More Musings on Skill Points and Economies Thereof

When I think about pen-and-paper RPG design, I invariably come around to skill systems and skill points. One thing that strikes me as odd about D&D is the almost complete disconnect between the systems for combat and the systems for just about everything else.

Historically, the reason (if not the reasoning) is clear: CHAINMAIL was a tactical combat game, so there was no need for anything in it besides rules for combat and related activities such as movement, support magic, etc. As it grew and developed as a role-playing game, then, D&D primarily went through repeated iterations of bolting on non-combat auxiliary systems. AD&D Proficiencies were a step in the right direction, but a kludgy and unsatisfactory one. It wasn’t until 3E that a fully-fledged skill system was born… and there are plenty of grognards who are happy to replace it all with fiat and hand-waving by the DM.

I’m not here to argue about that, at this point: people who don’t care for, or about, non-combat skills can do without; I like them, so I’ll do with. But assuming that you’re using them, the question that arises is: why keep non-combat and combat skills separate? Why have a special number called THAC0 or Base Attack Bonus when you could simplify things by having a single, unified system?

I have in mind a skill system similar to D&D 3E, in which each class has skills it specializes at (in which a rank can be bought for one point), skills it is not well-equipped to acquire (two points) and skills it cannot acquire at all (N/A). If you want to play around with the numbers, it might also work to have two points be the standard investment for buying a rank, with three points necessary for less-accustomed skills and just one for specialty skills. Certain skills could automatically begin with a certain number of ranks — I also see each language as being a skill, for example, meaning each character would always have ranks in their native tongue.

Perhaps what distinguishes “fighters” as class, then, is that they specialize in all available combat skills, or even begin play with an automatic rank in some of them. Another benefit of this approach comes to mind: traditionally “the common man” has been mechanically represented (in terms of hit points, saving throws, etc.) by a 0-level or first-level fighter; by making “attack bonus” into a skill and not requiring points to be invested in it, you could model a tough or high-level craftsman by making them a higher-level “fighter” and simply not investing any of their skill points in combat skills.

On that note, let’s go back to the SP Economy and its optional mini-skills. There are several major published systems (such as feats in 3.x D&D, or more elaborately in Mike Mearls’ Iron Heroes) and quite a few more hobbyist or house-rules systems that try to arrange special weapon abilities for fighters in order to make them more interesting in play, or more “special” for balance, etc. Add to this a certain resistance against fiat weapon restrictions by class: “Gandalf swings a sword with the best of them, so why can’t my wizard use one?” The problem is that if you allow wizards to freely pick up and swing swords, you really should give fighters something to distinguish themselves.

Making all weapon skills one-point skills for fighters is a start, but there are two extra things you can do here for flavor: add non-weapon combat skills with functions for parrying, cleaving, shield-bashing, etc. (using a skill system to simulate 3.x-style Feat trees?), and add weapon-specific mini-skills that allow extra tricks to be performed.

Here’s an example of the latter: say there’s a Light Weapons (or Short Blades, etc., depending on the granularity and flavor you’re aiming for) skill that allows anyone to use daggers more effectively. Perhaps this is a specialty (one point per rank) skill for fighters and “thieves” and a higher-cost skill for everyone else. But on top of that you have a Dagger skill, and for each point you invest in it you gain a special trick you can perform that most people can’t, like using an off-hand dagger to parry, or using one as an effective throwing weapon.

Seen in this light, the example that started me thinking about skill point economies (the extensible locking pole) would be the same kind of thing as the Dagger skill: a nonstandard skill with limited investment producing concrete, specialized results that depend only on points invested. This would put it in contrast to most skills, which are to some extend universal and unlimited, with results depending on dice.

I like it.

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An SP Economy

(Yes, there are some bloggers who have talked about replacing the venerable “gold piece”-centric currency system with a silver standard, but that’s not what this post is about.)

(By the by, I’m in favor of world-specific, idiosyncratic currency systems. It feels more realistic, and adds flavor, and allows the DM to use the interactions between different modern and archaic coins to become hooks for action. But that’s not what this post is about either.)

This is about skill points. There are a lot of people out there in the OSR, it seems, who really dislike skills; they’d much rather have player success and failure outside of combat decided by DM fiat, or by a flat you-have-it-or-you-don’t system determined by random rolls or starting configuration. But as the refrain goes, I’m a fan of skills. (You may recall my previous attempt at designing a system, which the more I worked on it, became more and more like GURPS until I wasn’t sure what to do with it any more.)

So a little earlier I was browsing through advice on megadungeon creation, and ran across this. Most of it is the usual cutesy ingenuity you’d expect in this sort of context (megadungeon-specific equipment indeed!), but something about the collapsible pole caught my attention.

How long does it take to extend the pole? From the description, I’m guessing the process involves pulling and twisting and using pins or the like to lock the sections in place (assuming it’s mechanical rather than magical in nature), so it’s hardly going to be like opening an umbrella. It’s left up to the DM, then, which can be problematic if someone first asks in a life-or-death, time-sensitive situation. Not that DM rulings along those lines are necessarily bad, or even avoidable, but in general I’m against making an on-the-spot ruling that by itself is likely to decide life or death for a PC.

My first thought in terms of an answer was rolling for it: 1d6 rounds, or the like. And then I thought, Well, what about a character that uses or practices with a device like this a lot; wouldn’t they be able to cut down on the time? But how do you determine that without it being another off-the-cuff arbitrary DM ruling?

Well, how about letting an interested player invest a skill point in the pole? They can automatically extend and lock, or collapse, the device in one round, and perhaps gain a circumstantial +1 bonus to relevant pole-based actions with it, or use it as an improvised quarterstaff. But how do you justify spending a skill point on something so limited?

This is where the idea of the Skill Point Economy occurred to me. I’d already been considering being purposefully stingy with skill points per level in YAOSC. And yet I’d want to encourage players to hold skill points in reserve when leveling up instead of distributing them immediately, to spend during play as the situation warrants. Perhaps this would be accomplished by giving them a bonus based on the number of unspent skill points (doubling them, even? Up to a limit?).

There would also be ways to let players gain extra skill points through play. Consulting experts, reading manuals and tomes, simply spending a lot of time and effort in the proper context, etc. The difference between these and floating, unassigned points from leveling up would be that these are put directly into some relevant skill. So if you read a collection of books on baking, you may get a skill point in Craft: Baking, but certainly not (for example) in Armor.

To balance out the bonus and free skill points, in turn, there can be mini-skills scattered around for players to invest in as they choose. Things, like the collapsible pole, where a full regular skill isn’t justified, and you can’t really shoehorn it easily into an existing skill or ability, but for which it would be nice to have a standardized way to distinguish between levels of competence in use.

What you end up with is a skill point economy. During character creation and leveling up, players should feel as if they don’t quite have enough skill points available. DMs can then reward them during play with occasional extra skill points – for devoting themselves to an art or craft, for taking the time to explore an area fully, for role-playing good relations with important NPCs, or whatever else the DM wants to encourage. And finally, to keep the players lean and hungry, they can be given opportunities to invest limited numbers of skill points that give them situational bonuses and further specialize and differentiate their characters.

I’m posting this now in order to maintain some semblance of regular updates, now that the blog has become semi-active again, and I’ll be back again with some examples in a later post.

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Brain Storm

“Requesting Elegant Solutions – Psionics – Visions, mind-reading, [and] mental combat all seem archetypal and [I'm] not really satisfied with a Vancian system. No point systems.”

I present a brief brainstorm for psionics rules, based the above challenge/request at the end of Telecanter’s Receding Rules collection.

I’m imagining a skill- or other check-based system that almost guarantees success in many cases, but in which any attempt takes time and carries certain risks. The main task of the psion is to “open channels,” whether to a specific target or for general broadcast, with various tasks requiring a certain number of channels in order to operate effectively.

Opening a channel takes a given amount of time – a round in combat, say – that requires complete concentration. If the target is inanimate/passive/accepting of the channel, or there is no specific target, the result is automatic success. If the target resists, some sort of check is called for, depending on the details of your system of choice. If the target is a malevolent spirit, another psion, or a similar power, they may choose to resist as normal, to spend a round concentrating to automatically block the channel, or allow it to happen… because they can use the channel as well to affect the initiator. Time spent opening channels is time spent helpless; the psion can’t even walk, talk, or pay attention to their surroundings.

If unresisted, a psion can immediately close all their open channels. If some other party is trying to keep them open (for a counterattack, for example), closing each channel takes another round of concentration and requires a check (the same as a resisted attempt to open one).

Various special measures or close connections between psion and target may give bonuses or automatic successes on checks, or even free channels. Line of sight would give a mild bonus, physical contact a larger one, kinship a very large one; attempting to link a twin, or one’s own mind and body after they have astrally separated, might give a baseline of free channels open.

A very tentative list of effects and requirements

Effects possible with one channel:

  • Sending a brief psychic message
  • Reading surface emotions from another’s mind
  • Telekinetically moving a small or light object, animal, etc., such as a mouse, pillow, or billiard ball
  • Feeling the psychic impression of a place or object
  • Producing small manifestations of one’s emotions: sounds, smells, wisps of flame, etc.

With two channels:

  • Establishing a two-way conversation with another mind
  • Reading surface thoughts from another’s mind
  • Telekinetically moving a medium-sized thing such as a dictionary, sword, or cat
  • Sensing and “reading” spirits and auras, or dimly sensing the area around a distant target
  • Producing greater manifestations: obviously-phantasmal sensory impressions, handfuls of flame, fell winds, feelings of discomfort, etc.

With three channels:

  • Reading deeper (non-surface) memories and thoughts from another’s mind
  • Telekinetically moving a large/heavy thing such as a full travel suitcase, dog, or person
  • Deeper analysis of spirits and auras; reading the psychic/spiritual “history” of an object, clearly sensing the area around a distant target
  • Realistic manifestations: phantasmal sensory impressions that cannot necessary be told from real phenomena (as per magical illusions), inflicting pain or emotions on a target, whole-body flame, etc.

…And so on, including “psychic screams” that broadcast over a distance (starting with arm’s reach and increasing geometrically with more channels?), mental domination, astral projection, inflicting direct harm through telekinetic attacks on a person or object, etc. etc.

-For any telekinetic movement, fine control (small moving parts, precise motions, etc.) or high speed doubles the number of required channels; i.e. firing a billiard ball at high enough speed to count as a weapon would require two channels instead of one; making a mechanical cat walk as if wound up would require four instead of two, etc.

-For mental conversations, cross-linking any two open conversations requires an extra channel (so that for N participants, (Nx(N-1))/2 channels are required: 1, 3, 6, 10, 15…). If multiple psions are involved in the group call, any of them can contribute channels to the effort.

Closing thoughts:

Obviously this is a rough sketch that would need to be tweaked and fleshed out. Would any given psion have a limited set of powers? Could they learn more as they progress? Would discovery of new powers come from training with a master, secrets esoterically encoded in books, private experimentation and development, or sponsors from the spirit world? Would individuals have affinities for certain power sets (as in telekinesis only, pyrokinesis only, telepathy only, etc.)?

Would any character have a chance to pick up psychic powers? Would there be a roll involved? Would it be a class progression, with a dedicated class stat to check with and so on? If the latter, the rules presented here would give psions a “delicate artillery” role similar to that of magic-users – the difference being that they are slower but more versatile, with unlimited “uses” per day but more potential backlash if they open a channel to the wrong target or in the wrong psychic environment.

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Tweaking “Turning”

Nosferatu "turning"

Poor guy; he’s just trying to get a snack.

Background

One of the classic powers of clerics in D&D is “turning undead.” You present a holy symbol, the light of your patron deity shines through, and mummies shamble away or zombies are blasted into dust. The root of this, of course, is the classic Christian trope that bad things, and vampires in particular, will be repelled by the sign of the cross. (Which, I imagine, is just one example of humanity’s need to invent bugaboos to embody our fears and then comfort ourselves by inventing rituals and tools that defeat these bugaboos.)

Various systems handle the act in different ways. Older D&D had you roll under a target number based on your level and the hit dice or type of undead, and then roll again to get the number of hit dice affected, as seen here. Higher-level clerics could count on certain types of monsters being automatically driven away or even destroyed.

In 3rd Edition, this was changed to an even more complex system of “channeling energy,” in which a d20 roll gave the “most powerful undead affected” relative to the cleric’s level, followed by a roll for “turning damage” to see how many HD were affected. Automatic destruction happened to any undead less than half of the cleric’s level. Significant changes include Charisma becoming an important factor, the distinction between roll-to-turn and “automatic turning” being removed while automatic destruction became easier, and the shift toward a complex modular system where the energy quanta for “turn attempts per day” could potentially be put to other uses.

Pathfinder, on the other hand, dramatically simplifies this to a 30-foot radius blast that either heals living beings or harms undead, or vice-versa, depending on whether the energy being channeled is “positive” or “negative.” By this point we’ve moved away from the original concept of “turning” entirely in favor of pure damage. I feel that’s a bit of a loss.

I want to swing things in the opposite direction, taking inspiration from the vampire tropes that started the whole business in the first place. But – with more character, if that’s the right term? I interpret “turning” as a personal psychic struggle – the vampire’s hunger and will on one side, the priest’s faith and determination on the other, with some sort of metaphysical dominance at stake.

For this reason I see “turning” as only working against sentient undead. A zombie or animated skeleton is no different from a brick or chair, spiritually speaking; why would the mindless be susceptible to psychic domination? Mere walking corpses will be entirely unaffected. This has the nice side effect of making them a little more horrifying; a party with a cleric no longer has a “win button” against low-level undead, and the GM has more power to set up a Night of the Living Dead survival-horror situation.

Contests of Will

For mechanics, I’m taking inspiration from the Lord of the Rings RPG “contests of will.” That’s a series of contested rolls, with initiative each round determining the aggressor (who uses a “Bearing” trait) and defender (who uses Willpower). Whoever first suffers more degrees of defeat than they have points in Willpower has to “acknowledge defeat in some way” – which sounds wishy-washy, to be honest, and assumes everyone involved is in the mood for some Tolkienian storytelling.

Beyond the scope of “turning,” I see these contests of will as a useful model for any situation where two sides want to stare each other down: due to D&D having no Willpower attribute, locking eye contact with someone will call for a standard opposed roll between Presence (my preferred flavor of “Charisma”) scores. Each round, the contest is re-rolled; each loss results in temporary points of strain. When this overtakes Stability, the contest is lost, and both meters go back to where they were when the contest began. If you want, perhaps a single point of strain could remain with the loser – in real-world terms, due to the impact of losing a stare-off; in game terms, as a penalty to make the contest more meaningful. Using the strain meter means that relatively unstable individuals have a disadvantage in a contest of wills, but that’s hardly a surprise.

Anybody can try to engage anybody else in one of these contests; the only requirement is facing them down or making eye contact. In the case of alpha-wolf social posturing, a loss means nothing more severe than having to back down in some way. And either participant can freely quit at any moment. But I see special rules coming into effect in two situations: priest versus sentient undead, and wizard versus wizard.

In these cases, the stakes are higher. The only way to quit a contest once it has begun is to make a Psychic save; in order to attempt the save one must automatically lose the contest in a given round and take 1d6 strain.

Turning

Priest versus sentient undead is our “turning” analogue. An intelligent undead can engage in normal contests of will with the living. If the undead wins, may impose its will in some way: paralyzing them, placing them in thrall for a time, making them fall unconscious. If the mortal wins, they escape this fate, and perhaps become immune to the undead gaze for a time. Priests have the ability to fight back: if they win, they may similarly command the undead. Generally the command is to “leave this place” or the like. In either case, the domination is limited in time and effect; the mind of the loser will always refuse commands to commit self-harm and will be in no condition to comprehend and follow complex instructions or perform delicate intellectual tasks.

The Wooze

Wizards similarly can’t back out of a conflict once it has begun except by a successful Psychic save. And the winner gains even greater power over the loser: the ability to impose on them any one spell effect in the repertoire of either, perhaps with some creative adjustments to fit a given situation. As you might expect, magicians do not enter into this kind of contest lightly.

Consequences

Which of these witches is whistling the wooze, and which of these witches is not? If only one witch is whistling the wooze, then the other is certainly not. - Sesame Street

What are the effects on play of these changes? First, I like how it adds a mechanic for ordinary people to try to stare each other down. Since the results are so subjective, how much this gets used and how important it is would depend on interpretation and play style for a given group. It’s nice that a relatively simple mechanic can have universal utility, though, and it adds flavor.

Second, it makes undead far more frightening and dangerous. Mindless zombies and skeletons no longer have an obvious “win button” for taking them down, while any given intelligent undead implicitly has the ability to invade the minds of the living and victimize them in various ways. Priests retain the power to fight back and drive them away, but with a risk involved. The system is much less level-dependent than classic turning, too, allowing a strong-minded neophyte to drive away vampires that more spiritually tired elders can’t handle.

Finally, it allows wizards to “battle” in an appropriately arcane way that transcends simply shooting magic at each other, and with a range of possible results from, say, someone’s nose being turned green, through to hideous and inventive death.

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Ten Other Fighter Archetypes, Plus One

Another D&D-related post, and a brief one on account of how I’m now a grad student with classes to teach as well as attend and a hundred pages of reading each week.

Over at The Dragon’s Flagon, Eric Treasure (if that’s his real name [dun dun dunn!]) has posted a couple lists of “archetypes” for lending variety to basic character classes: ways to differentiate one PC from the next through style and equipment rather than lists of variant classes with special rules. I was impressed with the “thief” list, but some things about the “fighter” list bothered me.

Why is the cultural designation of “barbarian” used at all? Why lump everything from ancient Greek marines to Vikings to classic pirates to the pirates’ enemies on HMS Bigwoodenship under the single rubric of “sailor” regardless of their fighting style? Why include “coward” at all when it’s so universal? Why single out the “black knight” when he’s simply an evil version of the classic knight, who is left out entirely in favor of the would-be knight “the gallant”? Why separate out “archer” when bows are generally going to be carried by foot soldiers, mounted soldiers (omitted) or hunters? Long story short, as you no doubt expected: I present an alternate list that feels more satisfying, along with a handful of culture-specific images (read as: stereotypes) as examples.

  1. The Ideal Knight – The classic chevalier or samurai model. Often inherits the position and enough money that they can afford the equipment and training — in any case will tend to be heavily equipped and trained. Prefers ritualized single combat, and will often at least pay lip service to a personal code of some kind, but in the end not afraid to make full use of their advantages and cut other people down where they stand. Possibly prone to questing. The Black Knight. The White Knight. The Samurai. The Warrior Monk. Hector. Achilles.
  2. The Simple Knight – As above, but not idealized. Simple knights have better equipment and training than the common man and can in theory hold their own in a fight, but in practice tend to be administrators and are more willing to talk things out or call for backup. The Poor Samurai. The Small-Town Sheriff. The Captain of the Watch.
  3. The Soldier – Part of a trained professional fighting force. The soldier can generally keep cool in a combat situation, and specializes in group tactics and maneuvers taking advantage of one kind of weapon, such as a pike, bow, shield and sword, etc., possibly with a backup weapon or two. Operates most comfortably in a group, in a hierarchy, with a certain level of jargon and signage or symbolism. The, um, the Soldier. The Palace Guard. The Bodyguard. The Janissary. The Mongol Horse-Archer. The Marine. The Legionary.
  4. The Perfectionist – Someone who has devoted their life to physical or martial excellence, often with a spiritual aspect. May focus on one weapon or learn to use a wide range of sometimes surprising tools. May know supporting skills like parkour. The Shaolin Monk. The Holy Assassin. The Fantasy Ninja. The Palace Master of Arms. Inigo Montoya. The Fastest Draw in the West.
  5. The Berserker – Probably has above-average combat training and a decent weapon, but the main feature of the Berserker is an altered state of consciousness. They tend to fight with simple ferocity, ignoring pain and any wound that doesn’t straight-out incapacitate them. The Viking Raider. The Ecstatic Warrior. The Savage Tribesman. The Crazed Junkie.
  6. The Brawler – Someone who happens to be good at fighting because they have gotten into a lot of fights. Will tend to have an idiosyncratic style or a preferred weapon derived (or made) from a common tool. May be in it for personal kicks, as part of a pugilistic culture, or just an asshole with poor interpersonal skills. The Prizefighter. The British/Irish Pub-Goer. The Gang Member. The Hoodlum. The Gladiator.
  7. The Thug – A professional who happens to have violence as a tool of trade, the thug will usually prefer intimidation, surprise, and violence against those unable to resist over direct combat. If forced into a more even fight, though, they’ll generally be interested in any weapons or tactics that can end it quickly in their favor, including improvised weapons, property damage, low blows, getting bystanders involved and taking hostages. The Mugger. The Highwayman. The King’s Tax Collector. The Mafia Enforcer.
  8. The Worker – Someone who happens to be able to fight as a side-effect of their main profession, like sailors who can hold their own with a knife or harpoon. The Hunter. The Woodcutter. The Sailor. The Big Guy. The Cowboy.
  9. The Showman – Their job (or at least their martial training) emphasizes athletic, surprising, and often visually-interesting combat or pseudo-combat. May specialize in pure performance, one-on-one duels, or evading and surviving a mass of enemies. To the Showman fighting is an art, not a tool, but unlike with the Perfectionist it doesn’t have a spiritual or obsessive aspect. The Sword-Dancer. The Swashbuckler. Modern Shaolin Monks. Jackie Chan.
  10. The Dilettante – An amateur with lots of theory and probably not so much practice. Like the Showman, is most interested in combat-themed aesthetic or intellectual pursuits, but more averse than the Showman to actual combat. Tends to fight in a formalized way that makes certain assumptions about the battlefield and its rules, and may use an unusual, old-fashioned, or faddish weapon. The Karate Club Member. The Sport Wrestler. The Nonlethal Duelist. The Dandy With a Sword-Cane. The Ceremonial Guard.
  11. The Desperate - No training, no tools, no hope. Someone who would normally get out of a fight as fast as possible but doesn’t see a choice in the matter now. Will tend to use whatever weapons are on hand (but not well) and simple tactics (running forward, running away). Most effective in numbers. A Body in the Mob. The Farmer Pressed Into Service. The Cannon Fodder. The Revolutionary.

As I tried to show with the examples, there’s a lot of room for fine-tuning and color. Any of the above can be treated mechanically as a “fighter.” Each archetype then suggests a kind of approach to fighting while allowing a myriad of culture-specific manifestations. These in turn can be further colored by personality. Is this Soldier a fearful hoplite who refuses to fight outside of the phalanx? Is this Perfectionist a sadistic bully who constantly picks fights with the excuse of honing their abilities? Is this Ideal Knight a paladin, or a xenophobic menace to travelers?

I don’t have much else to add. Perhaps looking over, or rolling a d10 on, the above list can provide inspiration to anyone who avoids bread-and-butter fighters due to their being “boring,” but is still willing to give it a try.

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Land-Type Interrupt

So, I had decided to do another example Forge, this time using the Land generator. I fiddled around a bit, and got a set of terms I felt I could work with. Then I had to restart the browser to install updates… and when the page came back, of course, it had lost them.

This wasn’t a disaster: I had already taken a screenshot and put the Forged terms into OpenOffice for elaboration. But I went and reopened the page anyway, and clicked on LandForge again… and the results were perfect. I had to change nothing adjust nothing; the following are exactly what it gave me. I was so pleased that I scrapped the original and went with these.

Seriously; "Claw Town."

How can Claw Town be anything but the best?

The Frozen Sanctuary is a temple made of ice. Not the temple of an ice demon or anything, though. Just an ordinary temple or cathedral of [insert deity of your choice here] that just happens to be carved out of a single vast wall of ice. Why? Well, aside from the majestic beauty of it all, and the way it showcases the church’s power and wealth, and the fact that sometimes people simply enjoy making ice buildings with bedding and carpets of the purest albino fur (The fur of what? That’s a good question; feel how thick and soft it is; jackets lined with it can also be bought in the vestry.) – well, there’s also the excellent protection it affords against the sky-sharks on foggy nights.

Honey Cut Laboratory is the private, hidden lab of the mad sorceress who came to be called Honey Cut. (Did you think it had something to do with bees? Nope.) It may be where she forges her Blade Golems. Or it may be where she incubated and hatched the third Sky Egg – the third ever known in the world, that is; she only found one – with such cataclysmic results. Certainly she did both of those things after being banished from the king’s service… if only somebody could get in, and see, and return alive to tell us what they found.

The Pyre of Omens is an eternal flame that burns in the high temple of the gentle God of Death. When one of the deceased is cremated in the Pyre, their spirit manifests in the heart of the fire and prophesies to the assembled priests and mourners, revealing truths that they grasped in their dying moments. It is said that if a living being ever enters the Pyre, then the walls between Life and Death will be torn down and everybody on both sides will have a very bad day.

Claw Town is just the best. There are so many possibilities; how do you choose? Is it a community of crab people? Of pirates? Was it named by the leader of a gang of bandits (the Eagle Claws), who has terrible taste and little imagination, protected by Claw Fort, which looms over Claw Pass, and the townspeople seek a hero to chase out the beast that lurks in Claw Ravine? Or perhaps it’s a tiny, perfect replica of a normal human village, flying a banner depicting a tiny pincer? Or just a picturesque collection of stalagmites in one of the great chalky canyons on the moon?

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Why call it “ten questions and a bonus” instead of “eleven questions”? Is our number of fingers really that important? Also, to be honest, I’d switch #s 10 and 11.

So I recently ran across a list of questions for DMs to answer about their RPG settings and/or house rules. By “ran across” I mean “read here;” please note also the link to his source. I kind of feel like the questions alone are worth reading just for the glimpse they give into the history of the hobby.

Anyway, as you may recall, I’m currently in the throes of trying to develop a gaming system of my own, so I thought I’d give the questions a shot.

(1). Race (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling) as a class? Yes or no?
-No. To be honest this seems kind of silly to me. There are various ways people go about trying to justify the idea, but it strikes me as nothing more than lazy Planet of the Hats syndrome. Perhaps expedient in terms of design, but when possible I’d like to avoid sacrificing verisimilitude at the altar of mechanics.

(2). Do demi-humans have souls?
-Sure. In fact, I’m taking a page from Jewish mysticism here and saying that everything has a soul, or perhaps layers of souls. Rocks and rivers and so on have animistic spirits; every living thing has that plus a “plant soul” which provides the simple spark of life; anything with a certain minimum of neural activity has all that plus an “animal soul” which provides basic self-awareness, and anything sentient has all of the above plus a “people soul.”

(3). Ascending or descending armor class?
-Ascending. In fact, I replace AC with a set of defensive rolls to choose between, treated defense as an opposed roll between attacker and defender.

(4). Demi-human level limits?
-No. I haven’t really thought about imposing strict level limits, much less arbitrarily placing them on any given subset of play. (Consider also that the “demi-human level limit” was one of the less popular, more-ignored rules in old D&D, and got dropped from later editions.) I suspect that I would rather design rules to encourage characters in high-level play to follow certain career tracks and eventually retire.

(5). Should thief be a class?
-Yes, although not by that name. I really like the idea of Lamentations of the Flame Princess‘ “Specialist” class, so I’m borrowing that, and updating it to be less a “thief” or trap expert and more of a general utility class.

(6). Do characters get non-weapon skills?
-Very yes. I’m a big fan of non-weapon skills. I do want to find ways to encourage players to role-play their exploration and problem-solving rather than just “roll to check for traps, roll to disarm traps,” but I also want to explicitly encourage lots of activity outside of combat, and I’m of the opinion that including mechanics for other kinds of activities can help with that.

(7). Are magic-users more powerful than fighters (and, if yes, what level do they take the lead)?
-Yes, and always, but there are trade-offs. In a one-on-one fight between a fighter and a spell-caster, it’s simple: if you start at arm’s length, the fighter will win. If you don’t give them much time to prepare, the fighter will probably win. The more time and distance are available, the more likely the magic-user is to win. Again taking a page from LotFP, warriors are going to be far and away the best at fighting, with lots of easy access to combat skills. They’re also going to have the most hit points. Sorcerers will definitely be delicate artillery pieces; they can cause a lot of mayhem, but require careful preparation, logistical support, and protection in order to function effectively. Priests will be less vulnerable, but their supernatural powers will be more finicky.

(8). Do you use alignment languages?
-No. I don’t feel the need for alignments, and no cosmic alignments means no cosmic alignment languages. I saw a post a while back that explained the use of alignment languages, but while fascinating in a historical/design sense, it did nothing in terms of making me want to use them.

(9). XP for gold, or XP for objectives (thieves disarming traps, etc…)?
-All of the above, but no XP for gold directly. I’m strongly considering XP for an array of objectives (killing monsters, defeating puzzles or complex traps, exploration and discovery, surviving the session, etc.). If a little more complexity seems acceptable, I might add class-specific bonuses: warriors get more XP than other people for defeating enemies, and so on. But the bulk of XP will probably come from finding treasure, hauling it back to civilization, and then spending it. I might even take a cue from “carousing” rules some people use and give different mixes of rewards for different kinds of expenditure, with plain GP-to-XP conversion being “pay an expert to train your skills.”

(10). Which is the best edition; ODD, Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer, Rules Cyclopedia, 1E ADD, 2E ADD, 3E ADD, 4E ADD, Next?
-It depends on what you’re interested in, mostly. 4E seems to be a great computer-based tactical-skirmish wargame, but crap at anything else. 3E is a great RPG, but relatively complicated and time-consuming. Old-school D&D is a quick-and-simple dungeon-bashing game, but without extensive house rules, its war-gaming roots keep it from having the breadth and depth that later editions supported.

Bonus Question: Unified XP level tables or individual XP level tables for each class?
-I’m leaning toward the former, for the sake of simplicity. Perhaps if I get to actually play-test the thing and it seems like some tweaking is needed, I’ll give each class its own table, but for now “balance” is not that high on my list of priorities. A good DM should be able to balance the needs of the players just fine without it being imposed mechanically.

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