Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Demi-Humans and Level Adjustments

Gary Gygax once commented that the purpose of limiting demi-human level advancement in OD&D was to promote a human-dominated world, as was seen in most fantasy literature. Humans were the only race that could advance to any level in any class, and that was intended to be the incentive to play the over the front-loaded powers of the dwarf or (in the extreme case) the elf.

When 3rd edition came along, the limits on the demi-humans were removed, but they were also brought into line with the power level of the human. I think that was a bad move from a fluff standpoint (although it made the game simpler to learn and had more variety of play).

The ancient demi-human races of legend had strange supernatural that made them creatures of wonder to the humans that met them. These were the dwarves that crafted Thor's hammer or turned to stone in sunlight. These were the elves that drew men into strange and unknowable realms, or cast a thousand-year sleep on a helpless king. They should feel supernatural, not just different.

At the same time, as far as Galadran is concerned, these ancient races ruled in the Days Before Days, the unknowable length of time before the Age of Broken Dreams and the creation of the human race. They were masters of magic and weird technologies, the secrets of which have been lost in the intervening centuries of strife and war. They should feel powerful but fallen, their time forever replaced by the flexible and innovative human race, despite their incredible natural advantages. Their fall from grace should feel like a loss to them as well.

But how to represent them? How to make the demi-humans more powerful, but at the same time keep the world human-dominated, as Gygax originally intended?

The answer is simple: make all the demi-human races have a Level Adjustment of at least +1.

This solves all the problems: A Level Adjustment allows for more front-loading of a supernatural being, while penalizing them by slowing the rate at which they advance in level. It allows human to have greater levels of skill at the same "level," representing their mental flexibility and the ease at which they learn.

This lets my demi-humans have vastly different supernatural abilities, while keeping them playable, making them appear more than just "different" humans, and maintains game balance.

I'm off to build the adjustment - next play session will be updated in 2 days.

Excelsior!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Worldbuilding

This originally came from the Tao of D&D (see sidebar), but the sentiment is so completely similar to mine that I thought I'd post it. Everything he says here is how I see it.

I have never liked the term ‘referee’ where it is applied to RPGs, fundamentally because I’m not one. Whereas I have on occasion interceded on a player’s behalf to defend them from another player, I don’t do this as an authority figure, but as another person in the game. My players learn from experience that I never take any opportunity to ‘punish’ players for wrongdoing, either for their behavior as players or as human beings. If someone offends me, I demand an apology. But my role as DM doesn’t include spanking bad players.

Running even a sandbox campaign requires that certain details are worked out in advance of the party. Strangers must have motivations and plans which the party will not discover until a later date. There must be a room designed on some level, even if it only in my head, beyond the door that is yet unopened. And I’m a human being – I am not above subtle changes in the next room based on what is happening at a given moment.

I love irony. If I can make my world a bit more ironic by changing the number or variety of monster in the next room, I will. I’ve tried running a world where I’ve steadfastly obeyed the dice on every occasion and the result is an adventure that lacks continuity, rhythm and the steady, demanding build to a climax.

In the same context, I’ve also ‘rushed’ a party through a potentially boring travelling campaign in bypassing encounters and events, just so that I can get them from point A to point B in a minimal period of time. Now and then, I’ll have someone teleport them. Most times, I’ll simply calculate the number of days and move on.

As I say, I draw the line at the world itself. I won’t move cities, I won’t have monsters die from spontaneous heart attacks, and NPCs don’t just give over magic items out of the goodness of their hearts. I will move things along to keep the campaign from getting boring, but I won’t furnish the party with a ring of teleportation just to get them out of one jam.

This sounds very much like I’m changing things all the time, whereas I’m really not. In my earlier campaign incarnations, twenty years ago, when I didn’t have maps and developed house rules, or the solid campaign design I have now, I was forced to make spontaneous changes constantly. The campaign I used to run simply didn’t hang together as well as it does now, I was not as well-versed in a wide variety of subjects the way I am now, I was not as adept at creating complicated plot weaves and so on ... and I had to take short-cuts.

And now very often I read on other blogs about how these short-cuts cause a world to be more ‘imaginative’ or ‘fluid’ ... further supported by arguments that forethought and foreplanning make a world stale and predictable. I find all this a kind of ‘praise of half-assery’ – where it makes an argument that magic and mysticism can’t been developed thoughtfully and intricately and then laid out ahead of time, on a grand scale, because it sounds like ‘work’ and this is all supposed to be ‘play.’

Creating a world is very much ‘work’ to me. When I step out of the room, I say to my wife, “I’m going to go back to work now.” I take the whole issue seriously. Players depend on me to be clever and as precise as possible, and D&D is a huge, cumbersome system that defies my attempts to take into account every detail. That’s why I love it. It is labour. It is effort. We don’t call them ‘plays of art.’ It is a Work.

It is only during the session that I refer to the game as ‘playing.’ And during the session, I apply my hard-worked world to making things as much fun as possible ... through driving my players through every emotion from fear to excitement to hilarity. For that I make changes on the fly. I’m thankful now that most of those changes are tweaks rather that sweeping shifts.

I cannot begin to imagine why every DM doesn’t want to work so hard on their worlds that their fingers bleed. I cannot imagine why, once they’ve created their worlds, they seem to treat them with such disdain. I continue to be puzzled when I see long time players announcing that they have a ‘New’ campaign they want to run. Didn’t they work hard enough on their old campaign? Couldn’t they find any respect for the things they worked on?

Are they incapable of falling in love?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Last Few Sessions, Part Two

Quickly, Charles and Marko fell back out of the cave,pulling Aleena to safety and unlimbering their crossbows. Cain and Hren stayed by the mouth of the cave, ready to cover a retreat. With a terrible battle cry, Meggan withdrew her spiked chains and advanced eagerly on the trio of vicious beasts. Meadwad advanced behind her, carefully sizing up the opposition for weaknesses. No member of the group had ever seen such vicious creatures up close before, and he wanted every tactical advantage.

Hinda, Alaric, and Wahleed remained at the rear, close to the mouth of the cave as well. Hinda saw no reason to clutter the narrower defile of the cave, where a wild swing could be more dangerous than any number of owlbear claws. Alaric remained close to his scroll case, having expended his spells for the day on mundane matters. The Shi'ar, on the other hand, wanted room to cast. Already, the fires of magic coursed through him and he began to recite the ancient commands reported to his by his genie servant, bending and shaping the arcane energies to take the form his will demanded.

As the owlbears rushed forward to repel the intruders from their cave, the first arrows from the sentries at the entrance flew. Seconds later, a fiery explosion errupted among the beasts, scorching their fur and feathers. The monsters roared in confusion, drawing up onto their hind legs and raising their massive paws in fury. One creature, wounded and uncomprehending, fled back into the darkness of the cave. Without hesitation, Meggan leaped into battle, with Meatwad close behind. The two managed to land significant blows on the remaining beasts in the initial confusion, but when the owlbears recovered, the counter-attack was fierce. Huge claws raked against Meggan's side, while another creature bit into Meatwad's arm, numbing it immediately.

As more arrows and crossbow bolts found their mark, Meggan drew back several paces and fixed her eye on the strange beast before her, using the ancient ways of her people to lay a curse on the beast that dare hurt her. Although the creature could have had no way of understanding what was being done, a chill raced up its spine and into the primitive recesses of its brain, causing it to stumble fearfully, giving Meatwad the opening he needed. Using the left blade of his double-sword to keep his own creature at bay, the fighter quickly sank the other half of his weapon into the owlbear's exposed flank. The creature screamed, a horrible combination of an bear's roar and the screech of a barn owl, and turned its attention on Meatwad. Meggan used that moment to swing the barbed tips of her spiked chain into the creature's back.

At that instant, a perfect sphere of magical flame materialized in the midst of the owlbears, even as they were turning their combined attentions on Meatwad. The ball of fire rolled through the two monsters, burning them further and inciting them into greater rage. From his vantage point in the rear, Wahleed mentally commanded the fiery sphere to stay among the beasts, spreading further panic and pain as they attempted both to avoid the flame and battle Meggan and the fighter.

Meggan leapt into action, encouraged by the magical assistance. Her chains swept into the closest beast, wounding it terribly. Unfortunately, the attack placed her too close to the owlbear's claws, and it left terrible wounds upon her as the barbs from her weapon sank deeper into its flesh. Meatwad fared little better against the other animal - after striking it in the face with the haft of his weapon to stun it and gain some room to maneuver, he was taken by surprise when the creature advanced suddenly, raking its claws across his face and chest. The world began to swim before him, and Meatwad sank to his knees, his weapon slipping from his numbed hands. His vision would clear in a moment, but the monster needed less time than that to eviscerate him, He had one chance remaining - the holdout dagger he kept in his boot. If he could just get to it, he could plunge it into the creature's neck as it closed. Groggily, Meatwad fumbled at his boot for the dagger. The owlbear closed in, its claws extended...

...and exploded in a shower of gore and bone as a bolt of lightning struck it squarely in the chest. Alaric smiled with satisfaction, withdrawing another scroll from his case. If there was to be glory from this fight, the magic-user wanted his share.

The final owlbear, outnumbered, wreathed in flame, and entangled in Meggan's spiked chain, went down as bravely as such a creature could. Its claws slashed at the satyxsis that tormented it, at the arrows as they slammed into its sides, even at the weird dancing shadows cast across the cave wall by the flickering magical flames that seared its skin... but to no avail. Meggan finally closed upon it and dealt a killing blow to its skull, ending the foul beast's life. As the monster's final breath left it, the party stood in the entrance to the cave, wondering if it was safe to remain there, fearful of what might lie within.