Thursday, June 18, 2009

Spellcasting in Thylia: Modifications to the Vancian System

This is the biggest house rule I will ever implement, or at least the one that causes the most significant change in how the game functions. Just to come right out and say this up front, this modification to the casting system did not originate with me. The game I currently play in (for the last 5 or so years actually) put this into effect and, after 5 years, I can't really imagine playing without it. Whether that's because the rule really is that excellent of a change, or because internally, I was never satisfied with the whole Vancian thing to begin with is something open to debate. Either way, it makes for an interesting modification in my opinion.

First, wizards do not gain new spells upon leveling per the rules. The only way for a wizard to gain new spells is to discover them in "the dungeon" or to trade for or steal them from others. This makes arcane magic, at least, that much more difficult to get hold of so that the players aren't pulling magic our of their orificies at every instant.

Magic is rare and mages are jealous of each other's abilities. This is to counteract some of the change below.

Casting still functions largely as detailed in the PHB. Wizards have a certain number of spell slots per day per level based on their current character level and any specialization they pursue (i.e., a transmuter gets an extra spell slot per level that must be devoted to an alteration spell). However, wizards can, with a percent chance of failure based on their intelligence and the level of the spell, attempt to "wing it" when casting spells. That means that they can forgoe memorizing a spell (or all spells for very intelligent and powerful wizards) in order to enhance their potential versatility. Unfortunately, this comes with a good chance of failing to successfully cast their spells.

Mages can still memorize their spells, and in fact, doing so greatly reduces the percent chance of failure.

For example:
A wizard with INT 15 has a base 65% chance to fail casting a 1st level spell while winging it. A 2nd level spell fails 70% of the time, 3rd 75% and so on. This means that our example wizard will fail 75% of the time while trying to cast a 3rd level spell without prior memorization.

If, however, the wizard in question chooses to memorize his spell in the morning, he reduces his chance for failure by 100%, thus in our example, the 3rd level spell is cast with a -25% chance of failure.

This, in actual play, does increase the utility of a wizard, but at the same time can make him somewhat unreliable. I can't tell you how many times I've heard "it's only a 10% chance of failure" right before a critical spell fizzles because the player wanted to leave the slot open "just in case."

It also has a very nice side benefit: players of wizards end up casting more of their spell selection (i.e., instead of just memorizing the same few over and over again) and there's fewer instances of "ok, we need this or that spell, but the wizard has to rest 8 hours before we can proceed, so everybody break out the bedrolls!"

A few other things to add into the pot:
For a specialist caster (transmuter, necromancer, etc), the caster receives a -10%/+10% failure chance based on whether the spell is in or out of their specialty school.

When leveling up, for every 5 successful times a spell is cast, the charcter gains a -5% chance to fail that particular spell.

At first level, and upon ataining further levels, the character gains 200% discretionary percentage points with which he can reduce any spell's failure chance, or he can hold them in reserve in anticipation of gaining new spells over the next level.

If, upon attempting to learn a new spell, the player fails the roll to learn, he can still scribe it to his book and cast it, but it suffers a +50% chance of failure. This can, and often does, raise the failure chance to above 100% making even memorized casting dodgy.

And one final bit:
A mage must still spend time every day reviewing and studying his spells. If his book is stolen or he has no access to it, he suffers an increased 5% failure chance per day without the book.

It looks a little confusing at first blush (and if I knew how to make this blog thing make tables, it'd be a might clearer) and it certainly does add a lot of book keeping to playing a wizard character or a bard (who follow the same rules, but keyed off of the average INT ahd CHA), but I find that the whole thing is definately worth it.

I like the falvor of it for Thylia, and since spells are rare, spell books cost 1000gp each, and the ink to scribe a spell costs 10gp per page written (not to mention 1 day per page/level of the spell), it's really a fair trade in my book.

Of course, I wouldn't try to port this over to Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk since I don't think it'd fit terribly well there, but in a grim and gritty setting where things are falling apart all over, it sort of fits.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Discussion: The Commodification of Fun

This is meant to be the introduction to a discussion. It's hardly original, I guess, as James Mal over at Grognardia has talked about this before (he called it "brandification" if I recall and I'm a little too lazy to go digging through his prolific writings to find the exact articles while I'm supposed to be earning a paycheck) and James Raggi over at LotFP has his truly infamous I Hate Fun article that links in here, and I'm sorry if I missed others as I know it's been a topic of discussion around here for a long time.

I suppose that this concept is at its most prominent in the WOTC advertisement and talking points about their new 4th edition, though as far as I can tell it's been somewhat pulled back lately, but it was very prominent with 3rd edition and 2nd edition as well. The powers that be at TSR and then at WOTC realized that selling modules to 1 out of 7 gamers (or, lets be generous and say 1 out of 4) just wasn't a good way to "grow the brand" and make money hand over fist. If only 25% of your targeted audience was going to be shelling out cash for your product, then you were essentially doomed to a niche of the niche market that is gaming. Not only that, modules have somewhat limited replay value: once you've played through The Tomb of Horrors once you won't be too surprised by the sphere of anihilation in the devil face.

The solution? Well, the solution for TSR/WOTC was two-fold. First, and most famously, was to publish books aimed not just at the DM, but at every player at the table. "Holy shit a complete book about elves with two hundred pages of elf specific mechanics and material?! I have to get one of those!" I don't, honestly, have a problem with this. Whatever your opinion of the quality of the material, I don't think anybody would begrudge the publishers the desire to sell something to more than just the DM. Not only that, it's this, I would argue, that kept D&D alive for some time and propelled it to being even more acceptable today than ever before even to the point of a prime time commercial advertising D&D.

Second, and this is where I take umbrage, there arose a trend towards "official" materials for games. Official expansions to already existing worlds, the thing that utterly destroyed Forgotten Realms, almost in a literal sense as WOTC had to rain down an apocalypse on the setting in order to divorce itself from what had come before. Official expanded rules, officialy sanctioned methodology, and on and on until the coup de grace came when it seemed that WOTC attempted to convince us to buy official fun by convincing us that previous versions of the game were truly "unfun" (a word I have grown to absolutely despise over the years).

Lest I paint myself into a rhetorical corner here, I'm going to say now that I don't think that this is a phenomenon unique to those money grubbing bastards at T$R or the Coastal Wizards. If anything, it started with the Gary himself. I remember a Sage Advice column (I think it was Sage Advice at least) where he responded to a letter about alternate rules or house rules or something saying that anybody who wasn't playing AD&D according to the letter of the rules set down in the three core books simply wasn't playing the same game. Somebody, I'm sure, will remind me of the exact verbiage at some point. What I remember most about the whole thing was thinking what a pompous jackass the man was and if this guy was really the same one who had written about taking the rules and making them your own.

I suppose, in retrospect, that I understand what he was getting at in less than politic language, and even agree with him to a certain point, but it sparked a moment of worry that here was the creator of the game engaging in delineating the difference between official D&D/AD&D and "that other stuff" and going so far as to say that alternate rules not printed by him fell into the later category. In a strange sort of way, I think that Gary spelled his own doom at TSR in that way.

So now comes the question. Has D&D, the enjoyment of that game . . . has "fun" . . . become commodified? Become dependent to a greater or lesser extent upon continued purchasing of official published material? Is it to the detriment or benefit of the game at large? Where do these lines get drawn?

My inclination is to say that, in regards to the current incarnation of the "official" D&D game (i.e., fourth edition), the answer is yes most assuredly. More strongly so because WOTC's "expanded core" concept. It was just as true in 3.x when, in order to accord with whatever character concept somebody had, new material was continualy published to further refine and define these concepts to the point where a knight and a samurai weren't just variations of fighters, but were unique and individualized classes and, in the case of the samurai, several unique classes.

Is it a benifit or a detriment? This I don't have a real answer for. On the one hand, I will decry the vast majority of the schlock published over the last several years by WOTC as exactly what it is: bird cage liner. However, at the same time, I seriously doubt that D&D would have survived today in a continually published form if not for the books we today call crap and the money grubbing bastards that distribute them in expansion pack games.

Or am I just a lunatic?

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Best Mysteries Are The Ones Never Solved

One of the better dungeons - in terms of map, context, and content - is in DL8, Dragons of Despair, about midway through the much maligned DL series of modules. Of course, the plot that runs through this particular installment of the DragonLance modules is as horrific as any of the others, but the maps of the High Clerist's Tower illustrate again that, at least some of the time, the locations of these modules are worth pulling out and using even if you loathe and despise the plot hammer hanging over your head. The tower is big, convoluted, full of little traps and, if actively defended by an organized military force, an absolute terror to an invading party.

But that particular dungeon is not what this post is really about, at least not primarily.

Earlier today, I was chatting with a fellow in the office about DL8 and the High Clerist's Tower and how it was a great set of maps when he made the comment that (paraphrasing) "it's a shame because out of the context of the module, no players will figure out the mystery about the dragon traps on the lower level." My response (exact wording) was "so?".

Sometimes, there are mysterious things in dungeons, or in worlds, that may have nothing at all to do with what's going on, but they attract interest all the same. A great joy of mine as a DM would be having the players walk into the High Clerist's Tower and spend time and effort trying to figure out the nature of the dragon trap rooms, whether or not it actually mattered in the context I was using the dungeon. It gets them engaged in the goings on in the universe on a level greater and deeper than looking for the next ambulatory XP baloon to bust. It gives me an opportunity, even if there really is no mystery at all and that oddly shaped room at the end of the corridor is nothing but an oddly shaped room, to throw in some of the background material that I've put together by this time. "You've heard of Kethric the Mad, High Architect to Emporor Kabori, and that he used to build strangely shaped structures that were rumored to obey eldritch and arcane lines of force . . ." It might not have anything at all to do with Kethric, but if I wanted to add that story of the architect in, this is the perfect time to do it, a time when the players are more apt to actually listen to it and retain it for when Kethric becomes much more important somewhere else.

I think a great way to get the players to sit up and pay attention now and then, especially if their attention is starting to wander, is to throw in something wierd or strange: some fixture of the dungeon or a sound or a nameless monument that just begs for investigation, but is, in the end, nothing at all.

Of course, it could all go wrong and you could end up coaxing your players into spending three hours of valuable game time poring over a nothing, but players tend to do that anyway.

Some possibilities:

A standing stone at the approximate center of a meadow. Any dwarf or other stone crafty individual can tell that it is of a type of stone not found in this region for a hundred miles or more; it was obviously moved purposefully to this location long ago.

Deep within a labarythine dungeon, an imposing statue of a minotaur or other humanoidsh being points dramatically in a random direction, perhaps at a wall, or back down the corridor the PC's just entered by.

Every twenty feet or so, the color of the flooring of the corridor or room changes from a typical matte grey to a shiny ebony. No readily discernable pattern is evident, but who knows what can be discovered with an extended survey?

A large rectangular room with two foot square tiles arranged in a pattern as a chessboard.

As above, except tiles are set poorly in sand so that when one is stepped on it depresses while others around it rise up. (gleefully stolen from Kenzer's version of B2)

A gurgling sound, remeniscent of a bubbling stream or other running water is heard periodically. No such water source can be discovered with cursory exploration.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Falling In Love With Swords and Wizardry

I splurged recently and picked up copies of Knockspell #1 and #2, Swords and Wizardry, and the S&W monster book. Of course, I had my downloaded copy of the rules beforehand and had gone through them more than once, but in seeing it all out on paper, I feel inspired by it. I'm beginning to see Thylia more and more in the light of Swords and Wizardry and am rapidly coming to a point where I'll use it instead of AD&D 2e if and when Thylia becomes an actual game.

Now all I have to do is find a group of gamers.

And some free time.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Supplements and Sorcery

James over at Grognardia talks about there being, perhaps, too many supplements coming out now from the Old School and the possible negative effects of this. Specifically, that the market - such as it is - will be "flooded with a glut of product" that will only be read, never used in play.

Of course, he's right. Coming from the 2nd edition background that I do, I can't ever forget some of the worst symptoms of a dying TSR. Hell, no matter how hard I try, I can never forget about elfish prosthetic limbs, nor rangers that turn into trees and grow third arms out of their chests, or any of a hundred really bad ideas enshrined as "options" in the Complete Handbook series of supplements. Of course, this bred the most despicable attitude I can think of in D&D: that of player entitlement - the thought that if the player wants something, he should be allowed to have it and that the DM is nothing more than a rules reciter and wish fulfiller. Maybe that's a little extreme, but not overly in my experience.

There's a great deal of good that can be said for a game that can be played entirely out of one book. That's what made Gamma World 1e and 2e so fabulous. Not to mention the Rules Cyclopedia (maybe that one's cheating since it's half a dozen books under one binding, but still). That's what makes Swords and Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord so great. One book, some dice, some friends, and a lot of imagination. No official supplements, add ins, or do-majiggers.

But then again, there's a problem with it too. If your game only has one book and no continuing publications (a magazine, some modules, a supplement here and there), then like it or not, true or not, a good portion of the fan base is going to look at it and call it a dead system and walk away. Except for Fight On! magazine (if you even know about it), Labyrinth Lord is pretty much a single product with nothing new on the horizon. Why would I pick it up now wen there's just oodles of stuff coming out of every quarter supporting Swords and Wizardry? Hell, as James himself said, there's practically a metric buttload of stuff I can use to fiddle with and slap a great game together, or ignore entirely if I want, but the community around that game is live and vibrant as evidenced by the published material. Labyrinth Lord looks, at first blush, to be a little dead on the vine.

Don't get me wrong, I really like LL and have a copy next to my chair for nightly perusal along with a whole passel of other gaming books. It's just that I'd like to see a Labyrinth Lord companion or something like that hit the shelves. I know, I know, shut up and or put up.

The horrific glut of supplements over the course of 2nd edition did one thing really really well. It imagined the shit out of AD&D. Hundreds of ideas just thrown at the wall to see what would stick. Every time somebody had a brain fart that read along the lines of "wouldn't it be cool if . . .", it ended up in a book that sold for $20 each to thousands. Yeah, maybe the dross to gems ratio was a little out of rational whack, but one must admit that amidst all the bunk, there were some pretty damn cool ideas out there! And the great thing is, no two people will ever agree on just what was cool and what was crap!

Take it to the current day. We've got little digest supplements and adventures and everybody's little brain farts being thrown into print via the internet or Lulu or whatever format for OSRIC and Swords and Wizardry and whatever other system clone is out there and there's a real hunger to see more, to put money into the hands of the creators. That's nothing but a good thing in my book, even if you find that 50%, or even 90%, of it is junk. You don't have to use the junk. You don't even have to use the gems. It just warms the subcockle region of my heart to actually be excited over some of these things again.

The Old School is viable again, and it's because people are throwing their ideas on paper and throwing it against the wall to see what sticks. It gives me real hope that one day, I'll be walking through a book store or, better yet, a toy store and see one of these books on the shelf for sale and a kid begging his mother for the $15 to buy it.

Screw purity. Screw the fear that piles and piles of junk might obscure the great tidbits. Put it out there and imagine the hell out of D&D again.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Language is difficult to learn. Not just those weird, foreign languages, but even our native language. Hell, I've been speaking, writing, and reading the English language for near 28 years now, and I still haven't got it down 100%. None of us has. That's why it bothers me that adventurers in many FRPG's seem to be flawless polyglots, able to speak a number of languages without difficulty that would give even the most skilled linguists today pause. Worse yet, literacy seems to be nigh universal in those intelligent enough to learn it in the first place (or, for that matter, in games who even make a distinction between them).

That's yet another reason that I like 2nd edition non-weapon proficiencies. They offer me, as the DM, to limit the polyglot issue. Learning to speak a language takes up a full slot. Learning to read/write said language take an additional slot. That's a slot taken away from other things, like fire starting, mountaineering, riding, etc. So, yes, you can create a character who knows twelve dialects of elfese, but you're going to have to devote a great deal of study to it.

Of course, that doesn't even approach my general dissatisfaction with the whole "common" language idea, or alignment tongues, but that's another issue.