Monday, March 30, 2009

Sword & Wizardry "House Rules" of the Web: Akrasia's "Sword & Sorcery" House Rules

While continuing my troll for especially noteworthy house rules for 0d&d and s&w, Akrasia's really nifty s&w rules for "sword & sorcery" type game over on the s&w forums jumps out as well worth highlighting and discussing at some length.  Regardless of whether or not I use any of it, I think many of his changes and additions are almost perfect for the genre.  I hope he follows his own suggestion and puts together a KNOCKSPELL article out of this.

(Incidently, I remember how much you appreciate "trade-offs" a la Cthulu, so I thought you might like to see this as well, Ironbeard.  Read on, but I must be honest.  I don't think I've ever really cared for the cleric and this makes me think I wouldn't miss him much were he gone).

Take a look at the original post for all the details, but I'm most interested in what he does to magic.  (Although his modifications of Damage/Hit Point is equally interesting).  Here are the highlights:  

(1)  There is no division between 'cleric' and 'magic-user' spells - all spells can be learned by magicians following the Vancian system.

(2)  No Spells above 6th level.

(3)  Spells are grouped according to three different "schools":  White, Grey, and Black Magic.  Akrasia breaks it down even further:
Spells are divided into the following seven groups:
1.Animism (‘white’ magic – promotes life and is ‘in tune’ with nature)
2.Telekinesis (‘white’ magic – involves moving and manipulating objects by magic)
3.Mentalism (‘grey’ magic – involves mental control of others)
4.Illusionism (‘grey’ magic – involves the creation and control of illusions)
5.Sorcerery (‘black’ magic – involves unleashing destructive powers on others)
6.Necromancy (‘black’ magic – involves the creation and control of undead)
7.Demonology (‘black’ magic – involves contacting, summoning, and controlling extra-planar creatures)

White Magic, Grey Magic, Black Magic, and Corruption
-Magicians can cast ‘white’ magic (animist and telekinetic spells) just as the core magic-user casts normal magic-user spells.
-When magicians cast ‘grey’ magic (mentalist and illusion spells) they suffer exhaustion damage equal to twice the level of the spell cast (so a magician who casts a third level mentalist spell would suffer six points of damage)
-When magicians cast ‘black’ magic (sorcery, necromancy, or demonology spells), they suffer exhaustion identical to that caused by ‘grey’ magic spells (twice the spell level). 
In addition, magicians casting ‘black’ magic must make a saving throw (the magician adds his/her level to the roll, and subtracts twice the spell level to the roll) in order to avoid ‘corruption.’ If this saving roll is failed, the magician is corrupted slightly and suffers a loss of one temporary point of Wisdom. Lost points of Wisdom can be recovered at a rate of one point per complete day of rest and meditation (no other action possible). 

If a magician loses a temporary point of Wisdom, there is a chance that this loss will be permanent. The chance is a percentage probability equal to five times the spell level (thus there would be a 20% likelihood that a magician who cast a fourth-level necromantic spell, and failed his/he saving throw, would lose a point of wisdom permanently).

A magician whose permanent wisdom score is lowered to 2 becomes insane (or possibly the thrall of an extra-planar demonic force). He/she henceforth is an NPC.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

"Old School" Initiative?

As I start thinking about which initiative resolution mechanic is most consonant with an "old school" flavor, I wanted to throw out the general question of what systems have been used in Swords & Wizardry and in the other "official" d&d versions.  Also, house rule alternative systems are also of great interest to me.  

Four points seem most salient in discussing Swords & Wizardry Initiative mechanic:

(1) Initiative is d6 governed
(2) Initiative is decided by two opposing rolls (one for monster(s) vs one for PCs)
(3) Initiative is rerolled each new combat round
(4) Ties in initiative roll do not necessarily have to be resolved.  Simultaneous action is possible.

Here are my initial thoughts on the suitability of this basic mechanic for our purposes.

First, I like the d6, which seems very old school and very s&w.  But I fear it will have to go if we tinker with (2) as I am tempted to do.  You see, I don't really like making a single PC roll being determinant of all PCs, since it still leaves unresolved the order of action of the PCs themselves.  I understand that this could be determined via on-the-spot improvisation, but given (3) you'd be winging the ordering of PCs actions all the time.  Why not allow individual PCs to roll for initiative each round and allow for some strange ordering patterns and associated challenges that will follow? (e.g., Blaine the Thief reached 0 hit points the previous round and Johann the Cleric decides he wants to try to make it over to the thief and cast a Cure wounds during the next round.  This relatively straightforward action could be complicated by a poor initiative roll on the part of Johann...etc.)

One problem, though, with changing (2) and allowing individual PC initiative rolls (at least in any game s&w game we run in the near future) is that the number of PCs is likely to reach or exceed 8 at the minimum.  8 opposing d6 rolls is going to produce ties and time and time again.  Consequently, I wonder if we adopt individual rolls, shouldn't we change (1) to some other die?  Thus even a little tinkering in this way leads us further from the obvious "old school" trappings such as the ubiquity of the d6.
I'll offer some more thoughts in the comments as they come to me.  I do find it very interesting that the LBB and Greyhawk supplement don't seem to have any initiative mechanic to speak of.  Perhaps its the notorious lack of organization, but I don't seem to find anything on the subject.

What are the mechanics in the subsequent editions that are worth mentioning?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thoughts on House Rules Regarding Combat Movement

I’m interested in discussing possible house rules regarding movement in combat. The SW rules are, by design I believe, deliberately vague here to allow individual DMs to interpret them as they see fit. Here are the issues that strike me as most pertinent:

(1) The core rules state that a “character may both move and attack in the same round” (16).

Does a character’s attack have to come at the beginning or end of his or her movement, or can a character attack in the middle of his or her movement?

(2) Under what circumstances should a free attack be allowed? The core rules state that a character’s base movement rate “may be interpreted as the distance a character can move in combat without suffering free attacks from enemies or consequences a retreating character may incur” (14). Elsewhere, the rules state, “[m]ost referees allow the enemy a free attack if the character (or monster) moves away by more than its ‘combat’ movement of base movement rate in feet” (20).

This seems to imply that a character can move freely around and among enemy combatants as long as he or she does not exceed his or her combat movement rate or pass through the 3’ of space that an enemy occupies. Do we want to go with this?

(3) The rules also state that “[i]t’s only possible to make melee attacks when the two combatants are within 10’ of each other” (19).

This rule strikes me as a little odd, given that the core rules also suggest “[b]ecause most movement and combat increments are divisible by three, it is easiest to assume that a character ‘occupies’ an area about 3’ across for the purposes of marching and fighting” (20). Should not the maximum distance at which opponents can attack also be divisible by three?

Before offering my opinions about which house rule to use regarding these issues, I add the caveat that I have little experience actually playing SW. My ideas here are thus almost entirely theoretical. I therefore wholeheartedly welcome all suggestions and input from gamers with more practical experience.

I like a little tactical nuance, so my initially inclination was to allow characters to attack during their move. Thus, a character with combat movement rate of 9’ per round could move 6’, attack, and then move another 3’. In order to make things fair, opponents get a free attack if any character or monster moves out of an area that they threaten. The range at with characters can attack in melee should be reduced to 3’. After looking at this closely, I was struck by its similarity to 3.5. My instincts tell me that there might be all sorts of problems with this that might not reveal themselves except through game play.

Another option would be to rule that a character can either move and attack or attack and move. Free attacks are only allowed if a character or monster exceeds his or her combat movement rate or attempts to move through a space occupied by an opponent. This approach appeals to me because it seems more in keeping with the generally tactically light spirit of play implied by SW and old school gaming in general. While I have absolutely no qualms about taking liberties, even generous ones, with such implied assumptions, I am hesitant to do so without having first played the SW rules “straight.” In other words, I’m hesitant to get too fancy until I’m comfortable with the basics.

I’m not sure at this point. I always liked some of the tactical aspects of 3.5, but I’m hesitant to import them into SW where they just seem out of place.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Swords & Wizardry Core Rules Question: XP Distribution Schemes

Okay, here I have a question and a thought for you on old school experience points:

(1)  I've read through both s&w core rules and Men & Magic and I can't seem to find any hint about how to distribute experience points across multiple PCs.  In both the sections on gaining experience confine themselves to talking about a single PC.  Also, I don't seem to find much discussion of this topic on the relevant forums, so I suspect I must be missing something obvious.

I do know that ad&d's rigid system isn't for me, but what is "common practice" in XP distribution across the entire party in old school games?  Equal division of the grand total of XP's acquired such as in 3.5?  Or some other scheme?

(2)  I read (somewhere?) that the original Blackmoor campaign ran with the requirement that PCs only received XP's for treasure spent.  I think I like this quite a bit, since it obviously encourages players to be avarious.  But I am still quite confused about how treasure and XP's are related in most people's games.  

For example, if one follows the old Blackmoor rule, does that mean that PCs divide treasure amongst themselves first and then each individual PC only gains experience when s/he spends the coin or finds a buyer for the jewels/gems/items?  Thus it becomes at least theoretically possible that some players gain more experience than others if they fail to find a buyer or fail to spend all their loot.

But if this is so, what to do in the case of XP's for monsters?  Divide equally?  Okay, but then when?  After each encounter?  At some other time?  See, its getting overly complicated fairly quickly, with each PC having to effectively keep track of two different pools of XP's.

I'm still thinking about it...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

On the Virtues of Descending Armor Class

Here are my thoughts on the question of whether to use ascending or descending AC in Swords and Wizardry. To some, this probably seems like a silly question. After all, what difference can it possibly make? Both options are, as far as I can tell, mechanically identical. A 1st level fighter still needs to roll a 15 to hit an opponent clad in chainmail whether the opponent's AC is 5 (descending) or 14 (ascending). That said, however, I argue that the fact that the designers of SW decided to allow for this choice in the game rules suggests that that there must be something at stake in opting for one version as opposed to the other, even if the ultimate significance is minor. If ones choice really made absolutely no difference, then it wouldn’t make sense to offer a choice at all.

I am inclined to use the descending version of armor class rules because they are more consonant with the original rules of D and D as they existed in all the earlier editions of the game prior to version 3. As such, they seem to be more in keeping with the broadly defined “spirit” of old school play. It seems to me that much of old school play aims to recreate and recapture the feel of what it was like to play D and D in its heyday. Much of this “feel” derives, not simply from game mechanics, but from the details and peripheral material, the accoutrements, of older versions of D and D. These elements include things like the style of art work, the specific wording or phrasing of game terms, and the specific arrangement of details. I feel that the more of these original details that one includes, the easier it is to invoke the flavor of the original game.

Of course, some of these details, like descending armor class, are idiosyncratic and counter intuitive, and we might thus be tempted to reject them. I remember once reading a justification for the 3.0 rules that argued this very point, that the descending armor class system was counter intuitive. Higher numbers just feel better after all; a greater number should suggest a greater and more desirable value. Moreover, the argument went, the descending armor class system is inconsistent with the rest of the rules which more often than not associate higher numerical values with greater power or advantage. If a higher number of hit dice equals greater strength, shouldn’t a higher number armor class rating suggest more effective armor? This is a legitimate complaint. The descending armor class system is a little counter intuitive and stands as a potentially annoying inconsistency.

But this is precisely what makes the descending armor class system preferable to its alternative. Why? Paradoxically, the very oddity gives rise to its charm. This system, used in Oe D and D, was peculiar and weird from the outset, but then again, so was D and D. Simply put, throughout the history of its earlier editions, part of D and D’s flavor lay in the fact that some of its rules were a little quirky and arbitrary. While many later generations of gamers have come to regard these quirks as flaws, I see them as essential ingredients in the crazy mélange that is D and D. Early generations of gamers accepted these quirks, and as time went by, came to enjoy them. Sometimes people come to love a thing precisely because it doesn’t work the way one initially expects it to.

To illustrate by way of a non gaming example, let us take the case of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. That novel departs in many significant ways from how conventional wisdom dictates that a novel should work. Melville’s story telling is inconsistent; Ishmael is the main character in the beginning, but by the second half inexplicably dissolves into the text to become a virtual third person narrator. Strange chapters on cetology break up the flow of the narrative and really offer little to advance the plot. This is why abridged versions typically omit these sections. I don’t believe Melville deliberately broke with tradition in the name of artistic experimentation. I believe he just got a little sloppy and let his vision and his genius outstrip his literary technique and craftsmanship. But are these elements flaws? In one sense, yes they are. But these idiosyncrasies cannot ultimately be separated from the total experience of reading Moby Dick, a novel of undeniable depth and complexity. Over time, scholars have actually come to view these idiosyncrasies as part of this complexity. These “flaws,” in fact, are part of what makes Moby Dick such a memorable and unique work of art. As generations have gone by, Melville fans and scholars have actually come to love these aspects of the novel, because without them, it’s just not Moby Dick.

In a similar sense, the peculiar elements and inconsistencies of original D and D also made the game memorable and unique. I argue, in fact, that their very quirkiness actually helped to make them more memorable. The more of these elements that I include in my game, the more likely I am to recreate the vibe associated with the original game. When I first started playing D and D as a boy in the late Seventies, I too sensed something odd about the descending armor class system. But over time, this element, along with dozens of others came to characterize the D and D experience. It helped contribute to the gestalt of D and D for me.

In the final assessment, it probably doesn’t matter all that much whether I choose the descending version of the rule over its alternative. It’s just a minor detail. But I believe that good gaming results from the careful consideration and assemblage of such details. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

House Rules Question: Descending vs Ascending AC

To start the discussion off right, how about your current thinking on descending vs ascending AC in Swords&Wizardry.

Which are you currently thinking of using?  Benefits and drawbacks of each?

Standard Hirelings: The Grand Opening

Post House Rules, Classes, Races, Rules Questions, New Spells, Monsters, Interesting Links, and, above all else, musings on Swords & Wizardry and Oe d&d.