Monthly Archives: April 2017

On Retirement (and stealing from my betters)

It’s been a long time since I made a post (well, technically it’s been a very short time indeed, but ye ken well what I mean). And I want to keep writing, but I just haven’t had the inspiration (work, life, balance). But! Arnold K. makes a post (http://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2017/04/death-trauma-and-retirement-im-gettin.html), and I riff on it, since it’s on a theme near-and-dear.

I want something that fits into 5e seamlessly, but retains Arnold’s “characters suffer until they wig out”.  So, rules changes:

  1. You make your first death save on being reduced to 0 hp (not upon starting your turn at 0 hp), and on this and any other death save, a critical failure rolls incurs a lingering injury (DMG 272). A very process oriented GM might roll on that anyway to narrate which type of injury was stuck (for consistency) and limit one lingering injury per doleful blow, but we’re all smart people here, we’ll figure it out.
  2. While death saves do clear as soon as you stand up, record the number of failed death saves (“doom”) anyway — each time you fail a death save, acquire 1 temporary doom point.
  3. Whenever you fail a death save, you may choose to succeed by making the doom point you took a permanent, instead of temporary, doom point. This includes negating a critical failure leading to permanent injury.
  4. Once per session when you take a long rest, make a death saving throw against a DC of your doom points. If you fail by more than 5, you retire; if you otherwise fail, you gain 1 permanent doom point. In either case, your temporary doom points clear. Be generous with advantage and disadvantage on this saving throw — on a quest, advantage! In an area which your character would regard as idyllic? Perhaps you stay.
  5. In any case, you may ignore a failure on #4 if you have  fewer doom points than your proficiency bonus, and you can clear one permanent doom point as a personal quest reward (re-committing to the cause). Things like the geas or atonement spells are probably implicated.

Character replacement: Characters begin at the “campaign set point”, then level every session until they’re back to equal. The set point is a kind of arbitrary number, but “the bottom of the current campaign tier” isn’t a crazy rule of thumb.

However, when you retire, your (old) character’s wealth that they take with them determines 1) what kind of story you get to tell about their circumstances and 2) your new character’s placement in life.

Your new character gets xp equal to the campaign set point + 1 xp per gp exfiltrated in this way, to a maximum of the current party level. The old character retires with the given amount of cash, and lives an appropriate lifestyle — divide the taken cash by 5000, figure out what cost of living that can support, and that’s what they’re doing. Even if they don’t keep it themselves (perhaps they become a hermit or a monk?), the act of removing that cash from the economy helps to figure out their long-term results. As a rule of thumb, a score on this lower than their proficiency bonus (as a cost of living) results in them looking back on their time as an adventurer with distaste.

Dead characters’ cash feeds forward into the next character’s XP in exactly the same fashion.

TBD: Penalty for dead character’s cash-for-XP?


Traps, Tricks, Treats.

The latest UA was on traps. I’m broadly in favor — traps make the geography bite back, and so long as they’re signposted, they encourage interacting with the world. In particular, they punish you for not taking a place seriously and for being too optimistic. They can also eat up enormous time and quickly become capricious or subject to a standard procedure. That’s the worst: “As with every door, I check for traps [using  the following well-understood protocol], then listen at it, then pick it”. Awful.

So:

Thou Shalt Not Randomly Generate Traps

Traps are contextual. They should ALWAYS teach you something about the area: there’s a hunter nearby, this place was contested battleground, these people believed objects interred with corpses conferred power on those corpses or the wizard who constructed this place was insane or whatever.

Traps with a Riddle or Puzzle In Them Are Better

You know how you’re not supposed to block the party at a riddle — it’s supposed to be optional and off to the side, guarding a treasure or something. Well… if the downside for flubbing the riddle is a  trap, and the trap is harmful but survivable, it seems totally okay to me to put that puzzle in the mainline of the adventure. The party can absolutely brute force it at that point, triggering the trap as the penalty they pay to continue. They won’t be happy about it, but when their stress levels get too high, they can just address it themselves and eat a few poisoned darts.

Nonlethal Trap Doesn’t Mean Grappling

There’s this puzzle/trap/thing in your dungeon. It has a trigger mechanism and everyone’s ready to engage with that. It has an effect when triggered, and you’re already cackling imagining the looks on the players’ faces. But it’s in the middle of a well-trafficked area; surely the setters of the trap would use a nonlethal one?

Surely. And so you are reduced to nets, cages, and alarms. Or are you? Dropping a portcullis (or rotating a wall) is a better move than a net, because players will cut through a net, but generally will not start prying apart the walls. In a dungeon of fish-men, flood a room. In the temple where everyone’s immune to fire, fill the room with molten brass. Teleporting someone elsewhere in the dungeon to sit a spell. Sending someone to sleep, or charming them, or even frightening them (and, by the way, combine “a frightening trap” with “this area is in disrepair and so running around frightened can land you in a pit that didn’t used to be there”). You got options, is my point.
And that’s just traps, which frankly are the least interesting dungeon dressing. Tricks and Treats are both woefully under-specced, and to my mind more interesting!

We have a very little detail on dungeon tricks in the DMG this time around. It’s enough to whet the appetite, at least. The problem with Tricks (and Treats — a trick is just a treat with a narrow applicability which you don’t quite understand yet) is that they don’t make mundane, logical sense in the way that a trap does. There’s a poisoned needle in the lock; clearly a trap, clearly something the rogue will work her way around. Easy. There’s a mirror which treats the color red as casting shadows. Very interesting, but also magical, and hard to interact with except in its own internal logic. Are you going to try to use thieves tools? I don’t see how. If you pry it free from its frame, what’s the DM supposed to do?

So for tricks (and therefore treats):

Embrace Noetic Tricks

Tricks and treats are boons beyond expectation. They’re an unlooked for piece of magic, a fragment of poetry in an area which is otherwise deadly and logical. Use them! Put one in every dungeon level, and as you get deeper in the dungeon, put more tricks and treats in the dungeon. As you delve into the earth, you’re leaving the sun (rigorous, logical) behind and entering a region where cthonic gods hold sway. Let that happen! There’s a machine which switches brains, and a tree which flowers  underground, and a mechanical swallow that knows your name.

Unlike (logical, well-placed) traps, tricks don’t have to follow from what’s around them. They might; they might tie into a legend of a place (or have legends told about themselves), but they might also just be, without rhyme or reason. They’re a good thing to tie into the deep history of your world: altars to strange gods, pieces of unbelievable history, that kind of thing.

Don’t Make Nonbenevolent Tricks Persistent

If there’s a fountain that increases the maximum hit points of anyone who drinks from it by 1, it’s okay if it’s permanent. If there’s a machine which switches brains around the party, you should probably let exposure to sunlight set things right, even if some of the characters prefer things the new way (the now-Charles-Atlas-endowed wizard…). It might be the priest back in town who can set things right, it might be a good night’s sleep in the wholesome air, but if you don’t make it temporary, you’ve changed the nature of your game forever.

Players should, to some degree, choose to alter the nature of their game forever. If something is a known consequence of their actions, it feels an awful lot more like a trap than a trick. You have to foreshadow it, which is enough to make it a trap, but it’s going to end up even further down that road because the outcome’s negative, and looks an awful lot like damage (or a penalty, or whatever).

Treats should tie into the story of a place

The whole point of the treat is that it’s a trick-but-good. And Traps have to make sense, so why to treats? Because they’re the bait. The outcome of a treat should be somewhat predictable — if it’s unpredictable, THAT should be predictable! If it isn’t, then it’s basically roulette for the players, and they don’t know what’s coming next. Choosing to accept treasure is a choice. You can hand them a locked chest and say “you can’t tell what’s inside”, that’s fine, but sooner or later they’re going to have to find out. An ambivalent treat-without-a-label is going to read a lot more like a trick than a reward, because from their point of view, they don’t know what they’re going to get.

And besides: wouldn’t you like to reward them for exploring, sometimes?


Timescape: a sketch of a D&D campaign

Dungeons and Dragons is weird in terms of how they lay out adventuring locales.

Parallel worlds (alternate histories, other dimensions, foreign planets) seem like a rich vein to me, but leaving your world in D&D almost always means traveling to another plane. The problem with this is that it suggests a geometric ordering between planes in a way that alternate worlds do not: in a sense, Bytopia is clockwise from Heaven along the great wheel, the Abyss is diametrically opposite, Hell is between them. The Ethereal Plane is “behind” the World; so is the Shadowfell and so, too, is the Feywild.

Contrast that with, say, Doctor Who or Star Trek. Some places are linked by geography (“Heading one-oh-two-mark-five. Engage!”) and some are linked by chronology (“Where are we? No, my dear, the real question is when are we — and the answer is the Court of Louis XV!”), and some  are not linked at all (“The TARDIS overheating/Tachyon bombardment flung us into the Pudding Dimension!”). Adventures take place in locations set within a single twisting rubric which relates adventuring sets to each other; call it the Known Universe. While some of the directions are exotic (like “the Court of Louis XV” or “the Pudding Dimension”), others are prosaic (Doctor Who’s penchant for modern day aliens attacking Cardiff and London has been noted), and still others are only exotic because of their juxtaposition (like “mostly the Court of Louis XV but every human is a robot because the metaplot intruded”).

Why, WHY doesn’t any form of D&D embrace this?

I actually think it’s literally better in every single way.

Want a land of the dead, to interrogate the shades of those who have passed? Travel to a quickly atrophying time bubble where the echoes of historical figures are thrust together on a doomed world.

Want a hellscape? Visit the future, where some asshole lich has started raiding the souls of their ancestors to drive some Immortality Engine. And they’re nuclear powered.

Want an arcadian heaven? Visit Steampunk India (Kaladesh, I’m looking at you), or the Mechanical Utopia, or the Elf Home World or whatever. You do not literally need the Plane of Beauty to have the Adventure In The Place of Perfect Beauty; indeed, it is easier if you don’t.

It’s not like you ever ran an adventure where the players leveraged where you can- and cannot- plane shift freely: there’s a magic gate anyway. And it’s not like “it’s on a different plane” was ever going to be usably enforced; the cleric plane shifts and the wizard teleports at the same level, so at most you’ve speed-bumped things.

I feel like you could replace the planes with:

  • Land Before Time: when everything was dinosaurs and Flintstones, and geology was still making up her mind. The land of ice and fire.
  • Mythical Court: A prehistory with bigger-than-life mythological figures (the Founding Fathers, King Arthur, Jesus), but close enough in time that you can recognize the nations and some of the elven NPCs.
  • Fifty Years ago: You can fight/fuck your grandmother/father and make Back to the Future-style plot swings.
  • Bad End: A dead timeline shortly in the future where the terminators win (or undead, or demons, or Hitler).
  • Utopian Timeline: Far enough in the future that you can see your legacy, it’s all super-magic and the second coming of the mythical court, but your descendents kind of don’t get it.
  • No Magic: The real world during WWI or maybe WWII. It’s traditional.
  • Mirror World: Everyone has a goatee; the virtuous are wicked and vice versa.
  • Gallifrey: Why dance around it? The End of Time.
  • The Inn at the World’s End: The location where those unmoored from time wind up for a drink.
  • The Infinite Staircase/River Styx/Etc: Various pathways through time, with windows into stolen moments that make certain adventures work correctly.

and have a better game than the usual set-up.

Think about it! All those exciting things like lightningfalls and soul dances you’d been saving for the Outer Planes you don’t NEED to save. Put them in the real world. Adventure there. But when you absolutely need to add another edge to the map for your adventure, time makes a better escape valve than space.

Plane Shift is “Time Travel”, and you wind up where you are now, but then, within the named locations (the others are under Chronological Storm and so destroy anyone who tries to reach them, save through the slow path). And you’re not the only one who can cast it, so time is criss-crossed with travelers. Yes, there are paradoxes, and the fun part of the game is how you resolve them: I think it’s best if anyone who’s unmoored themselves from time witnesses major events as they should be, and that (like Planescape’s Factions) there are a bunch of factions who guard the timeline and war over suggested edits and how things should be steered.

Dilettantes: Only the current time traveler’s perceived timeline matters. It’s dangerous to make changes, but there’s no real moral weight to it, because time is plastic, so you might as well use personal morals and aesthetics to determine how you act as a guest in a foreign time.

Narrativists: History should make sense, and timelines that follow tropes are stronger and harder to change than those which struggle against the weight of history. They have a unified body of historians and scientists based at the end of time (like, I dunno, Gallifrey) who send agents to maintain the timeline, and regard all other meddlers as madmen at best.

Utopians: Prophets and Scientists can predict the results of historical actions, and they have a preferred end. They’re extremely active, but some of their outcomes go against the natural course of history, setting them at odds with their otherwise nearest ideological allies. They specifically want the Utopian Outcome to happen, so it’s unfortunately easy to lock them out of the timeline.

Rorrim: The timeline that exists now is Jeckyll-and-Hyde-style accident, missing its twin the Mirror Universe. It’s hard to argue with the Dalai Hitler about the relative merits of his timeline, albeit quite offputting. The mirror faction is less active than the others and much more subtle, acting to bring the timeline about in a million small and counter-intuitive ways, using knowledge they have from their shadow world, and of course their agents can pod-person anyone anywhere.

Eschatologists: Madmen and saboteurs who believe that, if the timeline can be driven to certain extreme conditions (forced into a closed loop, destroyed via total paradox), a good thing will happen. As Utopians to Narrativists are Eschatologists to Utopians, since their methods are quite dangerous and unfounded. They draw their members from the dispossed across all of time and have no central base in time.

The Respectful: Time is a museum, made to look and not to touch. Any modification to the timeline which isn’t aimed at another time traveler can have small, trickling effects. They’re based out of The Present, since they’re aware of how fragile things seem. That every action they take in the present affects things is a paradox with which they struggle.

Inheritors of Worms: As Eschatologists, but actually driven to wind all of the timelines into a single unending hellscape, filled from end to end with worms feasting upon the dead. They’re probably based out of the Bad End, but maybe you have more than one Bad End if your game.
Imagine a table at the Sigil-like Inn at the World’s End. Imagine getting all of these guys around a table. Eh? Eh?
The irony is the placeless, timeless pseudo-medieval nature of D&D. Why isn’t the set point noir detectives, instead of men-at-arms? Or why not fighter pilot aces? Still, we bridge from the known to the novel; maille alongside plate — isn’t that anachronistic enough?

Note to self: Could call it Anarchronistic, if I keep kicking its tires. See also: to measure something is to rule it (obviously: pun intended).


Undead aren’t forever.

Stop me when you’ve heard this one before: a diverse group of thrillseekers meets in a gathering place, planning an excursion to some ancient site rumored to contain gold. They are certain it will contain traps, but also monsters; surely nothing so prosaic as snakes and rats (what would they eat?) but perhaps imps and the walking dead.

I say: it depends on the age of the ruin. Light research indicates that the oldest door in Britain is a thousand years old (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk/4743899.stm) and the globally eldest five thousand years old (http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/10/22/switzerland.ancient.door/). In a desert environment or something, sure, I guess that’s fine, but if your dungeon contains a water feature or moving creatures, I suspect the fixtures will be rather aged.

And that’s a sedentary, solid door. In that same timeline, a skeleton should become dust. A shambling rotting corpse like a zombie should shrivel to bones, becoming a skeleton — a decade doesn’t seem at all impermissible. A ghoul should degrade, through zombiehood into skeleton — at least, assuming they can’t find a snack from time to time. A vampire spawn similarly, down through ghoul as they starve.

I assume wraiths and specters and ghosts operate similarly; a forgotten king is fine, but a forgotten king of a forgotten kingdom? That seems like too firm a grasp, to my mind: rot downwards into a shadow, and depart.

Mummies and liches and wights, however: the whole point is that they’re preserved unnaturally against rot and time and death. Let them unlive forever, so that you know you’re in trouble when your party faces a horde (not of zombies but) of mummies.


Alchemical Ooze

Alchemical Ooze
Large oozeunaligned

Armor Class 7
Hit Points 101 (12d10 + 36)
Speed 20 ft., climb 20 ft.

STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA
16 (+3) 5 (-3) 16 (+3) 1 (-5) 6 (-2) 1 (-5)

Damage Immunities acid, cold, fire, poison, slashing
Condition Immunities blinded, charmed, deafened, exhaustion, frightened, poisoned, prone
Senses blindsight 60 ft. (blind beyond this radius), passive Perception 8
Languages 
Challenge 6 (2,300 XP)

Amorphous. The ooze can move through a space as narrow as 1 inch wide without squeezing.
Spider Climb. The ooze can climb difficult surfaces, including upside down on ceilings, without needing to make an ability check.
Actions
Multiattack. The ooze makes two melee weapon attacks. It may substitute Alchemy for one attack.
Alchemy (Recharge 5-6). Roll a d6, consulting the following chart: (1-2: Potion of Greater Healing, 3: Potion of Fire Breath, 4: Potion of Growth, 5: Potion of Hill Giant Strength, 6: Oil of Slipperiness). The protoplasm of the ooze becomes a potion of the indicated type until the beginning of the ooze’s next turn, and the ooze may immediately consume or otherwise activate the potion as part of this action by expending 5 hit points.
Pseudopod. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 6 (1d6 + 3) bludgeoning damage plus 10 (3d6) poison damage and the target must succeed on a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or be poisoned. At the start of each turn while poisoned in this way, the target takes 10 (3d6) poison damage. At the end of each of the target’s turns, they may repeat  the saving throw, decreasing the damage by 1d6 on a success. The poison ends when the damage decreases to 0.
Reactions
Split. When an ooze that is Medium or larger is subjected to fire or slashing damage, it splits into two new oozes if it has at least 10 hit points. Each new ooze has hit points equal to half the original ooze’s, rounded down, and continues to benefit from any previously activated potion effects. New oozes are one size smaller than the original ooze.