Category Archives: Opinion

Are Magic Users Too Weak, Part II

by Solomoriah

Back on January 11, 2014, I posted Are Magic-Users Too Weak? about the persistent notion that, by the book, Magic-User characters are too weak because they get just one spell per day.  I thought my post had dispelled that notion, but evidently not, as it has come up several times on our Facebook page.

I honestly don’t understand it.  I explained all the same things to those folks that I explained in the blog post, and they still said things to the effect that the magic-user was useless because he (or she) could only participate in one combat before running out of magic and therefore being unable to do anything.

Now certainly, if you want to run a more heroic game, and you’ve beefed up the other classes in some way, giving the magic-user more magic might be entirely appropriate, and I will neither judge nor question you if that’s the game you’re wanting to run.  But the question of whether or not magic-users are “too weak” by the book still comes up, and I still do not understand it.

First of all, magic isn’t all you can do.  Classic games of the old days, the ones that Basic Fantasy mimics, expected that a first-level magic-user would start play with a handful of daggers for throwing.  It was also expected that, since that character needed no armor and only cheap weaponry, his or her expenditures would be for party-useful items like rope, spikes, and maybe a ten foot pole.

But the blog post linked above shows a more important truth:  By the book, no first level character is prepared for more than one battle before retiring to a safe place to recover.  I did the math and presented a valid answer, and thought it was over.

It wasn’t.

Last night and this morning I wrote a simulation script.  The parameters are simple:  One each fighter, cleric, thief, and magic-user, all first level.  Each character has a +1 in his or her prime requisite attribute, and is otherwise average.  The magic-user has one spell, magic missile, the number two choice for magic-users (as sleep is generally the nuclear option for first level parties, ending an encounter almost before it starts).  The opponents are a group of four goblins, of average nature.  I assume the fighter and cleric, being beginners, had only enough money for chainmail and shield, giving them AC 16, while the thief has AC 14 due to leather armor and that +1 DEX bonus.  The magic-user is, of course, AC 11.  Everyone gets to roll hit points twice and take the higher result, while the monsters are stuck with a single roll; this is the only advantage I gave the players, and I did this specifically because most GMs won’t make a player suffer with 1 HP at the start.  The fighter has a longsword, the cleric a mace, the thief a shortsword and the magic-user has a dagger.  Ranged weapons are omitted on both sides, and the fight takes place in a 10′ wide corridor, so initially the fighter and cleric are the front line facing a pair of goblins; if either the fighter or cleric dies, the thief moves up, so the magic-user is in melee only if two party members die.  Also, surprise and morale effects are ignored; everyone fights to the death.  This is the “cold steel” option, the harshest one, which should nail down the power level of the party as a whole as well as the magic-user’s place within it.

After 10,000 combats were fought, I had results.  The monsters won the fight, killing everyone, 1,664 times; the players won 8,336 times.  Though ties were possible (as I modeled the standard initiative rules), there were none.  So the players were 83.36% likely to win… but what did winning look like?

All four player characters survived in 3,805 of those battles, or in other words, in about 46% of battles where the PCs won, all four walked away.  That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?  The average damage taken by the entire party in these situations is about 2.8 points, which sounds a lot like one hit from a goblin.  Doesn’t seem so bad, does it?  But even so, at this point one of your front-line characters has taken about half of his or her hit points in damage.  Fighting on is not a great idea, but many would go ahead.

This is, of course, the situation when all four party members survive the combat.  What about when it doesn’t go so well?  In 32% of the battles where the player characters win, one of their number falls; in 17% of those winning battles, two party members are down (the fighter and the cleric, of course).  In just 6% of combats, only one walks away, by the skin of his or her teeth it seems.  Sensible player characters absolutely will withdraw to safety if even one of their number dies or is rendered noncombatant (if you use the negative HP rule, for example); if both front line characters go down, there’s just about no other sane choice.  Thus, in about 46% of battles, it might make sense for the party to fight on, and in those cases the magic-user has “nothing to do.”

I’m not convinced that is true.  Throwing daggers is always a good option.  I’ve actually had people tell me that magic-users should never be reduced to using non-magical combat options, which is silly.  A first level magic-user is just starting out (we used to call them “apprentices”) and thus is not yet ready to depend on his or her magic nearly that much.

But wait, there’s more.  Remember I said the magic-user had magic missile?  What if that weren’t so?  What if the magic-user didn’t do an automatic 1d6+1 points of damage in the first round of combat?

Let’s find out.  I modified the simulation to omit that spell, and here are the statistics:  The PCs win just about 74% of the time, rather than 83% as above.  All four PCs survive their winning battles just 37% of the time, instead of 46%… 33% of the time, three survive, 21% of the time two survive, and only one survives just 8% of the time.  Without that one spell, outcomes are significantly different.

There is one rule I find interesting… many GMs apparently allow magic-users to use a “magic dart” attack of some kind that does 1d4 points of damage, and requires an attack roll to hit.  This obviously does not unbalance the game significantly, as the character could just as easily be using daggers to do this, so it’s just for flavor.  While it does not appeal to me, I see nothing “wrong” with it from a game balance perspective.  I still think, though, that the apprentice magic-user who is not yet sure of his or her magic and so is armed with a collection of throwing knives is a more interesting archetype than one who shoots off sparks of magical energy whenever he or she gets cross with someone.

But again, I believe I’ve successfully shown here why the first level magic-user is not, in fact, “too weak” by the book.  I hope, anyway.

The Non-Problem with Skill Dice

by Solomoriah

Today a snippet of a blog post showed up multiple times on my Facebook wall, posted by several of my friends.  A little Google-fu allowed me to find the actual post, which is here:

https://housesarepeople.netlify.com/post/skills/

Go read it, and then come back.

OKAY, so, I’m mainly commenting on the part after the subheading “The Problem with Skill Dice” (which you probably guessed given the title of this post).  Michael’s opinion of the “n in d6” mechanic is pretty clear:

This is unintuitive, clunky, not uniform, and scales oddly, implicitly preventing attributes from doing what they normally do.

I disagree with this part in general; I use this mechanic all the time.  Typically it’s used in places where the odds of success are normally low, and the character’s ability score is the only significant modifier.  Opening doors, for example, is successful on a 1 on 1d6, with the Strength bonus added to the range of success (so a Strength bonus of +1 makes the roll succeed on 1-2 on 1d6, a +2 is 1-3 on 1d6, and so on).  This is a standard mechanic in Basic Fantasy RPG.

Personally, I extend this mechanic in two ways:  First, an ability score with a penalty bumps the die size up (so a -1 Strength penalty makes it a 1 on 1d8, a -2 is 1 on 1d10, and so on).  Second, if the difficulty is greater than normal, I bump up the die size; the best example of this is when a character tries to lift a portcullis or bend some bars.  In that specific case, I bump the die all the way up to 1d20 (so a character with 18 Strength succeeds on 1-4 on 1d20, a 20% chance, while an average character has only a 5% chance of success).

Michael says this mechanic “scales oddly.”  I don’t see it that way… rather, I see it as a specific choice in scaling, one that makes a typical task difficult for an average person but relatively easy for a superior character.  Where that type of mechanic makes sense (i.e. when opening a door), I think it’s fine.  One of the most important elements of the old games is the use of whatever mechanic seems to fit the situation… a sort of game mechanical pragmatism that stands in full opposition to the idea of a “core mechanic.”

Michael goes on to say:

Skill dice discourage imaginative, descriptive play in favor of using a skill from a sheet.

This assertion is not really related to his earlier statement.  First, he describes how he doesn’t like “Skill Dice” as a mechanic, and then he says he doesn’t like how the mechanic affects play.  They really are separate things.

The short answer to the question is, how else do you do it?  When I play a thief, I’m playing someone who knows how to do something I don’t know how to do (and if you ask my wife, it’s not Open Locks that I fail at, it’s Move Silently).  It won’t do me any good to describe HOW I’m doing a task, when I’m doing a task the character knows better than I do.  If my success is keyed to how well I can describe the action… folks, I’m screwed.  And that’s not what the game is about.

I do believe in rewarding players who go the extra mile.  If a player says, “I check the door for traps” then I make the roll and tell the player what the character discovers (or does not discover).  If that player says, “I look all around the doorknob, and before I look under the door, I want to slip my dagger in there an inch or so and slide it around to make sure there’s nothing there” then I will adjudicate that action however I see fit; probably, I’ll still make the same roll, but I might very well grant a bonus.

You have to have some way to resolve actions.  Keying them entirely to the character’s ability scores is very limiting; it becomes hard, for example, to have a character who is good at one part of his or her profession and bad at another.  And, depending on what mechanic you choose, it may make ability scores too important (or too unimportant).

So I guess I’m arguing both points too.  You do need “Skill Dice” of some sort… some way to resolve actions.  And you do need multiple ways to do such resolution, so each situation has an appropriate chance of success.

How I Write Adventures

by Solomoriah

Probably close to two months ago (in real time) I was needing a game-time-filling side quest for some of my player’s characters.  So an NPC told them a story about Thaumerion Daelant, a wizard dead for almost two hundred years; his tower, they were told, had been raided repeatedly by adventurers over the years, but no one ever found the wizard’s personal treasures.  Besides his spell books, a thing always worth having, the stories told that Thaumerion had been the owner of a Staff of Power.

That was enough of a hook to get them moving.  I didn’t have the tower detailed yet; indeed, all I knew about it was what I just wrote above.  They spent a session traveling overland to the locale, and still I didn’t have the dungeon done, but no problem… I just put J.D. Neal’s Insect Valhalla from our AA1 Adventure Anthology 1 multimodule between them and the tower.  I’d wanted to run that adventure for a while anyway, so it seemed like a perfect time.

They finished it (as in, got from one side to the other) in a session, and due to scheduling issues I had a month to get the tower done.

A week ago, I still hadn’t done anything, and I knew I was down to the wire… they were literally at the outer door of the tower.  I had to get it finished.

Tuesday I was driving down the road on the way back from visiting a customer, thinking about the tower, when I suddenly saw it all in a kind of a flash… how to build the dungeon so it could be repeatedly looted and still have significant challenges, and present an enemy who is not what it appears to be at all (subverting one of the oldest RPG tropes in the process).

Tuesday night I sat down and drew the maps, then converted them to MapMatic +2 format.  Wednesday I laid out the basic document format, wrote up a first draft of the GM’s introduction, the main encounter and roughly a third of the other dungeon rooms.  Thursday I filled in all the remaining rooms, and had James Lemon start taking a look at the adventure.  I’ve redone some of the maps and touched up the text a bit since then, and as far as I’m concerned it’s almost ready to publish.

Seriously, I don’t normally write adventures that way.  Most of the time, filling in the last 50% or so of the dungeon is a slog, and I rarely am able to fill in the mundane contents of the dungeon, or the flavor text, so easily as I did this time.  Writing the adventures I publish, or revising those submitted to us, is almost always a slow process.  Sometimes, though, inspiration hits… just in time, in this case, as I will be running the adventure in an hour and a half.

Thaumerion’s Tower will appear on the forum soon (after my players have been through it and I fix up whatever issues they expose) and I have plans for it to appear in AA3 Adventure Anthology 3 when we begin work on that document.

UPDATE:  Thaumerion’s Tower is now part of BF3 Strongholds of Sorcery, which with any luck will be in print before Christmas!

Response to “Read-Aloud Woes”

by Solomoriah

Over at Angry Hamster Publishing, Liz wrote about her love-hate relationship with read-aloud text (what we call “Boxed Text” in Basic Fantasy adventures).  I tried to post commentary on her blog about the subject, but it thinks I’m a robot.  (Can you imagine?)  So first, visit Angry Hamster for her perspective on the situation:

Read Aloud Woes

And next, you can read mine:

For adventures distributed by the Basic Fantasy Project, I always require what we call “boxed text.”  As a GM, I only use it sometimes, and when I do I paraphrase what’s there.  Why do we require it?

Because of secrets.

See, if you write fluffy descriptive text in the middle of the GM’s bit, and the GM is describing the room to the players, it’s tempting to just read what’s there.  But imagine this bit appearing in the GM’s description of a room:

This fine parlor contains two large comfortable chairs toward the right rear of the room with a table between them.  The table has a single drawer, and inside it is a dagger +1, +3 vs. undead.  The back wall is covered floor-to-ceiling in overloaded bookshelves; there are several scrolls and one rare book, as listed below, scattered among the other books.  Each turn spent searching yields a cumulative 10% chance per character searching that one will be found; the GM should roll randomly to determine which one is discovered each time the roll succeeds.  On the floor is a large, ornate rug, somewhat moth-eaten but still impressive.  There is a fireplace roughly centered on the right-hand wall, and that wall is covered in paintings depicting different members of the Baron’s family.  Behind one of them (the painting of Hilda, the Baron’s third cousin once removed) is a small wall-safe containing 122 PP and a ring of fire resistance.  The left-hand wall is dominated by a huge mirror centered on the wall; on either side of the mirror is a painting of a pastoral landscape.  The mirror is, in fact, a secret door, opened by means of a slightly-protruding brick hidden behind the right-hand landscape painting.

Okay, now try to read out just the parts the players can see from that description without giving away the locations of the treasures or of the secret door.  Unless you are more skillful than me, you’ll naturally pause as you skip over those bits, giving away that there is something there.

Breaking it apart makes it much easier to avoid giving things away, and as a bonus, you can also break up the different interesting bits into separate paragraphs so that all relevant info is easy to find.

Like this.  First, the boxed text:

This fine parlor contains two large comfortable chairs toward the right rear of the room with a table between them; the table has a single small drawer.  The back wall is covered floor-to-ceiling in overloaded bookshelves.  On the floor is a large, ornate rug, somewhat moth-eaten but still impressive.  There is a fireplace roughly centered on the right-hand wall, and that wall is covered in portrait paintings.  The left-hand wall is dominated by a huge mirror centered on the wall; on either side of the mirror is a painting of a pastoral landscape.

Next, the GM’s part:

Inside the drawer of the small table is a dagger +1, +3 vs. undead.

There are several scrolls and one rare book, as listed below, scattered among the other books on the bookshelf.  Each turn spent searching yields a cumulative 10% chance per character searching that one will be found; the GM should roll randomly to determine which one is discovered each time the roll succeeds.

The mirror is, in fact, a secret door, opened by means of a slightly-protruding brick hidden behind the right-hand landscape painting.

The paintings on the left-hand wall (around the fireplace) depict different members of the Baron’s family.  Behind one of them (the painting of Hilda, the Baron’s third cousin once removed) is a small wall-safe containing 122 PP and a ring of fire resistance.

… and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done exactly what I just did here to a dungeon room description in a submitted adventure.  Usually the author of the adventure has provided all that is needed for the boxed text, but has just not organized it.  Even if you NEVER read the boxed text literally, isn’t it nice to have the non-secret part boxed out for you to use in creating your own description?

My Reply to “Who’s Afraid Of The OSR?”

by Solomoriah

I honestly don’t remember how I ended up reading Smiorgan’s post on the Department V blog, but no sooner was I reading it than I felt compelled to reply.  At first I planned to post a comment there, but those who know me, know that brevity is not my strong suit.

So here I am.

First of all, let me say that it is an interesting post.  One of the first things that stood out to me was this quote by Ron Edwards:

I suggest that the systemic differences among many OSR games, even the retroclones, are so profound that they exceed the community ideal of compatibility, which then must be papered over by claims of some kind of homogeneity.

I know Ron is supposed to be some kind of gaming expert, but honestly, what the heck is he talking about?  I routinely use materials (primarily adventures) written for Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, and Swords & Wizardry (not to mention the classic games on which they are modeled) in my games, converting materials on the fly.  Claims that the systemic differences are “profound” is, well, a profound overstatement.

More to the point, though… Smiorgan provided a list of things he (I think it’s he) says could be changed to make D&D-like games more palatable to modern players.  Let me say that I tried pretty much all of those things, and found the results wanting.

Back around 2002-2003 or so, about the same time Castles & Crusades was being developed, I wrote a set of core rules intended for use with spells and monsters from any edition of the classic game.  I called my rules “Project 74” and my plan was to achieve compatibility with classic materials, much as I just now described, while including modern features.  I didn’t go after Smiorgan’s list, of course (as it was just now written) but rather followed along with the list written by Mark “Kamikaze” Hughes titled “What’s Wrong with AD&D.”

I took his list of complaints, which surprisingly after more than ten years is still at the same URL, as a list of things to correct.  I boiled the rules of those classic games down to a sort of mechanical ideal, “refactoring” (to use a programming term) the rules to make them more “sensible.”  I addressed Mark’s list with my own philosophical statement, still available on my website.

In my opinion, I did a very usable job of creating a rules-light, semi-modern game system that managed to retain D&D-isms like class and level while having a full skill system.  I made an effort to make all game mechanical systems properly “first class” (in a programming sense) so that the rules would have few special cases.

The game was not satisfactory.  Oh, I ran my ongoing campaign, set in the world I created back in 1982, using those rules, and things went along well enough.  But there were things that just felt wrong.

I could give an exhaustive list, if I felt like racking my brain long enough (remember, I last played with these rules around 2007), but I’m not going to that much trouble.  Rather, I’ll point out the one thing that really stood out to me.

Opening doors.

My game had a unified skill roll system.  Every “difficult” action other than combat was resolved using a standardized core mechanic; this was similar to the D20 method, but arguably the same thing as in games like RuneQuest, where percentiles are rolled for everything.  The end result was that the party half-ogre with 17 Strength was actually not a lot better at knocking down doors than the party dwarf, also with a +2 Strength bonus (Project 74 used a similar attribute-to-bonus mapping as BFRPG).  Yeah, I gave the half-ogre a bonus because he was big, but I also had to assign bonuses or penalties (for easy or hard doors) using larger numbers than I generally assigned as “situational modifiers.”

I could have messed around with the numbers, sure; but it was by far simpler to switch back to the classic 1d6 roll to open a door.  Each bonus was worth 16.7% instead of 5%, and the adjustments were very obvious.  I wrote down in my last version of Project 74 a new rule that even allowed for changing the die size as an indicator of difficulty.  Though it’s not in the BFRPG rules, it’s exactly the method I use now, as it works beautifully.

Why didn’t I write it down?  See my post on this blog entitled “Metarules” for an explanation of that.

It might be tempting to think I’m a true grognard, i.e. a grumbler, one who loves the classic games with a religious zeal.  I’m not.  I’m working on a game called “Realms of Wonder” right now, a fantasy game set in a world that differs markedly from the kind of world defined by games like Labyrinth Lord or OSRIC, or of course BFRPG.  Mechanically the game is a lot like the kind of game Smiorgan seems to want, and I expect it to be a lot of fun… breaking the player’s expectations usually is.  I wrote another game, shared on my website but never actually published, called Variant V; it owes more of its DNA to RuneQuest than anything.  I ran that campaign for several years.  The point is, I like the classic class-and-level games for their own merit, not because they are the only kind of game I want to play.

Do I have a point?  Yeah, I think I do.  Trying to “fix” the classic rules is a mistake.  They aren’t broken… they’re just different.

Wayward Kickstarters

by Solomoriah

Just spent some time on Tenkar’s Tavern looking at the Wayward Kickstarters.  Take a look here:

http://www.tenkarstavern.com/search/label/wayward%20kickstarters

Wow.  Just, wow.  What makes anyone think that paying a WRITER and/or ARTIST in ADVANCE for something that isn’t remotely ready yet is a good idea?  And I’m saying that as a writer.  Seriously, don’t send me money for something until I have it to the “ready to edit” stage.  At that point, any reasonably good editor can sort it out; but up until then:

(a) How do you know I’ll get it done?

and (b) How do you know it’s not a steaming pile of poo?

But I know my own limitations; I would never start a Kickstarter for something I didn’t at least have a WORKING prototype of.  Given that, and the fact that I know you can successfully bootstrap a project WITHOUT a Kickstarter… well, you can rest assured I’ll probably NEVER start one.

Or put any money into one.  No matter how cool it sounds.

I honestly can’t believe the people who say they’ll write a “next generation” or “innovative” or just “cool” RPG if you just send them some money.  Gah.  If you have such a game in you, write the darn thing, and get your friends (you do have some of those, right?  Cool.) to help playtest it.  THEN, and only then, figure out how to get paid for it.

And at that point, when the game already exists, yeah, you can ask for funds.  Or just, y’know, PUBLISH it.  Print on demand is the way of the future… use it.  Traditional publishers are a pain (you have to convince them your work is valuable before they’ll publish it, but how can you convince them if you’ve never had a chance to sell any?) and vanity presses are money sinks for the foolish.  Lulu.com, CreateSpace.com, and RPGNow.com all offer ways to get your book into print at basically no cost to you… and the first two offer standard packages of professional editing that you can avail yourself of if you need it, at predictable rates you could attempt to fund if you need to.

I don’t believe in Kickstarters.  You get people to give you money, but they’re just gambling on whether or not you’ll deliver.