Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dynamic Dungeons and Spellcasting

I am in the middle of thinking about crafting a megadungeon for OD&D, and the idea of a more dynamic place came to mind. I'm trying to walk a line between overly boring and confining realism and the completely gonzo nonsense that a lot of old modules seem to show to an extent. This got me thinking about spellcasting and how mundanely it is handled in a lot of games.

Think about it like this: you have a party of PCs in a dungeon. This dungeon began as a human crypt, expanded over time as it happens in your world. The PCs are possibly on level three of five, having fought their way down through the groups of goblins and orcs that live in an uneasy peace in the abandoned structure. The druid (we'll say 3.5e) is irritated by the prolonged combat, and casts "Earthquake" under a group of goblins. Now, as a GM, you are probably tempted/expected to have the spell do exactly as it says; knock the goblins down and possibly injure them from debris (been a while since I looked at 3e, I assume it did this). The way I see it, you should have the dungeon act like a hole dug out from living rock. That is, an earthquake affects it more strongly than, say, a fireball.

When the cleric casts earthquake, the room shakes and the spell's normal effects happen. Goblins fall down, some rocks fall from above and mash a few. Still, those rocks came from above. How far above was the next level? Realistically, a few dozen feet at least, as otherwise the stone would collapse by itself. Honestly though, in most dungeons it's assumed to be more like "a foot". Anyway, you are casting earthquake underground. The rocks fall, but it destabilizes the ceiling. More rocks fall the next round, and a rumbling noise reverbates around the place. The next round, the floor breaks out and the PCs fall down a level, into a twisted and broken mass of stone, worked marble, bodies, coffins, and dust.

Does this sort of thinking allow for some screwy spellcasting to completely wreck your dungeon? Yes, of course it does. Spells like Stone to Flesh make things even weirder. (Wall of Stone, Animate Object, Stone to Flesh in that order make a living, animate wall of flesh, a weird thing to encounter in all locations) However, you players start to realize that their hugely powerful high-end effects, are, in fact, hugely powerful high-end effects. This is also notable for the idiots that think they can cast Fabricate on a block of iron a few dozen times (easy for mid-level wizard) and create a hundred longswords to sell. What? No. No town has a use for all those swords. Even aside from that, you are flooding the market, driving down prices. The local smithing guild would be all over you, and probably violently. If you are too high level to confront directly, they'll probably just hire assassins. You are destroying their industry and wrecking up their livelihoods.

Anyway, back to dungeons.

How can you, as a DM, handle this sort of thing? Make your dungeon literally 3d, with defined structural components and rock hardness, add supports and engineering data, make sure it all works together in a real setting...

No, don't do all that. That sort of thing will kill you. Ad-lib it. If the party casts Fireball in the woods, the trees catch fire. If the party casts firewall in a sealed cave, the fire burns away oxygen. If the party wants to 'cheat' and go down a level in the dungeon by casting Disintegrate on the floor, let them! However, keep in mind that effects like this are more fun if the PCs didn't intend it to happen. PC plans to disintegrate the floor cause problems. Perhaps they breach a lava pipe (though the floor should probably be warm, as a hint. Don't just kill PCs randomly), or perhaps they cause another cave in. If the PCs cast Flamestrike in the sewers of a city, nothing seems to happen. However, the column of fire coming from the sky did successfully smash into a person's house up above, and when the party comes out of the dungeon two days later, they learn of the gods' judgment raining down on the city, starting a series of violent fires in the slums of the city. Casting anything at all in the middle of the city certainly causes a general suspicion of distrust of the party. Also no charming shopkeeps, they figure it out after you leave and you end up with a warrant out for you. This also means that previously fairly useless spells (Plant Growth?) become interesting again! Plants have been breaking up stone forever. It's part of their function in the world. When your cleric casts plant growth in a dungeon, the floor cracks and splinters from the new roots. I can see it being a bit more interesting.

Is this sort of spellcasting consequence limiting to spellcasters over fighters? Yes and no. A fighter just doesn't have the same kind of abilities, though I suppose he could buy a pick and just dig downwards instead of disintegrating. Also this means that spellcasters are now much less capable during barroom brawls, but if your casters were throwing around Horrid Wilting in bar brawls before, then you need to put a stop to it anyway. Another side to this is that it marginalizes fighters and their ilk in dungeons. If the druid can nuke half the level by casting Earthquake, then what good is a barbarian's greataxe? Well, for one thing, it's more controllable. I'd actually expect non-stupid (read: Long-living) PCs to lower their use of major spells in dungeons after they start seeing effects from it. What it allows, however, is more of an old-school dynamism and interestingly non-rules-based sort of environment.

So consider it. Next time your wizard is fighting off a few muggers in town by casting "Summon Earth Elemental", consider that a towering, twenty foot tall elemental is probably going to cause more trouble than a few muggers ever could. If your evil cleric starts casting Contagion on creatures, consider that many of the diseases are airborne. If the goblin collapses, coughing violently, then the players should be aware that they are in the same 20x20 room, enclosed underground, and thus are probably breathing the same Creeping Crud (or what-have-you). If the druid's pet (not spellcasting, but still) is a tamed lion, he probably shouldn't bring it to the inn. Honestly, it needs to stay in a kennel somewhere in town, if any exist that can handle such a creature. Walking around with it would likely attract the guards' attention. Have fun with it, and make magic interesting again!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Strongholds and Serfs

Player-run strongholds and castles are sort of a waning art these days. At least, I perceive it that way. Does the 4e PHB or DMG even mention the possibility?

In OD&D, the books for which I've been poking through lately, PCs had the ability to buy land whenever they had the cash. Once reaching a certain level (Nine or ten, I think), they could become nobility, and begin collecting taxes on their newly granted land. There were specified costs for walls, crenelations, towers, gates, and all sorts of other things. There were methods and information about finding specialists to join your work there, as well as hiring large bands of mercenaries to defend the place. It was an assumed endgame for the party to get into, once they had gone through the adventuring life for a time.

I've had a couple campaigns where the players became invested enough in the world to begin constructing fortifications and castles. It's certainly possible with 3.5 rules, and reasonably possible with 4e, if you don't feel overly pressured to stick to the treasure distribution in the book. However, be wary of allowing players to make a huge castle on a big land grant right away. Such a change in the campaign requires a lot of forethought, as well as raising a great number of issues in fairly short order.

Firstly, you have to consider how nobility and land ownership worked in older times. One, in most feudal societies, land was all owned by the king outright. However, he had the ability to grant land to noblemen, and possibly to non-nobles. Nobility is a virtue of birth. Your fighting-man (heh) can't become a baron by virtue of owning land and building a castle, unless he is adopted into a noble family, or the king just feels like granting him nobility outright. The latter is dangerous, as it disrupts social order if every Tom, Dick, and Harry can become a nobleman. Though to be honest, 'Baron' is such a weak title as to mostly hold the status quo while being given to erstwhile commoners. It was created for this purpose. Thus, either the PC gaining nobility and land has to be adopted into a family that will doubtlessly require more service of him than they would a blooded relative, or he must be extraordinarily lucky. I suppose he could also constantly serve the king, give him everything he wants, and exalt him everywhere he goes. That might curry enough favor also. Just up and buying a large enough plot of land to place a castle on is right out. The land isn't for sale, as the only person with the real rights to sell it is the King, and he does not care for the pittance the PC has to offer. Besides, any non-noble building a castle would be seen as, at least, pretentious. At worst, he would be seen as seceding, and declared a traitor to the crown.

Once made a low-ranking nobleman and granted some presumably derelict and near-lawless land, the new Baron must first see to the security and well-being of his people. Of course, living on 'his' land means that they all owe him fealty. However, if they have previously been ignored by the crown, harassed by bandits, and generally having a rough time of it, they won't bow to any nobleman coming in without good reason. They may not openly revolt, but they won't work willingly, and what work they are made to do will be slow and low quality.

Note that "I can kill everyone in this village in less than a minute" is not a good reason for gaining loyalty.

Anyway, at this point, the campaign likely takes a turn towards above ground work. The party will have to either patrol the PCs' new land themselves, or hire others to do it. They need to root out threats, kill dragons, slaughter or drive off bandits, genocide the orcs, make the roads safe, and generally raise the standard of living noticeably. How long does this take? It depends on how dangerous the land is, how large the fief is, and a million other factors. The best course of action would likely be to hire mercenaries (respectable ones) to come the land, and report problems they can't handle alone. Then, the PCs can go clean those special issues up.

Once the land is safe and good again, and perhaps the people are better provided for, they will be much more willing to swear fealty and vassalage to the new lord. Of course, the vast majority of the population is comprised of moronic peasants and serfs. They know little but what their lives consist of, which is farming and breeding. There may be a small village, with a few folk who are wealthy enough to actually own the building that they live in, and thus are able to ply a trade. Blacksmiths, alchemists, tanners, brewers, coopers, fletchers, bowyers, etc etc. There are dozens of trades available. At the least, there are those who can construct sturdy buildings of either wood or stone, a couple of people capable of making at least simple farm tools from metal, and perhaps a few more advanced trades.

Good, now the PC has some lands that are slowly (read: over a few years) becoming profitable again. Now he must see to a more stable and, more importantly, visible hold of power and security in the region. That means a fortress or castle of some variety.

Castles are commonly depicted in a number of works as lonely forts up on a mountain island or somesuch. While certainly possible, and incredibly defensible, this is not the most convenient or even effective place to build a castle. Fortresses are built to help slow the destruction of the populace and goods of the fief during times of war. The common people (some of them, the most worthwhile) will retreat to the castle when times are exceedingly bad. A castle must therefore be capable of being reached by a large number of people on fairly short notice. Secondly, it must be able to store a great deal of food and water, as to withstand a siege until help can arrive. It also needs to actually be possible to construct in a single lifetime, if the PC wants to ever see his work done. Thus, it's not a good idea to place the thing on the edge of your lands, on an island off the coast, or on top of a mountain.

Now that you have chosen a nice flat, well-grounded, and reasonable place for your fortress, how do you build it? Certainly, large structures like this are not short-term constructions. It will take years upon years for normal humans to fabricate a structure like this. Of course, your players probably want to go adventuring again at this point, and don't care to stand around directing laborers for years of game time. One will assume the DM allows the players to have access to a quarry, as well as transport for the stone, wood, and hundreds of other materials required.

Thankfully, D&D makes castle building a bit easier, since there are mages and clerics that can help. Hiring a high-level caster (or being one) can shorten construction easily. Spells to consider are Mass Haste, Wall of Stone, Fabricate, Polymorph Other, and numerous others. Let's say you have a typical mason/stoneworker. He's able to craft a rough rock into a usable stone block in perhaps a few hours, if he's skilled and the work goes smoothly. Now, you have a level five cleric cast a few spells. Your typical STR, DEX, and WIS buffs. Suddenly, the mason is twice as capable as any other. He's gone from a master craftsman to a legend in his own time. You have to consider than a master craftsman still has 10's or 11's across the board as abilities. This guy suddenly has 13 or 14 all over. He works twice as fast, and his products are ten times as good. He has less waste and doesn't tire as quickly. These spells have "Mass" variants, in some splats, and can be extended to day-long duration. Of course, mid-level clerics aren't free. What the PC can do to make it easier, of course, is to include a chapel in his fortress. Doing such due service to the gods can make working with clerics of the same god a lot cheaper, though by no means free.

With magic and whatnot, one can have a reasonable fortress built rather quickly, probably on the order of just a year or two. This will leave your serfs and craftsmen exhausted, but a good deal wealthier (with your money) than their neighbors in adjacent lands. This makes them happy, but also attracts banditry. Opposition is good! It fuels adventures! Also it gives players a reason to start hiring men-at-arms to watch the walls and patrol the roads.

At this point, the player is receiving taxes from his vassals and serfs. Taxes, especially in the early medieval age, were not only money. They were produce, meat, crafts, wood, metalworks, and numerous other things besides. Still, for D&D, it's probably easier to abstract this as some percentage of money generated by the lands. This money should probably be poured largely back into the land itself, maintaining roads, irrigation if it exists, security, and military. The player of course can feel free to keep a percentage of it, but he has his obligations now. Of course, other people can be hired to manage things.

Here, you must make a decision. Depending on your players and what they enjoy, they may get really into running their lands. They might want resource counts, population information, abilities to form mining groups and lumber camps, all kinds of intricate taxation and tariffs, etc. etc. That's certainly possible, but starts to move the game rather quickly away from D&D, in a large sense. If your players tend to hand-wave working on the fort, then let them hire people for a monthly/yearly wage (depending on how time flows in your campaign, they may instead ask for pay upfront). These people can be trusted as much as any civil servant, to manage the lands to the best of their ability. They have a vested interest in keeping it running well. This frees up the players themselves to go dungeon-delving again, or to go finish the plot of the campaign, or whatever else. Of course, the less supervision a paid administrator has, the more likely corruption sets in. Either route is fine, just try to see what your players enjoy.

I hope this sort of very limited scope essay at least makes you think about permitting or encouraging castle usage in your campaign. Though yes, it's largely incompatible with a heavily plot-driven campaign, it can add a lot of flavor and interesting adventure hooks to a more sandbox sort of deal. Good luck!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Handling Elven Encounters

Elves have always been present in D&D. Originally somewhat sub-optimal racial choices that limited your abilities to an extent, nowadays they are mainstream members of society, capable of any class. 4e changes them a bit from ranger-mage favoring to just favoring ranger. Still, woodsy folk that hang out in forests and shoot arrows at things.

I suppose that's as far as some people take it. Elves are pointy-eared humans that like trees. Possibly they have a innate affinity for the bow. They are dainty and tend to be smaller than humans. Perhaps they are immortal, but almost certainly they are at least long-lived. Of course, they don't hesitate to throw themselves into the same stupid situations that the supposedly more brash humans do.

As is my wont from time to time, I am going to think a bit on elven psychology and culture. Now, the way I see it, the primary difference between elves and men, men being our inherent baseline for judging other species, is that they are exceedingly long-lived. Let's say, for the purposes of this article, that elves live roughly a thousand years. That would, of course, affect their culture and ways of thinking significantly.

Think about humans. A human can reach the height of his skill in any craft in a few years of training. Some talented folk can get better with more time, perhaps becoming grand masters of their craft in twenty years. Twenty years is a long time for humans. If you live in a medieval/renaissance era, like D&D lazily half-represents, you might get 40 years of life. If you are wealthy or magical, you might get more. Humans do everything quickly and rushed, because they don't have long to do it.

Elves, on the other hand, live comparatively forever. Have you ever wondered why elves like trees and forests? Consider that the elf of adventuring age, say his early 130's, has probably seen all the trees in his home forest grow from seeds to full, ancient oaks and elms. He's walked the paths of his homeland for over a century, and he knows every leaf and stone along them. His race has time to coax a branch to grow into the proper shape for a bow, and then only break it off from the trunk after cutting off food to the single branch. The tree is not harmed; the beauty of the forest endures. Elves have the time to spend ten years on a single engraved door, making it absolutely perfect, that every time they open the door to their home, they can smile at it's appearance. Ten years equates to a couple months of a human lifespan. Certainly humans spend months on a single building or garden to beautify their home. Wouldn't elves do the same?

Elves certainly have seen 'developed' lands. However, they've been around long enough to see what happens. Humans, until recently, haven't lived long enough to really see ecological changes. Nowadays, modern technology makes them happen quickly enough that anyone can see it. Back in the fantasy world, however, humans settlements cut down trees to build buildings, but there's still plenty of forest left. They will never run out. Yes, the grass in the town square is dying, but that's ok, we'll put down cobblestone. As the children of the children of the original settlers grow up, they are used to a lack of greenery in the city. They are used to gray stone and dead wood being the normal color of all existence. They've grown accustomed to the river running through a stone-walled canal, at man's behest. Sure, the water is a bit dingy and the smell of people, animals, and refuse hangs over all the streets, but that's just life.

Elves have seen it all happen in less than one child's coming of age, however. The trees that they cared for over decades were cut down and planed into boards within hours. Humans have settled, moving and killing like the world will end tomorrow. Always rushing to get everything done. Constantly, it seems, they are killing more and more trees and animals, not planting or breeding new ones to replace them. The humans see the forest as huge, and that they won't possibly run out of resources. The elves notice that in only the past hundred years, the humans have leveled a quarter of the woodland. In only four centuries, less time than it takes a child to grow to middle age, the forest will be gone. Not only will it be gone, but the only nearby place to live will be the fetid, rotting human city. There, the once vibrant trees are now dead bits of graying wood, clumsily carved by rough human hands into beams and girders, or engraved hastily into a slipshod decoration here and there. Elves remember the fresh air and sunlight, the wild life of the woodlands, and the serenity of a life lived simply. Now, instead, they are forced into human society. Forced to work all day, every day, just to support themselves. Turning out crafts daily that are terrible garbage compared to what they could have done had they spent the proper three years to make that shoe, or sew that shirt. Everything is so fast and so cheapened, that they pine for the forests of old.

Think, now, about how elves would view humans settling in their lands. Certainly, even a human town that had been settled over a century ago, would still be "new" to the elves' perceptions. Why are the elves always the peaceful, laid-back peoples that guide and help the poor, upstart humans?

I prefer to think of elves as perhaps seeming haughty and hostile, from a human standpoint, but truthfully being remarkably patient, considering the circumstances. They are completely justified in attacking human towns, but they realize that humans are short-lived and that it takes time to make them understand. Still, the elves are pressed into action from time to time. The plead with the humans to at least try for sustainable methods of forestry. They don't want to kill the humans, since the elves realize that humans are still people, but they are doubtlessly tempted.

As another note, don't make elves too quick to kill things. Think about it. If a human dies at 25, we call it a tragedy. They have missed out on probably another fifty years of life! If an elf dies at 400, it's hard for humans to care that much. It seems he's lived a long life, certainly there wasn't much left to do after four hundred years. However, to another elf, it's an unthinkable loss. His kin could have spent another six centuries perfecting his skills at crafting and walking through the sunlit glades. He could have known generations upon generations of creatures and trees. He could have seen the slow shift from oak forest to pine as the centuries passed. Now, he lies cold and dead, beyond saving. He's gone. Elves should be loathe to kill anyone unless sorely pressed, but they should avenge murder with passion and hatred.

Anyway, give it some thought. Elves don't want money and quickly constructed human garbage. What use is a hastily stamped gold coin? Elves are interested in knowledge, in freedom, and in the perfection of something that took a hundred years to complete. They love nature, having seen all of it's cycles and beauty over their many years. They don't want to live in some dirty human hovel that shuts out the world. They want the freedom to move through the trees, grasslands, or mountains of the world, happy in it's long-lasting and slow-changing essence.

Work to make elves more interesting in your next campaign.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How the Heck do you play OD&D?

This post is less advice and more a request for advice. It's also reasonably short for my posts.

How do you play OD&D? I've purchased the PDFs of the books, and I'm working on a way to print them without burning through ten ink cartridges. Still, I've read (skimmed) through them, and the rules seem so nonsensical and alien. Weird charts everywhere, strange attack progressions, different XP rates for everyone, strange book layouts, and numerous references to Chainmail (which I also purchased, but I haven't read through yet)

How did anyone ever figure this stuff out by themselves? Was D&D always passed master-apprentice style, with an experienced player going DM to teach others how it worked? Was this system intentionally designed (as it seemed to be stated in the books themselves) to be houseruled to hell and back? Did anyone play the same game? There are weird omissions for all kinds of rules that would be required to be houseruled in some way, or else powergamer folk will beat the hell out of it. Were powergamers not extant in Gygax's heyday?

Traps seem neat in the sense that they should be physically arrayed objects, and not just "roll to defeat" spots, but then how do you determine if someone can do it? Anyone can say "I put a table over the spike in the floor, so when it goes up again it get stuck in the wood" or something, but how does a DM (sorry, 'Referee') figure out if that would work? Fiat? Are there even proper rules for how much a trap spike damages a table?

The game seems interesting in theory, and some of it makes sense. A lot of the weird differences in spell and other behavior when outside as opposed to a dungeon seems a bit gamey and breaks suspension of disbelief, but hey, that's how it goes. What is with listing range in inches? I vaguely recall reading that an 'inch' of range in spell descriptions translates to something else in-universe, but I don't recall where, and I can't seem to find it offhand. Not to piss anyone off, but with this sort of thing as OD&D, where do people get off complaining about 'squares' in 4e? Replace "5 squares" with "5 inches" and you still have the same focus on miniatures.

Anyway, any folks who currently play OD&D or are old enough to have played it in the 70's have any advice on wrapping my head around this system?