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Tome of Necromancy

posted Friday, April 28th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
None of the AboveThird Edition

Although forum aficionado Frank Trollman and I have had our arguments in the past, I can’t help but take notice at his latest message board post entitled Tome of Necromancy in which he presents more new D20 game content than some of the PDFs people sell for a sum of dollars. I’ve written tidbits of game content in message board posts before, but nothing as Frank Trollman’s contribution here: seven prestige classes, thirteen feats, a discourse on whether or not undead are evil and a smattering of other work-in-progress content.

The design preferences of The Gaming Den definitely show through here. Prestige classes tend to grant full spellcasting progression as well as a class ability at every level, since from the powergamer’s point of view an “empty” level in a prestige class is easily avoided by continuing in a different prestige class that grants both spellcasting and levels. The prestige classes presented tend toward the powerful side with lax, player-friendly prerequisites – for example, the five-level Heartless Mage grants full spellcasting progression, d6 hit dice, the good Will and Fortitude saves and makes the caster lich-style immortal with no XP penalties for being brought back to life.

The feats detailed also lean toward the powerful side of game balance, tending to grant multiple good abilities or else quite powerful ones. One powerful feat gives you a -4 Strength penalty in exchange for +4 caster level on Necromancy spells – I dare say I’d be willing to play a wizard with 6 Strength if it gave such an incredible bonus, although in fairness few Necromancy spells are as level-dependent for power as evocations are. Another feat grants not only several uses of a spell-like ability per day as a free action, but throws in +2 to initiative checks, a +4 to Move Silently checks, and Lifesight as a bonus – even counting that it has a prerequisite feat, we’re getting maybe two and a half feats worth when you consider that Skill Focus (Move Silently) would have cost a full feat and granted only +3, and even this was increased in the revision of third edtion.

The Care And Feeding Of A Mortal Mount

posted Tuesday, April 25th 2006 by Jonathan Drain

Us D&D players tend to think of our character’s horse as if it were an organic motorcycle that ran on grass and never needed repairs. In reality, there’s more to the care and historical use of horses than one might think, as described by this helpful article, The Care And Feeding Of A Mortal Mount.

Magic Item XP Cost Variant

posted Saturday, April 22nd 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Game Design

I’ve been thinking lately about the XP cost inherent in magic item creation which discourages player characters from making items. They already spend valuable feats to be able to make items, and must further spend XP to make items that don’t necessarily make the creator more powerful himself. Here’s a simple variant rule that can help to combat that problem.

Item creation does not have an XP cost at all. Instead, the creator must expend a rare power component when making the item. The exact component required is different for each item, and it is entirely up to the DM what that component is and how easy it is to acquire. Additionally, knowing the correct power component for any given item requires a Knowledge (arcana) check with a DC equal to 10 plus the minimum caster level of the item being created. The power component has a market value of 10 gp for each point of XP that the item would normally have cost.

Example: A chime of opening would normally cost 3,000 gp to purchase, or 1,500 gp and 120 experience points to create. Under this variant, the item creator must spend 1,500 gp and expend a special material component with a value of 1,200 gold pieces – his DM decides that the component is a pound of encarium, a rare metal ore. The player must succeed at a DC21 Knowledge (arcana) check to know what the component is, and any time anyone creates a chime of opening the component is always the same. The DM may choose whether or not the player can simply buy the required amount of encarium in a city, or may require it to be found by other means. He does not have to pay any experience points, nor may he choose to.

Taking item creation feats in this variant is still preferable to buying the items straight out, since personally made items now cost a small percentage less than to buy them, if the components are available for purchase. A similar thing can be done with spells that require an XP cost, affording the players a limited opportunity to use spells like commune and wish just as long as they can find the incredibly rare material components required.

More Powerful Planetouched

posted Thursday, April 20th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Creatures & NPCsGame DesignGame Material

We all know that tiefling and aasimar are a shade underpowered for +1 level adjustment. Sean K Reynolds has admitted this in the past, pointing out that everyone would play them if they were +0 level adjustment but some people would still play them at +1, and that a better solution than the level adjustment system couldn’t be found.

If you want to encourage the planetouched races in your game by giving them a little boost, here’s my house rules on the topic.

First, make the race a template – why should only humans get to have extraplanar ancestors? Thus there now exist in your world aasimar elves and tiefling dwarves. The character gains both the benefits of the base creature as well as the planetouched race, and these stack – for example, a tiefling elf has (amongst other things) +4 Dexterity, -2 Constitution, +2 Intelligence, and -2 Charisma, and treats both rogue and wizard as his favoured class. He retains the Outsider (native) type regardless of the base creature.

A “plain” aasimar or tiefling in this variant is simply a planetouched human. He is as the standard tiefling but with the bonus feat, the bonus skill point per level and can treat any class as his favoured class. An alternative to this is that

The effect of this on your game world is that planetouched should be more common to fit with how often players choose them, and there should be some explanation for this such as planar war in the world’s history. This also means that you will have planetouched monsters – good-aligned aasimar minotaurs guarding holy sites, well-organized bands of tiefling orcs with devil ancestors – but don’t overuse this! Remember that planetouched races have resistance 5 to several elements, which at low levels can make opponents immune to most of the wizard’s offensive spells.

In truth I haven’t worked out yet how tiefling-as-a-template affects a creature’s challenge rating – perhaps it brings a CR1/2 creature up to CR1, but then perhaps it’s not even worth that much. It’s probably something best decided on a case-by-case basis.

Why We Still Need Dungeons

posted Sunday, April 16th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Game Design

Further to my previous post, I’ve been considering why the basic dungeon adventure is still so important to the game after thirty years of progress toward more roleplaying-heavy, storytelling-based game styles.

There’s a progression for many players that goes something like this:

  • Non-player: I’ve heard of “Dungeons & Dragons”, it looks interesting, I should play
  • New player: This game is new to me, everything is interesting
  • Regular player: I have played a few games and enjoy dungeon crawling as long as it’s still interesting/rewarding
  • Roleplayer: Dungeon crawling is boring and repetetive, I want something more – plot, or character development
  • Ex-player: I’m burned out on dungeoneering, and want to play a different RPG with more emphasis on storytelling and character

Now, many of these interested “non-players” never make it to being D&D players – the high initial cost of rulebooks, the initial rules complexity and the difficulty of finding players are prohibitive. Every place which sells D&D books should provide methods for prospective players to join groups – in my opinion. Wizards of the Coast ought to see to this.

Rather, D&D is losing a lot of its potential players – young people who are interested in the fantasy genre and hack-and-slash gamesiness of it – to fantasy MMOs which cost less initially, have an easy learning curve and don’t require players to know established gaming groups already. These MMOs provide a lot of the co-operative hack-and-slash of entry-level D&D.

That’s basically what a dungeon crawl is – entry-level D&D. New players enjoy the game enough for what it is and don’t care for story or roleplaying – in fact, some players may be too embarrassed to roleplay seriously unless with a regular group. This means that the entry-level, default D&D experience is simple, straightforward dungeoneering. Some regular players don’t grow out of phase and will happily crawl dungeons as long as there’s always something new and interesting, which is why we still have people playing dungeon crawls after twenty years.

A downside to online MMOs, of course, is that you don’t get to be “the heroes” – when everyone’s a hero, you’re just a regular citizen in a land where magic is boringly common. People who take up MMOs could be enjoying D&D instead, or as well as. People who leave MMOs after getting bored with the lack of creativity, freedom and heroism involved, could be taking up D&D. Again, this is an area that Wizards really isn’t marketing to properly, instead it’s trying to compete with WoW with an MMO – a dungeon crawl set in Eberron, of all things!

In my estimation, the main groups of demand go something like this:

  • New players want anything that’s not going to be overly complex. Especially so with younger players, they will enjoy looting a monster-ridden tomb without demanding logic.
  • Old players who still enjoy dungeon crawls will enjoy the revisiting of the old classics. Even if they now prefer story-based events, they may enjoy the novelty of a one-shot in the old style.
  • More experienced players, including roleplayers, who will enjoy some level of combat and dungeoneering but will only be satisfied if that goes hand in hand with a storyline, events that let them feel like they’re the heroes of the show rather than monster-whomping tomb-looters. They aren’t entirely bound to dungeon crawling, and may be interested in alternate playing styles as long as it’s interesting and fun.
  • Eberron/Greyhawk/Faerun fans, who will find it of the utmost importance that the adventure feels at home in their chosen setting. Eberron DMs in particular will want to be able to mould the adventure path to fit the style of the setting as explained in Chapter 9 of the Eberron Campaign Setting. Greyhawk DMs will want the game solidly placed in their setting using names and characters of yore, and Forgotten Realms fans will want that epic feel wherein gods are watching the party and occasionally tipping their hands to influence events.
  • Hardcore roleplayers, who eschew combat almost entirely and only enjoy freeform adventure, ought to hate dungeon crawls and will probably avoid adventure paths entirely.
  • DMs, who depending on their players and their own preferences may be looking for a creative outlet of their own that lets them shape the adventure path, or they may just be looking for something to run by-the-book for their players.

Do We Still Need Dungeons?

posted Friday, April 14th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

Recently in a discussion, the topic came up of whether or not the “dungeon” still had its place. Here’s what I think.

The game wouldn’t live up to its name without at least some dungeons and some dragons. I think the very point of the game is that the player characters step into an enclosed realm of monsters in an event that becomes progressively less like the safe world they know, culminating in the greatest challenge they’ve ever faced together, and all in the name of wealth, fame or justice.

It’s exciting, interesting and it lets you be a hero, a hero whose heroic potential increases each time he performs an act of heroism. The dungeon is the basis of “where the adventure is” and is a place that is heroic to enter at all, while the dragon is the epitome of a final boss fight, providing a massive challenge and massive reward.

I think that once players get used to the game, they begin to want some reason to their dungeon – if it has no reason, then the players will find the underlying reason, “It was made up and placed here to give us something to do.” If that happens, the dungeon goes from a heroic adventure to a simulacrum of one, a series of randomly generated straw dummies held together by excuses. That’s not heroic – it’s dull and predetermined.

Level Adjustments Too High?

posted Sunday, April 9th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

What I’m wondering is if the level adjustments on a lot of the creatures aren’t too high. I think it’s possible that in many cases the authors either overestimated to be on the safe side, or misjudged the value of monster hit dice, or both.

Take the ettercap – I know they don’t advance by character class so they’re not great player characters, but lets say for sake of argument that it’s not an issue. Five hit dice plus a level adjustment of +4 makes this guy equal to a 9th level character. Is it really worth it?

Monster hit dice, with the exception perhaps of dragon and outsider hit dice, are actually weaker than player character levels because they don’t grant any class abilities. To properly judge the value of monster hit dice, they should be compared to the most similar class levels, and the monster’s abilities compared to the abilities of a similar class. To aid comparison, hit dice can be modified by Constitution bonus.

The ettercap, our example, has somewhat mediocre Aberration hit dice – d8, only one good save (Will), and cleric base attack. We can compare his five hit dice to cleric levels this way. Assuming the -6 Int, -2 Cha and +4 Wis basically cancel each other out, what we can now compare is what’s left – +4 Strength, +6 Dex, +2 Con, +1 natural armor, a good bite and two weak claw attacks, web, poison and a few skill bonuses, plus whatever Aberrations get for skill points. Compare this to what a cleric gets – five levels of cleric spellcasting, two domain abilities, turn undead, armor and shield proficiency, a higher base Fortitude bonus and 2+Int skill points. By comparing how much better the ettercap’s abilities are than the cleric’s, we can begin to work out how high the level adjustment should be.

Next, it must be remembered that one level worth of level adjustment is not just worth one hit die or one level worth of class abilities – it is worth both. This is an easy area to make the mistake of judging one level of class abilities to be worth one level of level adjustment. The abilities gained in exchange for a point of level adjustment must be equal in value to both one hit die (saves, base attack and hit points) and one level worth of class abilities. It’s not too difficult to do this the equate ability score bonuses to the missing saves/base attack/hit points while equating the special abilities (poison and web in this case) to class abilities.

As I mentioned earlier, Constitution plays an interesting role. The ettercap’s +2 Constitution bonus in this case can be taken out of the equation if we count that it’s equivalent to +1 on Fortitude saves and a hit dice increase from d8 to d10. In this case it’s not valuable to do this since no classes have both d10 hit dice and cleric’s base attack, but the option is there.

In summary, remember when judging monster ECLs that most monster hit dice are weaker than class levels, and that level adjustments are more expensive than you might think.

How Important is Realism in Fantasy?

posted Thursday, April 6th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

When I was a young DM, I used to enjoy making dungeons based entirely out of cool encounters, regardless of any kind of sensibility or realism. Dungeons existed only for the players to explore and loot, and any reason why things were the way they were – if such a thing existed – was just an excuse. It turns out that back in “classic” AD&D this was a lot more common, as I found when I ran the third edtition conversion of Tomb of Horrors.

It’s common to say “in fantasy, all realism goes out the window”, and to some lesser extent that’s true. Magic, the most basic element of fantasy, defies realism. However, in so far as we accept the fantasy world, it can be realistic in terms of itself, in other words, it must be internally consistent even if it’s not consistent with the real world. In that sense, a world can be “realistic” while still being fantasy if we qualify it by saying “realistic, in so far as we accept the tenets of a fantasy world”.

A wizard, in a D&D game or even a fantasy novel, is therefore realistic. A wizard casting magic missile in D&D is realistic; a farmer casting magic missile is not unless he has some exceptional reason to be able to (e.g., he’s actually a sorcerer, he’s had spellcasting ability magically bestowed on him, etc). D&D can be a lot of fun if we throw realism out the window, but it can also be a lot more interesting and satisfying to imagine the world as internally realistic. Indeed, the detailed rules of the game actually help when it comes to keeping a game in this realistic form.

In order to have “D&D realism” we have to accept the game rules as reflecting the truth of the game world and work from there. The player characters are unreasonably powerful and tough compared to common folk; that’s still realistic in this game, if not true to the real world. Arcane magic and divine magic exist, as do every monster in the Monster Manual, unless of course the DM wants to omit some, which importantly reflects the DM’s choice in his own world, or the DM wants to ignore some for the time being because they aren’t relevant, which reflects the DM’s right not to bog himself down with unnecessary work.

I’m perhaps rambling here. The value of making a world internally consistent and reflecting that in what the players experience is that they can rely on your game world to some extent, which gives them stability, while letting them experience something that Monte Cook likes to talk about a lot, verisimilitude. Despite being a complete fantasy, the game world is at least consistent and you can rely on that, you can trust that as a player. It’s much like old platform games which, while unrealistic and cartoony, at least were internally consistent – falling on spikes kills you, touching enemies hurts you, and so on. I need to do more thinking on this but I think that internal consistency is an important attribute of a game that applies especially to Dungeons & Dragons.

Create Spawn Means Create Trouble

posted Monday, April 3rd 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceThird Edition

Just a short warning to DMs planning to throw a lot of incorporeal spawn-creating undead into their campaign. A worrying feature of these creatures is that if left unrestrained and allowed to invade a few humanoid settlements, there’s a very high chance they’ll not just kill everyone in the city, they’ll raise them as spawn, multiplying their numbers exponentially until even a twentieth-level player character can’t beat them all. Think I’m worrying too much? It’s happened to me twice!

It’s like a katamari. Lets suppose a lich creates a shadow and orders him to kill everyone in a village. The shadow kills a farmer in his sleep – any given shadow automatically beats a farmer without resistance – and the farmer rises as a shadow. The shadow’s side has now twice the numbers. The two shadows kill another two farmers, creating two more spawn, until the village is empty and the shadow army numbers one hundred. Nine villages later, it numbers a thousand – easily enough to overwhelm a city. Killing is easy for them, and killing makes them stronger.

The most dangerous thing is perhaps that high numbers of incorporeal undead continue to be a threat even at high levels. In one such event a player character controlled wraith managed to amass an army of a hundred wraiths, who ended up coming under the control of an NPC and attacking the player characters. Since incorporeal creatures can essentially fly, they can surround a creature in a kind of cubic flank, in other words my poor 20th level dwarf fighter took twenty-six attacks per round each draining 1d6 Constitution on a successful hit. A CR5 creature ought not to be a challenge to him, but +7 is still powerful as an incorporeal touch attack, ignoring all bonuses but Size, Deflection and Dexterity, and bypassing his hitpoints entirely. In short, they’re a potential weapon of mass destruction and even Drizzt would be utterly screwed.

If you’re planning on DMing with undead who can create spawn and are the kind of DM who enjoys consistency in his game world, take care to consider the reasons why incorporeal undead in the world haven’t somehow overwhelmed it. Why hasn’t some madman attempted an incorporeal genocide yet – or if he has, how was it defeated? What forces are at work in the world to prevent intelligent incorporeal undead from going on a rampage against the living, or what motivations do the undead have that prevent them from wanting to do so?


posted Saturday, April 1st 2006 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

I once ran a game where the only races were humans and planetouched, and I think the game lost something because of that. The races of a world help define it as different to our own. We take our own, European-based human behavour for granted until we see that not all peoples are as typically selfish, or warlike.

The elves are unthinkably patient. The dwarves would die rather than give up their traditions. The little halflings will always find a place to fit in wherever they go. Humans can have these aspects, but not the entire human race as a rule, and I think that says something about people today and how little we’ve changed since medieval times. We’re not all brave, or patient, or skilled, and I think that’s why heroes are special, because they always are.

D&D isn’t about realistic player characters – it’s about heroes. Your human fighter isn’t constrained by petty human weaknesses, in part because he’s a hero and in part because the player doesn’t have a reason to. Your hero is always brave because the person controlling him is safe. He is patient because time spent waiting passes swiftly for the player. He always finds his way and takes the difficult road because he knows he will grow from it and is not afraid of the conseqeuences. The fact that he’s being played is what makes him a hero.

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