D&D Skills: Margin of Success vs. Independent Dice

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Last week, I talked about possible changes to the Dragon Age mechanic to counter the perceived issue that great success was more likely for low skill. I left one solution off: going directly to the In Nomine mechanic of rolling an independent d6 as the Dragon Die, rather than using one of the dice rolled. I started to think about why that wasn’t even an option for me, and it came down to the weirdness of In Nomine being that skill was completely independent of success level. As a player, it can be annoying to roll on something you’ve put tons of points into to get really good at, but have your actual results completely out of your control: the third d6 is going to do what it wants whether or not you can fail on the results of the first two.

But then I started thinking about D&D, and realized that weapon damage was basically a similar independent system, and had always been. Your attack bonus (or THAC0) is essentially just a delivery system for your damage dice; after it gets to a certain point, it makes a bigger difference to get better weapons or more damage dice adds than it does to increase the attack bonus further. Conversely, if your attack bonus is terrible, wielding a greatsword isn’t that great of an option when someone else is hitting five times as often with a dagger. There are certain ways (like Power Attack), to convert attack to damage and vice versa, but it’s never via Margin of Success. An attack roll is always a binary proposition: if no, then nothing happens, if yes, then you get to roll your damage. This has the effect of allowing monster AC to be a secret, and also to speed up play: nobody has to subtract AC 16 from a roll of 23 in the middle of battle, which, being two-digit subtraction, can be a little slower than adding a few single digits.*

The weird thing about this is that the skill system introduced in 3e is very directly a MoS system, not an independent one. Many skills have a set, linear chart of results (each +1 to your Jump check is another foot), and almost all modules will include a series of results of increasing success on information-gathering skills (usually in increments of 5). This means that D&D essentially has a schizophrenic core mechanic: for combat, your d20 bonus needs to be exactly good enough to meet the DC, and anything better is wasted. For everything else but combat, you want the highest bonus and roll conceivable, because hitting the DC is the most minimal of success.

I wonder if there might not be a way to simplify skills closer to the old Non-Weapon Proficiency days while still keeping the new-school gamers happy, by drastically reducing skill spread but increasing the mutability of the independent die result. This could have a bigger effect on reducing the unpredictability of high level play (e.g., one player with a +30 Climb and one with a -3; how do you put in a mountain climbing challenge?) without 4e’s homogenization of the skill ranks.

One idea is to keep all existing skills, but drop all ranks from the skill bonus. A skill bonus is Attribute modifier + Racial Bonus + 3 (if a class skill). Doing this makes the potential spread at level 1 something like -1 to +9 for most skills, and the top end should only increase by a few points throughout all the levels without magic or skill focus: DC 15 remains relevant to level 20 as a target that’s easy but missable for the best of the skill monkeys while still possible for those that have no points in it.

Meanwhile, ranks become directly related to the results of the roll on an independent die. I’d suggest a standard d6+Ranks for the effects result of the skill. You’ll probably want to give out half as many skill ranks and cap them to half Level (min 1), as they’re suddenly a lot more meaningful. That way, at level 1, a character that specializes in a skill will be at least 25% more likely to succeed, but will only get an average of 1 point higher on successful rolls. This should allow you to govern information challenges much more easily (a 6th level module can assume a spread of 1-9, with 1-2 being essentially automatic, 3-6 being pretty easy to get, and 7-9 being increasingly unlikely). For skills with an existing MoS chart, figure out how much is basic difficulty and how much is a target number that only high level characters are supposed to hit, and then divide the difference by the potential meaningful results on the die. For example, a running jump might be DC 10, a standing jump is DC 15, and the result of the die x4 is the feet jumped across and x1 is the feet jumped up.

This system uses a base d6, but that opens up the possibility of lowering the die to a d4 or less for specific hindrances, or, more importantly, giving out bigger dice for special training. Players love getting special training and bigger dice.

Ultimately, this system seeks to accomplish two things:

  1. Making the skill system for D&D 3e+ work more like the weapons system in its use of binary DCs and independent results dice.
  2. Compress the degree of meaningful success results so DCs don’t have to skyrocket at high levels to provide a challenge for those focused in the skills, while still giving those that choose to focus a direct bonus on the effects of the skills. At high levels, the independent dice should mean that every PC has a chance of success at every non-specialized skill check, but those with lots of ranks in the skill will have much more significant actual result. For example, everyone in the party can climb the mountain… the guy with 10 ranks in Climb will just do it much faster.

Interestingly, this system might make it easier to do 4e-style skill challenges as well: give each challenge hit points and an AC exactly like a monster, and give especially appropriate skills a circumstance bonus and inappropriate ones a circumstance penalty. If everyone can contribute at least 1d6 to the damage, it becomes a much more reasonable option to try to help directly rather than just using Aid Another.

* And if it’s not a problem for you, I’d suggest you try adding MoS to damage in some way (say, an extra d6 for every 5 points you beat the AC) and let me know how it goes. It might be very neat 🙂 .

The Skinsaw Murders, Part 12

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Never Trust an Elf

The next morning, while Taeva scours tax records, Balekh, Veshenga, and Haggor meet for breakfast. Apparently having thought of something overnight, Balekh suggests that they take a closer look at Aldern’s house now that they have government backing to investigate. He holds up the keyring taken from Aldern at the Misgivings: a housekey and a strange small key with a lion-head emblem. The other two agree, and they round up Sergeant Beech and head to the merchant district again.

Conveniently forgetting to mention Taeva’s previous midnight search through the townhouse, they feign surprise as Beech and the neighborhood’s security guard see the substantial destruction in the house. They let the guard go elsewhere to worry about getting fired for this breach of home security, and begin investigating systematically. As Taeva had noted, the house looks like it was very thoroughly searched. Beds and couches are slashed open, desks are emptied, and, to Balekh’s great consternation, the library floor is covered with books carefully leafed through and then dropped to the ground.

Finally, at the top of the house, Balekh notices that the fireplace includes a lion motif that feels oddly familiar. He and Veshenga search the mantelpiece and find what might be a keyhole and, after the key is inserted and turned, a secret compartment. Inside is a binder full of documents (and a bag of money that they pocket before Beech notices). A superficial glance at the documents shows them to include an accounting notebook and the deed to the Misgivings. Balekh’s inspection shows that the deed includes a strange clause that the house will revert to a group called the Brothers of the Saw in 20 years, as they helped finance its construction. Beech expresses a heavy interest in these documents, but immediately begins suggesting that the “saw” must refer to the Red Mantis assassins that they have already been investigating. Haggor, a keen judge of motives, thinks that Beech is very clumsily trying to throw them off the trail, and subtly conveys this to the others.

The group decides to march the documents straight to the Mayor’s office, to Beech’s increasingly awkward protestations. He suggests that the Mayor wouldn’t be the first stop with this evidence. Very suspicious of the man since his strange behavior earlier, they indicate that they’re going to wait for a while and read the rest of the documents before going to the Mayor. Beech sighs in relief and heads off to make a report while they sit at a cafe and read. Veshenga quickly slips into the crowds and follows him… directly to Justice Ironbriar’s office. After a short conversation that she cannot safely overhear, Beech heads back out. Just as Veshenga is going to follow him back, she notices Ironbriar leaving surreptitiously. Changing her target, she slinks after the elf as he exits through a back door.

Ironbriar’s direction gives Veshenga a sinking feeling, as he seems to be bearing straight for Underbridge. Somehow, she follows him all the way down the colossal ramp from the upper districts, and into the shadow of the Irespan, without being noticed. But the elf gets increasingly paranoid the deeper he gets, and he finally spots the ranger in a small market. Masterfully spinning a story, he explains to her that he is just getting lunch at a place he knows about, and turns the conversation to her investigation. If she wasn’t so suspicious, she might believe that she was in the wrong; the man is smooth.

Doubling her attempts at stealth, she manages to avoid being lost in the crowd and give him the impression that she is long gone, despite his numerous attempts to double back and spot pursuit. Finally, he heads into a strange dilapidated clocktower near where the bridge meets the cliff, and Veshenga doesn’t believe she can get any closer without being spotted by whatever beings within are giving her a dark and creepy feeling.

Meanwhile, Balekh has been moving through the accounting ledger, and has found that Aldern was making regular payments to the Brothers at some sawmill, apparently to have them keep Iesha’s death a secret. Haggor goes off to retrieve Taeva at this news, thinking they have a clear location of import to search for. Not long after, as Balekh still waits at the cafe for his party while double checking the documents, Beech appears and sidles into the back corner where Balekh is sitting. The sergeant talks with him for a few minutes, asking about the progress of the investigation, and it gradually dawns on the cleric that patrons of the restaurant have been quietly leaving… almost as if a police sergeant asked them to evacuate.

Dragon Age RPG Dice Mechanic

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Recently, Green Ronin began publishing design diaries about their upcoming Dragon Age tabletop RPG. The latest design diary explains the core dice system for the game. In essence, it’s 3d6 plus a modifier of -1 to +7 (attributes range from -1 to +5, and skills can add an additional +2) vs. a difficulty. So far, it’s not too different from GURPS: it should have a strongly center-weighted distribution where each +1 bonus is exactly equivalent to -1 difficulty. The meaning of a +5 vs. +0 should be exactly 5 steps of difficulty (i.e., the +5 will hit DC 15 exactly as often as the +0 hits DC 10).

The interesting change is the introduction of the Dragon Die: one of the d6s, designated before rolling, indicates the success amount for successful rolls. This is fairly counter to the Margin of Success (MoS) systems that are common, and makes the die system into a strange hybrid of GURPS and In Nomine. And, as with In Nomine, players already worry that the Dragon Die concept will produce strange results at the table: because the Dragon Die also adds to the chance of success, successful rolls at higher DC/lower skill will succeed grandly more often than successful rolls at lower DC/higher skill.

The math behind this is quite simple: once DCs hit the point that the player must roll well on all three dice, it’s going to be very hard to get a success without getting a good roll on the Dragon Die. Meanwhile, a character that succeeds most of the time has a far wider spread of possible results on the Dragon Die that still result in success. Against DC 10, a character with a -1 modifier will expect an average of 4.3 on the Dragon Die for successes, while a character with a +7 modifier can only expect a 3.5. Meanwhile, the MoS for the -1 is 1.9, while it’s 7.5 for the +7. This obviously seems counterintuitive: The higher bonus is going to beat the DC by an average of 5 more points than the lower one, but actually get one point less success based on the Dragon Die.

If this is an issue, there are a couple of ways to deal with it without completely reinventing the wheel or adding lots more math: direct MoS and Governed MoS.

In direct MoS, you ignore the Dragon Die completely and just take the Margin of Success (Result – DC). This is how most games seem to do it, but it might cause problems with the expected results; with the Dragon Die concept, the rest of the game engine will probably be based around only successful results of 1-6, and a straight MoS result could get as much as a 15, which may drastically skew the results of high-bonus play.

In Governed MoS, you take the MoS as long as it’s not higher than the Dragon Die. This system removes the advantage of the Dragon Die for low bonuses: because your Dragon Die result can’t be higher than your MoS, the greater bonus retains the advantage. Because your MoS can’t be higher than the Dragon Die, it preserves the maximum of 6 for results (though it does add a 0 that might need to be dealt with). The real flaw in the system is that it’s pretty punishing for lower bonuses: in order to even out the results, it lowers the average for most of the range by 1-2 points off the base system, and, at the higher end of the bonus scale, is exactly the same as the Dragon Die system. It’s essentially just penalizing the lower bonuses with no benefit for the higher ones.

And, overall, the high Dragon Die on successes for high DCs might just be an acceptable wart if the rest of the system manages to be good. Because, taken in with the actual average of total results (where clear misses count as a 0 on the die), the average success for a straight Dragon Die system still follows a curve that favors having a higher bonus.

Average Results for Different Dragon Age Systems

The Skinsaw Murders, Part 11

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Redrum, Red Mantis, and Red Herrings

The Lord-Mayor’s office is enormous—more a palace or resort than a center of government—and the party lounges in a well appointed room bigger than some villages while waiting for their audience. Eventually, they are called up several flights of stairs, and meet with a priest of Abadar. He asks their permission to divine for ill intent, then places a Zone of Truth, asks them questions about their intentions, and ends with a Detect Evil. Finally, they are allowed in to meet with Grobaras.

Situated at an oversized mahogany desk featuring numerous knick-knacks and gew-gaws (including a large snow globe containing an entire scale model of Magnimar) is the fattest man any of the party members have ever met. Through a mouth frequently stuffed with expensive candies, he asks them about their qualifications and the troubles in Sandpoint, seemingly only vaguely interested in their replies, and reiterates that the city doesn’t normally go in for vigilantes. He tries to spin the situation as if the party is being given an opportunity to give back to their city state, and waves off any talk of payment until they actually prove their value to Magnimar. They’re then sent out to talk to a city justice about the practical necessities of the investigation.

A guard leads them across the city to the Hall of Ushers, which is a much more formal and… efficient looking… place to deal with government business. They’re led to a large office that is cramped with legal texts and the engines of state—a far cry from the pristine and elegant salon in which they met the Lord-Mayor—where a harried looking middle-aged elf greets them. Justice Ironbriar is apologetic for the high way in which the mayor treated the party, and makes it clear that the stance on vigilantes is entirely practical to keep groups of villains and troublemakers from skating by on precedents set by helpful adventurers. He says he’ll assign a guard that is ostensibly there to keep them in line but is actually there to provide whatever assistance they need in cutting through red tape.

After surreptitiously getting a look at a document he was reading from and confirming it’s Hemlock’s letter of introduction, the party quizzes Ironbriar for a while longer about the murders. They eventually come to the conclusion that he doesn’t know anything truly useful, and decide to go look at the murders first hand. They pick up their escort, a dumpy and grizzled human named Sergeant Beech, on the way out, and head towards the most recent crime scene.

This townhouse is in one of the richer sections of town, and is cordoned off by guards that Beech easily leads the party through. They then set to work in the house, confirming that the victim was a wealthy man, is bearing very similar Sihedron Rune markings to the victims in Sandpoint, and appears to have been targeted specifically (if anything was missing from the house, it seems to have been taken with only a cursory attempt at making this look like a burglary). Veshenga’s analysis of the body seems to indicate that he was clubbed as he slept to keep him unconscious. Unlike Aldern’s victims, the rune was inscribed with a sharp knife or razor of some kind, not a claw, and it looks like less trouble was taken to make the victim suffer; the rune was inscribed while the man was still alive, but then his throat was slit to put him out of his misery. Meanwhile, Taeva turns up the probable entry method: a second story window appears to have been expertly jimmied open from the outside, and a close inspection of the latch makes her believe that it, too, was lifted with a thin blade. On comparing notes, the party thinks back to the war razor that Aldern wielded in their final battle.

Talking to Beech, the party slowly gets the tally of deaths: a wealthy individual every few days for the past few weeks, with over a dozen deaths in total so far. All are killed in a nearly identical manner… except for two. They were considered part of the same killings because they were deaths of wealthy individuals via home invasion, but these individuals were, instead, decapitated and had no runes drawn whatsoever. The party decides the different killings might give some insight, and immediately begin pursuing leads.

The most recent decapitation is a couple of days old, and as the party visits this crime scene—another high-class townhouse in a different style—they notice that a richly appointed carriage waits in the cold morning outside the lightly guarded home. They knock on the window and have a chat with the distraught widow, who came by waiting to be let back into her house. She gives extensive details on her husband as asked, and the conclusion the party draws is that he didn’t quite fit the role of miser they’d associated with the Sihedron-marked victims. When asked about enemies, she mentions a recent argument with a very distinctive looking Hellknight and her lawyers. Apparently, like Sandpoint’s mayor, her husband was a stakeholder in some Chelish estate.

They begin to formulate the idea that those that are targeted but prove unworthy are decapitated instead of marked—and that Valeria is somehow involved—and go to the city morgue to visit the body. An inspection by Veshenga indicates that the man was probably surprised in the dark, decapitated, and then left where he landed. The surprising thing is that the decapitation seems to have been accomplished with some kind of serrated blade, not a war razor.

Looking for more corroboration, they visit the estate of the other decapitated victim, and meet an uptight butler and wastrel stepson happy to have his stepmother die and leave him the estate. According to both of them, though, she also did not fit the profile of greed, and had recently had arguments with Valeria over a Chelish inheritance. They learn that she had actually had a previous argument some months prior, and then died a couple of weeks after the second meeting.

Having somewhat hit a wall, and not wanting to go directly after Valeria just yet, the party starts gathering and assembling information. The party ultimately learns that something about sawblade-wielding, head-chopping assassins seems familiar to a lot of people. A careful prodding of Zif’s bardic training finally results in him giving them the name Red Mantis Assassins, which they confirm is an order of assassins-for-hire devoted to the Mantis-god. By this point, they’re fairly certain that this is not directly related to their main investigation, but still bears looking into—if assassins are taking out anyone that disagrees with Valeria, the mayor of Sandpoint may not be far behind.

After many other hijinx between the party, Zif, and various others around town—not to mention Taeva lifting Valeria’s day planner from her house while she sleeps—they have finally decided that Valeria clearly couldn’t have been responsible for the Sihedron murders (as one of them happened while she was in Sandpoint), and may not be knowingly causing the decapitations. However, both individuals who have refused her twice have wound up dead, and there are several others waiting on a second meeting before the end of Winter. Investigation into town records uncover a similar set of killings as a Hellknight passed through a few decades earlier; but without the rash of star killings at that time, nobody but the party had noticed the connection until now.

The next morning, they lay out their suspicions to Ironbriar, who—counter to Beech’s expectations—is very eager to let them take care of the Hellknight who’s been upsetting so many wealthy people in town. It turns out that she is from the Order of the Scourge, which places her outside the agreement the city made with the Order of the Nail, so they are disinclined to protect her continued operations if she is a danger to the citizens. Ironbriar suggests they go over straight away and confront her.

So, with no further worry about getting in trouble with the city, they march back over to Valeria’s apartments and bang on the door. She meets them and invites them in, especially appreciative of the visit from Haggor—who she refers to as “tall, green, and sexy.” They are escorted into a sitting room and treated to a strange, overwhelming politeness more appropriate to a society maven than a six-foot, chain-clad, pierced, tattooed, warrior woman with a weird haircut. Perhaps put off by expecting more of a fight, the party equally politely shares everything they know with her (leaving out their theft of her day planner). She is fairly forthright about her intentions in the city—to subpoena and take back to Cheliax the last surviving rights holders for certain properties—and expresses annoyance, if not sympathy, for the assassinations of people she’d talked to. She says her intention was purely to work through proper legal channels for those that wouldn’t come willingly, and she’d be very irritated if someone was going behind her back. Unfortunately, the number of people that know about her business is significant, including much of the city’s leadership and its Hellknights, so she can’t specifically point to who might be responsible for calling in Red Mantis assassins. She also seeks to provide help tying her issues to the star killings, but any relationship seems to be tangential at best. The final conclusion is that there are assassins targeting those who refuse her subpeona, and either they or the star killers are, at most, using one another for cover, and the killings at the same time may be entirely coincidental. She does invite the party back whenever they want, especially Haggor, to discuss any further information they or she might find.

Fairly convinced that Valeria’s mission is related to the assassinations, but that Valeria herself is not guilty of them, the party begins seeking other avenues to track down the Red Mantis assassins and get back on track with the star killings. Taeva begins a project at the tax office to try to correlate the remaining wealthy individuals in town with miserliness in order to identify the next targets, and the rest of the party considers clues they may have missed.

Dominance: A Martial Arts Action System

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The following system is inspired by a viewing of Chocolate, but should be able to simulate any kind of genre that specializes in a hero mowing through groups of thugs to get to a goal. It’s an alternative to using mook rules.

In every major fight, hit points are replaced with a Dominance meter. This is, essentially, hit points for a scene. Damage dealt by the player characters raises the Dominance meter, and damage dealt to the PCs lowers it. If the game system normally features hit points as a major feature, you can use HP beyond a pre-determined average amount as starting Dominance for the players.

In order to achieve the PCs’ goals for the combat scene, a particular Dominance rating must be met. This rating should be low for simple goals and situations that shouldn’t be much of a threat and scale up as the tension of the scenario rises. Many fights, particularly against “boss” characters, should have thresholds at which the situation changes. For example, one fight might start with simple thugs, move on to elite operatives, reach a penultimate state with a fight against one or more lieutenants, and end with the fight against the boss. When a threshold is met, going back beneath it does not move back down to the previous level of foes, but may Raise the Stakes.

Raising the Stakes occurs in two situations: the first time the player characters are driven below the previous threshold (0 to start, and it can occur as many times as there are thresholds in the fight), and whenever the player characters decide to negate a particular hit. Because of these related factors, it is often in the PCs’ interests to decide to raise the stakes by negating incoming damage rather than to take the damage and have the stakes raised anyway. In most cases, the players will raise the stakes due to a big single incoming attack, leading to a natural explanation of wounds.

Whenever the stakes are raised, the initiator must decide on wounds or weapons (the PCs are the initiator when negating an attack, the GM is the initiator when the PCs drop under a threshold).

Wounds impose a small but significant penalty to attacks by the character that took the wound for the remainder of the fight (and possibly longer, see Weapons, below). This penalty should be tailored both to the game system and to the wound. The wound is dealt to whatever character would have taken damage that was negated or did take damage that dropped the group below a threshold. An example wound in d20 might be a smashed arm that gives -2 to hand or fist attacks.

Weapons is a natural progression of threat during the course of the fight, from hand to hand, to blunt weapons, to blades or other cutting instruments, to guns (if period appropriate). Once the stakes are raised for weapons, the class of weapons cannot be lowered for the rest of the fight unless it is appropriate to the enemies in the next threshold. If the PCs choose to raise the stakes in this manner, they are the ones to pick up objects or draw swords. If the stakes are raised by going under the threshold, the PCs must scramble to upgrade in the face of suddenly bloodthirsty foes. The current category of weapons affects the recovery time for wounds; note each wound with the current category of weapons:

  • Hand to hand wounds disappear shortly after the fight.
  • Blunt weapon wounds require at least a day to heal.
  • Blade wounds may require a week or more to recover.
  • Gun wounds result in the character dying after the fight if medical help is not immediately available (how immediate depends on the drama of the situation and number of wounds). A character that survives gun wounds will keep them for at least a month.

This system favors a game engine that is cinematic and allows for a lot of movement and quick attack resolution. The descriptive format for the system is similar to a kung fu movie: each significant hit drops a target for the time being, only to have him replaced with a new combatant or an old one that got back up, with the current crop of fighters only staying down once a threshold is met and a new, more imposing threat arrives.

Heavy description is required to keep the fight moving and feeling like it is progressing, especially when the players are losing more Dominance than they are gaining. Use of the environment, like in all martial arts games, should be heavily rewarded.

The Skinsaw Murders, Part 10

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The next morning, Veshenga is on archery training when she notices a dark-skinned Shoanti man she doesn’t know waving and heading across the training grounds. When he gets closer, though, he’s taken aback, and apologizes for thinking that all Varisians look alike, claiming that he thought she was a friend of his from across the room. He recovers, asking her if she’s joining the Black Arrows, and whether she can come to help staff up Fort Rannick. He claims they’re having an upswing in the aggression of the nearby ogres, and they’re getting more guards just in case. Veshenga tentatively agrees, but he points out that it would be for several months in a fort hundreds of miles away. She sadly declines due to her personal investigations, and they wish each other good luck.

Afterwards, she and Haggor make a trip back to the tax office, and the old dwarf, once woken up from a midmorning nap, eventually remembers them. She produces a thoroughly yellowed file and flips through, noting that the Foxgloves were once a very prominent family in the area, having subtle interests in many properties in the city. That all ended 80 years ago or so, with the death of Vorel Foxglove, and there has been very little of note to the tax office happening since. She did track down one holding still being taxed: a townhouse in the merchant district that is getting further and further behind on its taxes. They claim not to know anything about that, and head out to the provided address.

Heading to Grand Arch, the pair are stopped at a small guardhouse barring the entry into what they’ve identified as Aldern’s neighborhood. The guard on duty points out that the homes in this neighborhood are mostly empty right now, and visitors aren’t allowed in without an escort by a resident; especially types that don’t look like they fit in. Holding back their urge to be offended, the two convince the man to send a runner to the house and try to get someone to collect them. While they wait, they pump him for information about the murders, and he reveals that it’s something big and even hush-hush to him. He suspects it’s cult-related, and worries that the people killed did something to offend one dark god or another. Finally, the runner returns and points out that there’s nobody home and it looks like the house is closed down for the winter. They leave without convincing him to let them near the house.

Reconvening with the rest of the party, they intimate to Taeva that her skills at sneaking to the house would be useful. However, Veshenga lets slip that they got this information through the tax office, and that she and Balekh might not want to go by there anytime soon. Suspicious, the two hare off directly to the nearest tax office, where the tax man remembers the pair from the day before. He has the two give the correct names that should have been on the tax forms, but refuses to destroy the ones created in their names: he claims that it’s very difficult to get adventurers to register to pay their taxes, and he’s pleased that now the entire party is on the local rolls. He encourages them to accurately record all rewards and treasure they earn while dwelling in Magnimar, and bids them good day.

Annoyed at being had by the tax man, Balekh and Taeva head to the address provided, cursing their joking teammates the whole way. They reach a similar impasse with the guard at the guardhouse, but do leave a letter behind that he promises to have put in the mailbox. Taeva lurks nearby, waiting for nightfall so she can break in, while Balekh goes to research more about the house. He finds himself at the central tax office, facing the same old dwarf woman, who finds two questions about the same property in one day interesting. He admits that Foxglove is dead, hoping to get permission to look through the house, and she instead insists that it will have to go through the probate courts now before anything comes of it. She suggests that he go across the street to deal with the lawyers.

The middle-aged and haughty elf working the desk of the law office is at first cold to Balekh, and seems delighted to point out that little will be done on the death by the tax office for some time. Balekh asks how he might get information on the family of the deceased, and the elf suggests that the best be is possibly the post office down the street. Before Balekh leaves, the lawyer suggests adventurers in the city keep them on retainer for any legal problems that spring up, giving out the firm’s card. Balekh, in turn, leaves his address in case anyone in the law firm needs a discrete cleric.

The post office’s front desk is yet again staffed by a strange demi-human, this time an over-excited gnome who eventually introduces himself as Zif. Balekh and Zif have a somewhat confusing back-and-forth where the gnome tries to do as little work as possible, before he capitulates to letting Balekh do all the research while he watches. The cleric then wanders back to the archives of the post office and begins the long search for a forwarding address to Aldern’s two sisters while Zif regales him with a number of exciting, irritating, and obviously false stories about the young gnome’s exploits. After several check-ins, he does confirm that Zif is an employee, but only because the post office employs a small, motley assortment of maniacs that are willing to deliver post to the dangerous areas outside of the city. Balekh sends Zif to deliver a letter to Shayliss letting her know he’ll be out late doing research, and the gnome returns very impressed by Balekh’s girlfriend.

While Balekh researches late into the night, Taeva waits for darkness to sneak to Aldern’s townhouse. The back of the house has been strangely boarded up, but she quietly pries open a window and slips inside. She goes room by room, finding a house that has been very expertly rolled: mattresses are slashed, books are dumped onto the floor, and drawers are upturned. It looks like every area of the house has been searched for information, but the strongest impression she has is that either the investigators didn’t know what they were looking for or didn’t find it, because something looking for and finding something specific would have stopped when it was found. She isn’t able to find anything of interest on her own, so she slips back out into the night after confirming that the guard did, in fact, deliver the letter that she and Balekh sent that afternoon.

Still up from her B&E session, Taeva starts asking around at various dives for more information about the murders. Eventually, she hits on someone that seems to have a clue, saying that the killer is being quietly referred to by the authorities as the “Star Killer.” The contact doesn’t know why, assuming that it has something to do with celestial events, but, to Taeva, it sounds like a very likely name for victims found with Sihedron Runes carved into their chests.

The next morning, she somewhat petulantly wakes Veshenga with a bucket of water—still upset about the whole tax fraud thing—and the whole party convenes in the post office records room to discuss their options. Zif is immediately taken with Taeva, insisting that Balekh didn’t tell him that one of his friends was a beautiful gnome girl, and tries to regale her with tales of derring-do. She is less than impressed. To keep Zif from bothering Taeva, they send him to get them lunch. While he’s out, they decide that their best bet is to get a personal letter of recommendation from Sheriff Hemlock and take it straight to the upper leadership of the city. When Zif returns, they charge him with this special mission, and send him off to Sandpoint with a letter for Belor.

By the time he returns two days later, the group has finally finished training. He points out that he never made it to Sandpoint: he met another courier on the road already taking a letter from the Sheriff to the town guard (apparently the gruff sergeant had asked after all).

Not long after they hear this, guardsmen show up at their lodgings to request their presence at the Lord-Mayor’s office.

D&D/Pathfinder: Alternate Size Rules

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I was thinking about the Cat vs. Commoner Conundrum* and moved on to thinking about the size rules in general. From 3.5 on, dealing with non-Medium combatants requires a series of charts and lookups: Str and Dex mods, weapon size, attack and AC bonus, carrying capacity, etc. It seems like it might be preferable to reduce that, particularly for conditions like the Enlarge Person spell that force recalculation on the fly.

The size modifier to attack and AC suggests a way to do that. Characters already take a constant bonus or penalty to attack rolls vs. AC as simple model for smaller creatures having an easier time hitting big ones. Why not roll up the Str and Weapon damage effects into a related system?

Under this system, creatures do not take ability score modifications due to size (including small PC races which lose the -2 to Str). Weapons do not vary in damage die based on size** (a longsword does 1d8, no matter its size). Natural attacks use the dice for Medium creatures (e.g., 1d6 for a bite, 1d4 for a claw).

Creatures of less than Medium size take a penalty to outgoing and incoming damage. This penalty is double the character’s attack/AC size bonus. It is not multiplied on a critical hit; treat it as effectively damage resistance. For example, a Small character (+1 size attack/AC bonus) deals -2 damage on all attacks that require a roll against AC, and takes 2 additional damage from all attacks that target AC. A Tiny creature would have a penalty of 4, a Diminutive creature would have a penalty of 8, and a Fine creature would have a penalty of 16. These penalties can reduce damage below 0.

Creatures of greater than Medium size have a bonus to damage and damage resistance. This bonus is double the character’s attack/AC size bonus. The damage bonus is not multiplied on a critical hit. For example, a Large character (-1 size attack/AC penalty) deals +2 damage on all attacks against AC and increases DR by 2/- vs. attacks that target AC***. A Huge creature would have a bonus of 4, a Gargantuan creature would have a bonus of 8, and a Colossal creature would have a bonus of 16.

These bonuses and penalties should more or less even out the existing modifications for size to physical ability scores and weapon die size. For example, currently Small characters use weapons with around 1 point of average damage less than their Medium counterparts and have a -2 penalty to Str that adds an additional -1 damage in most cases (and cancels out their attack bonus in melee). They probably produce somewhat different results at the greater size categories, but may reduce bookkeeping enough to justify the changes.


* Because of the low granularity of D&D at low levels and the rule about reducing damage below 1, a housecat has a greater than reasonable chance of killing a 1st level commoner in an even fight; the cat is hard to hit and has an innate bonus to hit, dealing 1 HP per hit, while the commoner has a reduced chance to hit the cat.

** Weapons still maintain size designation for purposes of the -2 penalty for using an off-sized weapon. Additionally, characters act as if they were the weapon’s size for purposes of damage (e.g., a Medium character using a small longsword attacks at -2 and deals 1d8-2 base damage. A Medium character using a large longsword must use two hands, takes a -2 penalty, but deals 1d8+2 base damage).

*** It may be necessary to extend this DR to all attacks, to compensate for the removed Con bonus for size. Doing so would require more bookkeeping on the Small characters’ side, however, so it’s probably not worth it.

The Skinsaw Murders, Part 9

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Gnomes and Tigers and Beers

It takes a few days for the party to settle into Magnimar. Dissatisfied with the availability and cost of inn lodgings in the town, Taeva and Veshenga rent a small apartment for the winter. It is normally used for traveling merchants that can’t afford a year-round house in the city. Balekh and Shayliss find a similar apartment, paying a premium for a loft in one of the taller buildings near the wizard’s school. Haggor simply takes a room at the hippodrome, paying for his room and board by cooking for the entertainers.

After a week of settling in and beginning training, Balekh has finished his crafting and acquired a scroll of Dispel Evil. The party takes a day to head back to Foxglove Manor, threading their way through the mostly harmless haunts, and returning to the basement. There, Balekh unleashes the scroll and destroys the vestiges of the lich haunting the house. The entire structure shudders, but does not collapse at the loss of its evil heart. As they leave, there are no further haunts, and much of the overwhelming mold and grime seems to have simply faded away, leaving a house unoccupied for months but not in the extreme state of disrepair the spectral haunts had indicated. Balekh begins trying to burn it to the ground anyway, but Haggor stops him and reminds him that there are two Foxglove daughters still potentially alive who should inherit the house. They agree to try to track them down rather than destroying the house.

The second week in Magnimar finds Taeva being used as a counter-thief by the Princess of Sails. As she keeps an eye out for shoplifters, cutpurses, and muggers, she can’t help but feel a vague sense of foreboding from somewhere in Underbridge. This sense persists throughout her stay in the city, strong during the day and weaker at night. She eventually makes a trip into the slums to try to narrow down the source, but finds nothing more than an area ripe with criminals and con men. Her easy way with climbing and casing various locations results in having to fend off invitations to join cat burgling rings.

After two weeks in the city, Balekh is approached by the Stone of Seers’ headmaster. The old man seems very taken with Shayliss—somewhat offensively so—but his interest has led him to conclude that she is drawing her power from an infernal pact of some kind, as Balekh had already suspected. He gives the aspiring theurge a rundown of the history of such bargains in Cheliax, explaining that even contracts that are concluded with no souls being claimed still leave a taint on the bloodline. A young Chelish woman tapping mystic power through sorcery rather than wizardry could easily find such power answered and fed by the nascent infernal bonds. He strongly cautions Balekh to make sure the young woman isn’t overwhelmed by such energies.

Meanwhile, Haggor has been trying to make friends with the hippodrome’s gladiatorial tiger, but having little luck. A nightly discussion amongst the group reminds Balekh that he has a spare potion of Speak with Animals taken from the goblin druid, and he hands it over to the monk. The next day, Haggor downs the potion and has a conversation with the tiger, who opines that he wants to get out and hunt. Somehow, Haggor smuggles him out of the arena and convinces him not to go after any of the humans in town. The city guard is taken aback by a half-orc with a tiger, but Haggor convinces them that he’s on his way out of the city to take some exercise. They shakily escort him to the north gate, and, after a few more moments of conversation, point out that the tiger has bolted for the woods. Haggor rushes off after him, and finds that the tiger has apparently gone stir-crazy, killing a couple of deer in the woods just for the thrill of the hunt. As the light fades, he finally spots the great cat hiding behind a tree, and grapples the beast into submission. The guards are equally distraught to see the half-orc return with a moping tiger slung over his shoulder, and escort him back to the arena. Haggor puts the cat back in his cage, annoyed at his betrayal. Later in the week, Haggor meets with the master of games, Jorston Droaeb, and the old dwarf queries him on his fighting style. Axetongue can’t put his finger on it, but something about Haggor’s style seems familiar, but he can’t seem to recall it being used by his typical fighters.

After nearly a month in town, the party has consistently begun to hear rumors about murders in the city that the police can no longer keep quiet. The guards are trying to play them off as robberies, but the growing consensus is that several rich people have been murdered; as a killer that only kills the rich is not much of a threat to the common populace, speculation abounds. However, to the heroes of Sandpoint, this sounds like yet another uprising of the murders they just put a stop to in their own town.

The first stop is a local guardsman, who cannot comment on open investigations, but who takes them to his superior. The sergeant they speak to is a gruff-spoken man that clearly has little use for adventurers and vigilantes. They at least convince him to talk to Hemlock about whether the case seems similar. Sensing that there’s little more progress they can make on this front until the Sheriff vouches for them, they decides to take up some other outstanding investigations: Veshenga and Haggor will try to track down Foxglove’s residence in town to look for further clues, while Balekh and Taeva will look into the strange feeling she’s been having about Underbridge.

Veshenga and Haggor’s first stop is the local tax office, hoping that there will be property records for Aldern Foxglove. Conveniently, there is one right down the street from the local guard post, and they begin asking the clerk about tracking down an address. The clerk asks them for their names and addresses, intimating that he cannot help them locate other taxpayers until they are taxpaying citizens themselves. Even Haggor’s attempt to bribe the man is merely accepted as pre-payment for his tax debt. Baffled, the two put on their best bluffing faces and put down the names and addresses of Balekh and Taeva. Unfortunately, even after this little bit of tax fraud, the only information the clerk can provide them is that Foxglove is a city taxpayer. He suggests that they check out he main tax office for more information.

Meanwhile, Balekh and Taeva have wandered into Underbridge. Balekh detects magic as he walks, and Taeva does everything in her power to prevent him from being mugged and pickpocketed as he wanders aimlessly. Unfortunately, the area is too big for his sixty-foot radius to make much of an impact, and his spell quickly wears out after confirming little more than the magical potency of the bridge itself. He changes tactics and begins to detect evil. Though many of the people have a faint aura of evil, the first stronger aura he picks up on turns out to be a small imp, being used as little more than an organ grinder’s monkey for a tall and imposing man. This sorcerer, calling himself Faizul, claims great power and mystery… but quickly turns out to be little more than an underfed street performer down on his luck. They take him for a meal, and find out that there are possibly a wide variety of cults and secrets in the area, but learn nothing of any real use.

Veshenga and Haggor have, by now, made it to the city’s main tax office. Behind the desk is a very elderly dwarf woman. She says that the name Foxglove sounds very familiar, but it is not one she has heard in some time. She takes down their names and what they’re looking for, and asks them to come back the next day after she’s had time to look through the records.


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Staring into the Darkness

Hell is underground. In the depths of the mines, in the heart of caves, in the far reaches of ancient cities, it waits. It claws into the darkness of the underworld, flowing through it like sludge through the seas, looking for a way out to the sky. Things move in the hell-tainted darkness, formed from nightmare and black light. They dig towards the surface, lay traps, and always seek to claw their way into our world. Sometimes, they find it, breaking open a dungeon maw, their corruption spreading across the night to terrorize nearby innocents until driven back inside by the dawn.

These assaults inevitably inspire heroes to rise up, put down the incursion, and seek to seal the newly opened dungeon. Sometimes, it is enough to collapse the entrance and hope it will be years, again, before something else digs free. Others establish a vigil of light at its gate, burning great fires so the blacklight cannot slip free and form horrors anywhere in the night, and fighting back the creatures that brave the light. But some, the truly brave or the truly mad, descend into the dungeons, carrying what light they can and seeking to destroy the heart of the incursion, making the warrens safe for an age. These adventurers find more than just danger, however.

Every dungeon has a story, some event that allowed evil to crawl free. Some were the lairs of criminals. Others were dead-ends where innocents fled and died. Many were once great cities, before the last great civilization was struck down by its own greed. A few have gathered new stories of the adventurers that died within. In almost all cases, the artifacts of the dungeon’s story remain, foul creatures forming around them like cysts, living out shadow versions of the tale. If the guardians can be dispatched or bypassed, the artifacts make great prizes, wealth beyond the rewards of honest labor, treasures rarely seen in the modern age. Many that delve into the darkness on a simple mission of hope soon develop another agenda for braving the shadows.

These adventurers find not just gold and magic, but knowledge. Something about fighting these creatures teaches skills long lost to the world. The few great sages claim that the last era of heroes led directly to the fall of civilization and the rise of the blacklight, and the darkness remembers its forebears. Whatever the reason, those that delve into dungeons emerge with prowess and potency far beyond the common warriors and adepts who make up the armies of men. They are paladins and rangers, sorcerers and bards, and many other titles known only in songs. Quickly, their horror-won proficiency makes them without peer amongst normal men. They are sought not just to protect against new dungeon breakthroughs, but to bend the course of wars.

Skilled in might and magic, rich from ancient treasures, and possessed of skills unknown to this age of the world, adventuring seems a noble and worthwhile effort. But there is a secret known only to the few that have delved into dungeons and traded the stories of their journeys. The blacklight creatures are formless nightmares as they lurk unmolested in their tombs. It is perception that catalyzes them into being, and they take their forms and powers from the darkest reaches of the minds that perceive them. Great men have so much more to dread, and adventurers quickly progress from simple things like goblins to much greater horrors than the common mind can conceive. At every turn, these heroes marvel that most of what they face seems just within the limits of their skills, not realizing that what they face lies just within the limits of their imaginations. The blacklight grows stronger with strong minds to pattern it. Breakthroughs near a town with experienced adventurers can be truly terrible to the population, and true horrors lurk in tombs that great heroes failed to destroy. In time, many adventurers come to wonder whether they are truly helping the world, or merely feeding some dark, hellish agenda that seeks to remake the powers of the last age… and once again pull civilization to the brink.