A Single Saving Throw

Save v. Dragon BreathIncreasingly, I’ve noticed that new games being written in the OSR style have only a single saving throw. The GM doesn’t ask you to make “Your save against breath/poison/spells/et al,” because it’s all covered by a single target number. And after seeing this three or four times, and trying it myself once, I’ve begun to wonder what value there is in dividing the saves up in the first place.

Multiple saves are certainly more flavorful and more granular, but what benefits does that bring? Half the time I call for a save, I feel as though the flavorful name of the save has absolutely nothing to do with the thing being saved against. The save versus breath (sometimes called “breath weapon,” or in the ancient texts, as the save versus “Dragon Breath,”) is used to avoid a danger which quickly fills a large space, and typically results in half damage on a successful save. Aside from a dragon’s fiery breath, it might be used to avoid a volley of crossbow bolts set off by a trap, scatter-shot from a cannon, hot oil being dropped from the parapets of a wall, or many dozens of other things. In fact, the majority of things it will be used to save against will not be breath weapons. And don’t even get me started on Paralization, I don’t think I’ve ever had cause to call for that save when its name was actually relevant.

Saves against poison and spells are a little better, but the fact remains that some of the saves are so completely disassociated from their original purpose that their names have become anachronistic. But, perhaps it is important for each class to have some things it is good at saving against, and some things it is bad at saving against. Perhaps granularity is the reason for the system’s longevity. But, if it is, can someone please explain to me the logic which dictates what makes a given class good or bad at saving against something?

Why do wizards have a save of 13 v. poison, but 12 v. paralization? What makes clerics better at avoiding being turned to stone than everybody else? Some of these decisions seem more logical than others, of course. Wands having a lower save than Spells is cool, because it means a magical device will never truly live up to the power of a real caster. But, by and large, these decisions seem arbitrary.

Furthermore, I feel I must mention the amount of bookkeeping involved in having a multitude of saves for each character. When I’m making a new character, I need to record a number of my HP, a number for my AC, and far too many numbers for my saves–which will come into play far less often than the previous two numbers will. And the way they advance is so arbitrary that, for many characters, finding out what your new saves are might be the only reason you ever need to consult the book after creating your character. HP progresses according to your hit dice, AC progresses according to the armor you find, and saves progress a random amount at random levels. When I’m playing a rules-light game, nothing but spells cause me to reach for my books more frequently than saves do.

So I must ask: is there any good reason not to use only a single save for each class?

(As an aside, I should point out that if flavor and granularity are so very important, why not use Fortitude, Reflex, and Will saves like D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder? The flavor for these saves is more broadly applicable, and they offer a reasonable amount of granularity with an easy-to-understand logic behind it. )

Edit: Some relevant reading:

http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com/2010/12/on-abstraction.html

http://untimately.blogspot.com/2013/02/favorable-and-unfavorable-saves.html

New Look

Papers & Pencils Layout from 2012 through 2013As you may or may not have noticed (Hi, RSS readers!), I redesigned my website. As this change comes shortly after the first of the year, I think I’m obligated to write something to the effect of: “I’ve got a new look for a new year.” So…yeah. Consider that done.

P&P has needed this for awhile now. The old setup was clunky, loaded slowly, and was starting to have some really odd presentation issues. For example, for the last 9 months or so, when I logged into the admin account, the left and right sidebars would both load on the right side of the browser. It looked really stupid. Hopefully it was just me, as the admin, who saw it.

As rough as the old layout had become, though, it was a labor of love. I worked on it for two entire months, consulted with dozens of people, and modified it so heavily that I don’t think the original creator of the theme I used would even have been able to recognize it. This setup is much less fancy. It’s just the current default wordpress theme, with about 3 days of tinkering thrown on top of it. But there are significant improvements. Much more space for content, much faster loading times, and I’ve finally got a pretty solid search function! That’s exciting. I should also be able to get a nice navigation menu set up within a few weeks.

I hope you like it. Let me know if you’re having any issues. And just in case you’re wondering: no, it is not lost on me that my first post in several weeks has absolutely nothing to do with tabletop games. I’ll fix that too.

Magical Marvels 20: The Skull Censer

Skull Censer by CBMorrie
Art by cbMorrie

The Skull Censer was crafted in mockery of the sacred incense censers used by goodly faiths throughout the world. Built by the hands of devil worshipers, and consecrated with the blood of an unbaptized child, it was used during Black Sabbaths to “bless” the faithful.

The chains used for handling the censer are affixed to a human skull–rumors disagree on who precisely the skull belonged to, but it was undoubtedly a man consecrated to the priesthood of a lawful god. Long gold bands mounted within the upper jaw support the incense dish. Oddly, regardless of the incense placed in it, the smoke which rises from it is always brilliantly green, luminescent, and smells of delicious cooking meats.

Though pleasant, this smoke has a predictably nefarious purpose. Those subjected to it for prolonged periods will slowly be drained of their vital essence. It will leave them frail, and they are more likely to succumb to disease or minor injury. Whilst the user of the device grows ever stronger, feeding on their essences before abandoning their congregation to find a new one.

In game terms, anyone who breathes the smoke from this censer for 20 minutes or more will lose 1 permanent hit point, which is transferred permanently to the on wielding the censer. This effect stacks, but cannot affect the same victim more than once per two week period. So an evil priest could use this in a ceremony with 5 other people, and at the end of that ceremony each of those 5 would have 1 fewer hit points, whilst the priest would have 5 more hit points than she had before.

The victims of this censer are entitled to a save v. magic after each encounter, with a bonus to their roll equal to the total number of hit points they’ve lost. If they succeed, they notice that they have grown steadily weaker ever since they’ve been around this censer. (Though it will not grant them specific knowledge of the cause. If they started eating more grains around the same time they started being afflicted, they could easily attribute their weakness to the change in diet).

Sample Initiative

Monster Hunter SwordAfter taking some additional time to ruminate on my three requirements for an initiative system, I decided to take a stab at making an initiative system specifically with those three requirements in mind. Something which maximized excitement, without requiring too much time or attention from the players.

Players roll initiative individually, based on the speed of the weapon they are using. Most weapons, and any character who is not using weapons, roll 1d6 for their initiative. Characters using slow weapons, such as the sword pictured, roll 1d4 for their initiative. While characters using fast weapons, such as rapiers, loaded loaded crossbows, or daggers, roll 1d8 for their initiative. Slow, Average, and Fast weapons align nicely with the great, medium, and small/minor weapons in Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

There are no modifiers to these rolls. However, characters roll their initiative die a number of times equal to their dexterity bonus or penalty (with a minimum of 1 die rolled). If the character has a bonus, they take the best result of the dice they rolled, and drop the rest. If the character has a dexterity penalty, they do the opposite. Using only the worst result.

So a fellow with a -2 dexterity modifier wielding a Zweihänder would roll 2d4, and whichever result was lower would be their initiative. Meanwhile, a fellow with +2 dexterity wielding a dagger would roll 2d8 and take whichever result was higher as their initiative. Characters with initiatives of 1, -1, and 0 would all roll only a single die.

What I Require of Initiative

Some D6sRecently, Courtney asked if he could experiment on those of us in his Saturday game. I like experiments, so I said yes. So did everybody else. Courtney sent us the rules he was brewing (specific references to which will be light, as I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask Courtney how he feels about having them posted), and we began setting up our characters. The system isn’t run-of-the-mill D&D by a long shot, and I liked a lot of what I saw, particularly the way equipment will be managed. My funds were limited, so I started out with nothing but a big-ass sword, which I noted had a -3 initiative penalty. At the time, it seemed like a fine tradeoff.

I arrived late to the game, so it was already well underway by the time I showed up. Sometimes the French revolution gets exciting, and you forget that you need to wake up at 5:30am the next day in order to get to the D&D game on time. I mostly watched and listened, since I wasn’t fully up to speed on what our goals were. Everything seemed to be going well, and we were soon preparing an ambush for a set of giant cats.

There has already been some discussion of what followed. Suffice to say that the players were confused and frustrated by the initiative system. I, in particular, didn’t like it at all. Once Courtney explained it, I saw how it was–on paper–an elegant and interesting method. Clearly it did not work in practice. Though, with refinement, I think it could be more engaging than other methods. Playtesting will tell in future sessions.

Thinking about it, Initiative is odd. Every rule has permutations between various systems, and house variants besides, but the sheer number of vastly different methods of running initiative, and the effects those have on play, is kind of fascinating. It can be rolled individually for each combat participant, which takes more time, but maintains a clear order of operations. Alternatively it can be rolled for each ‘side’ of the combat (typically players / things players want to be dead), which keeps combat moving at a much faster pace, but might be a bit jumbled, with more confident players inadvertently edging out quieter players. Some people roll initiative only once, as Pathfinder does, which keeps things moving along, particularly when initiative has been complicated in other ways; whilst games like LotFP re-roll the initiative every round, so you’re never sure if your next turn will come before-or after-the thing that’s trying to kill you. Some games apply all manner of modifiers to initiative, while other keep modifiers simple, and still others use no modifiers at all.

And then there are some who run initiative in phases, as proscribed by the AD&D DMG. Spells must be declared at the start, then missile attacks take place, then melee attacks take place, then spells go off. This one consistently confuses me, and various GMs have frequently needed to tell me that I can’t perform an action, because if I’d wanted to do that I needed to declare it during an earlier phase. And then, of course, there are those who don’t use initiative at all. I’ve never tried this myself, but those who have seem perfectly happy with it.

It occurs to me that my ideal initiative system serves three functions, in descending order of importance:

  1. It does not require me to think too much. I want to focus on what my next action is, not when the rules allow me to take said action.
  2. It is fast. If the forward momentum of the game has to pause to figure out who is going next, then it is taking too long.
  3. It adds some amount of excitement to combat, beyond merely establishing turn order. If points 1 and 2 were all we cared about, why not move in descending order of dexterity?

The most basic system I first encountered when I started playing OSR style games is a good example of an initiative system which fills all of these criteria. Roll 1d6 for each side of combat, rerolling each turn. It requires zero thinking on my part, takes perhaps 10 seconds to resolve, and keeps everyone on their toes because you never know if the bad guys will get two turns in a row. That doesn’t mean the system is perfect. Points 1 and 2 are more or less pass/fail requirements. If a method fails either of them, then it’s junk and needs to be improved. Point 3 has a lot of room for creativity, though.

The goal of brewing a good initiative system is to maximize the excitement it adds to combat, without failing the other two tests.

Dissecting Monsters: The Defiler’s Creature from “Better Than Any Man”

Defilers Creature Illustration by Jennifer Rodgers
Art by Jennifer Rodgers

=The Defiler’s Creature=

Armor 17, 3 Hit Dice, Movement 180’  ground  240’  leap,  1 bite  attack  doing  1  Hit Point  of  damage  per depth level plus swallows whole, Morale 12.

The Defiler’s creature is the size  of  a  pit  bull  dog  and  hops along  on  its  two  legs.  It  can  only attack with its lower mouth (its barbed tail is a sexual organ which it will not use in this dimension, while its upper mouth merely recites  Chaucer’s  Canterbury  Tales  in  Spanish). On a successful hit, the creature will do 1 Hit Point of damage and swallow its opponent whole, no matter the size difference between them.

Inside the creature, a swallowed victim will find an identical creature with the same starting stats. This creature will do 2 Hit Points of damage on a hit and swallow the victim whole, which will result in facing another creature inside which will do 3 Hit Points of damage on a hit and swallow the victim whole, and so on and so on.

Killing a creature after being swallowed causes a character to be vomited up to the next higher level to face a new creature doing  one  less  Hit  Point  of  damage  per  hit  (unless  vomited back  into  the  real  world,  in  which  case  the  original  creature will be the opponent). The creature has infinite stomachs, so multiple  characters  swallowed  by  the  creature  will  face  their own individual “creature trees.”

If the original creature in the real world is killed, the creature indeed  dies,  but  all  of  its  internal  organs  vaporize,  killing  all who were still within it.

The most notable thing about the Deflier’s creature is how funny it is. The mouth that recites Chaucer in Spanish, and the scary barbed tail which is completely useless as anything other than a sexual organ are both pretty funny. Although from a play perspective, they’re unlikely to come up, so they’re mostly intended to amuse the reader / GM, rather than the players. (Though I suppose the GM should mention that one of the mouths is constantly speaking, and if any character speaks Spanish, that could make for a pretty amusing revelation). A pit-bull sized creature swallowing humans whole is also pretty funny, and also serves as a useful misdirection. If the players have encountered any of the other monsters from this module, they’ll know to expect some kind of treachery.  But they’re unlikely to expect quite what they get.

Really, this creature is quite easy to defeat. It has good movement speed and could easily escape from the players, but with a morale of 12 that’s unlikely to occur unless the creature’s mistress recalls it. Its AC is on the high end, but is hardly un-hittable, and with a measly hit dice of 3 it won’t survive more than a few solid attacks. The strength of it lies in its ability to divide the players.

On any successful hit, a PC is separated from her fellows. If the creature is in single combat against a mid level fighter, that’s no problem. The fighter’s HP pool, armor class, and ability to hit consistently will make short work of the creature. But if the fighter’s party is nearby, the creature’s 240′ leap ensures that no one can easily escape from it. Less martially oriented characters have much less chance against the lower iterations of the creature, and the encounter against this otherwise simple enemy could quickly turn ugly. Divide et impera.

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Thoughts and theories on tabletop games.