Friday, October 25, 2013

LARP Design: Lore Skills

When it comes to structuring a robust lore game, many games include knowledge or lore skills. These skills serve, on one level, as background: a character-sheet indication of who the character is and what she does. On another, they represent a path for additional exposition. In some games and to varying extents, these skills also carry practical applications in themselves - Feng Shui does this in reverse, by making every skill include related lore. If you have a question about the world and you don't have someone you can comfortably go ask, what do you do? In some games, you buy a Lore skill; in others... well, I'll get to that. This will be a multi-part post; the next post will address tabletop usage.

Dust to Dust (with extensive background)

The lore skills used in Dust to Dust are an iterative development on the rules of King's Gate, which were themselves based on the rules of Shattered Isles. This is one of the areas of a game's system in which marshals, rather than players or Plot-behind-the-scenes, are the primary users, and that dictates some aspects of implementation that are difficult to account for properly. The changes to these rules, campaign by campaign, have come out of the most practical of sources: user experience. 

In Shattered Isles, Lore skills originally: 
  • had ten levels, with mostly-very-small character point costs for each level, but scaling up with each level purchased. 
  • required teaching, from a PC or NPC. 
  • did not carry practical applications. (Obviously a character can learn something and then use that information - that's not what I mean by practical application.)
  • could be used between events to get answers to questions relevant to the Lore's topic.
  • were open to player definition: that is, the rulebook had a sample list of Lores, but not an exhaustive one. (There was a note, observed partly in the breach, that silly Lores would be rejected.) They could be broad or narrow, and breadth carried a non-specific cost in depth of knowledge.
Over the course of the first campaign, I think it's fair to say that few characters purchased lore skills, and among those that did, there was at least a minor meta-game of who could pick up the most obscure and rarely-applicable one.

There's a rules "situation" here that highlights one of the major issues in all lore systems: how do you know how much to give the player? During an event at a LARP, it's impractical for a marshal to look up a pre-defined distinction between the information granted from four levels of a Lore skill, as opposed to three or five. This problem is going to show up again later in this post, in a modified form. The solution that SI used in its second campaign, and KG used for its entire run (since those were roughly simultaneous), was to cut the granularity in half: instead of ten levels, there were five, and CP costs were preserved by combining the costs of each replaced level (4, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 became 6, 10, 18, 26, 34).

This helped, but the user experience of SI 2 and the KG campaign (this is based on volunteered anecdotes rather than statistical surveying, but we're talking about a small user base in any case) indicated that it didn't go far enough. I will say that I may not have won the Most Obscure Lore game, but I certainly achieved honorable mention with "Baranoran Royal Rites" at level 3. The primary contenders, to my knowledge, were "Music in Minor Keys," and "Caves." I am curious to know if any player in SI 2 or KG ever picked up the fifth level of a Lore skill.

The teaching requirement was a significant hurdle to player acquisition of Lore skills. For a Lore to enter circulation, the same player needed to meet with an NPC and receive approval to learn a Lore skill while also possessing the necessary unspent CP five times. There certainly are NPCs that appear on-camera this often, but at that time I think relatively few players (hi, +T Maurer!) would have thought to ask an NPC if they could further the player's knowledge of a particular Lore. (If I'm wrong about this and the rest of y'all were totally doing this, then... my bad I guess.) I think it's fair to say that most characters of those campaigns that picked up any Lore skills did so once they had more or less satisfied their goals for character power, and could now step back and round out their character cards a bit more.

Which brings me, at last, to Dust to Dust, where Lore skills:
  • have three levels at most, but some skills instead have only one or two levels. That is, if we think something will offer less-than-normal utility in our campaign, you can still buy it, but you pay fewer CP for it.
  • require teaching, from a PC or NPC; it is possible to be self-taught through the game's Research system. This often means you learned the lore from a library.
  • sometimes carry situational practical applications. For example, we have run skill challenges in which characters with a relevant Lore get a hint on a puzzle. Lore skills also carry significant practical applications to the Research system (thus Lores substitute for the R&D skill found in the Eclipse campaign).
  • can be used between events to get answers relevant to the Lore's topic.
  • remain open to player definition. They can be broad or narrow, and breadth carries a non-specific cost in depth of knowledge.
  • are part of receiving a culture packet. The culture packet is the first level of the Lore skill for a particular culture. Characters receive Lore 1 in their native culture for free. The point of this is to establish everyone's baseline of knowledge in the world.
It's been interesting to watch some percentage of the playerbase, who came to DtD after as many as 15 years of playing SI and KG, reassess the value of Lore skills. As I've said, there were players in those campaigns that bought up Lore skills - but now it's something even the brute fighters do. Given that Fantasy Academia is one of the games inside DtD...

Saturday, October 19, 2013

D&D Next: Druids

The final-final update to the playtest packet offers a second paladin oath (apparently this is where they're storing the avenger class now?), some tweaks to paladin spell DCs (not paralleled in the ranger, for whatever reason), and a huge revision to Wild Shape and the Circle of the Moon, over in the druid class. So I want to break down the druid class, both what's changed here and the archetype as a whole, because it's something I've vaguely meant to write about for a long while now.

4e was the first edition in which I ever played a druid, or had any particular interest in doing so. I'm well aware that druids are one of the most powerful classes in 3.x, but they didn't really speak to me at that point. I don't know exactly what I was looking for out of the class, but the druid is pretty intensive on data management, between pet management, the complications of 3.x wild shaping, and a buff-and-summons-heavy spell list. I would venture to state that no class in 3.x required system mastery quite as intensive as the druid. The general theme is "plant-and-animal cleric."

Actually, before I move on to 4e, let me step back to 1e and 2e. 1e druids are pretty explicitly Celtic, as is clear in the level titles. At this point, they're beginning their split away from core clerics - literally, they're a cleric subclass - by trading weapon proficiencies, armor proficiencies, and turning undead for a boat of small abilities, a version of wild-shaping that is awkwardly limited (and needs the player to know a good bit about the Monster Manual), and one really, really underestimated spell, Animal Friendship. (This is going to come up again in 2e.) The Celtic parts of the class are also played up in their dependence on mistletoe and holly as spellcasting components. The rules for these components are kind of agonizing: the only way a druid gets the listed effectiveness (range, duration, area of effect) out of her spells is to use mistletoe that can only be harvested one night out of the year. It's 1e, so there's no guideline as to how many uses of greater mistletoe a druid could harvest in that time. Otherwise, the player needs to get used to taking 25-50% off of every spell's range, duration, and area of effect, and/or the spells being easier to resist.

None of this is the really weird stuff. The druid class in the 1e PHB only goes up to 14th level, and the last three levels are brutally competitive. There can only be a limited number of each rank of druid, and advancement requires both the accumulation of XP and a duel with the current holder of that position. Now, this is really interesting if you're thinking in terms of 1e and 2e late-game play, where players advance slowly and spend a ton of time managing lands or organizations. If there's a long-running and active plot, though, this is a disaster. Oh, and if you lose the duel, you lose XP down to the beginning of the level below. The XP table is very generous to druids up to 12th level (insanely fast as compared to clerics), but the next few levels after that require double or more their entire accrued experience to that point. Unearthed Arcana eventually released Hierophant levels for the druid as a way to advance beyond 14th level. I seriously doubt that anyone ever played a druid to Hierophant levels, but they're pretty cool: the ability to wander the Inner Planes with increasing freedom.

2e came along and made only one noticeable change to the class, other than a heavy rework of the spell list. The requirements around mistletoe were vastly simplified: now it is a holy symbol rather than a consumed component, and can be gathered under any full moon, not just the night of Midsummer. It's a huge quality-of-living improvement for the druid and her allies, that's for sure. There's a minor clarification to the druid's wild-shaping, as to what happens to the druid's gear, and that's it. At this point, the class is all over the place, but it's a better than passing fair model for Merlin and Gandalf. (The tone of the class is particularly in line with Bernard Cornwell's vision of Merlin, though of course that Merlin wasn't so much about shapeshifting or True Neutral alignment.)
Digression: Seriously, now. If you're reading this and you ever played a druid from 1st level up to 14+ in 1e or 2e, using the rules as written, I want to hear about it.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

D&D Next: Skills and Proficiencies, Redux

"You can ride without a saddle, Lord?" he asked me.
"Without a horse, tonight, if necessary."
--Excalibur, by Bernard Cornwell
In my recent post on the latest playtest packet, I wrote about skills and proficiencies a lot. I thought about it some more, and now I want to recapitulate and, for my own benefit as well as clarity in analysis, reorganize the information. The thing is, the rules as presented are misleading, though I don't blame the designers - this is a playtest packet, and their final-form information presentation should wait until things are finalized. This is the implementation of a plan Mearls alluded to in multiple Legends & Lore posts, particularly here and here.

The game has eighteen things it describes as skills, each of which is lightly attached to one ability score.
  1. Acrobatics (Dex)
  2. Animal Handling (Wis)
  3. Arcana (Int)
  4. Athletics (Str)
  5. Deception (Cha)
  6. History (Int)
  7. Intimidation (Cha)
  8. Medicine (Int)
  9. Nature (Int)
  10. Perception (Wis)
  11. Performance (Cha)
  12. Persuasion (Cha)
  13. Religion (Int)
  14. Search (Int)
  15. Sense Motive (Wis)
  16. Sleight of Hand (Dex)
  17. Stealth (Dex)
  18. Survival (Wis)
Okay, cool. But what about the tasks that don't slot neatly into these skills, like opening locks, disarming traps, riding a horse (okay, Animal Handling isn't a terrible idea there), donning a convincing disguise (okay, sure, you could use Deception)... and so on? Can you be unusually good at resisting fatigue, toxins, or suffocation? Of course you can - but what 4e called "the Endurance skill," D&D Next calls "proficiency in Constitution saving throws."

To cover the range of things characters can currently be proficient in, we also have to consider the various kinds of tools. The tools each contain their own subsystem of rules, and we can all be glad that this isn't the final published work, because as information presentation goes, it's a nightmare. The short version is that proficiency with a toolset lets you apply your proficiency bonus to skill checks that incorporate that toolset; it's not really clear what kinds of tasks require tools, though. If you wanted to climb a sheer rock face, do you need proficiency in Athletics (the presumptive successor of the 3.x Climb skill - at least, it certainly was in 4e), proficiency in a climber's kit, or both in order to apply your proficiency bonus (or, if you have both, do you double your bonus)?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Homebrewed D&D Next: Revised Outlander

Back in March, I was playing a lot of Torchlight II, and I created an Outlander class for D&D Next, because arcane archers and creepy gunslingers are awesome as hell. Now that we have the last D&D Next rules set we're going to get until actual publication (presumably), I'm updating all of my homebrewed content, so here's the Outlander. As before, it is a blatant reskin of the monk, without unarmed damage scaling (because Outlanders use weapons) or any immunities (because immunities are bad, mmkay?). The previous design was (not by intent) awfully close to my revised warlock. In Aurikesh, Outlanders are more or less the weapon-using kindred of Warlocks - much less discipline on the magical front, a bit more in the way of weird tricks and resilience to hostile effects.

The other major deviation from the monk design is the more restrictive approach to Paths used here, as opposed to the very open design of the Way of the Four Elements. I'm not sure how I feel about this, and at some point in the future I may change the Outlander to work more like the monk in this regard. I would have to create a new Path option as an alternative to the putative "Way of the Four Nightmares," and I don't have clear ideas on that point at present. The current design doesn't offer options upon leveling, and that's not my general preference.

Outlander, Version 2

An outlander is a warrior who has developed a mystical connection with bows or starlock weapons. Most outlanders are drifters, either righting wrongs, creating havoc, or both wherever their travels take them. They tend to remain lightly armored, and they place their greatest trust in their preferred weapons. (Think "arcane ranger.")

Creating an Outlander
You can create an outlander quickly by following these suggestions.
Background: Bounty Hunter
Equipment: Starlock musket, dagger, 40 bullets, adventurer's kit, 92 gp

Level Proficiency Bonus Arcane Gifts Features
1 +1 2 Cunning Defense, Shadow Power, Outlander Tradition
2 +1 2 Marksman's Trance, Knowledge of the Nightmare
3 +2 3 Tradition Feature
4 +2 3 Ability Score Improvement
5 +2 3 Torment
6 +2 4 Tradition Feature
7 +3 4 Uncanny Dodge
8 +3 4 Improved Shadow Power
9 +3 5 Ability Score Improvement
10 +3 5 Fortification of the Will

Creating an Outlander
Hit Dice: 1d8 per Outlander level
Hit Points at 1st level: 8 + Constitution modifier
Hit Points at Higher Levels: 1d8 + Constitution modifier per level after 1st

Armor: Light and Medium armor
Weapons: Simple weapons, light crossbow, heavy crossbow, longbow, starlock pistol, starlock musket, starlock rifle, blowgun, bolas
Tools: Gaming Set
Saving Throws: Dexterity, Intelligence
Skills: Choose two of Sleight of Hand, Stealth, Arcana, Religion, Survival

Arcane Gifts
Your training allows you to perform unusual feats of magic, called Arcane Gifts. In this way you can make a devastating strike against an opponent, aim with supernatural clarity, or one of many other abilities. Your Outlander level determines the number of Arcane Gifts you have, as shown on the table above. You recover all expended Arcane Gifts when you complete a short rest or a long rest. When one of your Arcane Gifts forces an opponent to make a saving throw, the DC is 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Intelligence bonus.

Cunning Defense
Your wits grant you extraordinary combat awareness to protect yourself from harm. Benefit: While you are wearing no armor and are not using a shield, your Armor Class equals 10 + your Dexterity modifier + your Intelligence modifier.

Shadow Power
All outlanders can empower their attacks by expending an arcane gift; there is little mystery in simple slaughter. Benefit: Following any successful weapon attack, the Outlander can spend an Arcane Gift to deal additional damage, equal to the weapon's damage die plus the Outlander's Intelligence modifier.

Outlander Tradition
There are as many kinds of outlanders as there are nations of the world. Maybe more. These are a few of them. Save DC is based on Intelligence. Use of Outlander Traditions is powered by your Arcane Gifts.

  • Death - The Adept Path of Bone and Shroud: Outlanders on the Path of Bone and Shroud learn to bind necrotic power to their arrows or bullets, and ward themselves from harm with the stillness of the grave. It is chiefly a defensive path. 
  • The Fey - The Adept Path of Mask and Mirror: Outlanders on the Path of Mask and Mirror learn some of the tricks of fey-pact warlocks and imitate the powers of the fey themselves. It is a balanced path of offense and utility.
  • The Infernal - The Adept Path of Flame and Blood: Outlanders on the Path of Flame and Blood have learned some of the lore of Hell, and bind some of its malevolent power into their arrows or bullets. It is primarily focused on dealing damage.
  • The Stars Are Right - The Adept Path of the World's Ending: Outlanders on the Path of the World's Ending derive their arcane power from that which lies beyond both planets and constellations. It is primarily focused on dealing damage. 

Marksman's Trance
Outlanders learn to slip into a momentary trance, which allows them to succeed in extraordinary acts of precision. Benefit: The Outlander may spend an Arcane Gift to gain advantage on any attack roll against a single target. Despite its name, this ability can apply to melee attacks as well as ranged attacks. In non-combat situations such as trick shooting, this ability may extend to multiple attacks (at the DM's discretion), but it never does so in actual combat.

Knowledge of the Nightmare
Familiar as they are with the dark and unsettling things of the world, Outlanders are hardened against nightmarish things. Benefit: The Outlander gains advantage on all saving throws against fear. Additionally, the Outlander may expend an Arcane Gift to gain a bonus of 1d6 on any skill check that pertains to knowledge of forbidden lore.

Upon scoring a critical hit with any attack, the Outlander may inflict additional psychic torment upon her opponent. The opponent must succeed a Intelligence saving throw against DC (8 + Outlander's proficiency bonus + Outlander's Int bonus) or become Restrained and Frightened until the end of your next turn. This saving throw is a fear effect.

Uncanny Dodge
At 7th level, the Outlander's agility is instinctive. When you make a Dexterity saving throw to take only half damage from an effect, you instead take no damage if you succeed on the saving throw, and only half damage if you fail.

Improved Shadow Power
The Outlander's Shadow Power gifts now deal a further weapon damage die, and the Outlander adds his Constitution to the damage as well.

Fortification of the Will
The Outlander gains proficiency in Wisdom saving throws. When the Outlander is affected by any ongoing effect that allows an Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma saving throw, she may reflexively spend an Arcane Gift as a free action on her turn to reroll her saving throw, once per round; this is allowed even if the effect otherwise prevents the target from using free actions. If the effect normally allows saving throws once per round, such as hold person, the Outlander still gains one additional saving throw beyond the one normally granted.

Tradition Features

The Adept Path of Bone and Shroud
3: Curse of the Grave
6: Death's Veil

The Adept Path of Mask and Mirror
3: Dart of the Poison-Fey
6: Hidden Path

The Adept Path of Flame and Blood
3: Baneful Rune
6: Hellfire Shot

The Adept Path of the World's Ending
3: Unbearable Insight
6: Unleash the Horror

Baneful Rune
You draw a rune of infernal power on a square adjacent to you, and expend one arcane gift. Any creature watching you sees it flare with power, but it fades from sight after one round. Any creature entering that square other than you takes 2d10 fire damage and is blinded until the end of its next turn.

Curse of the Grave
When you hit with a ranged attack that uses your Shadow Power gift, your target must make a Constitution saving throw. On a failure, the damage from the target's attacks are minimized until the beginning of your next turn.

Dart of the Poison-Fey
When you make a ranged attack using Shadow Power, the additional damage you deal is poison-based, and your target must make a Constitution saving throw. On a failure, the target is paralyzed until the beginning of your next turn.

Death's Veil
As a reaction when you take damage, you can expend an arcane gift to magically reduce the damage to 0.

Hellfire Shot
When you make a ranged attack, you may expend an Arcane Gift to cause the bullet, arrow, or other projectile to explode into a gout of hellfire. This creates a 15-foot cone of magical fire originating from you. Each creature in the cone takes 2d8 fire damage, or half damage on a successful Dexterity saving throw. Resolve the initial shot normally as well.

Hidden Path
In place of your movement, you may expend an arcane gift to teleport up to 40 feet away, to a location within line of sight. The square you previously occupied is filled with smoke that grants concealment; the smoke dissipates after one round.

Unbearable Insight
In your travels, you've seen and heard things that mortals were not meant to know. Speaking aloud, you utter a small part of one of these mysteries, expending an arcane gift. Your allies within 30 feet take 2d6 psychic damage, while enemies within 30 feet take 5d6 psychic damage. All targets may attempt Intelligence saving throws for half damage.

Unleash the Horror
When you make a ranged attack that drops a target to 0 hit points or fewer, you may expend one arcane gift. That creature dies, and from its corpse a horrifying aberration rises under your command. The Medium-sized creature has (4 hit points x your Outlander level), and shares your AC and saving throws. It flies at a speed of 40 feet, and may make a magical attack at (2 + your Int bonus) that deals 1d8 psychic damage and forces the target to make a Wisdom saving throw or become frightened for one round. Each round at the end of your turn it makes an Intelligence saving throw against DC 14; if it fails this saving throw it dies immediately. It automatically passes this saving throw on the round it rises, and it makes this saving throw with advantage on any round that it deals damage.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

D&D Next: Class Taxonomy

The new Legends & Lore post from Mearls talks about the concept of Class Groups, as well as some of outbound design ideas behind the Mage class in the last two playtest packets. Kainenchen has already written a post about this topic, so by all means go read her post first. For my part, I think that ideas are getting weirdly conflated here, and if WotC wants to think in categorical terms, they need to set the boundaries of each category in a more consistent way. Beyond that, I want to talk about the concept of classes in the first place.

For those of you who haven't clicked either link above, the deal here is that they're looking for a new way to, er, classify their classes - to figure out which containers to put each class in, partly as a design guideline. In 4e, they handled this with Defender, Striker, Leader, and Controller, a system dynamic that was pretty acceptable to people who liked 4e but a major point of contention among those who didn't. Personally, I never understood the objection; these aren't classifications that force anything on the player. They just tell you in advance what you're getting when you sign up for a particular class. With particular builds and customization choices, it's possible to nudge a class toward something other than its native combat function, and classes generally have an obvious secondary role anyway. The argument, though, that you want to play a fighter who is more about dealing damage than about protecting allies is a perplexing one in the 4e design space, because it doesn't know what to do when you care more about the class name and your own mental associations with it than you do about the presented function.

For D&D Next, they're instead reverting to the classifications of 2e, changing only the Thief/Rogue category to Trickster. Their class design, however, has little to do with what it was in 2e: in those days new class abilities were rare and customization within a class was almost completely unknown, to say nothing of the total absence of any concept of feats. The 2e model wasn't called upon to handle a lot of the class archetypes that D&D Next will be: swordmages, avengers (I hope they support avengers), warlords (probably an option internal to the fighter class, which I want to say more about in a minute), and so on.

Okay, so you can say that swordmages and warlords are warriors, while avengers are either warriors or tricksters, but we're getting into seriously eroding the utility of the classifications. The swordmage (any combination of melee combat and arcane spellcasting; a particular focus on defense is nice, but optional) is a concept that has been late to the game in every edition of D&D I've ever played, but it has appeared - the regrettable Bladesinger of 2e fame (or just the elven fighter/mage multiclass), the duskblade of 3e, the swordmage of 4e. It doesn't really make sense to say that the priest is where healing comes from, when bards, paladins, rangers, and mages with the good sense to splash one level of cleric or druid do almost as well. Other than healing, does anything set divine magic apart from other magic?