver Sword that had been taken from them years previously. From that moment on, Vand had three overriding goals: exterminate all the Gith (-yanki and -zerai, because screw all of them by association); see to it that a Githyanki Silver Sword is standard gear assigned to every beginning adventuring party; kill the Lich-Queen and use her skull as a soup bowl.

Adequate motivation for an evil character, yes? At least more subtle than the usual "greed", yes?

Vand never encountered a single Githyanki. The DM threw some kind of telepathic demon dude at the party and whenever a PC showed the slightest sign of deviating from the rails, the PC took damage. The foes were mostly priests.

Setting aside all but one of the many problems with that campaign: it would have worked much better had the foes of the campaign lined up at all with the foes of the characters, if the DM had bent the plot to the characters' backgrounds, or if the players had been able to bend their backgrounds to the plot.

So, if you're a player, ask your DM who your character should have a grudge against.

If you're a DM, suggest to your players that they might consider giving their characters a grudge against whatever group turns out to be the main foe of the campaign. Or, if you want to introduce a touch of hilarity, suggest to them that they have a grudge against whoever turns out to be a major ally. Or against fellow PCs -- I was in a party once where half the characters were racist against at least one other party member.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Identifying Potions

Alright, so there's actually more ways to identify a potion than there are to identify other things. A simple DC25 spellcraft check will let you identify a potion, no problem.

But something that I think the DMG may even mention (or possibly DMG2, it seems like the kind of thing that would be in DMG2): it lends verisimilitude and consistency to the world if you always describe the same sort of potion the same way.

So, in the same sheet as my list of items, I've begun to create a master list of potions. Every time anybody finds a potion that isn't already on the list, I'll add it to the list, and henceforth describe all of the same kind of potion the same way. From now on, potions of cure light wounds will always be "shimmering puce".

This gives an additional way to quickly identify potions: if you've seen a potion of glibness before and it was a transparent white potion, and you encounter another transparent white potion, it's a safe bet that's another potion of glibness. There are only 900 possible combinations, so the slightly hilarious situation might arise where two potions appear identical (like what happened when Sky the drow cleric labeled several flasks of acid "healing potion"), but that's likely to be pretty rare.

To this end, I created a master random potion chart (cribbing in part from the possible potion descriptions available in Angband), which one can consult whenever a new potion needs to be described. You'll need to roll two d30s (or one d30 twice):

Dice Color Quality
1 azure bright
2 black bubbling
3 blue clotted
4 brown cloudy
5 chartreuse coagulated
6 clear dark
7 copper effervescing
8 crimson fizzing
9 cyan gloopy
10 gold glowing
11 gray hazy
12 green icky
13 indigo intense
14 infrared marbled
15 magenta metallic
16 maroon milky
17 navy blue misty
18 orange oily
19 pink pale
20 puce pastel
21 puke green pearlescent
22 puke yellow pungent
23 red sedimentated
24 silver shimmering
25 tangerine sickly
26 teal smoking
27 ultraviolet speckled
28 violet translucent
29 white transparent
30 yellow viscous

(Any potion described as "coagulated", "clotted", or "sedimentated" should be shaken well before use. Any potion described as "bubbling", "fizzing", or "effervescing" should never be shaken, lest it explode.)

If you want to really push the number of possible combinations up there, you can first roll 1d4: 1 = roll color once, quality once; 2 = roll color twice, quality once; 3 = roll color once, quality twice; 4 = roll color twice, quality twice. This allows for things like a cloudy, marbled, silver-and-maroon potion. Perhaps if there are two colors, that might mean they're separated like salad dressing and you should shake well before using. Or if there are two colors and it's bubbling, maybe the bubbles are the second color. There's a lot of room for improvisation.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The "Race" Problem

So there's a language problem. The other day, I described this problem as "one of the oldest conundra of the fantasy genre". Which is, of course, hyperbole; the fantasy genre is older than any of the words involved, let alone the science involved.

The problem is this: in fantasy, we need a word for various groupings of individuals, e.g., elves, humans, orcs, dwarves, halflings, etc. "Race" is the usual one, though "species" sometimes gets used. But both have meanings in English, and neither meaning lines up very well with their usage in works of fantasy.


Once upon a time, not really very long ago at all, "race" meant the same thing in fantasy as it does in modern English, but the meanings have diverged.

Nowadays in English, "race" means something like "ethnicity" or "skin color". We've got the "black race" and the "white race" and so on, and the various races are almost entirely indistinguishable, genetically. Even phenotypically, most human races are hard to tell apart, and individuals from one race are usually within the expected range of variation for every other race.

An orc and an elf are much more dissimilar than a dark-skinned human and a light-skinned human, so "race" has become an inappropriate term for this distinction.

Moreover, we might want to keep "race" in case we want to distinguish between fantasy ethnicities -- e.g., Men of Gondor, Men of Rohan, the various Men of the East and South under Sauron's dominion. Or, for that matter: Orcs of Mordor, Orcs of Isengard, and Orcs of Moria. Or Mirkwood Elves and Lothlorien Elves. And so on. Tolkien's actually pretty good about ethnicities/subraces/whatever.

Or take my setting's distinction between Shell humans, Omorashi humans, and Romus humans. (Side note: I was horrified the other day when I realized that I had neglected to include dark-skinned humans in my campaign setting. Then I realized that no, many or most Omorashi humans have dark skin -- the one way in which the Omorashi Empire deviates from a bog-standard wutai.)

Though, really, "ethnicity" does just fine for this usage, and I'd be completely okay with discarding the word "race" from the language -- both mundane and fantastical English -- altogether.


"Species" is sometimes used as a backup, but it has an even more specific meaning than "race" does. Two individuals are members of the same species if they can breed and produce fertile offspring. The "half-dragon" template alone means that all living, corporeal creatures are the same species as True Dragons. Dragons and gelatinous cubes are the same species! This is of course a.) preposterous and b.) not useful.

Actually, there's another, slightly more technical meaning of "species". Basically, reckon how much DNA two individuals need to have in common in order to produce viable offspring. A species is any group that has that much DNA in common. This almost could work, if you use the percentage from our world (it's a very high percentage), but you then stipulate that D&D genetics works very differently and can produce viable offspring with a much lower percentage of DNA in common. So dragons and gelatinous cubes are different species but can interbreed.

But this hurts my head by how badly it misunderstands basic biology. Not least because D&D biology pretty clearly, if not quite explicitly, doesn't run on DNA at all. (See: Living Spells, elementals, and most or all Outsiders (created, not biologically, but from the very stuff of their native planes).) There's no way for DNA to do half the things that happen with genetics in D&D. Better to leave it out and say a wizard did it. And if we're leaving out Earth biology, we should leave out the jargon of Earth biology.


So what's left? There are lots of options, many of which have been used. But I'm partial to one that dates back roughly to the time period D&D attempts to emulate but which hasn't since acquired a technical meaning -- or, really, any meaning at all (which comes up when creationists try to use the word without realizing how meaningless it really is). The word is "kind".

Elves and humans are different kinds. Omorashi humans and Romus humans are the same kind. Mordor orcs and Isengard orcs are the same kind.

If you want to get really technical, you could also throw in superkinds and subkinds. Orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins are different kinds, but the same superkind. Arctic orcs and aquatic orcs are the same kind but different subkinds. Humans, elves, halflings, dwarves, and gnomes are the same superkind but different kinds. And so on.


We can even set up a fairly complete D&D taxonomy!

Kingdom: distinction between creatures and objects. A creature is anything with a wisdom and charisma score (other ability scores optional). An object is anything without a wisdom and charisma score.

Subkingdom: You can further differentiate between living and non-living objects, allowing you to be old-fashioned and make the distinction Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral. Normal, mundane plants and trees, as well as slimes, molds, and fungi, are living objects. Rocks and things are non-living objects. (Fun fact: disintegrate has no effect on living objects, only creatures and non-living objects.) You can also distinguish nonliving creatures (constructs, undead, deathless) and living creatures (all other creatures).

Supertype: One wants to put things like "canines" and "felines" in, but there are e.g. feliform Animals (cats, lions), Humanoids (catfolk, gnolls), Magical Beasts (displacer beasts, sea cats), Outsiders (rakshasas, hellcats), etc. So this is an example of a supertype. Since "Humanoid" is taken for a type, perhaps we shall use "anthropoid" as a Supertype to describe anything with two arms, two legs, a head, and a torso.

Type: Aberration, Animal, Construct, Dragon, Elemental, Fey, Giant, Humanoid, Magical Beast, Monstrous Humanoid, Ooze, Outsider, Plant, Undead, or Vermin. (Only creatures have Types.)

Superkind: Among Humanoids: reptilians, goblinoids, near-humans, gith-s, etc. Among Outsiders: demons, devils, archons, guardinals, etc. Among Elementals: fire, water, air, earth, etc. Among Constructs: golems, living constructs, etc. Among aberrations: Illithidae, beholderkin, etc.

Subtype: Some subtypes actually indicate kind (e.g. [human], [elf]). Some indicate superkind (e.g. [reptilian], [goblinoid].) Some are merely descriptive and can be possessed by any or many Types (e.g. [aquatic], [extraplanar], often the alignment and elemental subtypes). Some indicate relationship to some other Type (e.g. [dragonblood], [augmented]). Subtype, while useful, pertains to too many levels of the taxonomy to really be included. BUT, I want to include Tanar'ri, Obyrith, Baatezu, etc, and there's not really anywhere else to put them. So let's put them, probably bafflingly, below superkind.

Kind: Among near-humans: humans, elves, dwarves, etc. Among animals: horses, dogs, etc. Among tanar'ri: succubus, balor, etc.

Subkind: Arctic elves, fire elves, aquatic elves, etc. Ponies, war ponies, horses, war horses, etc. Dogs, riding dogs, etc.

This is incredibly messy, not even very useful, and unlike biological taxonomies (where there is a single correct taxonomy that can be derived from sufficient information), it's mostly a matter of opinion. It was just an exercise.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Unidentified Items

So D&D gives an elaborate set of procedures for identifying items -- detect magic plus a Spellcraft check, examine it for helpful clues, an epic Appraise check plus a Spellcraft check, an epic spellcraft check, casting Identify, or (inevitably the most common course of action) bringing it to the Mage's Guild to ask divination specialist apprentice wizard Beth to cast identify for 110gp. (But even these methods are unlikely to identify any cursey properties of an item, which generally come out in the normal course of play.)

But it doesn't give a lot of advice for dealing with unidentified items. I hit upon a technique that has worked pretty well for me. It involves a separate sheet in my Excel Document of Doom.

Basically, whenever players acquire a magic or otherwise special item (or occasionally a completely mundane item, just to throw off metagamers), I describe it, and then I give it a number, and I tell the players that, whenever they use the item or mention it to me, also mention the number, so I know which one it is.

The Excel sheet has four columns: the number; a description and all the properties of the item; a list of all the properties the characters have identified so far; and whoever currently possesses the item.

"I hit him with the big sword I found in that pile of dung. Item #6."
"Do you now? Excellent. As you fly into an uncontrollable rage, you discover that it wasn't just a +2 greatsword after all."

It works pretty well.

Items aren't removed from the list unless they're lost or broken or sold to an NPC. (Given to an NPC means it goes into the NPC's treasure. Sold means it goes into the master list of things that might eventually get rotated back into the world.)