Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Book of Perfectly Acceptable Latin

Much of the online D&D community refers to Libris Mortis as "The Book of Bad Latin". This is because they are not in the intersection between the set of people who know Latin and the set of people who have read the introduction to Libris Mortis -- an intersection that seems to consist solely of me.

The community assumes that the title is supposed to translate to "The Book of the Dead" -- a not entirely unreasonable assumption. If this were the intended title, then it's true, it should be Liber Mortis, not Libris Mortis. Nominative.

But it just isn't so. Open your copy of Libris Mortis to Page 4, the very first page with actual content. Look at the bottomof the page, where it says "This book takes its name from a set of tomes penned in a dialect of Celestial [...] Roughly translated, it means 'From the Books of Dead'". This is interesting for two reasons: 1.) the title isn't in Latin, it's in (possibly bastardized) Celestial -- which is to say, Celestial is Latin, which I've taken as canon for my games -- and 2.) it's intended to mean "From the Books of the Dead", not "The Book of the Dead".

Now, if I were to try to translate "from the books of the dead", I'd say something like "ex libris mortis". But the ablative form "libris" already implies "from", so the preposition "ex" isn't, strictly speaking, necessary. Of course, "mortis" is singular genitive of "mors", so it means something more like "of the corpse" or "of death", but that's still pretty close.

So the title Libris Mortis means just about exactly what it's intended to mean. It's the Book of Perfectly Acceptable Latin. It's the Book Of At Worst Slightly Idiosyncratic Latin. Now you can look down your nose and feel more educated than anybody who utters the phrase "Book of Bad Latin".

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why Peacock Has Cyclops's Eyes

In the olden days, cyclopes, favored by (and probably descended from) the Burning Hate, had half a hundred eyes each, all over their heads. Peacocks, favored by Sequoia, had only the regular two.

But once upon a time, there was a huge battle between priests loyal to the god Numiel, defending a town under their protection, against a huge band of marauding cyclopes.

Things looked grim for the defenders; the cyclopes came close to victory.

But then a flock of passing peacocks, who had a preëxisting grudge against the cyclopes (who were in the habit of raiding nests, not for food, but to smash the eggs out of pure malice), joined in, and turned the tide of battle.

The defenders defeated and drove off the cyclopes, and the town was saved.

As penalty for their wicked ways, Numiel struck all but one eye from each cyclops. As a reward for their assistance, he bestowed all the eyes upon the peacocks, instead.

This is why cyclopes only have one eye, why peacocks have many extra eyes on their tails, and why peacocks are among the creatures sacred to Numiel.


What prompted this revelation? Well, it all has to do with the Reaper Bones kickstarter. (I was one of the silly few who didn't spend the whole $100, because I knew I wouldn't have the patience or sticktoitiveness to paint all hundred gazillion minis. Instead, I spent somewhat less, for a much worse value. Oh well!)

In particular, it has to do with this guy. (No human being can paint that intricately. Their examples are obviously painted by unseelie creatures of fey.) I took one look at him, and decided he's a paladin. And, of course, in my world, paladin means Numiel. (Even though Sequoia, Urmaggr, and Dalya are also compatible with paladinhood.)

But what's that on the back? A peacock? ...obviously, since this is a paladin of Numiel, peacocks must be sacred to Numiel. Done. But why? And so a little story struck me. So here you go.

And the moral of the story is: no matter how little and silly and nonsensical an idea might seem, add it to your campaign setting as soon as it strikes you. Campaign settings often seem generic and boring and soulless, and seemingly incongruous little details like this are a good way to combat that tendency.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Infamous Dr. Blelyj

Image Credit: Lee Colagiacomo
I've recently been having a fair bit of fun in Pathfinder playing one Dr. Blelyj, a tiefling witch who behaves in an emphatically Good way (usually Lawful, but with enough Chaotic moments that his sheet says just Good), but who is absolutely convinced that he's actually Evil. He calls the rest of the party his "minions", and he gets offended whenever anybody says detect spells say he's not Evil. Also, he laughs maniacally all the time (The fact that they made maniacal laughter a class feature is perhaps the biggest reason I decided I'm okay with Pathfinder). He justifies everything he does on Evil grounds.

Donating to the orphanage is "investing in potential future minions". He helps defeat the goblins who are harassing the townsfolk because nobody gets to harass the townsfolk but him, plus the townsfolk exist to serve him. He declares surrendered foes his "minions" and just lets them go (it helps that the only foes to surrender so far have, with maybe one exception, been the most hapless of mooks).

He always coöperates with the rest of the party as much as possible, often giving up his share of the loot (usually when it involves coppers or silvers, so he doesn't have to carry it) and using most of his wealth to craft potions and wands for the party's use, on the grounds that such trivial matters as wealth are beneath him and that making his "minions" more effective is a more efficient use of his resources.

Killing, too, is beneath Dr. Blelyj: he's never defeated an enemy himself, has only cast maybe two damaging spells in his life, doesn't even carry a weapon, and he usually only debuffs the foes and buffs his "minions".

If there's anything morally questionable -- or just funny -- that I can't think of a specific eeeeeevil reason why he would oppose, I fall back on the catchphrase, "_____ is beneath me." A not remotely exhaustive list of a few other things that Dr. Blelyj has declared to be beneath him: jaywalking, theft, racism (though he did announce himself to be "racist against cops"), alcohol, prostitutes (but not in the literal sense), piracy, and deities.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mechanatrixes and Electricity

So, there's the mechanatrix race from Fiend Folio. They're kind of neat, because they're descended from robots constructs.

And also they're described as follows: "They behave with cold rationality and have a no-nonsense attitude toward life." Which is to say, they're wombats.

But the most noteworthy thing about them, from a mechanical perspective, is how electricity damage heals them. Every time a mechanatrix would take electricity damage, they take no damage, and it heals them instead, 1 point of healing for every 3 points of damage they would have taken.

So how do you get at-will electricity damage? Should be easier than at-will healing, right? Right! But, as it turns out, not much easier.


The obvious notion is to consult reserve feats, those feats from Complete Mage and Complete Champion that give you supernatural abilities as long as you have a spell of a certain level prepared. And, indeed, there is an electricity damage reserve feat: Storm Bolt (CM).

But wait! Storm Bolt gives you a 20-foot line of electricity. Can you include yourself in a line effect? Let's consult the SRD: "A line-shaped spell shoots away from you in a line in the direction you designate. It starts from any corner of your square and extends to the limit of its range or until it strikes a barrier that blocks line of effect."

So, by RAW, no, not really. It starts in any corner of your square, and shoots away from you. Our mechanatrix could get a mage buddy with Storm Bolt, but he couldn't Storm Bolt himself.

The same problem applies to if you're, say, a Dragonfire Adept or Dragon Shaman with lightning breath (plus you're generally explicitly immune to your own breath weapon).


Or, the allegation goes, you could use a persisted or or permanency'd thunderhead (SpC) spell. A little cloud that floats above your head all day, zapping you with tiny lightning bolts for one electricity damage every round, forever.

Except the mechanatrix isn't healed for 1 point every time they accumulate 3 points of electricity damage they would have taken. Every time they take electricity damage, it's divided by 3, they're healed for that much, and the remainder doesn't matter. 1/3 rounds down to 0 -- it's healing, not damage, so the "all attacks deal at least 1 damage" exception to the "always round down" rule doesn't apply. Thunderhead does nothing.

You could persist or permanency a weapon of energy spell, but then wind up with a bunch of your build or a butt-ton of gold invested in metamagic reducers or a single spell, which is hardly worth it for something so trivial as infinite out-of-combat heals.


You could shell out 8,301gp for a +1 Shock Whip. As long as you're wearing a bit of armor, you can whip yourself all day and only the electricity damage will go through. Expensive, weird, and a little kinky. ...I shall expend no more words on this notion.


You could take a level of electrokineticist. Kind of a lackluster class. It requires a powerpoint reserve but doesn't advance manifesting, so it's a trap for actual manifesters, and you should just use Wild Talent to qualify. But the class features aren't even great for a non-manifester.

Plus, most of the x-kineticist's class abilities specify things like "she takes no damage from a x lash she creates" or xs "engulf one of the pyrokineticist’s hands (but do her no harm)", so you'd have to work out whether an electrokineticist mechanatrix can deliberately target themselves for the full effect of their powers.

An entire class level, just for this ability? There's gotta be something better.


Well, there's something that, by RAW, does work way better: consult Magic of Incarnum, and take the Shape Soulmeld (lightning gauntlets) feat. Can't wear magic gloves, but 1d6 elec damage at will as a touch attack (and it is well known that it is possible to touch oneself).

But... incarnum is (subjectively) kind of lame. It's one of those things, along with Tome of Magic* and Tome of Battle: Book of the Nine Swords, that feels to me too slick and soulless and 4th-edition-y, and which only annoying optimizers ever tend to actually open. There's gotta be something more aesthetically pleasing. More... interesting.

*Binders can allegedly bind Focalor to achieve some form of at-will electricity damage, but honestly just typing this sentence has used up 100% of my ability to give a crap about ToM for the day, and I couldn't possibly find it in my heart to double-check whether this would actually even work.


So here's a more interesting idea: shocker lizard.

You could maybe get a domesticated one for money, but you could much more reliably get one by being a 5th level arcane spellcaster and taking Improved Familiar. (You may also consider trading away your regular familiar for an alternate class feature or the Forlorn flaw (Dragon #333), because the Obtain Familiar (CA) feat is better: it makes prestige classes progress your familiar.) Or you could be a ranger or druid and take Monstrous Animal Companion (Dragon #326).

Anyway, shocker lizard. Your eye might be drawn to its Stunning Shock ability, but alas! It won't work. "An electrical shock" sounds promising, but "this attack deals 2d8 points of nonlethal damage". There's no such thing as nonlethal electricity damage. Nonlethal is its own thing. A point of damage cannot be both nonlethal and electricity, it is either one or the other. The shocker lizard is quite clear: it's fluffed as electricity, but it's actually just nonlethal. (A particularly generous DM might rule that the shocker's nonlethal shock will cure any nonlethal damage the mechanatrix may have taken, but we oughtn't rely on the generosity of the DM.)

No, what we need is Lethal Shock, because that's actually electricity damage. But wait! You need two shocker lizards for that!

Are you seeing what I'm getting at yet?

What I'm getting at is this: Mechanatrixes have tamed shocker lizards, and use them in war and daily life. Mechanatrix society is ruled by a cadre of arcane casters, all with shocker lizard familiars. Mechanatrix adventuring and war parties always include at least two shocker lizards, usually more, with at least one usually being the familiar or animal companion of one of the party's casters.

Next time you use mechanatrixes as a DM, team them up with some shocker lizards. The lizards have been trained to use their lethal shock every round, and the mechanatrixes and lizards all stay within 20ft of one another. (Maybe bump the total ECR of the encounter up by one or so, because synergy.)

As for me, because I'm not currently DMing a game: next time I'm making new characters (at ECL6 or more) at the same time as somebody else (either because it's a new campaign, or because two characters died at the same time), I'm going to try to convince them to make a pair of wandering mechanatrix adventurers with shocker lizard familiars/companions. ("Hey, you feel like making a bard, beguiler, dread necromancer, druid, duskblade, hexblade, ranger, sorcerer, spellthief, wizard, warmage, or wu jen?")

EDIT: Alternately, you could just take Extra Familiar (Dragon #280), which negates the requirement that you have a buddy with the same plan, but which makes it a bit less interesting. On the other hand, every extra shocker lizard adds another 2d8 electricity damage each round (that's extra damage to anything not immune to electricity and an extra ≈3 points of healing for each mechanatrix), so you would certainly benefit from everybody involved having Extra Familiar (at most 6 lizards can contribute to any one lethal shock, but even if you have 7 lizards, you can just have one 5-lizard shock and one 2-lizard shock each round, paying only a slight save DC cost, because the save DC is also a function of the number of lizards involved. Or there's the option to just have more than 6 lizards contribute to a single shock: it would still only be 12d8 damage, but there's no cap on the save DC).

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ability Score Generation

I like the evenness that a point buy system for ability score generation can bring. You don't wind up with one party member whose highest stat is 14 and another party member whose lowest stat is 15 like you inevitably do when you roll dice. (Especially what with how there's usually one player in every group who can't be trusted to roll dice unsupervised.)

But randomness is fun, is I guess what draws people to the dice-rolling method of generating ability scores. Or maybe people just like it because it's traditional. (Not for nothing do we speak of "rolling up a new character".)


A method that I've been mulling for many moons:

Roll 5 times, with whichever rolling scheme you like best: 3d6 or 4d6b3 or 1d20 or whatever thing you want to use (3d6 and 4d6b3 are traditional; 1d20 is for masochists; with this system, it shouldn't matter).

Then you set the sixth value to whatever number would leave you with the desired point buy. (If no such number exists, reroll the fifth one until one does. If rerolling the fifth one can't possibly make it possible to reach the target, roll the fourth and fifth until it's possible.)

Then you assign these six numbers to whichever stats you want.

Example: I just rolled 3d6s and came up with 9, 11, 9, 14, 14. If I'm aiming for 30 point buy (the value used whenever I DM), the last number must be 17, for an array of {9, 11, 9, 14, 14, 17}.

Example: Rolling 4d6b3s: 12, 10, 10, 13, 8. An 18 in the final stat would be a total PB of 29, so we reroll that 8, coming up with... wow, nice, 18. A final value of 9 brings us to 30PB, for {12, 10, 10, 13, 18, 9}.

Just for masochism, let's try 1d20s: 8, 6, 6, 14, 10. 18 would only be PB20, so we must reroll the 10. Except with those numbers it's not possible: if we rolled a 16, 18 would only bring us to PB28; likewise for two 17s; 17 and 18 (or 18 and 17) would overshoot, for PB31. So we must reroll the fourth and fifth numbers (the 14 and the 10), and now we get 15 and 16, which makes it possible to slot 18 in for the last number, for an array of {8, 6, 6, 15, 16, 18}. (Hopefully I don't need to remind you that this is something of an outlier because only crazy people roll 1d20 for ability scores anyway.)


This method has all the interesting randomness of rolling, but the party still winds up balanced, stat-wise. You don't need to keep an eye on that one player who always suspiciously rolls really well, because his cheating ways will just net him a 3 in his last ability score or something (assuming you're using one of the expanded methods that permit you to go below the DMG-mandated 8), and all you need to do to keep him honest is double-check his PB math.

One downside: it's probably a little confusing, and probably many players won't be able to wrap their little heads around it. You may need to hold their hands. You may have to tell them to roll five scores by whatever method they desire, and then just do the PB calculation for the final score yourself. (Use a calculator.)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Balance of Experience

A few months ago, a friend of mine was starting to put together a Pathfinder campaign, the Rise of the Runelords adventure path. At first, we only had the DM, myself, and one other player. (Two additional players joined later, but for awhile it was just the two.)

After the first session, he decided that, in lieu of doing math, he would just level us up whenever the adventure path said we should be a higher level. Which is entirely reasonable: not everybody DMs from a computer (and it's silly to expect a person to do the relevant math without an XP calculator).

But it got me to thinking about how there were only two of us, and how the XP system would interact with that, were it in use. (It would be a different XP system anyway, being as it was Pathfinder, but 3.5e's system is the one I know.) Now, I'm on the record as thinking the 3.5e experience system is "a work of sublime genius", and I stand by that, but I want to test it.

My thinking was this: if the XP system works (and is applied) properly, then, in an adventure path situation (where you have specific numbers of foes of specific CRs, and the number doesn't vary depending on the level of the PCs), parties containing different numbers of characters should eventually wind up having approximately the same ability to defeat foes (but not the same level). Which is to say: you should be able to run an adventure path as written for a party of any size and the challenges will (after the first few levels) wind up being appropriate to the party.


So my test was this: pit three hypothetical parties against a hypothetical adventure path.

The first party consists of two level 1 characters. The second party consists of four level 1 characters. The third party consists of 8 level 1 characters.

The adventure path consists of groups of monsters. You're supposed to be able to beat 13 opponents of CR equal to your level before leveling up, and you're supposed to be able to beat 4 even-level encounters in a day (and you're not necessarily supposed to be able to level up without resting). So I rounded 13 down to 12, and set up this hypothetical adventure path with 76 groups of opponents: 4 groups of 3 at each CR. 4 groups of 3 CR1 monsters, 4 groups of 3 CR2 monsters, 4 groups of 3 CR3 monsters, and so on.

And then I ran the numbers. Assuming the PCs always defeat their opponents and always get precisely the correct amount of XP. Assuming the PCs get a chance to rest and level up after each encounter if they have the XP for it.

By the end of the 76 groups of opponents, the 4-person party, being the baseline around which the XP system was designed, should have just about exactly hit level 20. (Or maybe wound up a bit shy, because they faced 20 fewer opponents over the course of their career than they should have if I'd stuck to the 13-opponents-per-level rule of thumb.) But, though that happened just like it should have, that's not the point I'm going to pay attention to.

I'm going to pay attention to the point when the 2-person party dinged level 20: after the first group of CR18 foes.

At the point in the adventure when the 2-person party was dinging 20, the 4-person party was just hitting 18, and the 8-person party was just hitting 16. That's completely out of balance and needs to be fixed, right? WRONG. Absolutely, blitheringly incorrect.


Consider this: a party of two level 20 characters has an encounter challenge rating of 22. A party of four level 18 characters has an encounter challenge rating of 22. A party of eight level 16 characters has an encounter challenge rating of 22. The system works!

(Of course, this neglects the fact that level 16 characters are a spell level or two behind level 20 characters, and it neglects the fact that the 8-person party has a massive action economy advantage. I'll assume, for the sake of perfectly spherical cows, that these two factors balance one another out.)

The first point when the encounter level of the three parties equals out is after the last group of CR6 opponents. The 2-person party is at level 8, the 4-person party is at level 6, and the 8-person party is at level 4. The three parties stay roughly on par with one another thereafter. The characters in the 2-person party wind up consistently 2 levels ahead of those in the 4-person party, and those in the 8-person party wind up consistently 2 levels behind.

Trust the XP system. Used properly, it will not lead you astray.