Wednesday, January 23, 2013

D&D Next: Spell Design

It's long established in this blog that I like to talk about spells and magic, and today is another of those days. D&D Next spell design is currently a bizarre melange of new ideas and old spells that have been with D&D for two or more editions. For example, lance of faith and thunderwave are the only spells in the 12-17-12 playtest packet that aren't also found in 3.x D&D, and those are both from 4e. On the other hand, the mechanics of each individual spell is often strikingly different from its appearance in earlier editions. Chiefly, the designers have done away with spell scaling by caster level, a move I am inclined to applaud. They have also made major changes to spells that grant bonuses or penalties to attack or AC, in keeping with bounded accuracy principles and reduced usage of fiddly math bonuses.

When the playtest packets first came out, I was surprised at the new spell layouts. At least as far back as 2e, spells break many key stats out into their own separate lines at the beginning of the layout: level (okay, 2e handles that in the page header, a mortal sin against information management), name, components, school or sphere of magic, range, area, duration, casting time, and saving throw. Damage values and other details of the spell effect are contained in the text block. 3e adds spell keywords and whether or not Spell Resistance applies, but otherwise the spell format is just about the same. 4e makes some big changes by converting everything to a standardized power format, though the information is mostly similar. The major change is that attack bonuses, defenses, and damage/effect expressions are broken out into clearer pieces of rules text rather than inhabiting a text block of 1-5 paragraphs. For quick-and-easy use, it's pretty much the tops; what it doesn't do as well is anything other than mystically-induced facial murder. Utility spells are a bit text-y compared to attacks, while rituals are structured very nearly like 3.x spells.

So this brings us to D&D Next, where spells have only two to four pieces of information broken out: level, school, casting time (that is, whether or not this spell has a ritual form, and whether or not it is a word of power, which functionally if not literally reduces the spell to a minor action), and any higher-slot versions of the spell that can be cast. All other relevant information is contained in the spell's description and effect blocks. I'm not too sure what this accomplishes for the designers, except that it strongly encourages them to keep it as short and to the point as they possible.

These are basics, though, if you're the sort of person to read obscure (yet oddly charming) gaming blogs like this one, I have probably not opened your eyes to the wide world. The more interesting point is that they have introduced new rules concepts to differentiate and balance spells. Words of power I've already mentioned. Concentration is another; since a spellcaster cannot (currently) maintain concentration on more than one spell at a time, the designers keep a hand-brake on the most complicated and gameplay-slowing effects. Considering that clerics do not lose concentration due to damage taken in battle while wizards do, it also acts as a very hard-line incentive for wizards to stay well in the back. Mearls has recently commented, though, that some change is coming to this mechanic:
Wizards are the best at area attacks and control effects. I have to admit that I'm really happy with how the concentration rule is reining in spell stacking and buffs. My high-level playtests have limited any balance problems to specific spells, rather than the entire concept of dropping five buffs to create a death machine character or using glitterdust/grease/stinking cloud/wall of fire at once to turn an encounter into a joke. We're looking at breaking the concentration rule into two separate rules: one rule that covers concentration and the chance that damage ends a spell, and a separate rule (tentatively called focus) that limits you to one focus spell at a time.
It's a good change, because while it gets rid of the inducement for wizards to stay in the back and avoid taking damage, it means that the DM can splash area damage a bit more without constantly wrecking whatever the wizard is currently maintaining.

Monday, January 21, 2013

New Games in the New Year

This post was written for the second annual New Year, New Game blog carnival hosted by Gnome Stew as part of the 2013 New Year, New Game challenge. I started my Aurikesh game recently enough that I'm basing my comments on that, but overall this is a post about how I approach new games (both PCing and GMing), and new-to-me things I'd like to play or run in 2013. Strap in for some rambling.

So, Aurikesh. I've been working on this setting by fits and starts for more than two years, starting with the creation of the Veytikka - who were themselves a concept I first tossed out for a crowd-sourced setting creation in Robin Laws' LJ, in the time of our internet forebears, when they weren't so much webpages as webscrolls and webtablets (baked in Angelfire). Anyway, I digress. I'm now six sessions into the campaign; that's still "just starting out" by my standards. I've never deliberately run a short-term game, because I derive so much satisfaction from the sense of accretion and depth. Which brings me to my first piece of advice when writing a new setting and starting a new campaign - this is something that has worked for us in a big way in Dust to Dust, and there's no reason it wouldn't work for tabletop gaming.

Recent History

Writing a detailed history for your setting, stretching back to the dawn of time, is good. For a lot of setting-writers, that's the fun part! When it comes to getting the action of a campaign off the ground and getting newly-minted PCs to be a part of the world, recent history (within the lifespan of the characters) is more important than ancient history: in the clearest of ways, it shapes the game's current environment and determines what might happen next. The still more critical function is to give the players immediate attachments and significance in the world and increased context for interacting with each other. In a sense, a Historical Event is an opt-in addition to character history. This is a lot like a straight-up restatement of Spirit of the Century's interactive character creation, but puts creatively shy players on the spot less.

The way we do it at Dust to Dust, these are predominantly Plot-generated ideas and text, but there's no reason they have to be. Collaborative world-building is all the rage, and given how much they do to shape the present and future of the setting, this is a good place for player involvement. It does blur the line between Historical Event and character history even more - think of it as the part of your character history that everyone knows about and you specifically would like other players to have been involved in as well. In tabletop games, it generally won't be necessary to put a limit on how many events a character is involved in, because in a group of 2-7 players, you probably won't write more than n+1 events at the outside, and that's still not unbearable or particularly unfair. Even when it becomes improbable, the character history that stitches everything together could be awfully interesting.

The important thing about writing a Historical Event is to create roles that do interesting, significant things, and to establish them in a clear way as part of the game's consensual reality. Since these are typically low-level characters, deeds don't have to be earth-shaking or mighty, just the kinds of things that would make someone the talk of the town. Whether it's the soldier who saved the life of a commanding officer, the scholar who provided a key breakthrough, or the detective who solved a difficult case, the point is that most NPCs will know your character's name and give you credit for your past deeds. At the same time, remember that this is technically an "unearned" victory - it occurred through fiat rather than gameplay - so if you overdo it, it may feel hollow. Still, victories in Historical Events carry a bit more weight than victories contained entirely inside one person's character history, simply because others could have opted into them. Long-term consequences of event roles helps as well - whether that consequence is beneficial or otherwise. We have found that this helps characters to feel more established and connected, accelerating the development of historical weight and depth to the campaign.

This also works well with published settings - most of them include timelines with a high level of detail over the most recent few years of setting history. Forgotten Realms is especially noted for this, but when I was running that setting I never did anything interesting with all of that detail that the writers had bothered to create. It seems a shame now - I could have really improved my own feeling of engagement and ownership of the setting by fleshing out those events with player roles and NPC names.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Skill Challenge Design, Part Two

I've been posting a lot lately about the work I'm doing on skill challenges, and now that I've had a chance to run two of them by my players, I'm posting about what I think worked and, more importantly, what I think didn't work. Fair warning - this gets a bit navel-gaze-y as regards my own creative process. Since several of them read this blog, I couldn't post details ahead of time, and perhaps they'll contribute their own comments as to how I could have improved the presentation. The first skill challenge was Alchemy, which I've already posted in full, and the second was an Investigation, posted below. Note: if you're one of my players and having the curtain drawn back on the whole challenge is going to make you unhappy, just go ahead and close this window, this is not the post for you.

The PCs were hired to find out which of the reeve's guards in a certain area of the city were corrupt, particularly those on payroll for the crime bosses Alcande and Hyrzade. The NPC hook gave them a list of names (see below) and a small amount information. We rolled initiative, and then proceeded more or less according to that order - except that after Fate's first turn, the players could rearrange their initiative however they liked. Each round of actions was an in-game day.

Following a successful skill check (most DCs were between 11 and 15, as I decided at the time), the player's "damage" roll was d6 + relevant stat modifier. The track to which they applied damage was "Evidence," and they needed to do about 60 points of damage to that track. Realistically, though, the damage rolls was there to give me a relative measure of the degree of success I wished to narrate - how clear of evidence the player received. This damage was additive against a single target - a few weaker efforts against a single target would certainly have gleaned as much evidence as one better roll. I didn't have anything hard and fast here - this part was mostly ad hoc.

The PCs faced two threats, one of them handled with a hit point track, and the other without. The former was the danger that the PCs' activities would exhaust the reeve's patience; I envisioned a loss here leading to the PCs getting called into the reeve's court and taken off the case as she bawled them out for being loose ballistae or whatever. I wish I had given them badges she could take away. Anyway, this track was about 30 hit points long, and damage to this track came from the Fate table. The latter threat was that the crooked watchmen would find out about the investigation and either hide their activities more effectively, or just attempt to kill the PCs. This did eventually happen, through a more unusual turn of events, and provided the climax of the session.

My DM-side notes on the skill challenge, with some Plot-speak:

Friday, January 4, 2013

Alchemy System for D&D Next

In the few weeks since my last post, I've been working off and on to put together a skill challenge that would also work as a crafting system for Alchemy in my campaign. The system that I've put together still has some kinks to get worked out - which is code for "it's completely untested" - but I suspect that there is fun to be had here, while remaining fast enough to resolve that it won't take up an excessive amount of table time. (Since there are only a very few instances of the DM making choices, you could let the player resolve it on his own if you're okay with revealing the random tables.) The primary problem with the system is that it could  potentially involve a good bit of different values going up and down, as the point of the system is for the player to manipulate four different values toward the completion of a set of goals. In this case, the set of goals is to make the different kinds of alchemical items he wants.

The exact function of laboratories, rare materials, and formulas, as well as how the system works when two or more alchemists cooperate, is not yet written. Players start with the ability to make the alchemical items in the book (listed below) without the need for a formula. If they do receive a formula for one of those items, it would in some way modify the four qualities during the end step. Other formulas do not modify the qualities, but give the alchemist access to more production options. Materials are probably spent during an action, rather than during the end step, but I don't have a better sense of how that works yet.

I've written this on the theory that I'd be able to modify it for other crafting skills and research actions as well, but that's work for another day, I'm afraid. Unsurprisingly, everything here is phrased for use with D&D Next, but my guess is that it wouldn't take more than minor adjustments to bolt it onto 3.x and 4e.


This alchemical crafting system is based on improving two positive qualities while minimizing two negative qualities. There is a fifth quality that provides a necessary endpoint to the work. This makes for a variety of data tracking, but gives the system considerable nuance. There are a number of other moving parts in the system as well, obscuring the chance to solve the game.

The five qualities are Intensity, Quantity, Volatility, Cost, and Time. Once Time runs out, the player applies values from any end-step modifiers, such as formulas, laboratories, assistants, or rare materials. I've assumed that a single unit of Time is about two hours, and a character cannot work for more than eight hours in a day. If it's important to you that completing alchemical production take more in-game time - and there are plenty of good reasons you might hold this position - then change Time to four hours, one day, or whatever suits you. The consequences of Volatility and Fate mean that alchemists may well need to take up to a week off between Alchemy challenges just to recuperate.

Intensity determines the level of the item the alchemist makes – whether the alchemist’s fire is the most basic variety or the dreaded alchemist’s hellfire. Intensity does not decrease during the end step. Increasing Intensity inevitably increases Cost and Volatility. It is deliberately difficult to drive this value very high, though there will certainly be items that have an almost unreachably high Intensity.

Quantity determines how many uses of the various items the alchemist can make. This is the positive quality that the alchemist spends during the end step; the alchemist is not required to take this number to zero.

Volatility determines the number of unexpected outcomes that the alchemist generates. Volatility adds directly to Fate rolls made during the production process, and any Volatility that remains during the end step must be resolved with rolls on a separate Volatility table. The Volatility table may apply temporary disadvantages to the alchemist, cause specific products to be highly unstable, or cause them to have unexpected effects when they are used. Volatility can benefit the alchemist, and no one ever advanced the study of alchemy without taking some risks with high Volatility.

Cost is a value multiplied by 1/10th of the market value of all of the alchemical items you created in your working. Even failed rolls increase Cost by a small amount; only Fate can reduce Cost prior to the end step, and such outcomes are very rare. If you end an alchemy challenge with a positive Cost value but elect not to spend any Quantity, you pay 1 gold coin per point of Cost (materials spent, and cleanup costs).

The player influences these qualities with four different actions, and each action consumes a variable amount of time. Unless otherwise specified, all rolls are Intelligence checks to which Alchemy applies. All actions except for Rubedo (the end step) trigger a Fate roll upon completion. For actual play, I intend to work on improving the formatting of this information.