Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Chop! Dragon Breath (Part 1)

From the Monster Manual (Gygax, 1977):
Example of Subduing a Dragon: Two 8th level fighters, a 7th level dwarves fighter, an elven 4th level fighter/6th level magic-user, and a halfling thief of 9th level stumble upon a huge red dragon peacefully asleep upon a veritable mountain of treasure. After a hurried, whispered debate the party opts to strike to subdue as that will a) give them a dragon to use or sell, b) save treasure from destruction by avoiding the fireworks of a general melee, and c) the subdued dragon will have to point out and help carry out the choicest treasure items. The smaller, quiet party members circle the dragon. None stand at the beast's head. With a shout the party strikes with a general bonus of +3 to hit. They all succeed, and the halfling thief gains quadruple damage... The first melee round is over.
...Combat goes to round two. As the dragon has just awakened, the party again strikes first. Four of them hit... The dragon chooses to breath (dice score 99%), so he turns his head and fires right where the elf, dwarf and halfling are attacking. Saving throws indicate that each takes 44, 88, and 44 hit points of damage respectively. All three char and die.
The full entry is worth a read. It takes four rounds, but the remaining fighters manage to finish the subdual process (thanks to a random roll in round three that causes the dragon to bite instead of breathe and win on initiative in the the fourth round). However, I'm not sure anyone can see it as more than a pyrrhic victory: how long did it take the demihuman characters to accumulate their levels? How much of the treasure will be spent to raise them from the dead? Likewise, how long will the dragon remain subdued before slaying the two fighters? Based on the section for Length of Subdual, I'd guess the answer is "not long."

Subduing dragons for fun and profit seems to have disappeared from the D&D game circa 2000 (i.e. with the advent of 3rd edition). At least, I don't remember it being part of the core 3E books (I don't have them for reference at the moment). However, the idea is a strange one regardless...look at the reasons cited in the above entry as "practical" reasons for subduing a sleeping dragon:

1) It will "give them a dragon to use or sell." Who would buy such a dangerous, uncontrollable creature (and what's the going rate for such a sale?)? This isn't like poaching a giraffe to use in the Emperor's arena of blood sports...you're talking about a critter who can barbecue anything in its path, and who can turn a medieval town into so much kindling in a matter of seconds (it's not like the bucket brigade is going to stand a chance at putting out the number of wooden structures a dragon can fire with a single breath). Perhaps a wizard would be interested in buying a dragon for spell components or magic item manufacture...but then it doesn't need to be alive for that, right?

2) It will save treasure from destruction by "the fireworks of a general melee." Clearly this was a shortsighted idea. There was no avoidance of melee and the fire was let loose in round two. Just a terrible idea from the get go. If you want to avoid the destruction of hoard items, your best bet is to first lure the dragon outside of its lair (see Burglar Baggins as one possible method. Cows and virgin sacrifices appear to do the trick, too). Just a bad, bad idea.

3) The dragon will pick out (and help carry out) "the choicest treasure items." Wow, how naive are these adventurers? A red dragon in AD&D has exceptional intelligence (15-16) regardless of whether or not it can speak "human language." That means it's probably smarter than everyone in the adventuring party, with the exception of a magic-user. Why wouldn't it simply pretend it can't speak the PCs' language (all the while listening to their plans and schemes)? Assuming someone speaks dragon. what motivation does it have to point out "the choicest treasure items?" Wouldn't it be more likely to point the fighters towards those magically cursed weapons and armor its been saving for just such an occasion? Wouldn't it have a little enmity for these weak fleshlings that dared invade its home? Wouldn't it be scheming to kill them and return to its hoard (and its choicest treasure items) at the soonest opportunity? And how exactly is it going to help carry treasure out? In it's craw?

Anyway, how'd it all work out for the party in the example? Not very good, right? The dragon woke up, and blasted the adventurers with its fiery breath. Three members were affected, two made their saving throw versus Dragon Breath, and all died. Barbecue. AND, I would like to note, that this was under the AD&D rule of dice randomly for whether or not the creature breathes: in B/X the  dragon's first attack is ALWAYS with its breath weapon (duh), and then the chance of melee is 50% (3 in 6) thereafter.

Here's my thought: is it really a saving throw if a successful save results in your character's death?

As mentioned in my original post, the idea of a "save versus dragon breath" comes from Chainmail where certain fantasy pieces (specifically the Super Hero and the Wizard) have a chance to resist being "removed from the board" when the dragon belches death at them. The saving throws for an 7th level fighter ("Super Hero") and 11th level magic-user ("Wizard") is modeled on the same percentile chance save, though OD&D uses the D20 rather than the 2D6 roll. Lesser character's chance of save is extrapolated from this.

But back to the question: is it really a "save" if you still die? How many hit points would an 11th level wizard have? A maximum of 57 in OD&D (with Constitution 15+) or an average of 29 (with lesser CON)...and this is diminished considerably in later editions, even with the advent of Supplement I (which dropped the magic-user's HD type to D4). An 11th level magic-user in B/X has a maximum of 38 hit points without CON bonus and an average of 22 (and resist fire isn't a magic-user spell). Against, O say, an adult green dragon (8 HD, 40 HPs), you're talking about probably getting gacked, even if you save against the cloud of chlorine gas...especially if the mage has already taken 2-3 points of damage in prior encounters (since magic-users aren't frontline fighters, minor damage often goes unhealed...'Oh, he's okay.'). An adult red dragon (10 HD, 50 HPs) will certainly kill the average 11th level magic-user, save or not.

So let's talk about dragons for a moment...my own conception of them are largely drawn from two sources: The Hobbit's Smaug (mainly the 1977 Rankin/Bass film, whose character...and dialogue...is nearly word-for-word perfect with the novel) and Vermithrax Pejorative of the 1983 film Dragonslayer. The two portray very different depictions of the classic monster, but they share a couple traits (aside from being badass):

  1. Incredible destructive power...enough to dramatically change the way of life of entire communities.
  2. An almost total un-killability...they're pretty much immune to the kind of attack portrayed in the Monster Manual.

In fact, the closest representation to either of these beasts is found in Chainmail, which was almost certainly modeled after Tolkien's dragon, Smaug.

"Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a pl -- oh SHIT!!!"
Chainmail's "Great Red" dragon creates the same cone of fire found in all the early editions: half an inch wide at the mouth, extending to 3" wide at the terminus of the cone with an overall length of 9". B/X and Holmes Basic doesn't bother with inches, simply converting to the "dungeon equivalent" (where 1" = 10 feet). But Chainmail (an outdoor wargame) has a much larger scale where 1" = 10 yards...and I believe this is the proper outdoor scale given in those early editions of D&D as well.

That's a huge amount of area on which one can burn. 90 yards...nearly the length of a(n American) football field. As the field is 53 yards wide, a dragon could sit at one end of the field and cook most of both teams in the opposite "Red Zone" (with the exception of the wideouts and defensive backs). That's just a lot of flaming destruction. That's not something you can dodge or duck or escape from.

And what exactly is that flaming breath? Is it the flaming, super-acidic venom spit in Moorcock's Elric books? Is it a jet of napalm snot? Is it a blowtorch jet of flame, like what is released to raise a hot air balloon (except on a grander scale)? Is it hot enough to touch off a firestorm, igniting the very air? The sheer amount of flame produced in one breath would seem to indicate that (in spectacular fashion)!

In Chainmail, nothing can stand against dragon fire, with five exceptions: fire and earth elementals (for whom dragon fire has no effect), super heroes, wizards, and other dragons. And these latter three are still destroyed unless they roll a 7+ on 2D6 (a 58% chance of survival). Giants, wraiths, rocs, trolls, heroes...they're all toast, save or not.

So what did the save originally represent "in game?"

One can presume that dragons themselves are somewhat immune to their own flame (certainly around the mouth/face region of the body). Perhaps, on a failed save, the creature has its wings damaged somewhat and plummets to its death (dragons are flying creatures). Perhaps their scaly hides are immune to flame, but a failed save indicates the fire finding that "chink" in their armor and burning out their heart...the same chink a super hero can exploit in Chainmail with a well-placed arrow (8+ roll to auto-kill...the same 42% chance that a dragon has of failing its save). Humans, after all, have hydrochloric acid in our stomachs...but you wouldn't want to dump it in our bloodstream.

[and note again: other than such an arrow, dragons are impervious to normal melee and missile fire or the spell bolts (fireball and lightning) of wizards. They are invulnerable juggernauts...it says something about the power of dragon fire that it has the ability to bring down its own kind]

But super heroes and wizards aren't huge, flying dreadnoughts with super-heated innards. What's their story? How do they escape? Since, yes, a successful save does not result in any sort of "half damage." You are either destroyed or you ain't. You are either burned to a crisp or you somehow avoid the flames.

Avoid the flames. Get that? There's no other way I can look at it. Somehow, your charmed character has managed to escape being set alight by fantasy napalm. It doesn't touch you...this isn't a matter of being partially barbecued, or licked with flames, or getting some "splash" damage or something...because the deadliness of dragon breath is near absolute.

So what happened? Lucky fortune. Somehow you managed to fall into a ditch, or find an appropriate type of non-flammable cover just in the nick of time. And it's not the type of fortune that applies to just anyone, because even standard Heroes don't get a break here (only Super Heroes...they're two different figures on the table). The guys that are destined for TRUE greatness...sometimes Fate herself steps in and intervenes in what should be a routine cremation. It has nothing to do with armor or equipment...Super Heroes and Heroes can be equally equipped (or not equipped), enchanted or not. Nope...it's just that one guy is a footnote in history, and the other's a legend. The wizard might have some "remembered spell" to save themselves (the 7+ save is the same as their counter-spell roll to negate a hostile wizard's spell, or fireball/lightning). But the Super Hero? He's just the Chosen One.

[jeez Louise...this is one super looooooong preamble. Sorry, I'm going to have to cut this into two parts. To be continued...]

Monday, September 22, 2014

Fallen Heroes

You'll have to forgive me for the late start, but I only got four hours o sleep and am moving pretty sloooow today. I was up till 4:30am (my time) re-watching the Seahawks-Denver game which, in case you missed it, was pretty darn good (admittedly, my perception of "good" is colored by the fact they won; a triumph of orky toughness over human ingenuity in Blood Bowl terms). I had been forced to skip most of the 4th quarter due to drawing superheroes for my child's school project (don't ask...but it turned out pretty cool), so I wanted to see what happened that lead to collapse after three quarters of domination. The answer: some great play from the Denver defense (leading to nine points), and an impressive 55 second, 80 yard scoring drive from future Hall of Famer (and ex-High Elf) Peyton Manning. A pretty entertaining affair.

But there are many football fans feeling a lot worse than Denver folks this week. People in Baltimore and Minnesota have been coming to grips with their star players being terrible human beings (even as NFL fans in general have been treated to a bellyful of disgust with the way the NFL mucky-mucks conduct their business, allowing winning/profit to trump basic humanity). This isn't a blog post about that: people can read all about it on ESPN or other news sources. I just wanted to say I understand and empathize a bit with how people in those towns feel.

People outside of Baltimore and the Twin Cities may not really grok how devastating it is to find out "the face of your franchise" is a person capable of such domestic brutality or child abuse. Ray Rice has been the celebrity face of the Ravens for years, and Adrian Peterson has been the only good thing about the Vikings for nearly a decade. These people are more than just touchdown scoring athletes; they are heroes to their communities and role-models to children that have grown up enjoying their teams' sports. Americans have a bit of cynicism when it comes to politics and Big Business (like the NFL), but individuals...heroic individuals that you passionately cheer for on a weekly basis...those are the ones you hope to be "good" and not mired in the same sordidness you've come to expect elsewhere.

I said I empathize with what these communities may be feeling, but I'm not referring to my local football team. Longtime readers of this blog have seen me write on more than one occasion of Marion Zimmer Bradley, one of my favorite fantasy authors, and a tremendous inspiration for many young writers (especially female writers). MZB has inspired my game design on more than one occasion, with both her ideas and storytelling, but that's nothing compared to what she's done for real writers, even helping many to get their professional starts. To many, MZB has been a hero and tremendous role-model to emulate.

Ms. Bradley died in 1999. Her last years were marred with some scandal due to her ex-husband (with whom she remained friends and occasional business partners) being accused and eventually convicted of child molestation, dying in prison in 1993. Bradley's own writing in the 1990s was affected by her declining health and most of her publications were collaborations with other writers. Her books and stories have continued to be published since her death, and new books based on her fantasy worlds (specifically the Avalon books and Darkover novels) have continued to appear in print.

In June of this year, nearly fifteen years after her death, Ms. Bradley's adult daughter revealed that she had been subject to years of abuse...physical, mental, and sexual...at the hands of her mother throughout her childhood. When contacted regarding this, Ms. Bradley's younger (adult) son corroborated her daughter's statement and discussed (briefly) his own abuse at his mother's hands, and how it still affects him to this day.

Neither of Ms. Bradley's children appear to have been seeking publicity: they were contacted for statements and gave accounts because they felt it was safe to do so, at this time, fifteen years after the late author's death. Both had long since distanced themselves from their mother, changing their names, helping to put her ex-husband in jail. Neither appear to receive any money from their mother's estate (the son says he was disinherited and receives no money from his mother's estate). There's nothing they seek to "gain" by their stories: their accuser lies dead and buried, and they agree many people have found their mother's work to be a great help...they were, frankly, afraid to say anything earlier for fear of how her fans would react.

It's extremely difficult to find words to express how terrible this is...the idea of how awful it must be to first live through years of abuse at the hands of your own mother, and then to live in fear of publicly revealing that abuse even years after the abuser's death. It's just hideous.

And to those of us who held this person up as a personal source of inspiration or a hero...well, I've written before that anything is forgivable (it is), and that good can still come from people who do evil and despicable deeds (it can)...but still, it is so disappointing, so saddening, so terribly frustrating to see your heroes are...not just "people with human foibles"...but people with a history of doing terrible,  monstrous things to their fellow humans. Especially those who are vulnerable and powerless to stop them. Your feel for the victims, but there is personal sadness, too, to have your hero knocked down from the pedestal on which you placed 'em.

I first discovered this information about Marion Zimmer Bradley in August. Found out about it while idly surfing the internet during an airport layover, researching something else. Knowing how much I've written in praise of the author over the years (on this blog), I've been meaning to write something about this ever since...not just to explain why you probably won't be reading any glowing reviews of her work in the foreseeable future but to acknowledge I am aware of this news. I don't know why it's taken me so long to get to it, but reading the recent Rice and Petersen news stories and contemplating how their fans must feel just reminded me I should probably get something posted.

Just FYI: since this news has come to light, I have read that all income from e-book sales of Bradley's digital backlist will be donated to Save the Children.

Okay...I'll get back to the saving throw "chops" now...probably starting tomorrow. Sorry (for more than one reason) for the interruption.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Chop! Turn to Stone

[continuation from long post here]

Turning someone to stone just by looking at 'em is a rare gift indeed. So rare that, prior to the advent of Dungeons & Dragons, I know of only one creature in mythology or folklore that had petrification as a natural ability: the three gorgon sisters, of which Medusa was one.

No, basilisks do not turn people to stone, unless you mean in the Old English sense of "dead as stones." The cockatrice doesn't either, despite its Wikipedia entry (it cites page 186 of a poorly reviewed eBook fantasy novel as its "source" for this ability). The "gorgon" bull-creature was derived from a misnamed account of the catoblepas, and given its stoning power by Gygax (as actual folkloric depictions of the the catoblepas simply has a "death gaze" like basilisks).

"I'm practically a demigod!"
Medusa (from which the monster of the same name was derived), was a singular creature. Yes, she had two sister gorgons in mythology but, of the three, only Medusa was mortal and thus killable by the mythic hero, Perseus. And you know what? He did just that. Thus ended the threat of monsters with the power to petrify (unless you wanted to take a trip to "Gorgon Island" to look up Medusa's immortal siblings).

There are depictions in fantasy and folklore of magicians turning folks to stone, and I'll be happy to address that in the spell section of this series (coming up!). But monsters turning people to stone is something that doesn't need to be modeled...and thus no saving throw is necessary.

Now, if you really, really, REALLY must have gorgons (like Medusa) in your fantasy game, I understand it. But you still don't need the saving throw. What would such a save represent? The hero saying, "Must...not...turn...to...stone!" And they get so much better at it as they go up in level?

That's how D&D 3.5 (and presumably Pathfinder) represented it...as a Fortitude save. "My 7th level fighter is resisting her petrifying visage?" What? How? "By being extra tough...he has control over the very molecular structure of his body and he's saying, 'Don't calcify, cells!'" Certainly Perseus (a high level fighter and Zeus's son) could have stared her down if such was the case.

No, clearly this is one of those examples of: if you're going to bother to put it in the game, then let it work. The PLAYERS are going to need to come up with ideas/alternatives for beating such a creature...as did Perseus...something besides, "well, I'll just tough it out with a saving throw." You're going to have to fight blindfolded, or use a mirror...either with a substantial penalty to your attack roll. Or else, try to sneak up on the thing when its sleeping (hoping that it's back is turned to you). Depending on the tactic used, the penalty might be more or less (though possibly with a percentage chance of accidentally catching a peek of the creature when embroiled in melee).

Creatures that have these types of auto-kill attack...because that's what they essentially are (you need a 6th level spell to bring 'em 'back to life,' as opposed to the 5th level raise dead, but even so)...should only enter into a campaign setting with some pretty substantial clues to tip off characters' cleverness.  How was a basilisk's "death gaze" defeated in mythology? By carefully placing mirrors about the creature's lair while it was sleeping. But its body is deadly poison as well...best handle it only with thick gauntlets.

If the banshee's wail causes death, best stuff your ears with cotton (or strips ripped from your tunic).

These are the kinds of tricks players routinely come up with. Good DMs don't let the rules get in the way of a good player idea...but then not every DM is "good," and not every player is inclined towards thinking "outside the box." Don't give 'em an excuse not to: get rid of this saving throw and let the chips fall where they may.

*CHOP*

[oh, just a quick side note: I see at least one reader thinks these posts are "shite," based on the box he/she checked. However, I don't really see any negative views expressed in the comments section. Not trying to call you out, pal, but I would certainly welcome your  dissenting opinion...just an FYI. Being told I'm wrong and why doesn't bother me all that much. Sometimes it even changes my mind]

Chop! Paralysis and Turn to Stone

[this is Part 3 in a series of getting rid of saving throws in my new fantasy heartbreaker...though you could certainly apply these ideas to your B/X campaign. You can see my formative thoughts on this concept here and here. Part 1 can be found here; Part 2 is here]

Okay...which problematic concept to deal with first?

Guess we'll start with paralysis. As originally explained, the idea of paralysis (being unable to move or act...at least temporarily) first comes about in Chainmail with regard to the Wight fantasy creature. Here's the full entry (per my 3rd edition copy):
WIGHTS (and Ghouls): Although they are foot figures, Wights (and Ghouls) melee as Light Horse and defend as Heavy Horse. They cannot be harmed by normal missile fire. Wights (and Ghouls) can see in darkness, and must subtract 1 from any die roll when in full light. If they touch a normal figure during melee, it becomes paralyzed and remains so for one complete turn. A paralyzed figure is considered to be able to strike a blow at the Wight just prior to paralysis taking effect, so melee can occur but only one round. Zombies are in this class but attack as Orcs and move as Goblins.
Note a couple things here: the text is pretty clear to specify which characteristics are shared by both wights and ghouls; from my interpretation I would say the paralysis ability is limited to wights (and available to neither ghouls nor zombies). Lumping the creatures in the same category is a space-saving device for creatures that (on the Chainmail battlefield) are almost totally similar.

The other thing one notices is the lack of a saving throw.

O wait, sorry...there's one more creature that paralyzes troops in Chainmail: the Wraith. However, that creature's paralyzing touch lasts indefinitely unless cured by the touch of "a friendly Elf, Hero-type, or Wizard." And no, there's no saving throw.

When we get to OD&D we find the Chainmail concepts have morphed a bit. Wights and wraiths now drain energy levels (as they will through every edition that follows) and touch paralysis is limited to the ghoul...the ONLY monster in Book 2 to exhibit this ability. OD&D refers players to Chainmail to see how the power works...one would presume it would last for a single minute (as "one turn" in Chainmail equals one minute of game time) and that the victim would receive no saving throw.

Which is fine, since there is no saving throw for paralysis in OD&D. You can *CHOP* the save versus paralysis and stay right in line with the original RAW.

Holmes Basic adds a couple more paralyzing creatures to the mix (the carrion crawler and the gelatinous cube) and makes sure to note that all creatures (including the ghoul) bestows a saving throw versus paralysis on their victims: except there's no saving throw versus paralysis to be found in the Holmes book.

[the gelatinous cube and carrion crawler first appear in Supplement I and do state that characters receive a "save versus paralysis," but there is no such save found in the book. Or in the later OD&D supplements, at least so far as I can find]

Saving throws versus paralysis first show up in AD&D and B/X, but in different categories: AD&D lumps it in with poison...perhaps because it appears as a monster effect that gets delivered like a contact poison (like being stung by a jellyfish); B/X puts it with Turn to Stone, probably because it has a similar effect (immobilizing the victim). But I'm just guessing.

Here's the question: what exactly are we talking about? A fear effect? A contact poison? A way to wrack up a TPK? 'Cause that's really what D6 ghouls (x3 paralyzing attacks per round) or D3 carrion crawlers (x8 paralyzing attacks per round) is a recipe for: total party kill...at least at the low levels where these creatures are usually encountered. Heck, the gelatinous cube shows up on Holmes's random monster chart for the 1st level of the dungeon...that's a 4 HD monster!

[I've seen a single ghoul take down half of a four man party by itself...the last two characters locked themselves in an exit-less room to keep the thing from eating them]

For my money, the idea of a touch paralysis makes sense for Chainmail's wight because it models the "barrow wight" of Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring (if you want to call Frodo's paralysis of fear to be part of the creature's mystical "chill" effect; the ring-wraiths had a similar "fear" effect). And only a deus ex machina (Tom Bombadil) freed them from the creature's grasp.

In such an instance of magical, involuntary fear...throw death knights and lichees and dragons into this category, too...you're really talking about a character's morale or willpower. The ability to resist a type of charm that would prevent an otherwise able-bodied person from acting. Because normally players have complete control over their characters' actions; the DM is not allowed to say, "You stand there, shaking in your boots, overcome by awe/terror/majesty of the monster." Sure, the players can say that (and often do, jokingly, in 'not-what-my-character-is-really-doing' banter)...but they don't. They are, after all, heroes (of a sort) and men (and women) of action.

If it's a magical effect, it should be dealt with as magic. That post comes later.

If it's some sort of clenched-muscle-induced contact poison, that's a different thing. In my earlier post on poisons, I wrote that non-lethal poisons (specifically gas attacks: sleeping, laughing, tear gas...whatever) should, if triggered, simply effect the target. If you have a monster that paralyzes its prey...like a spider that drugs its prey to eat later, for example...than a successful attack is going to do one of three things:

  • damage the character ('oh, you were knocked down and hurt')
  • poison the character ('oh, the thing bites you')
  • or both ('oh, the thing knocks you down and then bites you')

There are a couple ways to model this, but I think the easiest is to consider using a damage threshold. Assuming that we're talking a monster with a virulent enough "sting" to paralyze a human, figure out the maximum normal damage it would do without inflicting its effect...anything over that is an indication the person's been dosed (with or without extra damage).

For example...say the giant spider really only paralyzes its prey because it likes warm meals (the Shelob syndrome). It won't do much more than buffet a character for minimal damage (1-3 points), but you roll 1D4 for damage with a result of 4 indicating the character has been stung. For a truly monstrous spider with a monstrous sting (like the aforementioned Shelob from LotR...you do know spiders don't sting - they bite - right?), the damage roll might be 1D6 with a 4,5, or 6 result indicating an injection (and perhaps damage of 1, 2, or 3 points due to the size of that stinger!).

You want your ghouls to paralyze prey for some reason? Okay, fine. They're man-sized and unarmed except for dirty-filthy nails and teeth. An unarmed man (in B/X) does D2 damage on a successful attack (from punching and kicking and head-butting). Ghouls are a bit more rabid-vicious so they do D4 damage instead (and I'd personally ixnay the "extra attacks;" it's already factored into the damage and greater HD/attack chance).  Anything over 2 points (head-butting) can be considered a claw-bite-paralysis action.

A carrion crawler paralyzes on any successful attack...but just give 'em one attack per round unless you want them to attack multiple opponents with their tentacles - in which case I'd limit the number of targets to no more than the creature's HD. Three, in other words.

The gelatinous cube is a cube, 10' long on a side, that fills a dungeon corridor but somehow only receives one attack per round. You'd think it could just (slowly) run over anything in its path. Per Supplement I:
"Any flesh which comes in contact with a Gelatinous Cube becomes anesthetized unless a saving throw vs. paralization [sic] is made. The touch also causes 2-8 points of damage as the creature seeks to dissolve and devour flesh."
[the text in Holmes is mainly the same, including the word "anesthetized"]

I'm not sure what this means. The body part struck falls asleep? I'm not even sure how such a creature attacks? With a dralasite-like pseudopod? I'm inclined to use the Moldvay interpretation (creatures struck by the thing are paralyzed, not anesthetized)...otherwise, how would it be able to do its job of cleaning the dungeon of living denizens?

[another problematic concept...do the wandering monsters run from the thing? Do they ever sleep? Or do they just "clock out" at 5pm before the dungeon custodial service starts its nightly rounds?]

The cube doesn't start being extra-surprise-worthy until Moldvay (or perhaps the MM1E...I don't have my copy on me) and if I was going to use the monster, I'd consider axing that ability (a giant shlorping beast that glistens in torchlight?). I'd probably keep the damage at 2D4 and treat the damage threshold as 5 or so (with results of 2, 3, or 4 simply resulting in "numbing" along with acidic burning/digestion). On a 5+ the thing "anesthetizes" enough of the character that you can't run (your legs perhaps, or your head), as well as doing damage. At least, with anesthesia, death should be relatively painless.
Only the surprised can't outrun this thing.
But, of course, you also have the alternative of not using creatures with paralyzing attacks, or repurposing them so their attacks' "special effect" is something other than paralysis...spreading disease is a good one for the ghouls, for example (something I used in 5AK). On the other hand, if attacks are going to have a special effect (like disease) you still need a way to determine whether or not it took effect. Damage threshold works for disease, but you can also take a cue from lycanthropy's magic curse: "Any creature reduced to less than 50% of their hit points are infected." That's fine too.

[so does the B/X giant rat's disease with slight modification: roll randomly after combat to achieve a result of either no effect, bedridden, or terminally ill]

Ugh...this post is a lot longer than I intended. I'll have to handle petrification in a follow-up. Sorry.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Chop! Magic Wands

[this is "Part 2" in a series of getting rid of saving throws in my new fantasy heartbreaker. You can look at the formative thoughts on this weird concept here and here. Part 1 can be found here]

Nothing says "old school fantasy" like a bearded wizard with a pointy hat and magic wand. It's iconic...and not just because it used to be TSR's logo. Well, maybe because of that. But look at all the wand-waving illustrations you find in those old books. Pointy hats and magic wands have the highest ratio of pix-to-page count in Holmes, but Moldvay's not far behind (it just seems like more in Holmes because there are so few illustrations in general). And the DMG has plenty, too.

I really dislike magic wands.

And I'm not just talking about their depiction in film and fiction. Apologies to all the folks who grew up loving Harry Potter: while I've read the books and seen the films I've never been terribly impressed by Rowling's work. And I intensely dislike most of the depictions of the "magical world;" it's like the worst of Glantri, where magic becomes so common that there's little "magical" about it. If we're talking about "wands" in the Harry Potter sense, I'd have to say I hate magic wands.

But in D&D, I've never been a big fan of the magic wand. What is it, but a gun that shoots spells (a gun with no trigger)? A quiver with up to 100 magic arrows (at least in AD&D)? Just another resource to keep track of, except that it's on the DM to track it because the PC isn't supposed to know how many charges are in it.

My experience with wands back in "the ol' days" is that by the time a wand was found, identified, and its activation words discovered, the magic-user was so powerful that he (or, rarely, she) would often forget to even use the thing, instead relying on his own spells. Just an extra piece of encumbrance. The only wand that saw much use was the wand of wonder, because it was fun to see what random weirdness would spring from its end. But even that was usually left holstered during any real combat or crisis.

Perhaps if wands were more like, I don't know, historic or mythological wands...more magical, as opposed to a 10-shot roman candle. Rare items, like Circe's wand (that turns folks to animals - no charges) or even the White Witch of Narnia's wand (that turns folks to stone - no charges). Dangerous things; things of power. Things not to be trifled with.

Traditionally, wands are part of ritual magic, representative of the life principle or the initiation of action. The wand of the magician is a symbol of the magician's authority over nature...like the scepter of a king (though like the magician's magic itself, one easily concealed from the eyes of the mundane). Ars Magica uses wands (and staffs) as an extension of the wizard's own magic power...literally (touching someone with your wand is the same as touching someone with your hand). But the wand itself isn't inherently magical, unless the magician transforms it into a talisman.

Anyway, I'm not a fan of the D&D wand. In fact, I'm tempted to axe them completely from the fantasy heartbreaker unless I can think of a way to make them more interesting. Five Ancient Kingdoms doesn't include wands like what you find in D&D...but then, 5AK doesn't restrict wizards'  magic in the same way as D&D. Part of the reason wands work the way they do in D&D (I assume) is to act as extra spell repositories for magic-users whose magic is limited. If you have a wand of light, you don't need to carry a light spell. If you have a wand of fireballs, it frees you up to carry other 3rd level spells (like water breathing and fly).

But, hey...this is a post about the Magic Wands saving throw, right? Sure it's easy to *CHOP* such a save if you remove wands from the game, but I'm not certain that I'm going to do that...yet. And while I may remove them as the mechanic they are in D&D, that doesn't mean they won't make some other appearance, right? And then the question of a saving throw comes up again. So let's talk about it.

Why the hell is there a separate saving throw for magic wands?

Chainmail, from which it appears D&D draws its saving throw concept, doesn't have "magic wands" (unless you want to say that's what wizards' auto-cast fireballs and lightning bolts represent). OD&D is the first place you see a the Wands saving throw ("All Wands - Including Polymorph or Paralyzation" is the title of the save). OD&D includes the following magic wands in Book 2:

  • Metal Detection
  • Enemy Detection
  • Magic Detection
  • Secret Doors & Trap Detection
  • Illusion
  • Fear **
  • Cold **
  • Paralization [sic] **
  • Fire Balls **
  • Lightning Bolts **
  • Polymorph **
  • Negation

Only the wands listed with an "**" would appear to receive saving throws, all of which would seem to be those that generate a cone or ray or target a single victim (polymorph). I can only assume that the reason for the saving throw versus wands (as opposed to using a more general "save versus magic") is that the saving throw represents the PC executing some sort of dodge maneuver against the wielder of the wand.

In other words, the wand is like a laser gun and YOU, Flash Gordon, must some how duck-n-roll for cover.

"A La Peanut Butter Sandwiches!"
Not only is this ridiculously cartoony (in the Saturday Morning Cartoon sense)...even if this IS the kind of cartoony action you want to model in your game (which is, of course, your prerogative), than Why O Why is it limited to magic wands? Why can't your action heroes dodge arrows and thrown spears and giants' boulders...all those other missiles that PRESUMABLY approach a character slower than a *ZAP* ray from your magic ray gun?

Don't tell me it's easier to dodge a flash of lightning than a hurled dagger. And don't tell me you're "dodging the wand, not the ray" (that's what my old Palladium folks used to use as a justification for dodging a laser: "you're dodging the gun")...fine, then, why can't you dodge the crossbow?

What it feels like (to me, anyway) is that the designers said: 'Well, shooting a laser...er, fireball...at someone with a wand should require some sort of attack roll.' 'But how protective against a blast of cold is plate mail (since the alternative combat system of OD&D determines target number by armor worn)?' 'Oh, yeah, not very. Ummm...let's add an ALTERNATE alternate system where the target is automatically hit, but can reduce or eliminate the effect with a successful dodge roll.' 'Yeah! Save versus wand!'

Something like that.

Regardless of whether or not I include magic wands in my new game, they are certainly not going to be magic ray-guns packing a battery pack. If they have a magical effect that needs to be resisted...well, we'll deal with that in a later post. Otherwise, there's no more need to have a "dodge" roll for wands than I need to have a "dodge" roll for the longbow. We already have a combat system that determines effectiveness of attacks.

*CHOP*

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Chop! Poison (and Death Rays)

[this is "Part 1" in a series of getting rid of saving throws in my new fantasy heartbreaker. You can look at the formative thoughts on this weird concept here and here]

Let's start with the save versus Death Ray, 'cause it's easy. I don't have "death rays" in the new game, so there's no need for any such save. There are spells that'll rip your heart out of your chest, but no death rays. That's an easy chop.

*CHOP*

Now, let's move on to Poison.

So many amazing things you can learn from this internet thingy when you start doing research. Things like the distinction between poisons, toxins, and venoms. Things like which creatures of the animal kingdom actually have venom (there aren't all that many). Things like what various poisons will do to the human body (and what they won't do).

Paracelsus wrote that everything is a "poison" if taken in the wrong dose...but for our purposes, we're not worried about excessive eating or drinking. We're talking about things like snake bites and "poison gas" and giant spiders and the occasional poisoned blade or arrow.

Right?

Let's look at normal animals first...and we can probably skip the platypus and poisonous fish. Things like snakes, scorpions, spiders, and lizards are staples of the dungeon-delving genre. These creatures...real life animals...have venom that is capable of killing adult human beings. Capable of killing a human, but death is not a certitude...which is probably part of the idea behind saving throws. For sure, it's a retroactive justification for the idea. A successful poison save (or fortitude save) means the creature didn't inject enough venom to kill the hearty player character. Instead, they just take "damage."

But how much damage do these animals do in real life? A snake can bite you 20 times (through your boots if not plate armor), but it's doubtful such bites would severely dent your "adventuring ability" (i.e. diminish your hit points). Spiders only inject venom on an "attack bite" (against prey they consider potential food)...spiders have a "defensive bite" when scared or threatened that contains no venom (they apparently have superior control of how much venom they inject)...but would such a venom-less bite do even a single point of damage?

To me it makes more sense to model venom in terms of actual damage...if a normal (non-adventuring) human has 1D6 hit points, than D6 damage would adequately model the random possible deadliness of an envenomed attack. A "6" roll would mean a dosage capable of felling a strong human, and a "1" would be a relatively mild (if still painful) shot.

"But my fighter has 20 hit points, JB! How could my character ever be killed by a king cobra?"

Well, you my lucky friend, have simply become the beneficiary of "dramatic license." I believe I previously mentioned that my new fantasy heartbreaker is not about scurrilous rogues, but bona fide Heroes. And heroes just don't "auto-die" from the bite of a black widow.

How many poisonings can a halfling survive?
Okay, so moving onto to LARGER envenomed monsters...giant snakes and such...hey, did you know that the majority of snakes are of the "non-venomed" variety? Instead being constrictors who use their bite (and fangs) to hold prey while they squeeze 'em to death? The things you learn, really...

*ahem* The venom from larger monsters can be extrapolated from the way we model normal animals. A giant viper, might have fangs the size of daggers (and inflict similar damage from a bite) and inject a larger amount of more virulent poison...doing more damage.

Because that's what poison does to humans...it damages them. And if it damages them enough, it kills them. That's pretty easy to model with hit points of damage.

Remember the origin of the poison save? A hypothetical "giant spider" in Chainmail that took out a piece that failed its 2D6 roll of 8+. In Chainmail, there aren't any "hit points"...you're either removed from the board, or you're still active. D&D (and its descendants) have done away with the one-shot-one-kill of Chainmail and instead provide individuals with hit points. Use 'em.

[also remember that Chainmail's giant spider doesn't poison anything but the rank-n-file pawns, instead melee-ing like a lycanthrope when engaged with other fantasy characters: heroes, wizards, and the like]

But what about reduced capability? Getting the shakes from that rattlesnake venom and whatnot? Didn't DND3 do a great job with that ability damage shtick?

Well, first off notice that the older editions don't really worry about this "reduced capacity" nonsense, at least with regard to poison (other than shadows, I don't think there's a monster in the core B/X books that reduce ability scores, though I may be forgetting something). Reduced capacity can be reduced to "color" just like any other wound ("that spear attack is dripping blood...you're walking with a limp now...your head really hurts after that orc clubbed you; might have a concussion"). It doesn't need to result in an actual mechanical penalty. The game is hard enough (well, without Monte Haul magic gathering and superhero-like feats and abilities)...but even if it isn't, what's to say that when the shit hits the fan and the PC's ass is on the line, he/she won't overcome the "shakes" of the poison or the pain of the wound. Your character will feel awful for hours, but in combat situations you pull yourself together, juicing on  adrenaline and your own heroic grit.

You don't need penalties.

Toxic plants, envenomed blades, and poisoned needles can all be treated the same...you're introducing a foreign substance into the character's body and your body is going to take damage as a result. Hopefully you haven't been reduced to a shambles by an encounter with troglodytes or something, because if you've already been beat to hell that little belladonna sprig might push you over the edge.

Poison gas? Well, what's it do? Is it some sort of nerve agent that kills you? Or (my son's favorite superhero trope) "sleeping gas?" Or is it some sort of medieval tear gas equivalent? If it's non-lethal and you spring it, then you should face its effects. If it's lethal (nerve gas and such is incredibly lethal) then maybe it shouldn't be in the campaign (*ahem*).

But assuming it makes sense to include such a lethal trap, then on a case-by-case basis you might have a die roll to "save." Not to resist the poison, but a chance to hold one's breath when the trap is released. Heck, treat it like an encounter: roll for surprise. Characters that aren't surprised can have the chance to hold their breath (smart players will probably volunteer to do just that) and retreat from the area. Give the thing a range of lethality (so PCs on the outskirts might not be wiped out). If the denizens of the area are aware of the trap (because they created it/set it themselves) they probably have some sort of antidote lurking around (and nearby) for any such accidents.

You really don't need this saving throw.

*CHOP*

How to Chop Saving Throws

DM: "Black Dougal, you find out that you missed a tiny discolored needle in the latch. Roll a saving throw vs. Poison, please!"
Dougal (rolling): "Missed it!"
DM: "Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Hot on the heels of yesterday's post (just in case you missed it, though of course you didn't, O Valiant Reader!), I'll move from the why of saves (and why to get rid of them) to how we chop 'em from the game.

Or did I give adequate reason as to "why?" An exchange like the quote above (from Tom Moldvay's Basic book) isn't terribly unusual in a B/X game...but then, traps in B/X are the most uniformly deadly of any edition. I've written before that I don't have a problem with this kind of thing (or a variety of other "mess up the PC" game effects because the game provides methods of overcoming these effects. Poison can be neutralized, curses can be removed, levels restored, and dead characters raised. Finding a way to un-petrify a beloved 8th level character (since stone to flesh is only available to 11th level magic-users) can provide impetus for its own fantastic adventure.

At least, that used to be the case. But then, back in the days of my youth, we had a lot more time on our hands to game on a regular basis. We'd game at school (at recess or study hall breaks) we'd game over the phone (with three-way calling using landlines...no worries about expending "minutes"), we'd game in the evenings and weekends. Back in the day, we didn't have significant others or kids or jobs. Chores and homework were the main responsibilities...even things like Boy Scouts and soccer practice were only a couple-three days a week (and since we gamed with the same people we could talk about and plan and scheme during these extracurricular events, too).

Now, though, time is limited for the average adult gamer (and even youngsters, too). Maybe people don't want to spend a helluva' lot of time sidelined from the game. What happens to Black Dougal's player after his character dies? Does he spend the rest of the session rolling up a new character? Does he make a beer run for the group?
Depending on party size.

One of the last things I mentioned yesterday was that I like characters to "suffer." Perhaps part of that is my latent sadism, but my intellectual take is something along the lines of this: things that we suffer for make us appreciate (or value) the reward for that suffering all the more.

Playing a game of D&D is an exercise in risk-reward. Well, it was...now it's about making good tactical choices in order to achieve victory. But we're talking about "the Old Way" of playing, right? SO...risk-reward. Making choices based on that risk, determining if the reward is worth it. Taking on risk DOES involve suffering: mental suffering in the form of stress.

[gaming should not involve physical suffering. Feed your players and don't hit them with sharp objects, please!]

Will my character die? Will I make/miss my saving throw? Do we have enough arrows/torches/HPs to survive this dungeon delve? Should I have purchased iron spikes or garlic instead of that extra throwing axe? Do I stick my hand in the pool of mysterious liquid to get that gold key? Do I waste time rigging up some sort of "claw" on the end of my ten foot pole, knowing that there are wandering monsters just lurking around the corner? This element of risk leads to stress, leads to fear, leads to adrenaline...hopefully making victory (when it comes) more savory to the palate.

Does the saving throw add to that?

I'm not sure it does...as one comment pointed out, saving throws are binary: you take the brunt of the attack (being poisoned or paralyzed or turned to stone or whatever) or you don't. The "half damage" thang (from dragon breath and damage-dealing spells) is the weird, odd-man-out mechanic.

[speculation will cause a wild digression so I'm hold off on exploring the concept]

Many times, the saving throw requested is of a "surprise! resist this!" nature. The captured damsel turns out to be a medusa. The lock turns out to be poisoned. The ghouls jump out of the closet and grab you. And if there's no anticipation of risk (except for the player's perspiration while rolling a D20), then where's the real suffering? Just a *whew* I made it! if the roll comes out okay. And sometimes sudden and sidelining effects with a failure.

So let's fix that.

Hmmm...actually, maybe the best way to look at this is to examine each saving throw individually. Otherwise, this is going to get really long.