Experience & Treasure

Choosing a rubric for awarding XP is key, as it shapes how the game is played more than any other aspect.

As I see it, XP can be used as a reward in several different ways:
  • XP can be rewarded for completing goals (like Belief Artha in BW, or resolving a Mission in Reign)
  • XP may be awarded for overcoming obstacles on the path to a goal (standard D&D)
  • XP can be gained as a mechanical interpretation of, or reward for, character development (such as the classic D&D treasure spending "party binge" rules)
  • XP can be a compensation for a character's troublesome learning experiences (such as Problems in Reign, or Trait Artha in BW)
Each kind of reward mechanism encourages its own kind of play, and forces the system to adapt to its underlying assumptions. For example, the standard D&D XP system rewards killing monsters & generally winning fights with increased abilities, mostly aimed at winning fights, but also at all sorts of other stuff, from persuading people to knowledge of ancient history to skill at making horseshoes!

By the way, one of my base assumptions here is that a D&D-like game has to award XP, spent to improve your character's abilities by gaining levels, rather than having any other kind of rewards, such as BW's Artha resource, or Reign's continual bonuses.

One of my biggest problems with modern interpretations of D&D is that they have made XP & levels completely separate from the reward system; they had to, thanks to the rapid increase in levels and sheer disparity in both depth and breadth of power that characters obtained with leveling. To undo that, characters of differing levels have to be able to meaningfully interact, which means that levels have to either result in less of a power boost, or that they only confer greater ability on a very narrow tract of the gamespace. 

One of my secret desires is to have an adventure game where the possession of an artifact or secret magic is just as (if not more) important power-wise than a character's innate levels. Once again modern D&D has issues, as the 3e/4e systems evaluate characters' abilities expecting them to have a certain prescribed set of treasures: all hail the almighty leveling ladder.

This raises an important point: traditional D&D has not one, but two key rewards: Experience and Treasure.

(It might have a third as well, Status, but i'll discuss that later, since gaining power over the world, rather than power of self, makes for a natural "second tier" of D&D play. It seems likely that you'd have three tiers, completely separate from modern D&D's idea of the "rise to epicness", in my reconstructed S&S game: 1) Heroes, 2) Kings, and 3) Planeswalkers. However, i'm not sure how to keep them from becoming intermingled...)

Pathfinder Essentials: D&D from the Ground Up

 So, i have this crazy idea to take the stuff I've been talking about, and the stuff Rob Donoghue has been talking about, and see if i can mix them with Pathfinder, and the card-based approach to D&D... easily and fully.

This old post on Campaign Mastery has some interesting background material. It's obvious that Pathfinder has filled the "AD&D reborn" niche, while it seems that Essentials (and Gamma World) are searching out a way to evolve the Basic D&D mindset to a modern culmination.

Although my title here is a bit of a joke, the thinking I was doing about D&D has morphed into asking what D&D could look like if the CCG aspect was fully embraced. (I hate the 'collectible' aspect tho, so i'm ignoring that. I like to see what i'm buying.)

  • Characters are built as decks of cards
  • Each advance (level) allows a choice of card to be added to your "deck"; presumably, you could "level up" in Elf as easily as in Barbarian or Thief
  • Artifacts & "Magic Items" are cards as well; perhaps more focused/limited than level cards, perhaps not
  • Spells are item-like cards, as well; Vancian-magic Wizards would assemble a Spellbook deck, Sorcerers would just have the spell cards as a permanent part of their character's abilities
  • Unlike 4e, cards are generally not exhausted (items and spells can be exceptions)
Of course, if cards are elements of the character rather than expendable tools (eg. 4e's powers), why would we want to use a character deck rather than a character sheet? 
  • Cards are easily manipulated, sorted, & can act as physical objects ("show me")
  • Cards can be illustrative - going so far as the Paizo NPC Cards, with a picture on the front and text on the back
  • Cards make things real; this is great for any fictional thing which can be traded, lost, or expended; (note that if aspects of a character can be exchanged or changed, then cards are excellent tools, as well)
  • Cards make it easy to "put the pieces together" in building a character
  • Cards allow random generation to be easy and sensible (including allowing themed decks and role protection)
One of the interesting things about this approach is that it gives you the opportunity to do some things differently, some things that D&D traditionally hasn't done.

Things such as Quest cards. I probably shouldn't use that MMO-inspired 4e term; I don't quite mean the same notion. A Quest is not something the Iconic Old Man gives you, at least not just that; it's an intrinsic part of your character, like a class or spell or treasure. It's like a BW Belief - you can change it, you can discard it, you can complete it, you can have more than one, but when you have it, it's always in the forefront of play. Quests allow a character's goals & purpose to be put front and center, and be rewarded; taken the other way, 4e style, they also allow the GM to give the party priorities and hooks in a memorable, concrete form.

Another similar idea would be to introduce "Personality Cards"; these are essentially role-playing prompts (perhaps with a baked in mechanical benefit, perhaps separate from the XP system, perhaps not). Like a Tarot card, ideally they would be open to interpretation; if not, then experienced players should be able to easily make up custom Personality Cards that follow a set of guidelines. These would be great for drawing up randomly, and working into a character concept. 

This article by Robert Schwalb discussing classes & subclasses is relevant to any thoughts about class designs. 

The Fifth Evolution: Messing with D&D

Earlier I mentioned my problem with D&D's skill system. Thinking about it, however, i'm certain there are several other aspects of the D&D system which bother me. 

To me, D&D is the game of fantasy adventure, drawing on Tolkien, yes, but also Leiber, Howard, and Moorcock. It seems like the mix is something like one part High Fantasy, one part Sword & Sorcery, and, perhaps, two parts Dungeons and Dragons. That's okay, I think; a good D&D game should draw upon the greater mythology of D&D.

However, it should also allow you to build your own mythology on top of that foundation. But I'm going to leave that discussion for another time. Right now, I want to talk about system. 

What do i need a D&D game to do?
  1. Run published adventures, as adapted to my own "campaign world".
  2. Challenge the adventuring party with monsters, traps, and environmental hazards - easily and on the fly.
  3. Allow our grave-robbing heroes to outfit themselves with all manner of gear, including lost relics and new magics.
  4. Strike a balance between character investment & development and the real deadly dangers of adventuring OD&D style.
  5. Open up the world for exploration, both of the present wilderness and of history. ("West Marches" style)
  6. Balance fighting monsters, performing heroic deeds, and exploring the world with a core of dungeon delving.
  7. Have it all make sense, at least at a glance. (Eg. Associate the mechanics with the fiction, esp. the campaign world.)
  8. Remember that it is a role-playing game, first and foremost.

My goal is to accomplish all of those without altering the underlying D&D mechanics too far - this whole endeavor is pointless if at the end I cannot use published d20 modules (with minor alterations, of course) with my game.
So, how do my current D&D options stack up against those criteria?

4e: The newest official D&D game has lots of resources available to it, though not so much as d20, not yet, and by a much less diverse group of voices (or so it seems.) 4e also makes it easy to "re-skin" monsters to use where you need them, although adventure prep is still pretty time consuming. On the other hand, 4e concentrates entirely on the fight scene! Fights are a big part of the D&D experience, but they shouldn't be everything. 4e also isn't big on making things make sense; you have to go out of your way to set a consistent tone, and even then it tends to dissolve during tactical minis combat, anyway. In many ways 4e (as it stands) has lost the feel of D&D.

d20: Third edition D&D has become something of a morass of conflicting designs and supplemental material; it's easy to get lost, and yet it serves as a great starting point for assembling your very own D&D game. The biggest downside to d20/3.5 is the sheer amount of work it takes to put together your own monsters and active NPCs, despite the quality and number of resources available. The combat system is also somewhat flawed and clunky, while traps are not as fun as they should be.

OD&D: The starting point of D&D, it was a system really deserving of being upgraded. It is both unplayable and inspiring. The ease of character creation coupled with the constant danger really gives that nice Sword & Sorcery feel. However, depending on how you interpret the rules, characters die a little too easily to let you get attached to them!

: The "alternative 4th edition" aims to fix d20s flaws while maintaining the feel of the game. I'm not sure the changes go far enough, however; I'd have to actually play it for more than a bit to find out.

So if I'm not happy with any of the games actually out there, what do I want my D&D to do?

Here's a few assertions:
  1. An adventurer's equipment should be more important than his level. (Or at least as important!)
  2. Fights should be nasty, especially against monsters, but escapable.
  3. Powerful magics shouldn't be quite so readily available to the characters. Artifacts should be rare and unique. Spells and spell-books should be seen as just another kind of treasure.
  4. All of the basic classes should play more or less differently. (Fighter, Thief, & Mage? Adventurer & Expert?)
  5. Each basic class should be readily customizable to match elements of the setting, situation, or player preferences. For instance, the Fighter could be specialized as a barbarian, ranger, paladin, or as one of the legendary Sworn Swords, etc. Classes should be less restrictive.
  6. Skills are unnecessary; it's better to handle specializations with Feats.
  7. Characters should, however, be brought to life with Backgrounds and Traits. (Race is a Background!)
The most important part of this entire project is to make sure to keep things simple; I'm hoping to trade detail for elegance, options for speed of play. I'm not sure it is possible to build my own "better D&D", but it's worth a try.

Adapting d20 Rules to the Game World

There are lots of different approaches toward making sure a campaign reflects its setting. A few ideas: 
Method 1
  • provide Cultural Traits to emphasize cultural and racial differences between characters
  • use Background Traits or Professional Classes to display a character's prior life experience
  • focus on Classes with rich customization options or lots of Feat slots
  • ensure powerful & appropriate Feats are available

Method 2
  • present Class options tied strongly to the setting
  • associate Classes with particular Races, cultures, & organizations
  • encourage multi-classing in response to the fiction

Method 3
  • encourage multi-classing in response to character back-stories & experiences
four corners

More Design Foolery: Elemental Aspects for Four Corners

Thinking about design features:
  • Fantasy Heartbreaker
  • Inspired a bit by Avatar (the cartoon not the movie, err, either of the movies! ;) ), as well as Thief With No Shadow by Emily Gee
  • Stats are sliders which move up and down in response to actual play events
  • The world is characterized by the 4 elements - elemental peoples & critters, in various combinations
  • Characters all have differing levels of each of the 4 elements; these are also slider stats, which are tied into the magic system; roll to manipulate the natural elementals - both the "positive" and negative/opposing elemental aspects can be used to elicit a particular flavour of elemental magic, but with very different means
  • There are also non-elemental stats - elements are cherry on the top, not the whole substance of a being
  • Character creation can be done with a specialized draw of the Tarot
  • Uses die pools with rich dice
  • Beings (or just particular traits) with more spiritual natures roll a different shade of dice (a la Burning Wheel); certain magics may also grant mundane traits/abilities a spiritually shaded bonus die
  • Each element may also be characterized by a die colour (not so sure about this); if so, elemental dice are separate from spiritual/mundane dice
  •  If the dice are so super-enriched - a big "if" - then the dice game probably is something like DitV's; you gather your talents into a master pool and spend dice out of it as you take actions; Dice only make sense if you "roll into the pool", however, and i'm not so keen on that - i'd love to have characters be stressed by their travails, slowly depleting and regaining their essential resources over the course of the narrative!
  • The other option for super-rich dice is to dictate the outcomes of the action based on the dice contributed to it's pool, OR to require certain sources of dice to take particular actions - eg. you need to roll in *some* Fire dice to throw a flaming punch, and more to summon up a fire elemental. This is cool, but I'm not certain that such a resource based system plays harmoniously with slider-stats...
  • Either way, it works a la "to do it, do it" - you establish the intended action in the fiction, then pull together a rich die pool from your resources (available dice) to see if you can carry through on your intention; how the dice come out determines how the action comes out - the more elemental power you contribute to a pool, the more likely elemental effects will blossom
  • Utter failure is almost always an option in rpgs - here you may try to throw that flaming punch and fail utterly, but you might also land the punch sans fire, or unleash the fire, but mistime the blow, as the dice dictate.
  • Some actions may be elementally characterized without physical affect, such as a launching into a "fiery" tirade, as each of the elements is associated with a different set of attributes; (these relationships might be made explicit with stats/abilities for each on the character sheet...)

Runemarked Campaign Ideas

 PCs are Runemarked:
  • marked with a rune from birth
  • blessed with superior potential (an extra background trait?)
  • thought to be marked by the gods
  • sent to live & train with the monks of the "Order of the Runemarked" upon coming of age (for the character's people), or upon discovery of their rune
  • trained in esoteric disciplines by the Order, or encouraged to exemplify the ways of their people or personal nature (get a 1st level PC class!)
  • sent as a small unit to serve the Order's mission in the greater world - preserving civilization & the integrity of the Veil which protects the world from the horrors beyond; the PCs confront threats both common (goblin raiders) and esoteric (power-mad cultists, outsiders)
  • part of this mission is to continue their esoteric training; only the best can persevere in the face of the dangers of the Order's calling and rise to face the greatest threats to the world
  • another part of it is collecting lost relics of power - either to use in the course of their mission, or to safeguard from civilization's enemies
  • the characters (or their mentors in the Order) may be guided by fragments of an enigmatic prophecy, a la the Draconic Prophecy from Eberron 

This idea is based on expanding the hook from Jason Alexander's revision of the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure.

The Skill Problem: The Hidden Threshold

 I have finally discovered the true source of one of my biggest problems GMing (and perhaps playing) D&D, thanks to the always wonderful Alexandrian.

According to his analysis the 5th level d20 character represents the peak of human achievement!

I can work with this.

The implications are fascinating; the whole world must be the heroes's playground, magic artifacts suddenly become as rare as we'd expect from the corpus of fantasy literature, and any serious monsters are suddenly relegated to their proper place at the center of myth and legend. Monsters can be truly monstrous once more!

High level NPCs will be almost unheard of in this expectation-bound world, as is proper - armies and empires once again become viable!

The rate at which XP is gained might have to be toned down a bit - although (cut-scene) travel times between adventures will be much greater, especially as the heroes near 5th level. On the other hand, the greatly increased "size" of the world might allow for much more free play, as our down-to-earth heroes seek out legends and prepare for long, tough adventures. Dungeons can - and should - definitely be much more naturalistic in this world, as well. Probably smaller and harder to find, as well.

If keep playing much beyond 5th level characters start to enter what 4e terms the "Paragon Tier", and i'd say the "Epic Tier" begins at 10th level or so, but by then the PCs have clearly outgrown the mundane world - the Planescape beckons. Once they leave the world, however, there's no going back. (Except, perhaps, at the cost of their power.)

Beyond 10th level is clearly the realm of the Demigods. Their society must be truly strange and fantastic!

...and now I really want to play this campaign! >_<

The Skill Problem: A Link

The simple fact that the questions raised by this article on the excellent Campaign Mastery site have no straight-forward, staring you in the face answer just underlines for me how entirely flawed the D&D skill system really is.

It's a good article, with a lot of math thrown around and a number of approaches to the problem (and its sub-problems, such as"Aid Another" rolls), but to my mind it almost seems to miss the forest for the trees, a bit. In say, BW or Reign, the answer to what an expert can do is written right on the character sheet - that's what having dice in a skill means!

If D&D just didn't give out expertise for "free" as a character levels up it would solve all these problems - and  make GMing the game so much easier. Unfortunately, it's a big hack - one worthy of starting an "alternative 5th edition"! ;) 
go play beliefs 32

Recipe for Fun Looking Chili, stolen from John Wick

John's Wicked Chili


2 pounds lean ground beef
1 (46 fluid ounce) can tomato juice
1 (29 ounce) can tomato sauce
1 (15 ounce) can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 (15 ounce) can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1 1/2 cups minced onion
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/4 cup brown sugar or honey (or both!)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 cup chili powder (yes, I said cup. don't be a wuss.)

Place ground beef in a large, deep skillet. Cook over medium-high heat until evenly brown. Drain, and crumble.
In a large crock pot, combine rest of the ingredients. Set on low and cook for 8 to 10 hours.
go play beliefs 32

Crossblog: Ode to Cherryh

 "I find Cherryh kind of a hard read in general, but well worth the attempt. It took me five tries to get past the first few chapters of the Faded Sun trilogy. She is so far on the cynical end of the scale that it becomes hard to actually find characters to sympathize with. I think she's a very important author because of that. JMS (Babylon 5 creator) once said that any science fiction (show) is basically optimistic because it assumes a future at all. Cherryh manages somehow to make that future a fate worse than death. To put in another way, if she'd ever shaken Gene Roddenberry's hand they probably would've annihilated each other in a flash of pure energy."

-Jean Remy, commenting on Rocketpunk Manifesto