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Simplified Grappling

posted Sunday, September 30th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

It seems I’m not the only one looking to simplify grappling. It’s too complicated – even I still get it wrong.

Here’s my own attempt at simplified grappling rules.

Treat grappling as a normal attack roll opposed by the opponent’s attack roll. (Armour doesn’t help you avoid a grab, but being a skilled combatant does.) If successful, you deal unarmed strike damage, and are now grappling with the opponent, and thus move into his square. By succeeding at an opposed attack roll, anyone in a grapple may perform their action: deal unarmed damage as an attack, draw a weapon, move half speed along with opponent (as a move action) or break from the grapple (as an attack), amongst other actions.

To further simplify, we ignore pinning. Initiating a grapple provokes an Attack of Opportunity, unless you are considered armed when unarmed (Improved Unarmed Strike). The feat Improved Grapple gives you a +4 bonus on all opposed attack rolls made in a grapple. Size bonuses still apply, as do the usual restrictions of grappling: no big weapons, no moving, and no Dex to AC from other non-grappling opponents. In addition, since you’re touching your opponent you can ignore miss chances such as blur and displacement.

Disarm and sunder can be treated much the same way – straightforwardly, opposed attack rolls. No attacks of opportunity are made, but you suffer a -4 penalty if you do not have the required feat. Like grappling, however, attempting this manoever when unarmed still provokes an attack attack of opportunity like any attack does.

How do these rules change the game? Aside from simplifying things for players, this grappling rule gives advantage against opponents who have particularly high Armor Class, have weak melee attack, or rely on large weapons, Dexterity to AC, or high mobility. The disarm and sunder rules meanwhile should see much more common use, especially against numbers of weaker humanoid opponents, when disarming or destroying their weapons to cause a rout may prove a convenient and heroic way to save a few hit points.

Review: Kobold Quarterly #1

posted Thursday, September 27th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

I finally got around to reading the first issue of Kobold Quarterly, the new quarterly magazine published by industry veteran Wolfgang Baur to help fill the gap left by Dragon and Dungeon. Is it worth the US$4 asking price? Lets find out. Continue reading this article »

Death and Danger in D&D

posted Wednesday, September 26th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

My earlier post brought up the topic of danger and lethality in the game. Something you really can’t run nowadays is the oldschool lethal dungeon crawl or the kind of thing you see in videogames. Players really have too much attachment to their character and D&D doesn’t have the “save game” feature that lets regular games ramp up the difficulty.

A very important piece of DM advice is that should never be afraid to kill off player characters. There is a thin line between expecting to survive, and knowing you’ll survive. The moment your players realise that they cannot be killed, the danger level drops and the game becomes that much more dull. Danger is fun.

Asked what they enjoyed the most, my own players each discuss the time their own character almost got killed. The time the cleric was possessed by a ghost, which turned out to be a pacifist: but he didn’t know that, and that’s what made it exciting for him. The time the rogue was almost killed by an ambush when everyone else was two full rounds away. The sorcerer’s player still talks about the time his previous fighter character was almost beaten to a pulp by a door.

When you win fights as frequently as D&D characters do, what’s truly exciting is not the next assured victory, but those rare incidences of true danger.

Top Five Fighter Feats

posted Sunday, September 23rd 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Player AdviceThird Edition

Fighters get so many feats that they can’t afford to. An awful lot of fighters simply start on the pure-buff Weapon Focus, when–and this will surprise some of you–there are standard feats in the Player’s Handbook that are even more powerful. The following is my top five of favourite fighter bonus feats.

In no particular order:

  1. Improved Trip: Tripping is quickly overlooked in the rush to pure melee bonuses, but it’s remarkably efficient. Not only can you trip whenever you could normally attack and do so with a +4 bonus on trip checks, if successful you immediately gain a free attack as if you hadn’t used your attack. Tripped opponents take a -4 penalty to AC, so you essentially gain a significant +4 attack bonus, and since standing from prone is a move action which provokes Attacks of Opportunity, a tripped opponent can’t make a full attack and you still have a free chance to trip him again when he stands. As a drawback, however, you need Combat Expertise and at least Int 13, so this can cost you two feats. It also doesn’t work so well on especially huge or beefy creatures.
  2. Spirited Charge: Although this costs three feats in total counting its prerequisites, it’s remarkably powerful – double damage on a mounted charge, if you can get your horse into the dungeon. The prerequisites themselves aren’t a complete loss, allowing you to save your horse from attacks and move again after your charge. The overall benefit of “spirited charging” is that while you lose around 2.5 points damage switching to a lance over a greatsword, you deal fully triple damage on a charge (after which you can switch to the greatsword), your base speed increases to fifty or sixty feet, and in any case you gain +1 to hit against unmounted opponents. Not to be sniffed at.
  3. Weapon Specialization: You can’t really argue with plus two damage on every hit. It’s sort of the fighter’s prerogative to take Weapon Spec. Doesn’t mesh too well with a fighter who regularly uses more than one weapon, though, and two points of damage becomes less significant as you level up.
  4. Cleave: Cleave’s prerequisite, Power Attack, is rarely used except on things with damage reduction you can’t beat and low-AC, high-hitpoint opponents like oozes. Cleave, on the other hand, is a completely free second attack that triggers every time you kill a guy. Drawbacks are that it’s useless against single large foes or very spread out ones, and at later levels the wizard may perform more finishing blows than you.
  5. Improved Critical: Provided that your weapon offers a significant critical threat range, doubling that range is a clear winner. The extra average damage output on a 19-20/x2 weapon extending to 17-20/x3 is roughly equivalent to a +2 to-hit, while a rapier extended to 15-20 is roughly worth +3. Not so good against opponents immune to critical hits or with extremely high AC, but even so still a very effective feat.

Honourable mentions go to the Point Blank Shot tree, without which ranged combat would be much less tidy, and the generic feats you can take with your non-fighter feat slots for a serious buff: Improved Initiative, and the three excellent “+2 to saves” feats.

Nethack: How Not to DM

posted Thursday, September 20th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Nethack is an ancient, text-graphics dungeon crawl game that’s managed to stay in continuous development since its initial release in 1985. It’s the pinnacle of gameplay over graphics: the simple, turn-based ASCII interface makes it quick and cheap for the developers to add remarkable detail, making the game almost as flexible as real Dungeons & Dragons. A dungeon master think that this makes Nethack a good example on how to run a D&D game. He’d be wrong.

One of the reasons for Nethack’s longevity is that it’s almost impossible to beat. The game betrays its eighties origins, when games were so limited in scope that the reward came from defeating difficult games rather than simply succeeding at varied and complex challenges. Dungeons & Dragons has likewise evolved from its dungeon crawl roots, and players today enjoy all manner of character development and munchkinry in addition to aspects of storytelling and true roleplaying.

A D&D player today wants to expect that if he plays well and has just a little luck, he’ll raise a character all the way to twentieth level. He’s no longer amazed by the mere achievement, but instead cares about how powerful a character he can create as he progresses and what interesting things he can achieve within the game world. For many players, munchkinry – all-out powergaming – is the game’s primary purpose, and I think current players have a high expectation of their character’s survivability.

With Nethack, on the other hand, lethality is the entire point, and like the old games, merely completing the game once is its own challenge. Old Dungeons & Dragons was like this – DMs played to create impossible Tomb of Horrors style dungeons that only the luckiest and most experienced players could survive. Today, this is a faux pas. Your players cultivate their characters like a plant and expect to have their dillgence rewarded. Nethack is very D&D–but it’s not our generation’s D&D.

Of course, Nethack is still ripe as a source of DM inspiration. The sheer variety of options reminds players that they can attempt weird, clever things and very often have them succeed. You can turn creatures against each other or lead them into traps as I enjoyed in Quake 2, befriend or tame creatures, or even try odd things with the dungeon furniture. As a DM, on the other hand, don’t be afraid to keep the danger factor in your game, just to keep the players on their toes – if your guys can’t get killed, where’s the excitement?

D20 Source’s New Look

posted Saturday, September 15th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Site Announcements

I’ve finally gotten around to sprucing the place up with a new look. Have a comment, compliment or bug report? Hit the comment link there and let me know what you think.

They’re Reprinting Lone Wolf!

posted Saturday, September 15th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

I don’t check Project Aon all that often, which is why I only just heard the news: Mongoose Publishing is to reprint the Lone Wolf series of gamebooks.

Lone Wolf, if you’re not familiar, is a series of of fantasy roleplaying gamebooks by Joe Dever, taking the “choose your own adventure” style and applying D&D-style mechanics and feel – you collect magical artifacts, roll dice in combat, and even retain equipment and abilities from one book to the next. Lone Wolf was inspired by Dever’s own Dungeons & Dragons game, and the influence of the most popular RPG can be seen throughout the book’s twenty-something volumes.

This is not simply a reprint, however. This new edition of volume one, Flight from the Dark, expands and extends the original material. If it’s successful, we can expect to see the rest of the Lone Wolf series follow. The cheapskates among you can head over to Project Aon, where the first twenty-five books have been placed online.

Stray Thoughts, II

posted Thursday, September 13th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

Another feature of D&D that’s been bugging me is ranged combat. The game really seems to penalize players for wanting to fire a bow. The reduced overall damage is acceptable considering the ability to strike opponents who haven’t reached you yet, but there’s also a hefty feat cost in that you need to buy Point Blank Shot and Precise Shot or else take a -4 penalty to fire at any creature engaged in combat. Even then, an oft-overlooked rule imposes a further -4 “soft cover” penalty for shooting past an ally, carrying the risk of hitting your own man.

I’ve been speculating about a house rule that the Precise Shot feat grants the additional bonus of allowing you to ignore “soft cover”. There’s a feat which offers this, but forcing the player to take fully three feats just to mitigate the risk of friendly fire is very limiting on players who don’t have the feat slots to heavily specialise.

Stray Thoughts

posted Monday, September 10th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

With all the talk of fourth edition rules improvements, I’ve been having some tangentially related thoughts.

Cinematic heroic things are often penalized or dissuaded by the D&D Rules. Standardly, the game seems kitted out for tough, mediaeval adventure: Attacks of Opportunity, limited actions per round and the risk of failure discourage players from attempting interesting actions. Stepping onto a table takes a move action and a DC15 Jump check. Punching someone for effect instead of just swinging a sword provokes an AoO and deals little damage. The rules as written discourage a lot of cool things.

You have to wonder if it’s not feasible to allow D&D to be played as a high-cinematics game, wherein certain realism drawbacks are curtailed in the interests of encouraging players to undertake interesting actions. Consider, perhaps, that stepping onto a table requires no action or skill check. Likewise, if a player wants to smash the table with his warhammer, why bother rolling for damage? These unusual, “secondary” actions are primarily made for reasons other than powerplay, and so any failure chance will only make a player look stupid for having fumbled an attempt at such a minor action.

Perhaps D&D could learn a thing or two from the Wushu roleplaying game, where interesting, heroic actions are actually more likely to succeed.

Chicks Dig A Rock Solid Backstory

posted Saturday, September 8th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Links and ResourcesNews, Reviews & Culture

You may have noticed that I don’t update every single day. Thankfully, I’ve been kindly informed of a new D&D blog by the name of Stupid Ranger. Four gamers post with advice on everything from playing courteously to claims that chicks dig a solid backstory. Finally, something to keep you sated in between my updates!

Bundle on over to Stupid Ranger.

The Virtual Roll and Brevity

posted Wednesday, September 5th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

Ben Robbins updates blog ars ludi to present and idea called the virtual roll. It’s a good example of two things. One, an innovative yet straightforward solution to an existing issue, and two, how difficult it can be to write concisely.

The “virtual roll” is a simple and straightforward answer to the problem presented by mixing roleplaying with the Bluff and Diplomacy skills: Allowing roleplaying to replace the skills makes them worthless, and merely giving a numerical bonus for an excellent bluff or argument still allows a player to fumble the roll and fail regardless. If you simply grant large bonus, say, +10, a natural 20 can count as a natural 30, and this breaks the game.

The solution (presented by ars ludi) is to judge the player’s roleplaying, award a score out of twenty, and count that as the player’s roll. This is an excellent method, and remarkably straightforward. Players are limited to the same range of results, but are rewarded for good roleplaying and clever argument. Skill ranks and circumstance bonuses are still worth acquiring, and you can still roll for it the old-fashioned way when you’re out of ideas. As the DM, you might even divide some or all of the twenty points among the players who can “vote” on a player’s Bluff and Diplomacy like a Youtube rating.

A clever and well considered solution, but I can’t help but wonder if ars ludi could have said all that in less than 1,161 words. The ability to write concisely, despite my oft-rambling entries here, is an important skill for any writer.

GMing Wiki!

posted Monday, September 3rd 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Links and ResourcesNews, Reviews & Culture

Over at Martin Ralya’s blog Treasure Tables, news is that he’s planning to overhaul GMing Wiki. Remarkably, I’ve managed to completely miss it before, so if you haven’t seen it already, check out Ralya’s GMing Wiki.

What’s Your Favourite Trap?

posted Sunday, September 2nd 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceThird Edition

Let me tell you, like any dungeon master I am a fan of traps. Overuse will make your players paranoid, but no dungeon is complete without at least a makeshift boobytrap. Here are my top five – feel free to correct me.

  • Doorknob smeared with contact poison, CR5. There’s just something remarkably hilarious about opening an unassuming door and getting a handful of nitharit root. My players rightly fear doors more than any monster, but there’s another story to that.
  • Razor wire across hallway, CR1. Walking along the hallway, and foop! Off with your head! What I like about this trap is that it’s decidedly lethal at level 1, where 2d6 damage can kill even an average fighter on a good roll.
  • Perpendicular gravity trap, CR8. A variant on the reverse gravity trap, this has you fall along a corridor and hopefully onto that confusingly placed spiked wall.
  • Portcullis trap, CR1. 3d6 damage is a lot at low levels, with the added benefit of splitting the party up in event of an ambush. Potentially very lethal for that reason.
  • Mass baleful polymorph trap, CR10. Of my own devising, the entire party is struck with polymorph and turned into a creature chosen entirely at random. Save DC is as a ninth level spell; item DC is a little weak, but the hilarity of all the spellcasters turning into shocker lizards is worth the risk.

Among my least favourite traps are the CR1 scything blade (surely two orcs are more dangerous than one blade?), the green slime trap (instant-kill: not even remotely fair!), the CR3 extended bane trap (-1 to attack for four minutes) and the CR7 summon monster vi that merely creates a CR5-6 monster for one minute.

Have I missed any?

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