Posts Tagged ‘alexandrian’

Each month the folks from the RPG Blogger Network organize an RPG Blogger Carnival, where a bunch of bloggers all tackle the same question or topic.  This month Game Knight Review is hosting, and the question is “what’s in your backpack?”  The Gassy Gnoll kept the question pretty open — your real world backpack, you’re in-game backpack, whatever — so since this blog is supposed to be about GM tools and game structures I thought I might whip something up about what’s in my “backpack” for running a campaign.

I strongly feel like the most important piece of gear is a hex-map; this may be less true if you’re running a game that takes place entirely inside a megadungeon, or if overland travel is specifically unimportant and hand-waved (as might be the case in any reasonably-civilized setting), but hex maps seem to have been a key component of the game originally and it’s the biggest “missing piece” in modern games if you ask me.  Lots of people have lots of ideas about what makes a good hex map, but I’m going to go ahead and say that it should consist of 6-mile hexes (this makes some of the math a bit easier) and have a moderate-to-high amount of keyed locations (something between 80% and 100% coverage).  These keyed locations can be used to mark settlements, monster lairs, dungeons, etc and can be used to inform “random encounters.” (The Alexandrian has a long-running series discussing his complete hex-crawl system.)

The second bit of gear should be a random encounter mechanism, and you should have one whether the party is in a dungeon, in the wilderness, or even in a city (though that last might be a bit of a stretch). Random encounters give your world a sense of being “alive” and functioning even when the PCs aren’t around.  There are lots of ways to do this; I haven’t had time to use them to great extent, but my favorites are probably the one-page encounters method or more standard, region-based tables.  I think it’s important to note that these don’t all have to be combat encounters (I’d argue they shouldn’t all be combat) but one of the tings that random encounters ward against is the 15-minute work day (because going nova on an early encounter leaves you vulnerable to a random encounter later, and being vulnerable could mean death).

The last piece that I think is essential (and Gygax agrees with me, apparently) is a solid notion of time. Modern games still keep time during combat, and in general people keep track of days (at least in vague terms of night and day), but without the right granularity of time it becomes difficult to keep track of what might be going on “off-screen” and how long it takes your players to accomplish certain tasks — it’s possible that you can get by without a solid notion of time, just as characters can probably get by without flint and tinder, but I think you’re making it harder on yourself.  For me, I use the following:

1 Combat Round = 6 Seconds
10 Combat Rounds = 1 minute
1 simple non-combat action = 1 minute
10 minutes = 1 turn
6 turns = 1 hour
4 hours = 1 watch
6 watches = 1 day
7 days = 1 week
4 weeks = 1 month
13 months = 1 year

Most other tools I’ve found to be essential so far tend to come standard with modern games: things like a combat system, a notion of healing and damage, systems for skill-based action resolution.  A mechanism for adding or tracking weather in your world can add flavor, too; Gnome Stew has a system based on a Dragon article that’s “good enough for fantasy.” I’d recommend finding a system for NPC morale, but I haven’t gotten around to finding a good one yet. And I think there’s a lot to be said in favor of published modules, especially encapsulated ones that can be plopped into any campaign, either for filling out your hex key or presenting to your players when you’ve had a bad week for prep.

What do you think?  Anything I’m still missing from my pack?

The Preamble

In the comments on my post about Falling Damage, Brenden mentioned his mechanisms for making falling “always scary” but allowing good luck to save you from even extreme falls.  I liked the system but noted that I don’t think falling is always scary, because eventually the PCs are at near-god levels, and Superman isn’t afraid of falling off a building or two.  From there, Dr. Gentleman posted this:

I think the idea that higher-level characters in D&D are akin to demigods is one that makes the system make more sense (and actually makes me want to look at 3e again), but I don’t think that’s the intent of D&D. Heroes go on adventures, gain experience, skills, abilities, and treasure, but they’re still essentially human (elf, dwarf, or whatever). The idea that an exceptional person can gain experience and thereby become the equivalent of a demigod or superhero is not a basic assumption when it comes to D&D, which leads to a lot of complaints about realism. I think that’s a pretty fundamental difference in assumptions, and needs to be explicitly cleared up straight away in these types of discussions.

Except that I think that this is the intent and, if a little buried, that it is fairly clear when you look for what the system ask for. (more…)

Thanks to a post by Shortymonster I stumbled over to the Large Polyhedron Collider (A+ on the blog name), where he’s got a post about the Realities of Falling.  He sets out a few milestones: serious injuries occur from falling 25-30ft onto a hard surface, and death is very likely from a fall of 50-60 feet (onto a hard surface).  He goes on to talk about falling into soft surfaces (like deep water, or snow), and the differences landing orientation makes, and the kind of damage you can expect to do if you land on crates or a car or another person.

Because of this, I think we need to change the way falling damage is handled in D&D: as it is, it’s just too lethal to be realistic. (more…)

So I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) to prepare for a quick little hex-crawl game to run with my wife.  A big problem for me is, apparently, “information architecture” or “how do I know what I know?”  I thought I’d use some space here to talk about what my plans are, structurally.

I’m planning on using a six mile hex as the basis of my map, and I’ll plot geography based on Welsh Piper’s guidelines (though it’s a bit of a kludge since I’m not using their Atlas Hex, template for now).  The bulk of my hexcrawl system I’m going to be taking from The Alexandrian (though it seems to have stalled after the 7th entry); I’m planning on keeping the hex structure invisible to my players, and Justin has a good system for tracking progress over the grid, getting lost and getting found, sight lines, encounters and encounter distance, and so on.  I’ll be keying each hex to a ‘default location,’ and then building up encounter tables. (Of course, on a 180mi by 180mi map, that’s 800 to 900 unique locations to key…)    Justin hasn’t given us an example of his tables yet, and I may use some combination of the one-page encounters, multi-table encounters, and hand-keyed encounters I’ve mentioned before.

I’m using the time structure I mentioned before (with simple actions taking a minute and longer actions taking a turn, when it matters to track them). I’m going to have 4-week month (aligned with the cycle of the moon), 13 months in a year (for 364 days total).

I’m putting together a year of weather per Gnome Stew’s suggestion, and may be incorporating other systems from Dragon 137 and the Wilderness Survival Guide (both of which I’ve recently purchased).  I’ll probably use a tracking sheet not unlike the one that inspired Gnome Stew.

I feel like I’m still missing some structures that I need to account for, and this doesn’t get into the real meat of the setting (ie, the city-states and societies that will be the focus of the crawl).

One of the biggest take-aways from Justin’s Calibrating Your Expectations is the meaning of levels.  He says that he began writing the post in part to address all the people who said that “D&D Can’t Do Conan” because making a Level 20 Barbarian gives you a guy who can do things the actual Conan never could.  Or “D&D Can’t Do Einstein” because a Level 20 Expert would have way too many hit points for a frail old math geek.  The argument he makes is that people are looking at Level the wrong way, and they’re expecting Level 20 (or Level 5, or Level 12) to mean something that it doesn’t.

Justin makes the argument that pretty much everyone you’ve ever known would be a Level 1 character.  Really exceptional people might be Level 2 or Level 3.  Level 4 characters are some of the most talented and accomplished people in the world, and Level 5 characters are the people who get written about in history books.  From there he calls 6th level superhuman, a 10th Level character is challenging gods to contests of skill, and a 20th Level character is essentially a god themselves.  He bases his argument off of skill bonuses available at level 1 and DCs attached to certain activities.  But there are other clues, too.

A 5th Level character is taking on manticores, trolls, and young dragons; the exploits of Beowulf.  Heroes of Greek myth fought a minotaur (CR4), a hydra (CR4), and Medusa (CR7).  At Level 10 characters are fighting Greater Elementals and huge extra-planar spiders. Above level 15 characters a fighting high-level Angels and Demons, and when they reach level 20 they are literally beating up gods and taking their stuff.   Think that those who have made creatures higher than Level 20 are well-meaning but misguided, and I personally believe that Zeus himself can be built as a Level 20 creature. (It gets futzy when you’re talking about CR versus Level, though.)

The long and short of it is as Justin puts it at the end of his post: the 3.X system expects that you’ll move from one power level to an extremely different power level as you level up, but people expect there to be a much more uniform performance from Level 1 to Level 20.  They bend over backwards trying to make the system fit that expectation, so that a 20th Level character can be treated as King Arthur instead of as Thor.  (As an aside, this is precisely why the trend of D&D 5E worries me; they’re trying to flatten the playing scale so that a 20th Level character is still threatened by orcs.  You lose a lot of variety in what the system can model when you do that, and it isn’t necessary.)

And of course, these kind of expectations are really harmful to the game.  If you expect that Aragorn is Level 15 instead of Level 5, then that colors what sorts of adventures you can have at low levels.  You spend the first 5 (or more) Levels of D&D killing rats and goblins and bandits, instead of leading armies, storming castles, and fighting Nazghul.

So I recently had a few conversations that shared a common theme: the assumptions you bring to D&D can drastically change the way you approach the system.  Some of these conversations were about game-world assumptions and while those can change the way you approach the game (a setting where all rogues are thieves is different from a setting where rogues are more likely bored noblemen or commissioned spies), that’s not what I’m interested in talking about right now.  I’d like to put out my assumptions on the Pathfinder/D&D 3.X system mechanics and what they mean.

As I’ve mentioned before, my perspective on D&D is strongly influenced by Justin Alexander’s Calibrating Your Expectations post; I highly recommend that you go read it to get the foundation I’m working from.  I’m going to try to not simply recreate Justin’s post, but he’s covered most of the bases pretty well.

The very first thing to recognize is that, at least the way they’re done today, Player-Characters are not only above average, but they generally approach the peak of mortal ability.  This can be seen in two aspects: Attributes and Class.


As Justin notes, PCs use the “elite” array of 15,14,13,12,10,8 (which is the mathmatically expected result of 4d6-drop-lowest, which seems to be the fashion these days for random stats), and based on some statistics in the 3.0 DMG he concludes that this puts them in the top 5% of the population (as far as raw ability and natural talent goes).  Standard NPCs use the 13,12,11,10,9,8 array (this is the expected results of 3d6), and the theoretical “average person” would be 10,10,10,10,10,10 (I actually think that this NPC exists with fair frequency, since any given score describes a small range of ability).

It’s worth noting here that a score of 8 or 9 is “below average,” but that doesn’t mean it’s crippling disability.  I think this is easiest to show with INT, but it can be extended to other attributes.  In a lot of places (though I can’t remember if any were ‘official’) it’s been said that INTx10 gives you a rough idea of the character’s IQ score.  (Palladium Book’s RIFTS system states this explicitly).  “Normal” IQ is considered to be between 70 and 130.  The definition of “mental retardation” doesn’t kick in until below 70, but it’s only mild retardation if it’s above 50; these people can learn to live on their own and maintain a job.  Severe, “unable to function on their own” retardation is marked at 35 and below, and the D&D system marks INT 3 as the lower limit of sentient life.  A dim character has an IQ of 5 to 7; above 7 they might not be the smartest person in the room, but it’s unlikely anyone would notice.  Forrest Gump, I would guess, probably has an IQ of 5 or 6. At the same time, “genius” level IQ was originally set at 140, or INT 14.

I generally consider 18 to be the peak of natural human ability; above that there needs to be something beyond “natural” at work.  By the rules a human COULD roll an 18 and then apply their racial +2 to get a 20, but I generally consider this inappropriate.  I freely admit that this may just be my preference, but that’s most of what we’re talking about anyways.  Demi-humans can surpass the limit of 18, depending on how they’re measured on average versus humans (elves are smarter and more agile, orcs are stronger, etc).  I don’t consider this a double standard; humans are marked by adaptability and I feel that’s the appropriate use of their +2 bonus; demi-humans are noted for other things and as such are expected to surpass humans in certain ways.


When people think about classes, they typically think about Fighters, Rogues, Clerics, Wizards and so on.  That’s reasonable because these are the classes that PCs typically have.  The problem is when people assume that all soldiers are Fighters, all thieves are Rogues, and all priests are Clerics. (Personally, I think a given priest is as likely to be a Rogue as a Cleric, but that may be a discussion for another time).  In fact, these PC classes represent a significant advantage in terms of training and skill above and beyond what’s available to most people.  Most people have NPC Classes — Adept, Aristocrat, Commoner, Expert, and Warrior — these are classes that most people don’t think about because they aren’t meant to represent adventurers.  In 3.X I think these classes are only listed in the DMG, and I’m pretty sure they were essentially ignored in 4E altogether. (I could be wrong on both counts.)  Rogues and Bards are PC-quality Experts, Fighters and Barbarians are PC-quality Warriors, Wizards and Clerics are PC-quality Adepts, and so on.  The PC classes represent a higher level of training, either because you had a better teacher or because you were able to better develop the skills you were given, or some similar situation.  In fact, depending on your world, most people are probably going to be Commoners, with Experts representing artisans, etc.


So, Player-Characters are naturally more gifted than most of the population, and then get better training than even their peers.  This already sets Player-Characters well above the norm, which in turn makes them capable of adventuring and (one hopes) becoming heroes.  But my main take-away is this: although the game may focus around PCs as our protagonists, the mechanics can not be calibrated to PCs as the baseline, because they simply are not baseline characters.  For the world to be consistent, PCs need to be recognized as above the norm and systems should assume average or slightly-above-average NPC-quality abilities.

I have more to say on my assumptions and understanding of the 3.X system (possibly a lot more), but I think this is a good stopping point for the time being.

I decided to start this blog when it occurred to me (thanks in great part to Justin from The Alexandrian) that the majority of the difficulty and frustration I’d experienced as a GM was due to the fact that I didn’t have all the tools necessary to run a complete game.  The Hexcrawl was and remains the missing structure that I’m most interested in (mainly because exploration was the most interesting and least supported facet of the game), but there are also a number of broken structures that I want to repair or replace.  High on that list is the system for Crafting.

Here I’m talking about the Pathfinder/D&D3.X system for the Crafting Skill, since that’s the system I use.  Amusingly, Justin Alexander used the Craft Skill as a basis for his Calibrating Expectations post, which has been foundational to my paradigm shift.  And for the purposes of that article I think the system works out pretty well — as Justin demonstrates, a skilled Blacksmith performs roughly as would be expected under the system.  But when I looked closer at the skill (prompted by my desire to run a game where PCs started off as smiths, coopers, masons, and other Craft-based professions) it seemed to break down rather quickly.  In particular, it struck me that the system is such that, all else being equal, items with a higher DC are easier to craft.

Here’s how 3.X Crafting works: find the item’s price in Silver (where 1 gp = 10 sp), then find the item’s DC based on it’s type (a table is provided at the SRD).  Collect raw materials equal to 1/3 the cost of the finished product, then make a roll each week to determine progress on the project.  Failing by 4 or less is simply no progress; failing by 5 or more ruins the project and half of the raw materials (apparently regardless of how much progress you’ve made).  On a success, multiply the check result by the DC and record the number; it it’s equal to the cost-in-silver, you’re done; if it’s equal to 2 or 3 times the cost in silver, you’re done in half or one-third the time (etc).  If it’s below the cost-in-silver you make more checks in following weeks until you reach that threshold.

I like crunching numbers, and when I started chewing on this one it stopped making sense.  There are three components to the formula: the cost-in-silver, the creation DC, and the skill roll, or Success=Cost/(DC*Roll).  Given the timescale we’re working on (measured in weeks by default) it seems to me that you’re never going to need to do anything but Take 10, so everything here is actually a constant, not a variable.  So, let’s pick it apart.  If cost goes up and the rest is constant, then it takes longer to create the item — that seems reasonable.  If the roll (our Take 10 result) goes up and the rest is constant, it takes less time — so a more-skilled worker gets the job done faster; that makes sense, too.  But if the DC goes up — if it’s HARDER to create — and the rest stays constant, it takes LESS time.  That is: a simple item that costs 200 silver and has a DC of 5 will take more time (apparently 4 times as long) as a complex item that costs 200 silver and has a DC of 20.

Now, I’ll admit: there’s nothing published (that I’m aware of) that costs 20gp and would qualify as a simple item (the example given in the Skill table being a spoon).  And in fact, it seems that generally higher-DC items cost more gold, so the decrease in time from a high DC is probably offset by an increase in time from the cost.  But I can tell you that a Heavy Pick (12gp, DC 15) is likely to take less time to craft than a Morningstar (12gp, DC12).  Is it a big difference?  Does it make sense?  I don’t know.  But I do know that it’s counter-intuitive that higher DCs make for shorter crafting times.

On top of that, this system is completely different from the rules for crafting Magical items.  For magic items, it takes 1 day per 1000gp (or fraction thereof), and a single roll is made (usually Spellcraft) to determine success at the end of the process.  To compare, progressing by 1000gp in a day for Crafting an item would require a (Roll*DC)/7 equal to 10,000, or a DC 7000 if we assume a roll of 10 (requiring a bonus of +6990).  Since a lot of the magic item’s value has to do with magic and not crafting per se, maybe that makes sense.  But the systems aren’t even similar.

I haven’t found a good fix to this issue, and so far I haven’t had a strong motivation to work one up — players don’t generally want to spend time crafting items.  But I think that fact in itself is a god reason to want to get a better system in place, so that crafting things can be a desirable thing to do.

I’ve been thinking about WotC’s new “bounded accuracy” idea a lot lately.  The long and short of it is that I don’t like it.  On face value it solves a problem (scaling bonuses and DCs don’t mean anything) that we created ourselves when we stopped letting 5th Level Adventurers encounter a 10th Level Roper.  We developed a fetish for ‘balanced encounters’ and, yes, when you scale monsters and obstacles to the party’s level, monsters and obstacles will scale to the party’s level.  The answer is to stop scaling to the party’s level; then the whole thing goes away.  Let the players experience things they can’t overcome, and then show them the same thing when they can overcome it and the sense that level advancement is pointless goes away.  But it means showing players Really Hard encounters and Really Easy encounters all the time. It means setting DCs based on actual properties of the obstacle, not on how big the character’s bonus is (or should be).

Building appropriate DCs is actually pretty easy.  Once you have the right notion of what the D&D system is supposed to model, you can get an objective sense of how hard things are.  DC 20 isn’t “the DC that’s hard for 3rd Level Adventurers,” it’s “the difficulty of performing master-quality work.”  And you can do this because you can break down what a character’s bonuses mean.

The catch is combat.  At least, that’s the hook I’ve been stuck on since i started chewing on this issue.  Deconstructing to-hit bonuses is still pretty straightforward.  If you’re stronger you can swing your sword better, faster, more accurately, so Strength plays a factor.  There’s a practical limit to strength (there’s an old Roles Rules and Rolls post that equates STR scores with “strength of n men”), and it’s based off a measurable quality of a creature.  There’s also equipment to consider (since masterwork or Magic weapons can help score a telling blow), and lastly there’s training — which is represented as Base Attack Bonus and goes up based on level and class.  if you have a complaint about the rate that BAB increases that might be a valid argument to make, but the system models several (fairly distinct, I think) tiers of adventuring, and there’s a hard limit on BAB within a tier (the best you can do is be a Fighting Man and get +Level).


Hitting the Target

Posted: 19 June 2012 in Toolbox
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One thing that I’m undecided about is D&D N5xt’s “bounded accuracy” idea.  As I mentioned a little bit ago, I’m generally not a fan of it.  It strikes me as an unnecessary “solution” to a problem we have created for ourselves. (That problem being that as characters gain levels and improve Skill bonuses and To-Hit bonuses, the creatures they face have higher AC and the challenges we give them have higher DCs, so it’s all a wash.)  We created it when we stopped basing the mechanics off the world (that’s a really difficult cliff to climb, so DC 18) and started basing the world off the mechanics (characters at this level will have a +4 to climb, so for this to be a challenge is needs a DC 18).  If you stop doing that, if you let characters encounter a world that has both trivial and impossible obstacles, then the fact that they get higher bonuses matters.

That being said… while we have a general notion of what DCs mean in terms of skill and talent and success, it seems to me that we don’t have anything similar for modeling AC and to-hit bonuses.  This is particularly meaningful to me because I think combat may be the one place where bounded accuracy could make sense.  I’m not convinced it does make sense, but it could.  With skill checks, that cliff will always be a DC18 cliff, but if it’s windy, rainy, icy, and so on you might take penalties to your Climb check, and so having higher and higher bonuses is meaningful because not only can you succeed at Really Hard Things, but you can succeed even in non-ideal conditions.  How can the same things translate to combat?


Associating Powers

Posted: 16 June 2012 in House Rules
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One of the things that bothers me the most when it comes to 4th Edition D&D is how difficult many of the mechanics (and descriptions of those mechanics) make it for me to envision the situation.  A lot of the mechanics make the world seem inconsistent, and that makes it difficult for my to really portray my character. And one of the key offenders is the Attack and Utility Powers characters get.

Ostensibly, each class is based off of a given ‘power source,’ be it Magic, Divine, Primal, Psionic, Shadow, or Martial.  Each class then learns a number of At-Will, Encounter, and Daily powers.  At-Will powers can be used whenever the character wants, Encounter powers can be used once before needing a 5-minute “short rest” to recharge, and Daily Powers can be used only once before needing an 8-hour “long rest” to recharge.  This system easily lends itself to balancing classes against each other, and it’s nominally straight forward to envision using up energy to perform these feats and then needing to ‘recharge,’ not unlike a video game.  The problem is that the system breaks down if you inspect it from the point of view of the characters; this is especially problematic for Martial characters who, traditionally, don’t have a consumable pool of energy.

For example, one of the rogue’s daily powers lets him inflict the target with a bleeding wound.  Why is this something he can only do once a day?  The answer is “because of game balance” (I’m told 4E had a very top-down design, starting with desired effects and then moving to probable causes) but that has no meaning to the character.  It becomes a dissociated mechanic that the player has to make choices on but that the character can’t make choices on.

The first adjustment I want to make to 4th Edition is changing the way Powers work so that they can more meaningfully be translated into terms the characters can understand and reason on.


Adjusting 4E

Posted: 14 June 2012 in House Rules
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When all is said and done, 4th Edition is what finally brought me in to the D&D fold.  It made the game approachable in a way that bad DMs and years of textbooks to catch up on never did.  I was repelled by it’s flaws pretty quickly and fell in with Pathfinder and (to a much lesser extent) the OSR movement, but I still owe 4E some credit.  I also have a number of friends (including my wife) who came on board with 4E and don’t feel as strongly about it’s flaws as I do, so I’ve decided to put effort into “fixing” the system so I don’t find it so repellant.  I’ll be collecting those house rules on a new Page I’ve created, and probably adjusting my adjustments as I find what works and what doesn’t.

A lot of this is based off of comments made on Dissociated Mechanics, Defining Your Game, and the Dual Faces of Healing, probably some other sources and influences as well.  Right now I only have a few beginning notions of what I think I need to fix, and the barest notion of how to fix them.  Thoughts and feedback are welcome.

Energy Sources : All classes in 4E have an energy source, not unlike characters in Diablo 3, but it’s a rather informal, dissociated thing.  I’d like to clean that up, and make it reasonable that a Fighter only gets 3 Encounter powers every 5 minutes, and 2 Dailies each day.

Energy Conversion: Related to Energy Sources, I feel like there should be some notion of converting between Encounter energy and Daily energy.  It’s all effectively Mana or Focus or Fatigue, just bigger or smaller chunks, you should be able to give up a Daily to recharge Encounters, or forgo your encounters to fire off an extra Daily, right?

Power Through Pain: So what happens when you’re out of Energy?  You just can’t do anything but basic moves?  I think I want to have a mechanic where characters can overexert themselves if they’ve expended all their energy, perhaps Fatiguing, Exhausting, or Damaging themselves as they push their body beyond what’s “safe”.

Tactical Healing: I think that there’s generally way too much healing available in combat, and it’s rarely done in a way that forces a tactical choice.  I’d like a way to change that, and preferably something better than individual errata on ever Cleric power.

Recovery: Recovery between encounters is something that I also feel there’s way too much of; there’s little sense of lasting consequences from poorly chosen or poorly executed plans.  I’d like to scale that back and make recovery available and reliable, but not necessarily instantaneous.

Flattening Trees

Posted: 12 June 2012 in House Rules
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So in general  like the idea of feats, I think that they’re implemented poorly in D&D 3.X and Pathfinder — especially as you go into the later splatbooks and such, feats become worse and worse in my perspective, both in terms of power creep and in terms of carving off things anyone should be able to do and making it a feat. In general, I think there are three things that a feat should be allowed to do: take away a penalty (as with Precise Shot and shooting in to Melee), give a bonus (as with Point-Blank Shot and targets within 30ft), or allow an action that’s normally impossible (such as Versatile Channeling). A feat that adds an effect to an action (like Stand Still) is effectively giving a bonus, and a feat that lets you perform certain complex actions (such as Bounding Hammer) is probably just removing a penalty (ie, you could attempt to bounce hammers off foes without the feat but at a high penalty). I intend to eliminate or greatly alter feats that I feel simply allow an action that anyone should be able to take (I’m thinking especially of Power Attack and I suspect there are others).

Aside from pruning the trees, I also intend to flatten them.  There are a number of feats that are chained together with prerequisites that don’t necessarily matter, and this needlessly prevents effective use of Feats to specialize and customize characters.  Why should you have to learn how to shoot accurately at close range before firing at extreme range?  And why does a character have to be 7th Level before they can gather followers? I’m not sure that last should even be a Feat (especially when it seems that it was rather fundamental in older versions of D&D).

In order to decouple chains and flatten trees in a meaningful way, though, we need to understand what the current requirements are, what those requirements represent, and whether that’s a meaningful requirement to have.  A lot of this relies on my understanding of the intent of the 3.X system (which Pathfinder is based on). (more…)

I’ve been putting off writing a D&D Next post, partly because I still feel like I haven’t fully digested the materials, partly because my group only got a half-hearted playtest in, and partly because I’ve been interested in pursuing other things, like hexcrawl mechanics and fixing feats.  On Friday, though, my post on DCs got mentioned on Friday Knight News, and I figured I should go ahead and address 5E directly. (As an aside, the FKN posts look to be neat aggregate posts, and I think I’ll keep a closer eye on Game Knight Reviews generally, as some neat thoughts are floating around there.)

So, what are my thoughts on 5E?  Firstly: this. This a thousand times.  I don’t think anyone wants or needs a 5th Edition, and the genesis of one is something of an ill-conceived reaction to the fact that 4E lost a lot of players and Retro-clones and Pathfinder has been eating WotC’s lunch for several years now.  The answer is not to give us another franken-system, the answer is to give us what we want, and produce new and updated material for the four systems everyone’s already playing.  We don’t all have to buy the same product, and WotC should be more concerned that we’re buying their product than which product we’re buying.  I’m no publishing industry insider, but it seems to me that the realities of publishing have changed a lot, and I for one would be likely to buy material for each D&D system if WotC would let me (ask my wife: I’m still buying 4E producats and I don’t even like that system).

Anyways.  On to the actual 5E stuff. It gets long.


The foundation of my new understanding of and appreciation for Dungeons and Dragons (especially at lower levels) is the Calibrating Your Expectations article from The Alexandrian.  The main focus of that article is showing the the D&D system is fairly robust in terms of modelling realism, and then dismantling the arguments that D&D can’t model someone like Einstein, or Conan, or Robin Hood, or [insert your hero here].  Justin (who writes The Alexandrian) noted later that most people walked away from that post with a new desire for low level play (not his intended outcome), and I count myself in that crowd.

Part of how Justin went about his argument for D&D’s system was to establish what a regular person under the system would be capable of.  He fished around in the DM Guide and found that most of the world — regular people — would have a standard attribute array of 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8 — only the top 5% would have an “Elite” array of 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8.  So in general, regular people are lucky to have a +1 bonus in an attribute.  Further down in the post he demonstrates how a 1st level artisan would conceivably have a +10 bonus on checks (+1 from attributes, +1 from skill ranks, +3 from class-skill bonus, +3 from skill focus feat, and +2 from an apprentice).  With a +10 bonus, a character has about a 55% chance to meet DC 20, or if they’re unhurried they can Take 10 and meet DC 20 every time. Since this lets the artisan Take 10 and create masterwork products, Justin declares it to be master of the art.

What we’re coming to at this point is a notion of “how hard is hard.”  early on in my DM career, deciding on DCs is something I really struggled with, and lacking and guidelines for what a DC 13 means compared to a DC 17 or (relatedly) how much of a penalty -4 on a check is, I found myself setting DCs based on whether I wanted my players to succeed or not (and rarely or never telling my players what the DC was, which I now think is a gross mistake).

To go back to the hard numbers, we can say that a talented, untrained person has a +1 on a check; a trained person would have a +4 or +5; and someone dedicated to the craft will have a +7 or +8.  Rolling a 10 or better on d20 is a 55% chance, while a 5 or better is roughly 80% and a 15 or better is 30%.  So a DC 18 check is something that has an even chance of success for someone dedicated to the craft, and is expected to fail for even trained practitioners.  That is to say, for most people a DC 18 is a hard task.  Conversely, a DC 11 check has a fair chance of success for anyone with a bit of talent, and basic training makes success likely (75% with a +5 bonus).  A DC 11 is an easy task. A -4 penalty, though, is enough to make something that’s normally a sure thing a dicey proposal.  A -8 is enough to shut down even masters of the art.

One of the things I was glad to see in the D&D Next playtest materials was a section in the DM Guidelines about DCs.  They listed DC 10 or lower as Trivial (usually not worth a check), DC 11-14 as Moderate (requires minimal competence), DC 15-18 as Advanced (requires expertise or assistance), DC 19-22 as Extreme (beyond the capabilities of most people without aid or exceptional ability), DC 23-26 as Master (only the most skilled even have a chance of success), and 27+ as Immortal (the realm of demigods).  I think the tiers work well with the 3rd Edition skills system (though I might dispute that DC 10 checks usually aren’t work it, unless “usually” is meant to stand for “any time you can Take 10).

(As an aside, Roles, Rules, and Rolls has a post from a week ago about how Disadvantage in 5E is roughly comparable to a -3 penalty, and thus serves a similar purpose as the -4 penalty; namely, moving a task one tier up in difficulty.)

On Dissociated Mechanics

Posted: 31 May 2012 in Game Structure

This is not a post by me; this is simply to redirect you to this rather brilliant article on The Alexandrian about Dissociated Mechanics, and their use and misuse in Role Playing Games.  This is particularly pertinent to me because (1) dissociated mechanics and an understanding of them are what propelled me from 4th edition (which drew me into D&D) and into the arms of Pathfinder and OSR; (2) this blog is about tools that can be used by Players and (especially) DMs to enhance role playing, and those tools need to take dissociation into consideration; and (3) as we’re collectively going over D&D 5E it is imperative that we understand dissociative mechanics because that was the great failing of 4th Edition and we need to make sure 5th doesn’t carry forward the same or similar mistakes.

While I’m still slowly going through the 5E playtest materials, I’ve been looking around at what other people have to say about it.  Reading a couple of posts on The Alexandrian and Blog of Holding, it strikes me that 5E seems to be highlighting a misunderstanding by the system of the Wisdom attribute.

There are two things that 5E is doing that spotlights the problem, but I don’t think 5E is introducing the problem: it’s just making clear a problem that we’ve all been living with for years, though it’s been masked.  First,5E is dropping the triumvirate of 3E saving throws, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will.  Instead, saves are made directly based on attributes.  You’ll make Strength saves and Dexterity saves and Charisma saves, and so on.  I’m not exactly sure what an Intelligence Save might look like (the materials say “against spells that try to overcome your intellect, but I’m not sure what they mean) but it’s in there.

The Alexandrian is tentatively supportive of this change (as am I), but notes that it might introduce the old hierarchy of saves issue.  It used to be you saves were based on what a thing you were avoiding was (death, dragonfire, ray), and later it was based on how you avoid the thing (jump out of the way, take the hit and power through, resist with your will).  But there was a question on what Save to use if a thing fell in to multiple categories (a ray of death, or something you can dodge or resist with will) — do you use the best save, or the worst save, or just whatever save the DM cares to call for?  This was relieved a little bit in 3E, I think, but in 5E it looks like both Wisdom and Charisma are fighting over the same turf.  Wisdom saves are supposed to be used to resist being charmed or influenced (and it’s noted that both Command and Charm Person call for Wisdom saves), but Charisma saves are supposed to be used to resist  “magical compulsions.”

The second point is 5E seems to be tossing away the idea of skills, generally.  I may have misread it, but is you want to bust down a door you roll a Strength check, if you want to tumble to safety you roll a Dexterity check, if you want to search the room for traps you make a Wisdom check, and so on. Some character options give a bonus to certain actions (the Rogue character does note +3 to “open Locks”), and maybe there’s a more-robust skill system than we’re seeing here.  But from the looks of it, if you want to be good at finding secret doors, you bump up your Wisdom.

Blog of Holding notes that this highlights the odd position we find ourselves in when the Cleric (who’s whole schtick is based off Wisdom) is better at finding things than the Ranger, Rogue, or Barbarian (if you accept “feral awareness” or “aggression-fueled blindness”).  In 3E this issue was masked by the fact that skill points and Class training could make up for a poor Wisdom, but all things being equal a Cleric would have higher Perception because it was based on his key stat.  He goes on to suggest moving Perception in to Dexterity not because it makes any sense but because then the classes we expect to be perceptive (Rangers, Rogues) would have it keyed to their attribute of choice.

Frankly, I think that’s just silly.  Blog of Holding claims that Perception doesn’t really fit under any of the 6 attributes and while there might be an argument for that the description of Wisdom says it represents “common sense, awareness, and intuition.”  I this that’s something of a perfect fit for Perception.  Definitely better than an attribute representing manual dexterity and agility.

The problem in both cases is one little word in the description of Wisdom: “Wisdom describes a character’s willpower, common sense, awareness, and intuition.”  One of these is not like the others; one of these just doesn’t belong.  And in fact, I think the place that “willpower” does belong is under Charisma: “Charisma measures a character’s personality, personal magnetism, ability to lead” (the 5E text says “ability to influence others and strength of personality”).  Both of those lines were taken from the Pathfinder SRD, and I’m pretty sure it meshes with the 3E SRD as well.

So my solution is thus: move Willpower in to Charisma, with “strength of personality,” where it belongs. Make Wisdom a stat of pure awareness and intuition so it isn’t fighting with Charisma any more.  And adjust Clerics so that their magic is based off of Charisma (like 4E Paladins), representing the strong personality and will necessary to draw the power and favor of the gods (bonus: Clerics are now best able to draw followers). It cleans everything up just by dropping one word.

So before the hex crawl that I did this weekend, I started working on a few of projects that should become posts when they’re done.  Turns out that there’s a bit more effort involved than I expected, especially since I didn’t touch any of it over the long weekend.

The first bit I’m working on is trying to address the issue of feats.  So far I’ve gone through the Pathfinder SRD and binned the feats into Tiers based on how many feat prerequisites they have — this roughly translates to “what is the earliest level this feat could be taken,” but not entirely (I haven’t accounted for Base Attack Bonus or Level requirements, for example).  even at that, easily half of the feats are simply unavailable to a 1st level character, and a good chunk are unavailable before 4th level.

The second bit is a review of the 5th Edition playtest materials that got released.  Other people are already going over their first impressions — The Alexandrian made a couple of comments that hadn’t occurred to me, such as “how much of an improvement on 3rd Edition can we expect” and the possibility of an infestation of disassociated mechanics.  I’ve only gone over the “How to Play” packet and skimmed the others; my initial thoughts are positive, but there are a few things I’m unsure about.  I may get my players to try to run through the playtest adventure with me this weekend and maybe that’ll help inform my opinion.

Finally, I’ve been toying with the idea of reducing character creation to a high-density blurb. It’s not a final solution and doesn’t produce a completed character but I think it should distill the necessary choices a player needs to make, and that will hopefully speed up character creation.  I think as it is it might only work for 1st level characters, and even at that some of my players have pointed out that I may have blind spots where my own expertise with the system makes things more intuitive for me than they are for others.

This weekend, my brothers and I got together for the long weekend and I took the opportunity to try my hand at a hexcrawl game.  We had limited time to work with, so I told them to keep it basic and make characters with whatever background they wanted, as long as it gets them to this town looking for adventure in the wilderness.  The game itself was essentially the same idea as the Western Marches campaign I’ve heard about, though I’ve never read up on it specifically.  Adventure is to the west, retirement is to the east, and in the middle is a town you can spend your money at, brag about your adventures, and prepare for new ones.

Setting up the game took a lot of work on my part.  It’s the kind of work that’s done once and can be used over and over again, but as this was my first game it all had to be taken care of.  I used Hexographer to build my map, following the guidelines of Welsh Piper. I really wanted to use the one-page hexcrawl encounter system from Roles, Rules, and Rolls, but I didn’t have the time to hand-key even a significant portion of my hexmap, and I wanted to incorporate non-combat encounters. So instead I used a multi-table setup recommended by Pencils and Papers — I had a d20 table to determined if there was an encounter and what type, and then sub-tables for Combat, Location, Sub-Quest, and Special encounters.

Making those random tables took the bulk of my effort.  The Welsh Piper guidelines make building a hexmap really easy, and the Pathfinder core rules have a lot of information for how to put together encounters (so my Combat table had entries like “2d4+1 Goblin Warriors”), but I haven’t really found any good advice or suggestions on what a Random Encounter table should look like, especially not for non-Combat encounters.  Sub-Quests were probably the hardest, but possibly because (for time’s sake) I was restricting myself to one-line hooks.  “Lay the Dead to Rest,” “Explore the Ruins,” “Stop the Mad Wizard.”  This also kept it general enough that I could build details around them during play, so that no two “Stop the Mad Wizard” quests necessarily felt similar, let along the same.

After all that I found that there were a few systems I wanted to have that I didn’t have any good notion for.  How to move around the map was pretty easy: I remembered reading a post on Pencils and Papers about movement points and went off what I remembered from there.  My group had a Dwarf so their speed was 24 miles in a day, so they got 24 “movement points” to spend.  I kind of wish I’d thought to look over that post again before playing, though — I gave plains a move-cost of 5 and pretty much everything else a move-cost of 10 and i like the better granularity that P&P offered (which I guess he inherited from Brendan – who was riffing off Delta? I kind of love all the cross-pollination I’m finding). Anyways, I decided that you paid the Movement cost when you tried to leave a Hex.  I rolled for an Encounter whenever the group entered a Hex, and they could pay half the exit-cost to “search” the Hex and get another encounter roll.

Two systems I didn’t have that I wanted were a method for getting lost (and a similar method for finding your way again) and a system for foraging.  The latter, foraging, got preempted at the table by going with Pathfinder’s rules on the subject from the Survival skill (though I did vary DC based on terrain).  The Alexandrian hinted at what sounds like a really great hexcrawl system that included a mechanism for getting lost, but as far as I can tell he’s never posted the details.  The P&P/Brendan/Delta posts have a notion of getting lost based on Survival checks, and I spontaneously settled on a very similar system, with Survival for getting lost and Geography for finding your way again.  Still, I feel like I want something more-defined than that.

The game went off really great.  We had an Elven Ranger, Half-Elf Cleric of Gorram, Halfling Cleric of Pharasma, Human Fighter and Dwarven Druid.  They heard rumors of a dragon in the woods and met the sole survivor of a group who were apparently attacked by giant ants.  They got lost in the forest a few times, found a magic spring that got them drunk (the elf is the only one paranoid enough to not drink) and finally happened upon a dragon hunter who they joined up with to slay a Green Dragon wyrmling.  The cool thing is, I never planned on that happening when I seeded the rumors about the woods, I just wanted to warn them that dragons were on the table for Forest encounters.

My favorite scene of the night came about thanks to some odd behavior by a player and my inclination to say “yes.”  Early on the group met a travelling merchant, and the fighter spent a bunch of time going through his wares while the others asked him for rumors about the wilderness. He finally decided that he wanted to buy a shovel, and then proceeded to make Perception checks at every opportunity, looking for “anywhere that looks like there might be buried treasure.” I let him make the rolls and fail to find anything interesting, until he rolled a 1 on his check.  I decided that he found something recently buried that turned out to be a goblin grave under an oak tree.  Another of the players asked if goblin typically buried their dead in caskets, and the Ranger (who’s favored enemy is Goblins) rolled Knowledge and recalled that some tribes of goblins bury certain of their dead under oak trees as a sign of deep respect.  None of this was planned (I didn’t think they’d question a goblin in a casket), and now we’ve determined that they desecrated the grave of a goblin king. (I found out later that all my players thought he was digging up another traveler’s latrine pit…)

So I finally got the Strength Tables up on my Carrying the World on Your Back post; there has to be a better way to do tables in WordPress…

Anyways, I got the tables up and I wanted to share a few more thoughts on the topic.  The primary complaint about the D&D/Pathfinder encumbrance rules is that they’re too granular.  Each individual item is tracked with weights down to the fraction of a pound, and characters have varying levels of encumbrance based on their strength.  It’s straightforward but not easy or quick to calculate a character’s current encumbrance and, most damning, it is not easy or quick to figure out what the character needs to drop if he suddenly has to run from a monster.  I have a MS spreadsheet-based character sheet I grabbed off the Internet that does a good job tracking such things, but a system that requires a computer to use effectively is not a good system for a tabletop game.  Knowing what their biggest weights are should be as intuitive to my players as it is for their characters. This is the argument Pencils and Papers made that changed my mind on Encumbrance.

There are, I think, two ways to simplify the system, and both of them consist of moving to a coarser measure.  Delta suggested the use of the Stone, an archaic measure of weight that was roughly 14 or so pounds.  She kept herself to whole-Stone numbers, The Alexandrian introduced fractional-Stone measures with certain containers and the notion of Bundles (which he put as 5 Bundles to the Stone).  The math in the Alexandrian’s system bothered me, with talk about Stone and half-Stone and one-fifth-Stone (thanks to Bundles)…  So my thought was to set a Stone at 15lbs and a Bundle at 5lbs (1/3 Stone) and only track to the Bundle level.  I want to say that if it’s less than a Bundle you should ignore it, but I think that may make problems later on.

One of the things I’m happily cribbing from the Alexandrian is his general notions on how much things weigh and how things should be carried.  Basic weights for weapons and armor were taken by him from Delta, but he added containers and more granularity for miscellaneous equipment.  It should be noted that adding granularity when our intent was to reduce granularity is something to be wary of, but at the same time we don’t want to disassociate ourselves to much from the fictional world, and it’s not desirable to me to allow a player to carry infinite arrows or other such things.

From Delta and the Alexandrian, Heavy armor is 5 Stone, Medium armor is 3 Stone, and light armor is 1 Stone. Shields and full-sized (one- and two-handed) weapons are a Stone each.  Obviously characters should still recognize that a war hammer is weightier than a rapier, but I don’t think so much so that our mechanics need to care.  In particular, Items should be measured in whole Stone, as a single Bundle, or as a Bundle when collected (like arrows).

Light weapons in my system are a Bundle for 5, bolts and arrows are a Bundle for 20, and coins are a Bundle for 250. Miscellaneous gear should cover everything else from rations to potions to maps and whatever else you have.  Light items like a compass or Holy Symbol (unless it’s a particularly big or weighty holy symbol, I guess) can be ignored, and everything else gets put together in Bundles of 10.  In most cases if it’s less than a Bundle it can safely be ignored, but you may want to make exceptions if a character has several mostly-full bundles (3 daggers, 14 arrows, 200 coins and 8 misc. items should probably weight something).  Treasure should be assigned a weight by the DM, with a Stone being a hefty statue, a Bundle being a large gem or sack full of coins, and smaller items treated as misc. equipment.  Something unwieldy like a painting or rug may count as several Stone despite not actually weighing that much.

Containers include things like backpacks, belt-pouches, and sacks, and should be used to explain where a character puts his gear when he’s not holding it.  Weapons are assumed to come with sheathes and quivers which can attach to a belt or be slung over a shoulder, but other things need to be packed away. Empty containers are considered misc. equipment, containers holding things are ignored (just count the stuff they’re holding).

Finally, creature weights.  This will usually refer to familiars, who tend to be misc. equipment- or Bundle-sized. Small creatures are about 2 Stone, the average Human is 12 Stone, and a Large creature is 100 Stone. Individuals can weight more or less if you care to make a distinction, but should stick to whole-Stone numbers.  I’m just taking this stuff from The Alexandrian, so look to his page if you want to deal with larger creatures, though I’m not sure I want to know when or how the weight of a Colossal creature needs to be tracked…

Finally, for a guideline on figuring out weights of odd things you want in your dungeon, just divide the weight-in-pounds by 15 and drop any remainder; that’s how many Stone it weighs. If it’s smaller than a Stone but bigger than misc. equipment, call it a Bundle.

Papers and Pencils had a couple of articles that struck me as really interesting, a discussion of the importance of tracking in-game time in RPG sessions, and a follow-up on the same.  What really struck me was the quote from Gary Gygax that P&P lead their first post with: “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.”  And those are Gygax’s ragecaps.

I started thinking about timing a while ago; one of the first Alexandian posts I read was on prepping situations instead of plots, and letting the situation (and the world) react to the player’s actions.  That calls for some amount of time management, because you need to know what events are starting and ending as the players move about the world, so you know what they prevent, what they interrupt, and what they miss.  That could be vague accounting, but the more vague it is the more similar it is to GM fiat — the players interrupt the ritual because the DM declares that they interrupt the ritual.  And like P&P points out, doing rigorous time management lets neat things happen, like having torches sputter out because the characters took too long.  Without requiring DM fiat (and avoiding that is a virtue, if you ask me).

P&P talks about three modes of timing that need to be addressed, which basically correspond to the three modes of movement: tactical movement, local movement, and overland movement. Tactical movement is used for combat encounters, and combat already has a rigorous method of time management that everyone is familiar with: the 6-second round.  P&P then suggests a 10-minute turn for local time management, and days for overland time management.  Turns can be sub-divided into minutes if necessary, and hours could be appropriate for either local or overland time management, depending on what’s going on.

Here are my suggestions for how to divide up and manage time; month, year, and season divisions are only appropriate for non-earth (or at least, non-Gregorian) settings:

6 second is 1 combat round.
10 combat rounds is 1 minute.
10 minutes is 1 game turn.
6 game turns is 1 hour.
24 hours is 1 day.
7 days is 1 week.
4 weeks is 1 month.
13 months is 1 year.
Each season (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) is 13 weeks (3 1/4 months) long.

P&P recommends tracking Local time my ticking off turns on a sheet of paper while the players move through a town or dungeon.  Shifting between modes can generally be ignored, unless the players take a really long time in a lower mode.  Five or 10 rounds of combat (30 seconds to a minute) when moving through town won’t make a significant impact on how many Turns to track.

In addition to being able to track things like secret meetings and evil rituals, time management can give you a reliable way to measure the passage of the seasons and long term events like wars and famines.  Calendars can be printed out and used to track events that happen during a session and to schedule events that could happen in the future (if the PCs don’t prevent them).  The possibilities are kind of exciting.

As I mentioned in my first post, a big part of what caused this blog to come into being was articles I read on The Alexandrian. What I read there prompted me to think about playing and DMing in ways that hadn’t occured to me before.  One of my first and favorite posts there is “D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations.” something that had bothered me for a long time was the way that D&D characters “weren’t cool” until you were in the higher levels of play, and by that point you’d out-leveled a lot of my favorite monsters (notably goblins; I love goblins).

There’s more I can say there and maybe I will in a later post. The point is that the post established Level 1 as “regular people” and Level 3 as “Figures of Historic Note,” with Level 5 settling somewhere around “Mythic and Legendary Characters.” This fit a lot better with my desires for D&D, and Justin had enough argument to convince me that’s what was intended.  Since then I’ve decided that my preferred form of D&D is E6 (where Level 6 is the cap and Epic rules come in to play).

I’m currently running a campaign appropriately titled “Expectations,” with my goal being to emphasize how cool low-level play really is.  There are actually two things I’m working against here: player notions of what their characters are capable of, and all-too-prevalent world-scaling found in most D&D games I’ve played in, heard of, and even run myself.  The two are, I think, strongly related and problematic, but I’ll set them aside for a separate post.

Expectations is the campaign that prompted me to really start looking at game structures and the lack of tools that I currently have at my disposal.  I’ll probably refer to it from time to time, and I intent to test a lot of the thoughts I share here in that game.

A little bit ago, I read a post on The Alexandrian about how the current Pathfinder/D&D system for encumbrance doesn’t work and proposing an alternative method (influenced heavily by Delta’s D&D Hotspot and Lamentations of the Flame Princess).  Shortly afterwards, a budding DM friend of mine suggested something similar (probably borrowing from the same sources).  In both cases, though, I resisted; the Pathfinder system is accurate and granular, and the coarser measurements of the Stone system seemed to make things unnecessarily vague.  With the Pathfinder System I know when something is heavy enough to put me in the next load category, and it wasn’t clear that the same would be true with Stones, or that Stones would represent various character’s abilities faithfully.  So I cast Stones aside.

In the meantime, though, it’s become apparent that I was probably wrong, and that (as The Alexandrian noted), the current system might be accurate but it wasn’t useful.  Encumbrance was calculated once, at best, and then generally ignored.   computer could quickly and easily adjust a character’s load in real time, but it is kind of silly to have a system in a tabletop, ostensibly-paper-and-pencil role-playing game that requires a computer to use properly.  So I’m thinking of adopting the Stone encumbrance system myself.  The fact that saying things like “I’m carrying about 3 stone” is evocative for the setting helps.

Paper & Pencils had a post a short time ago about making encumbrance work.  There’s a lot of good stuff in there and it’s a big part of what finally changed my mind.  However, I didn’t like the Significant Item system they presented, or the fact that they tossed aside the notion of adjusting carry limits for Large or Small creatures.  The problem I have with that is that (1) a Small creature should be able to carry less than a proportionately-build Medium creature, and not all Small races have a STR penalty.  It seems weird to assume that all halflings are naturally stronger, proportionately, than their human counterparts.  The corollary to this is that shrinking someone would have no effect on their ability to carry their gear.  Granted, most extant “reduce person” spells have a STR penalty built in, but even if that weren’t the case, it’s only reasonable that a smaller frame wouldn’t be able to carry the same amount of stuff.  So I argue that encumbrance systems should take Size in to consideration.  I could be persuaded that this makes things unnecessarily complex, but I’m not sure it does.

I also liked The Alexandrian’s idea of bundles to replace Delta’s simple “misc equipment” category.   I think there should be better guidance on what can/should be bundled together — does 1 torch, 1 wand, and 1 potion really hinder someone as much as 5 torches, 5 wands, and 5 potions?  I did like his notion of containers and only being able to pack on so much gear, but I’m not sure I agree with his numbers for how much a character can life — particularly since they all seem to be less than the character’s “max load” numbers. it’s vague since Max load is listed in Stones and lift limit is listed in Pounds.

Most of the rules I would include can be found at the Alexandrian post.  This includes the general weights of items and creatures, how bundling misc. equipment works, and the use of containers.  The only change I would make is that light weapons are 5 to the bundle, ammunition is 20 to the bundle, and coinage is 250 to the bundle (750 to the stone).

Below are my own Encumbrance By Stone tables for Medium, Small, and Large creatures.  These are essentially a direct transform from the Pathfinder table, which by the numbers is apparently what everyone else did as well.  For my purposes, 1 Stone = 15lbs, more or less, which divides nicely into thirds. Bundles are 3 to the stone.


So I’m kind of in love with hexcrawl mechanics right now.  This is the structure from the Alexandrian post that really grabbed me, and though I can’t quite put my finger on why I think it just solves a lot of issues I’d had with running games that have any amount of travel. They’re an elegant way to give the party information on their surroundings, meaningful choices to make on where they go and how they get there, and a structure for random encounters that’s more than just “roll the dice to see what you fight.”

In fact, I think that the departure from hexcrawls as a meaningful game structure is the root of a lot of common problems that the hobby has these days. DMs lack the tools they need to build the games we want.

So, what do you need for a hexcrawl?  The only real essential is a hexmap, but you’ll also want a way to key the map with encounters.  One option is to simply key each hex by hand but that leads to a lot of potentially-wasted effort, and what happens if the party revisits the same hex?  Random Encounter Tables or a system for Wandering Monsters is the better way to go, in my opinion.

I’m currently using Hexographer to build my maps.  They’re pretty intuitive and you can use it for free online.  I bought a copy, but that’s because it’s hard for me to no go full-bore on things I get excited about.  I’m using the Atlas Hex templates from Welsh Piper, and building my map based on their guidelines for the same.

The cool thing about the templates is they readily scale from a map the size of Alaska down to a regional or local level; just keep dividing the scale by 5 to zoom in to a new map (or multiply be 5 to zoom out). There’s a tool here I use to get an idea of how big the Atlas and Region templates are (radius for the Atlas template is 312.5mi, radius for a Regional Template is 62.5mi, radius for a Hex template is 12.5mi).  The Welsh Piper guidelines for painting hexes are useful and produce reasonable/realistic results, though I think their rules should bend or break occasionally to get the map you want.  I’m not sure every mountain range needs 5 miles of foothills, but you’d need to ask yourself what it means to have Mountains bordering right on your Plains; maybe a sheer rock face?

There are lots of options for how to key your map with encounters, and I actually haven’t settled on one yet.  I may try various systems by turns to see which I like the most. Welsh Piper has a key-by-hand system based on their Atlas Hex templates and a notion of Major and Minor encounters (either of which can be anything from a settlement to a monster lair or a natural feature). They also have advice on how to make these encounters meaningful without adding a lot of extra prep work, and the advice can be useful regardless of what encounter system you’re using.

Roles, Rules, and Rolls has a couple of posts on a Random Encounter system that goes well with a key-by-hand system; in fact, I kind of love it.  The first post talks about how the system works, and the second post gives an example of what it’s like in play.  Basically, once you’ve keyed the hexes of your map, this system lets you randomly choose how the party experiences those features and monsters as they travel through hexes.  It allows for stumbling upon the creature’s lair, but also has options for finding clues about monsters in neighboring hexes or encountering a creature that’s ranging out from it’s home.  My only lament is that I haven’t figured out a good way to incorporate it with random encounter/wandering monster tables.

Random tables are the alternative to keying each hex by hand.  Instead you mark off regions of your map (the Hohum Plains or the Fifo Hills or the Everglades) and construct a table of encounters based on what characters are likely to find in that area.  Goblins in the forests, farmers on the plains, crude altars in the hills.  Paper & Pencils has some good advice on ways to build out random encounter tables.  And there are other considerations that can be useful regardless of what encounter structure you’re using, such as what the monster’s doing when the party finds it, but I think I’ll set that aside for now.

The genesis of this blog can be traced pretty neatly to a recent series of posts on game structures at The Alexandrian.  I’d been reading the blog for about a year or so and liked a lot of the ideas that Justin had, but this series was something of an epiphany for me.

The series was about Game Structures, the systems of mechanics inside RPGs that allow us to actually do things.  They’re what inform us on what to do next and how to determine success.  I came relatively late to the hobby, and if you’d asked me a month ago to answer those questions I would have said something like, “whatever makes a good story” and “roll a d20 against a DC,” respectively.  It had never occurred to me to think about game structures, and I had never examined the game structures I had available nor considered that there were other structures out there.  I read the Player’s Guide and DMG cover-to-cover and that’s all I needed to know, right?

In fact, no, that’s not all I need to run a good game, and now that I’m thinking in terms of game structures I can put context to a lot of the difficulties I’ve had with running games.  Why haven’t I been able to make exploration or travel compelling? Why does everything boil down to a Dungeon Crawl or Combat Encounter?  Because those are the only tools I have, and when all you have is a hammer you approach every problem as a nail.  So I’m starting this blog as a way to build up my DM’s Toolbox, to talk about game structures, collect the neat things I find on the web, and hopefully build a useful resource for others who come after me.