Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Glog, Trap Finding and Player/game time

In a brilliant post, DIY & Dragon made a long list of various resources in RPGs and how they are often managed in D&D.  She highlighted the fact that the ULTIMATE resource is not hp, xp or spell slots, but *player time*.  This time should be spent wisely doing something fun, and not spent on tedious tasks that are not the goal/fun parts of the game.  If  you are really into intrigue, you don't want to spend 1/4 of your time fiddling with encumbrance.

In this vein, I've been thinking a lot about the GLOG and my experience with it, and what worked and what didn't.  I really liked the minimalistic aspect of the game play, which allowed the players to focus on scheming, shenanigans and hilarious mishaps, along with dabbling with magic.  Great stuff. However, the trap detection system is non existent… and my understanding is that in old-school gaming, you just describe how you are detecting traps:  I look for a trip wire, I look for a pressure plate, I look for holes in the ceiling from which darts, burning acid or bees would come out etc etc etc.  This procedure takes a lot *player time*, and I'm not sure if it's actually better than "I search for trap"  "Ok roll for it" and adjudicate the results. 

And if you agree that the trap finding part is tedious and not a good use of player time then... a trap finding skill is needed...

… and from that, it's just a hop and a skip to claiming that a proper skill system should be added to the GLOG!  And well... as long as it was fairly simple, I *think* that it would be ok.  BUT it would be *essential* that the fundamental principle that "a good plan works and doesn't need a roll" be respected.  If the trap is a trip wire, and the player specifically looks for those then... it's found.  

What skill system?  I don't know. I hear that LotFP has a good one?  I'm reasonably satisfied with the 5e one, although, ironically, I find it is at its worse when traps are concerned - there is something called passive perception, and a high passive perception basically auto-detects traps.  And that's not great either. 

Friday, April 26, 2019

A forgotten book: Lore of the Crypt Book IV: New Rules, Races, and Classes

A while ago, I created a review on for a book I had from back in the days.  I wrote the review in part because the topic interested me (a chapter on alchemy) but also because as far as I could tell, there was no information on the web about this book *at all*.  I wanted to well, note it down for prosperity. 

But what if something happens to  Well, better have a second source eh?  So I'm editing this review somewhat and republishing it here :) 

This is a 72 page RPG rules booklet, part of a bigger series (the Lore of the Crypt), that was published in 1991 by Underworld Publishing. Although this is not a D&D product, it strongly influenced by D&D It was published in the days of TSR, where 3rd party publishers of D&D material had to be very careful not to get sued, and often kept a low profile.

 Because very few, if any, people are playing the actual system anymore, I'm going to be reviewing this with this main idea in mind: can the *ideas* in this book be imported into a game?

The book is small (paperback sized) and has no color. There is about half a dozen black and white illustrations in the book. The art is... okayish I suppose. The layout of the book on the other hand is very competent. There are clear headings and subheadings, the tables are easy to read etc. I didn't note any glaring typos or spelling errors. 

This is a 2 page chapter where the gaming terms used in the book are defined. Although this isn't useful as a source of inspiration, it is *very* useful to have such a segment in a supplement like this. The authors openly acknowledge that the goal of this section is to help the reader integrate the supplement in their game. The D&D roots here are quite apparent, although they have an additional ability score, beauty. 

CHAPTER 1: Cambions
The next 16 pages of the books are devoted to cambions. Some portion is devoted to discussing the background of such characters, and also describing groups of cambions that have grouped together forming orders, communities etc. Some of these groups are openly evils (ie vilains) while others seek to redeem themselves. These may be usable in your game, but I can see that some of these organisations really would *not* work for certain settings. The base assumption here is that there are a somewhat large number of cambions living in the world. Some backgrounds are noted as not being suitable for PCs because of their evil and power. 

The next section of the chapter is how to design a cambion - each cambion is assumed to be somewhat unique. Every background (raised by humans, by devils, part of the Born Again Colony etc) gives the character a number of power points, disfigurement points, and background points (starting money/equipment) to spend. There is then a list of attribues: claws, wings, reptilian skin, night vision etc. Each of these have a cost in power points and/or disfigurement points. The end result is a character with a number of useful physical attribues but also characteristics that clearly set him or her appart as having a fiendish heritage. 

Clearly this section will need some work for balance purpose, as it is possible to build a rather powerful set of abilities. However, flavor wise this is a far more interesting implementation than the somewhat bland tiefling race in various D&D systems. Even if the GM decides that this is too powerful for PCs, it still could be used for NPCs. 

CHAPTER 2: Spell point system
I suppose that for a D&D player in 1991, a spell point system would have been a very intriguing proposition. The system is a bit complicated but not too much. The rather intriguing aspect of the system is the recovery. On one hand, the amount of spell points (and thus capacity to cast spells) is quite significant, esp at high level. However, regaining spell points is *slow*. A caster can thus unleash a barrage of spells, but will then take weeks to fully recharge. Would this make for good play? I don't know, but it's an interesting idea. 

CHAPTER 3: Magical zone
A 2 page mini chapter describing zones of low or high magic (0-6) and how they interact with the spell point system noted above. 

CHAPTER 4: Piety
3 pages on a system where the actions of a cleric/priest etc grant (or lose) piety points, based on the tenets of the character's religion. A few gods are given as examples - a cleric of Thor would get piety from fighting giants. These piety points can then be "cashed in" to obtain small or large boons from the god (+1 on a roll, permanent stat increase etc). 3 pages is not enough for such a potentially influential system on your game, but the idea is neat and can easily be expanded upon. 

CHAPTER 5: The Alchemist
The book devotes 20 pages to this new class, and to me this is the *best* part of the book, but also the most infuriating. 

After a ... dubious .... introduction on the history of Alchemy (discovered by PCs who are clearly named after the authors), there is an XP progression chart (to level 11), which has some rather old school elements (you need a trainer and time time at lower levels to gain levels), elements that could easily be dispensed with. It is puzzling that the class only goes up to level 11, as other elements of the book (the spellpoint chart) clearly indicates that this is a 20 level system. As the class seems to be designed for a 10 level run, it would need to be "stretched" into 20 levels, which wouldn't be too difficult. 

There is a 2 page section on what can an alchemist do/know at each level, consisting mostly flavor text rather than rules, although it could be useful for the GM to adjudicate or flesh out the class further. It also bears mentioning that a lot of basic elements of the class - how much HP does it have, what are its saving throws like, can it use armor etc - are not detailed, and left for the GM to determine. 

Casting spells for an alchemist is more complicated than other casters. First there is a chance of failure when the spell is cast which is dependent on the alchemist's level, intelligence, and difficulty of the spell. I think that the numbers given for difficulties need adjustment, but the basic idea is sound. 

A further complication is how the alchemist prepares his or her spells. An alchemist does not have memorized spells or a pool of spellpoints or such. Spells can be cast as many times as desired... if they have been prepared in advance. The alchemist must spend time, effort and resources preparing the spell, by concocting a potion, an explosive etc using a number of components and procedures. The alchemist cannot create magic out of thin air, it must operate through an object of some kind.

The crafting procedures are elaborate, specific to each spell, and quite fun. For example, a low level spell allows an alchemist to create rations by mixing salt, silver dust and carbon with granite and "bake" it into long lasting (but not very nutritious) food. A number of spells are really "magical devices" that allow to cast spells, such as a hollow steel tube coated with mercury on the inside and melted glass on the outside that can shoot a few lighting bolt-like effect. It is unclear what kind of "set up" is needed for these procedures however - is access to a full alchemical lab needed? Can a portable kit do the trick? This is again left to the GM. 

A crucial aspect is that to power these potions/devices/etc, the alchemist must use an "activator" - the source of magic. The weakest (and cheapest) activator is mere incantations. An alchemist using nothing but incantations as his activator would be in effect a mediocre mage. However, there are also 3 plant-based activators that are increasingly rare but powerful: bloodroot, mandrake and nightshade, the later which only grows in the Abyss or areas of very high magical emanations. These plants seem to concentrate magic from the environment into their tissues, and the alchemist knows the secrets to extract said magic. Only a high level alchemist will have the know-how and access to use mandrake on any kind of regular basis, and nightshade (the most potent activator) is always hard to come by. 

If we look at that ration spell again, using incantation will create 1d10 rations. Using bloodroot will result in a more effective casting of the spell and create level x 1d6 rations. The rations created when using mandrake will be even more potent and heal a bit of HP, and the nightshade rations will allow the person eating them to forgo sleep for a few days... but also perhaps suffer hallucination (nightshade often has side effects).
The 4 activators system is a very neat idea. It allows the alchemist to prepare a weak version of the spell if she doesn't really care too much about potency; or use one of the other 3 activators for more potent versions. It bears noting that if the GM doesn't like the 3 plant-based activators, it would be easy to replace them with 3 other "special ingredients" - a baseline one, a strong one, and a potent but strange one. 

All of this makes for a very cool and flavorful casting system. Unfortunately... there is no clear balancing mechanism! An alchemist can cast spells as long he or she has preparations ready, there is no need to memorize spells or spend spell slots/points etc. This means that a wealthy alchemist with months to prepare could have hundreds of spells ready! The text recommends that the GM uses the time required to prepare spells as well as the costs and rarity of the ingredients (especially the activators) as a way to control the amount of spells an alchemist can use. Balancing spellcasting like this seems to me to be a very tall order, and quite challenging for the GM. Too much time/money/activators and the alchemist will dominate. Too little and the class will be ineffective. 

A sample of 17 spells is given to get the player started, but is not intended to be the entire repertoire. (The authors note that a fully detailed alchemist with a complete spell list would have taken more pages than they had available in the book). These spells include sleep, fog and charm spells, attack spells (a missile launcher, fireball, lighting-bolt like), poisons, explosives, acids, vitality potions and at higher levels spells to create life forms or teleporation portals. These spells are quite flavorful, but a lot of them have missing rule elements such as range. 

Overall, the alchemist section is tremendously inspiring, and this class could be spruced up and introduced in a more modern D&D game *if* the GM is able to find a way to balance the "materials limit your spellcasting" method of the alchemist with the more traditional methods of "X spells/day" of other casting classes. 

CHAPTER 6: The Lloth.
This is an 8-page section on a new PC/NPC subterranean race with 3 sub-races. This section is moderately interesting, and the authors did spend some time on the sociology of the race and how they would act in human society, which is nice. However... it's not very inspiring overall. 

CHAPTER 7 and 8: Spiked shields/booths etc and Disarming attacks.
These two short sections are not particularly innovative. They might have been in 1991, but by now these are well trodden grounds - many systems have already rules in place for these scenarios. 

CHAPTER 9: Female characters.
Thankfully this chapter is only a single page, because it's rather sexist, with suggestions that women would have much lower strength but slightly higher stamina (oh thanks!), probably not taught to read etc. This part of the book should remain in the 1990s and is best ignored. 

This book offers intriguing ideas on alternative ways to balance spells (slow regenerating spell points), reward characters for role-playing their faith well or design a character with a fair amount of fiendish influence. All of these would require extra work from the GM to balance and integrate into their game. 

This is particularly true for the Alchemist class, which is the real gem inside the book. It has a *lot* of neat ideas but lack crucial elements to properly balance vs other spellcasters. 

Despite all these flaws, I have to say I'm rather fond of this little books, and I really wish I could use some of the material one day. Unfortunately I only have book IV of the "Lore of the Crypt" series - if the other 4 books are anything like this, there are probably a few gems in there too.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Alchemists and resources - a hard nut to crack

So today I was reading a series of post on DIY & Dragons about resource management, and it reminded me of this old bugaboo of mine - the alchemist, and how to do it "right".

The fundamental problem is one of resource management.  Specifically, how many "kabooms" can the alchemist do?  An alchemist could do many things - a healing salve, a draught that turns you invisible, a bomb - for this discussion it doesn't really matter, I'm just going to use "bombs" but it doesn't have to be a bomb.  What matters is how often can these powers be used? 

With warriors, you... swing your sword.  It's an at will power.  With spellcasters, you have "slots", or "spell points" or whatnots, a daily allotment of magical power that you eventually run out.  And it makes sense - using magic is taxing, and eventually your mystical reserves are exhausted.  (In some systems, there are "cantrips" - small spells you have mastered so well you can use them at will. This is a good idea IMO but besides the point I'm trying to make).  

In the 4rth edition of D&D, the answer to how often a power can be was made rather explict - you had "at will power", "encounter powers" (usable once per fight) and "daily" powers (usable once a day).  And while I'm not fond of the ruleset, you have to admit that this is a pretty useful distinction. It's also one that is used very frequently in almost every gaming system, although it's not always made explicit (5e has sort of a soft version of this with the short rest vs long rest powers).  There are things you can do at will, and there are things you can do so many times per day.  It's convenient, and it works.  

So what about our alchemist?  How many bombs can she throw in a day?  Well... how many bombs does she have?  It's not like she is exausting some sort of mystical resources, they are bombs she already made.  Alchemy is an external art - you  make something that has power, the magic comes from the ingredients (and your craft), not some inner source of power (or god or whatnot).  So how many bombs *can* she have?  Unless the bombs are pretty limited in power, it shouldn't be "as many as she wants".   There needs to be some kind of limit to the alchemist's power (otherwise no one will want to be a wizard).  

In a number of systems I've seen, the answer has been limited to "X per day".  And well... it does work.  And it doesn't mean that the class will be bad - the alchemist in pathfinder is particularly well done (in D&D 2nd ed on the other hand, the alchemist was just a reskined wizard, which is kinda boring).  But it bothers me that the mechanism is the same as spells.  It feels artificial, it doesn't "fit", it doesn't feel right..  Are there good alternatives?  Ways to limit the alchemist's power?

Well there are a few false leads.  One is encumbrance.  Sure you can't carry a gigaton of bombs with you, but this particular balance lever can easily be circumvented.  A clever alchemist can get a bag of holding... or a mule, or a trusty henchmen or two and tada, limit circumvented.

Another one is money.  Bombs are expensive.  Seems logical right?  But this is fraught with difficulties for the GM. Suddenly the amount of money available is directly related to the power a character has, and that puts all sorts of constrain on the GM.  And what if other players donate some of their cash to the alchemist?  So this is not a great way to balance things.

Another false lead is time.  Bombs take time to make. Again a logical answer, but now the constrain is put on campaign pacing.  Crazy race against time to save the prince?  The alchemist will be hard pressed.  3 months of downtime for some reason?  The alchemist now has an arsenal sufficient to obliterate a small province.  

The best idea I've found so far - and this is what I need help with - is a "special ingredient(s)/resource(s)". This resource is/are rare and difficult to come by - even if the alchemist has 50 000 gp, if there are only 7 doses available... that's all he can get. Of course, as the character increases in level his capacity to access this special resource(s) increases.

A very clever system I saw was in a little booklet published in 1991 called "Lore of the Crypt Book IV: New Rules, Races, and Classes" (there is next to no information about this book online, I've written a review on the link above). In this system, there were 4 "activators" - special ingredients that the alchemist could use to power his concoctions, the source of the magical energy (there were other ingredients but they were just "flavor", the important part was the activators). The simplest was just incantations - but that resulted in alchemical spells that were much weaker than what a wizard could do, ie the alchemist was a 3rd rate wizard. But the other 3 activators were rare ingredients of increasing rarity and power. (These rare activators were all magical herbs - bloodroot, mandrake, and nightshade - but really they could be whatever the GM wanted them to be... gems? dragon blood? gnome hats?)

So the GM doesn't have to limit access to money to "rein in" the alchemist.  Instead, the GM can limit supply of these rare activators - the magic sauce. The presence of the cheapest activator (incantation, or some other freely avaiable stuff) insured that the alchemist always had access to *some* kind of magic, and the relative rarity of the activators limited how many more potent bombs the alchemist can have at the ready.  

Unfortunately, the little booklet never gave any indication on how rare or common these activators should be, ie providing very little guidance on how to balance this beyond vague "at this level, the alchemist should know where to get activator X" recommendations. I've never managed to find a solution. Should a level 5 alchemist find 3 activators per adventure? 20 per level? No idea. 

It would be nice to find a way to escape the "at will, encounter, daily" paradigm made explicit by 4e... 

edit:  This post by Diaghilev should be of great interest to any alchemy-interested player or GM...