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Cheating? Not again!

posted Wednesday, March 21st 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Dealing with cheating in the game is always a hassle. You can’t accuse players of cheating without offending them – and what’s more, you may occasionally be wrong. Even so there’s no way to be sure they’re going to stop once they know you’re onto them.

I suppose the best you can do is to make it less viable for players to cheat. If you’re using a prewritten adventure, swap things around a bit now and then so a cheater doesn’t know where all the traps and hidden treasure is. Move monsters around; perhaps the monsters wandered and ended up in different chambers than the adventure says.

In general, if a player gets an exceedingly high roll I ask them what bonuses they had to get that. If it turns out they were cheating, it will be revealed. If it turns out that they added wrong, then that’s fine, everyone makes a mistake. However, if it turns out that they managed to do it legitimately, then it lets them feel especially proud that even the DM couldn’t believe how awesome their powerful character was.

Realistic Magic Item Shopping

posted Saturday, March 17th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceThird Edition

I’ve been discussing my previous entry on magic items being treated like commodities with a few people, and a few ideas have sprung up.

Several DMs I’ve spoken to say that they don’t allow players to automatically assume a city to have specific magic items in stock. This might not be a representative sample, since most of the people I talked to were Greyhawk fans who tend to prefer things the old-fashioned way. One such DM suggests that high magic availability is indicative of either a particularly high-magic setting like Forgotten Realms, or, I might suggest, a game which sacrifices realism in order to simplify things for players in the interests of fun and character versatility.

If you find that magic items have become too easily available, then consider these house rules for buying and selling magic items:

  • There are no “magic supermarkets” – adventurers who buy and sell these items are rare enough, and any such business openly selling magic items would be a prime target for expert thieves. In order to buy or sell a magic item, players must first locate a buyer or seller in their current town or city.
  • Doing so requires a Gather Information check. The DC of this check varies from DC10 for common items (one tenth of the settlement’s GP limit or less) to DC30 (equal to the settlement’s GP limit). Increase the DC by +2 for each of the following:
    • Item is “named” or “specific” (Celestial Armour, Oathbow)
    • Item has a special prerequisite (like “creator must be a dwarf”)
    • Item is made by a divine caster (most items are arcane)
    • Item is psionic (if psionics aren’t used in this setting)
    • Item is deemed unusually rare by DM (from another campaign setting, another continent)

    The check can be made only once per month; five ranks or more in Knowledge (arcana) grants a +2 synergy on the check.

  • Alternatively, the player characters may approach a specific person in the town, and attempt to convince them to buy, sell or trade magic items in exchange for gold or services, perhaps making use of the Bluff, Diplomacy or Intimidate skills. Depending how convincing they are, a seller might charge over the odds for the item, or request something other than money in exchange – perhaps a service commensurate to the item’s value.
  • The DM can and should make certain common items more easily available. For example, perhaps a temple produces healing potions, or a +1 sword is relatively easy to come by in a large city.
  • The GP limit (Dungeon Master’s Guide page 137) still applies. Occasionally there may be exceptions, such as a powerful NPC.
  • Some items are practically impossible to be found (+20 to the DC). Examples include custom items (such as combination items like Boots of Striding and Springing and speed), which would probably have to be specially commissioned.
  • If the check fails by ten or less, the player characters hear a rumour about where they might find their item – perhaps leading to a quest following the trail of the item. If it fails by five or less, they also have an additional lead to go on.

Commissioning a new item: Even if an item cannot be found, it’s possible to have a new one commissioned. Doing so requires the players to approach someone capable of creating the item, then convince them to make it. While some may accept straight cash, others might refuse entirely, demand an exacting service in exchange, or demand that you swear fealty to their organization (such as a mage guild, church or nation). Magic is power, and those who control the source won’t just hand it out unless it’s on their own terms.

But who can create an item? Dungeon Master’s Guide pages 138-139 gives rules for how many of each character class typically live in a settlement and their levels. As a rough guide, assume that every wizard spends on average half his bonus feats (level 5, 10, 15 and 20) on item creation feats, and that every adept, cleric, druid, sorcerer and wizard spends one third of their normal feats on item creation. A little rolling of 1d2s and 1d3s for each feat slot, and assigning feats to those slots, should give you a good idea how many spellcasters of each class and level exist who have the feat required to create your item.

After all this, however, it’s still debatable whether or not it’s a good idea to make items harder to get. Players might simply complain that it’s an extra layer of hassle that keeps them from doing what they used to do. In the end, it’s up to the individual DM whether he introduces these rules, or if he dos so at all. Perhaps a powerful dragon demands an annual tithe in magic items, causing a shortage that makes people less willing to sell theirs. Alternatively, perhaps a flux in the nature of magic itself has seen significant numbers of items to stop working properly, making them rarer. Perhaps this is something the PCs can put an end to with a quest – again, this choice is up to the DM.

Don’t forget to use the option of the players only finding a rumour about the item, leading them on a quest for it where they may have to follow a trail of clues and defeat the current owner for it. Doing so allows players to get the items they really want without feeling like it’s just a matter of selling enough junk to pay for it at the local Arcan-o-mart.

That’ll Be 180,000 gp, Please

posted Tuesday, March 13th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignNone of the AboveThird Edition

It strikes me when reading through old Dungeons & Dragons manuals that back in 2nd edition AD&D, there was practically no such thing as buying and selling magic items. By contrast, in the current edition of the game you can travel to any city and expect to freely buy and sell any magic item save for the few most expensive things in the game. (Drop a comment even if you don’t read the entire entry, I’m interested in seeing what people think about this.)

The difference really changes how treasure works in the game. AD&D works like Diablo II, where huge amounts of gold are largely ineffectual for buying magic items because the kind of people who value magic items tend not to accept established amounts of currency for them. Magic items are so rare and difficult to create as to have no established price.

Come third edition, and any magic-using NPC or player character with the appropriate training can create magic items from scratch; similarly, by the rules at least, any magic item worth 100,000 or more can be commissioned or purchased reliably for gold, while players will find that they can consistently sell any such item for half market price.

The big difference is that unwanted or unnecessary magic items now suddenly gain special value, because you can reliably trade in stuff you don’t want for stuff you do. A spare +1 sword is no longer just a spare sword; it’s a convenient portable 1,000 gold piece ingot redeemable at any nearby town. Because they’re now tradeable for currency, anything that’s worthless to you in practice is still valuable, and anything you desire is attainable just by hoarding enough worthless junk and dropping it off at the city magic shop between adventures.

This can be a good thing, or a bad thing. Yes, it opens up new options for players, but I can’t help but feel that the game loses something by making magical equipment a commodity. It’s less heroic; I don’t remember the part where Frodo flicked through a magic item catalogue and got a trade-in on a bunch of enchanted amulets. It makes more work for the players; someone has to keep a list of the items nobody wanted, then add up the prices whenever they’re to be sold. It gives players a reason to look through the magic item list like a mail order catalogue, which makes items less mysterious. It makes magic feel more common, such that you can reliably stock up on consumables, base character builds around items, and remove the reliance on party spellcasters for buffs and cures. Finally, it removes the interesting hodgepodge element to the game, where an item is an item and you can take it for what it’s worth or leave it.

tl;dr: Do you think it’s better when you can’t buy and sell magic items? Discuss!

Does Detect Evil Constitute an Illegal Search?

posted Friday, March 9th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Links and ResourcesNews, Reviews & Culture

Fresh from ruling against baleful polymorph as a form of assault, the Straight Dope message boards take a leaf from D&D webcomic Order of the Stick and ask: In the case of a paladin sensing alignment, does detect evil constitute an illegal search?

Alignment is Not a Straightjacket

posted Tuesday, March 6th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Player Advice

I heard a Dungeons & Dragons horror story recently, and not the “mind flayers and zombies” kind. To summarize, a game was brought to a halt after a paladin killed a fellow player character to punish him for a murder. The second player character, I imagine, probably had the same excuse for his crime as the paladin for his – “I was only doing what my character would have done!”

I’ve heard this line more than once, and there’s a simple rule to cover this situation: alignment is a roleplaying tool, not a straightjacket. Be prepared to compromise your character in small ways in order to avoid impeding the flow of the game. You might find it unreasonable that your elf-hating dwarf character would accept a mission from an elven wizard, but if it gets in the way of the game at hand then you’re going to have to ask yourself: which is more important, my character, or the game as a whole?

Alignment, like any character trait, is something you decide, not something that makes your decisions for you. Better to find a reason why your lawful good character would put up with a crime than to bring a game to a dead end by killing the perpetrator, or worse, attacking a fellow player character. Ultimately, you make the decisions, not your character.

Baleful Polymorph

posted Friday, March 2nd 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Links and ResourcesNews, Reviews & CultureThird Edition

More polymorph offences – but not in the form of rules changes. This time, the Straight Dope messageboards debate: In the event that wizards existed in the real world, does baleful polymorph legally constitute assault?

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