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Amusing Orcish Anecdote

posted Tuesday, July 31st 2007 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

From 4chan’s traditional game’s board comes this amusing orcish anecdote:

Reminds me of a friend’s character from a D&D game a while back. He was a half-orc barbarian who was absolutely convinced that he was a wizard. He had an arsenal of “spells” such as “Blind” (kicking dirt in the enemy’s face), “Inside-Out Man” (a slash to the enemy’s gut), and “Invisible Head” (decapitation).

Best of all was his familiar, who’s name was “Rock”. Rock was just an ordinary rock…but not to him. It was sort of an explanation for his Wisdom score, though, which was actually very high. His Intelligence, not so much.

I believe he ended up heroically sacrificing himself one day, though, by swallowing several vials of Oil of Impact, setting himself on fire, and hugging a Mind Flayer. He had explained that it was his best but most dangerous magic, “Me Bomb”.

Stray Thoughts on Mass Combat

posted Saturday, July 28th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

I’ve been playing Rome: Total War lately and it’s got me thinking on the topic of mass combat in D&D. I don’t doubt that there must be a half-dozen mass-combat systems for the game, but several of them have to be rubbish, overcomplicated, or both. Your average Dungeon Master will probably only run the occasional large-scale combat, and so any solution must be quick and simple.

Combat systems involving entire armies (e.g., Warhammer) have traditionally made squads of troops the smallest division handled in the game, and it wasn’t until computer games that complex systems going down to the individual soldier were able to be made simple. In a D20 system, modelling combats between hundreds of soldiers on an individual level is ridiculous, so the solution is to effectively treat each unit as its own creature, not unlike the swarm template.

What I’m thinking, then, is that a unit of troops is considered to have the offensive ability of an individual member, but has hit points equal to the total hit points among the unit. A unit of twenty kobolds would thus have an AC of 15 and a melee attack bonus of +1, but 80 hit points. Should a player character decide to attack a unit of kobolds solo, he is effectively fighting one kobold with eighty hit points – at least, until the unit takes enough losses that it loses morale and flees, requiring a basic morale system.

This simple method has two limitations. First, there’s no penalty in place for being outnumbered. If we suppose they don’t break formation the kobold unit can make three melee attacks against the human. What about twenty kobolds fighting twenty humans, or thirty humans? Logically, each member of one row of a unit can attack his opposing counterpart once, but even five attacks per unit begins to get silly. Units tend to fight other units rather than individuals, and a row of people attacking each other twenty times a round is going to wind up dealing fistfuls of dice in damage.

Ideally, then, you might want to abstract this even further, by declaring each unit to have one attack or set of attacks each round, and simply granting attack bonuses or penalties depending on the relative size of each unit. This would probably require some tweaking to get just right. Here, there are two issues. Since each unit’s attack represents the attacks of several individuals, we must work out how the damage dealt translates into attacks. Secondly, we have the perhaps unlikely situation where a unit can fail to cause any injuries in one round, but slay several soldiers the next. It seems the situation needs more work.

Alright, that’s my rambling done.

“Big Six” Magic Items: Big Folly

posted Sunday, July 22nd 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

I just got around to reading Andy Collins’ Design & Development article on Magic Item Compendium from February, and it seems to tie in quite well to my previous entries on “Magic Shop” syndrome. The question is asked, why do players always purchase the “big six” magic items (weapon, armour/shield, ring of protection, cloak of resistance, amulet of natural armor and the six ability-score boosters) and never any of the unusual but cool stuff like the helm of underwater action or apparatus of Kwalish?

Collins’ rationale is that the main items are simply best because they’re cheap, upgradeable, always-on, easy to use, don’t compete for “slots”, and that your character is underpowered if he doesn’t use them. I can’t disagree, but this approach takes a very narrow view and belies the big picture. Why are the Big Six, along with boots of springing and striding and such, really so much more popular than any other set of items? There are several real reasons.

First up, the vast majority of magic items were imported from 2nd edition AD&D, which, as I mentioned in my previous entry, predates the phenomenon of magic items being tradeable for money. Originally in D&D, you could keep a helm of underwater action or leave it, and it became useful whenever it did. Now that you can sell it, nobody wants the helmet when they can trade it in to upgrade their +3 sword to +4.

Why are the Big Six so much more valuable? Forget minutiae like slotting and ease of use; the real reason is that these items provide direct, permanent, numerical bonuses to your character’s main rolls. Obtaining that +4 sword is just as significant to the character’s advancement as gaining a feat or bonus from levelling up. The Big Six are popular because they directly increase ability scores, to-hit and damage, saving throws, or armor class. Other ubiquitous items are similar – the bag of holding enhances carrying capacity, the boots of striding and springing increase base speed, and the wand of cure light wounds increases your cleric’s daily capacity to heal.

Obtaining the Big Six and other major items has become the purpose of the game, and every other magic item has been relegated to a stepping stone to this goal. Let me take the article’s “six reasons” from this perspective:

  • Cheap to buy: Not quite – rather, they’re powerful for their price. The reason they’re powerful is because they automatically work whenever you do whatever it is you would be doing anyway, so they’re essentially 100% effective. The other items don’t give you that sort of efficiency.
  • Room to grow: They’re just about the only items that can grow. The intent is that like with magic weapons, they can improve with your character. That’s not a major reason for their popularity; rather, it just makes them cheaper to replace with more poweful ones (see the first point).
  • No slot competition: Actually, these items do compete for slots. They just don’t tend to compete with each other. The only reason there’s no competition with other magic items is that they’re the best magic items in their slots.
  • Easy to understand: It’s rather than they’re simple in that they grant straightforward bonuses to existing abilities rather than granting complex new abilities.
  • No activation cost: Items with an activation cost tend to do something specific, such as cast a spell (wands) or deal damage (horn of blasting – otherwise, activation cost is simply a drawback. The benefit of the Big Six is that they’re always-on – see the first point.
  • Required to play: It’s rather that since these items enhance what your characters are meant to be doing, they become an integral part of developing characters to be better than that. However, it’s certainly expected of players that they will spend at least some of their treasure in enhancing their primary ability, so you’re definitely undercutting your character’s ability if you don’t invest in some items.

I’ll re-iterate: obtaining the so-called Big Six and other major items has become the purpose of the game, and every other magic item has been relegated to a stepping stone to this goal. It’s simply another part of the character optimization that seems to have characterised third edition D&D. Inferior items are not worth what they’re worth; they’re worth their trade-in value, and nothing will be worth as much to a powergamer as their own character progression.

Flawed House Rule: Double-Rolling Hit Dice

posted Tuesday, July 17th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

I’d imagine that most Dungeon Masters have made their own tweaks and variants to the Dungeons & Dragons game system. The most popular of these “house” rules often spread to games run by other DMs. Unfortunately, popular doesn’t always mean good.

One example of such a flawed rule is double-rolling hit dice, wherein players roll twice for each hit die and take the highest result. I got this one from my former Dungeon Master, and used to use it in my early games. It’s clearly popular among powergamers, and at first sight there’s nothing wrong with the rule.

Mathematics disagrees! Statistically, double-rolling increases the average result of hit dice, making characters tougher. A fighter’s d10 rises from an average 5.5 to 7.15, an increase of 30% before Constitution, and with 16 Constitution still around 20%. The problem with this, as opposed to something like higher ability scores, is that you throw hit points out of whack with everything else in the system. Your saves and offensive abilities are not improved, only your capacity for taking damage.

In this case, it’s especially bad because more hit points has the only effect of letting you last longer and relax a little in combat, taking an element of risk out of the game. This has the effect of making combats last longer and making the game more dull, the latter of which is a Bad Thing. If you scale up the opponents’ hit points by double rolling to compensate, it just exacerbates the effect and makes extra work for yourself, and if you scale up the opponents’ challenge ratings you’ve simply made the game more deadly because your players’ offensive and saves don’t match their hit points.

Beefing up your player characters for its own sake isn’t necessarily good. If it just makes the game easier for your players, it’s not necessarily going to make the game more enjoyable.

Wizards to Resurrect Dragon/Dungeon as Online Magazines

posted Thursday, July 12th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionGame DesignNews, Reviews & Culture

If you haven’t heard this already, Wizards of the Coast already has submissions guidelines for online versions of Dragon and Dungeon magazines. A few things are of note:

  • The guidelines are much shorter than Paizo’s. This may change as the magazine progresses.
  • Wizards intends to keep the Ecology and Demonomicon articles. It’s as yet unclear whether they intend to retain Dragon’s method of presenting high challenge rating versions of the archdemons presented in the Fiend Folio series at around CR20.
  • Starting rate is 6 cents per word, a slight increase from Paizo’s 5 cent per word.
  • Adventures are limited to 10,000 words, and have a new tactical encounter format. Some writers for the old magazine are already worried that this will make it difficult to fit a high-level adventure into the word limit.
  • Since the encounter formats refer to 700-word pages, it seems like the magazine will be published as a PDF rather than a web form. This is hopefully true; I’ve said it before that I’m not impressed by Wizards’ current web design ability.

There’s a thread over at Paizo on the topic.

What’s A Feat Worth?

posted Wednesday, July 11th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceGame DesignThird Edition

Of all the character abilities in the game, feats are the only ones that cannot be reliably reproduced with magic items. Feat slots are rare and valuable, almost overpriced due to their strictly limited supply. If magic items can replicate high ability scores, attack bonuses, skills, and even some class abilities, what’s the gold piece price to assign to a feat?

Sean K Reynolds estimates a feat is worth roughly 25,000 gp. A sword that grants the wielder Combat Reflexes might cost this much. However, he also admits that feats can have radically different values, which one could argue ought to bear true in magic item pricing; Alertness (+2 to two skills) is only worth 1,000 gp by the chart, whereas Spell Focus is worth something perhaps more substantial.

Interestingly, a lot of feats do weigh in at around 1,000 to 1,200 gp. The three “+2 to one save” feats equate to a 4,000gp magic item, the Cloak of Resistance +2, for 1,333 gp per feat. Both Dodge and Improved Natural Armor grant +1 to AC, worth roughly 1,000 gp, although Dodge is more limited in its use. Point Blank Shot and Weapon Focus offer +1 to hit, equal to half a +1 weapon. So far feats look quite weak, kept artificially rare as a matter of game balance.

On another scale, consider what a feat slot might be worth if the player can choose any feat he likes, comparing the human to other races. An elf has bonuses and penalties which we may consider to cancel out, immunity to one spell and +2 to one seventh of spells, further vision, some free weapon proficiencies, a +2 bonus to three skills and their secret door ability. We might consider that these abilities together are worth one feat and one skill point per level. +2 to saves (4,000 gp) applicable to only one school of magic, which will be less than half of saves, we might price at 400 gp including the Sleep immunity. Low-light vision and weapon proficiencies are hard to benchmark, but the skills are easily calculateable at three sets of 400 gp. Our human has one feat and one skill point, worth 100 gp per level. Suppose we average that skill point to 1,000 gp and the feat to 1,200 gp, are martial weapon proficiencies on a non-combat character, low-light vision and the secret doors trick worth 1,400 gp? Perhaps.

Lets try another race, the halfling. His ability score modifiers could be said to balance out. He has small size and slower speed, which we may likewise consider to be a set of fair trades. +2 bonus to four skills is 1,600 gp. +1 to saves is 1,000 gp (Cloak of Resistance). +2 on saves vs fear, if we imagine fear is one third of all Will saves this is worth around 450 gp. +1 attack/damage with thrown weapons is worth a good 2,000 gp (magic weapon). In all, we might price the halfling as much as 5,050 gp, giving our human’s feat slot a value of around 3,800 to 4,000 gp.

Naturally, feats are worth a lot due to the limits placed on them, which is a feature of game just like magic item slot limits. In that regard, it’s probably best that most feats can’t be duplicated by magic items, especially since some are so cheap in terms of equivalent gold value.

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