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.