The Almighty Divine Scroll

I love scrolls almost as much as I love potions. I can’t count how many times a scroll has saved the day for me as a player, or for my players when I’m a GM. “Hey, I’ve got this scroll of passwall here… do I have time to read it before the ceiling crushes us..?”

One thing that’s always puzzled me, and where I don’t really have a good answer for my players, is the difference between arcane and divine scrolls and the almost universal power of divine scrolls. Mechanically, everything’s fine, but I have always struggled with finding a rationale for it. I usually just wind up saying “well, that’s the way it works” and moving on. Perhaps someone could give me some useful suggestions?

scroll

The first thing is how a divine scroll doesn’t require Read Magic to understand. In that case… who can read it? My take is that only clerics can, but exactly why is harder to find a reasonable explanation for. Is there a secret language? Maybe, but how can it be common to each and every cleric of every faith? For that matter, how come your language skills do not influence this? Is it perhaps some sort of innate magic? It might be possible, but it just doesn’t feel right for the cleric class.

My next problem deals with the universality of these scrolls. You might find a scroll explicitly created by a follower of another deity, quite possibly the follower of your own patron deity’s mortal enemy. The scroll, however, is neutral… the prayers and symbols on it somehow follow some sort of generalized clerical magic and are untainted by whoever wrote them. It just doesn’t sit right with me… how can a scroll penned by an evil follower of the chaotic gods not be a foul thing?

Some fixes are of course easy – I could just impose a lot of restrictions on scrolls to suit my suggestions above – but I don’t want to do that! I still love scrolls, and I’d hate to take away from their usefulness. For now, I guess I will keep saying “because I said so”, but I’d love to get some good suggestions…

Weird Magic

I’ve played around with mechanisms for spell retention many times since I first began playing AD&D a long time ago; my first attempts were very clumsy, and later I developed a system of spell points which was ridiculously complicated and required me to rewrite and modify almost every spell. Needless to say, they were all tossed out eventually.

This system is, to me, far more elegant and also a bit more chaotic, which I think fits the Old School feel much better. It is a deceptively risky system, utilized rarely by my players since they’ve gotten to know it more closely; the minor damage suffered can be devastating for a lower-level wizard, and at higher level the risks increase drastically.

The fact that the entire rule can fit on one page, and that I’ve playtested it with good results for a while, means I wanted to share it here.

You can find the Weird Magic rules in this document or in the Library.

Have a sip!

I love potions. I love all one-use magic items, and I dole them out a lot more than I do magical weapons or armor. Why? Because they don’t give a flat, everlasting “bump” to the players’ power level which they soon get used to and bored with, and they encourage thinking and resource management.

Recently, my players asked me to create some rules for making an attempt to identify a potion “on the fly” by using the classical method of simply sampling it. I’ve allowed this in earlier campaigns, but never really codified how it should work, and it was about time!

Basically, the rules allow a character to identify the general purpose of the potion, but at the risk of “suffering” its effects (whether good or bad) or ruining it somehow. I based it on the premise that a potion is a rather disgusting mix och unsavory and unhealthy ingredients that somehow have a magical effect when taken as a whole. Thus, if you accidentally swallow the Eye of Newt swimming in there, you’ve not only made yourself sick, but also turned the remaining potion into nothing but a very disgusting stew…

Sipping a Potion

Potions fall somewhere between mundane items and the more advanced magical items; they usually have a single purpose, and their activation is very simple. Thus, they can be identified “in the field”, especially by someone skilled in the magical arts. The safest method is, still, to take the potion to an Alchemist or other skilled NPC.

To identify a potion in the field, a character must be willing to take a sip from the flask. This carries some risks, but grants the character a roll for the Lore skill to successfully identify the basic effect of the potion, with the amount of details judged by the GM. For a Potion of Flying, the GM might simply say, “you sense that this potion would grant some sort of flight”. The determination of the exact nature and duration of that flight would need an examination by an Alchemist, or that a character is willing to quaff the potion. A bonus of +1 for Deeper Knowledge should be given for this roll to Magic-User characters, but not Elves.

Sipping a potion is a simple action, requiring only one round. There are risks associated with sipping potions, however. If the die rolled for the Lore skill check turns up a 6, the player must make another roll on the table below (note that this might also be a successful identification attempt in some rare circumstances).

D6

Result

1 You Sipped Too Much! The potion takes effect in its entirety upon the sipping character immediately, and is used up.
2-3 You Ruined It! Something in this particular sip was crucial for the function of the potion, and now the entire flask is ruined without any effect.
4-5 Dilution! The potion will now only have half its usual effect. This affects rolled amounts, duration and most other things, susceptible to the DM’s interpretation. If the effect of the potion is very binary, a simple 50 % chance of it taking effect when drunk can instead be used.
6 Barf! This potion was not an appetizing drink to begin with (few potions are, even healing ones), and this particular sip was especially unhealthy. If the potion was dangerous or cursed (such as a poison), you suffer its full effects with a -2 to any Saving Throw. If it was not deadly, you still become violently ill and are stunned for D3 Turns.

Gods from the Void

In an earlier post, I wrote about the Anmunak, wildmen of Windfare Dale. I touched on their cursed religion, but didn’t go inte detail – but here’s some more on the Quathroc.

This evil foursome are interstellar beings of a somewhat Lovecraftian inspiration which have usurped the places of countless gods on countless planets; I haven’t detailed exactly why and how they do this, but I’d rather leave that murky. In this case, they usurped the places of the Anmunak animal gods and in doing so doomed their society to collapse in a wave of depravity.

There is a slight inspiration from the chaos gods of Warhammer fame here, but I also wanted these beings to feel both alien and somehow strangely tangible; these are real things, albeit distant and utterly incomprehensible. Woe to the one who actually draws their attention. The Anmunak did, and the destruction and corruption they faced tore them apart and turned them into a degenerate race of bogeymen.

The symbol below represents the Quathroc; it is an old Anmunak symbol which used to display the runes of their animal gods, but here more sinister runes have taken their place.

You can find the details on the Quathroc in this document or in the Library.

Quathroc_symbol

Gender equal worlds and Gods

Kali

I’m fairly interested in issues where gender is concerned; our biases and misconceptions in particular. I’m also a father, which motivates me even further to grapple with these issues, and the last years I’ve tried as best as I can to consider this when it comes to gaming as well.

RPG systems have frequently had issues with this, and I don’t know how often I’ve read phrases like “although female adventurers are rare, those few who do exist are extraordinary and an exception to the rule”. What strikes me as odd is that, in a world with elves and dwarves, magic and dungeons filled with monsters, dimensions and devils, this one issue remains the immovable object. It’s still faux-medieval times, and thus women still have to be chained in the kitchen.

These worlds are very much our own oysters, so why wouldn’t we change something like that?

Granted, changing these things around isn’t easy. The Innkeeper is always a fat and grumpy man, the wizard in the tower is a bearded old man, the Duke rules the land, the shopkeeper is a he. I just think the fact that it “has always been that way” is as poor an excuse as the fact that these games emulate medieval times.

I try to make an effort when I make my own material, and I also often try to adapt the material of others when running it for my group. I’ve also, in several of my recent campaign worlds, used a major religion I choose to call the Trinity; a trio of female gods on the LN-LG-NG axis, similar to a classical christian religion but with a less patriarchal bent. It is often just as sinister; in no way do I subscribe to the opinion that a world or church run by women would be gentler or more peaceful.

You can find the details on the revision of each class in this document or in the Library.

Class revision

During the past year, I’ve really begun to settle into the LotFP ruleset, and I’m feeling very comfortable with it. Both me and my players absolutely love the clean and simple D6 skill system; it simplifies and focuses things and shifts some of the focus away from abilities and bonuses.

I have, however, revised the classes slightly. These are really no major changes, but they incorporate the following broad strokes:

  • Saving Throws improve incrementally; this means they will be somewhat better at most levels beyond first as compared to the normal system, but I find the slight increase in survivability doesn’t unbalance things and it means most levels mean some sort of advancement for most classes.
  • Classes beyond the Specialist receive skill points; a more considerable change. I first implemented this mostly at the request of my players, but I’ve since come to really appreciate it. My new Lore skill, for example, comes in really handy in some of my house rules for experimenting with magical items and now there’s a way for other classes than a specialist to improve it by a point or two. Non-specialists get very few skill points, however, and they are forced to select where to place them based on a list of class skills, whereas the specialist still has access to each and every skill like before.
  • Dwarves and elves may trade in their skill points for increased attack bonus. This lets them improve slightly at combat as they level, although they will max out at +4 (elf) or +5 (dwarf) and then only at level 20.

You can find the details on the revision of each class in this document or in the Library.

New Skills

Adding some skills to the list in LotFP seems to be a popular choice, especially for broadening the scope of the Specialist class. I’ve made some changes myself; I’ve removed one skill, and replaced it with three new ones as well as a loose guideline for adding a secondary skill.

I’ve also made a class revision, which I will present in more detail later, and a part of this revision means that classes other than the specialist get a few skill points as the level (though they have to choose where to spend them based on a restricted class list, while the specialist is still able to increase all skills). These new skills are an attempt to both make specialists able to fill more roles, and to present a couple of skills that can be interesting for other classes.

 

First, the skill that had to go:

Open Doors is, to me, not a skill but a test of strength. You can apply strength bonus to the test, get help and use suitable tools, but I don’t agree with the fact that you can actually spend skill points to learn how to do this better; the task just feels too basic.

Now, for the three new ones:

Lore governs the characters knowledge of most learned subjects, and presents a way for me to introduce some background information into the game. It supplies a lot of flavor, but players can also use it in a number of mechanically relevant ways; it can be used to make rough “identifications” of magical items in the field, such as sipping a potion and testing a weapon. Nothing like an Identify spell, of course, but at least some basics.

Medicine lets a character perform some basic first aid in the field, as well as function as a physician to improve the recovery of fellow characters during downtime.

Riding is for those characters who want their horse (or steed) to be more than a mode of transportation; fighting on horseback, mainly, or riding something other than a horse.

Lastly, characters can take a secondary skill to encompass most anything they want. These are mostly for flavor, however, and must obey two simple rules; they cannot overlap with any of the existing skills, and they must have a narrower scope. Blacksmithing is an excellent secondary skill, “perception” is not.

I’ve created more in-depth rules for these skills, including a closer definition of how and when they are used as well as some lists with situational modifiers – you can find them in this PDF or in the Library.

Occam’s Greatsword

I have many good things to say about Lamentations of the Flame Princess (as I’m sure is evident from ny blog), but there is one very simple mechanism in particular for balancing out classes that I think is not only good but a stroke of genius. In LotFP, fighters are the only class to get an incremental bonus to hit as they level.

Why is this so smart? Well, it is the elegance that does it. Many systems have tried to fix the perceived problem that fighters are a boring class without an edge. The attempts do have some merit, but all solutions I’ve encountered are not to my taste or fit very poorly into the general OSR “feel”.

Let’s have a look at three common solutions, all of which have been used in other iterations of the D&D ruleset.

  • Feats and Powers are one way to make fighters more diverse; give them their own superpowers! Apart from making both combat and character generation more complicated and balancing even harder, these also limit all other characters. After all, if there are special powers to accomplish all kinds of tactics and moves, why should those without these powers be allowed to attempt these feats?
  • Weapon specialization is perhaps my least favorite solution, especially combined with a weapon list which favors certain weapons mechanics-wise. It only serves to make fighters even more clones of each other, and keep them as such through the levels.
  • Weapon and armor restrictions also feel very crude to me, and seem to be the wrong approach to the problem. These are tools; warriors should be experts in their use, not simply get some sort of union-brokered exclusivity.

In comparison, increasing the base To Hit score for fighters relative to other classes gives them a clear edge in combat, which improves over time as other classes gain other powers. It also meshes perfectly with OSR mechanics, where tactics, rulings and improvisation are important; no matter what, rolls to hit opponents are almost always going to be made in a fight. In addition, this rule will also work well with most other house rules and adjustments.

The balancing of the four basic classes is excellent in LotFP overall, mostly because they are kept so clean and simple. Admittedly, in my slight class revision (which I will post details on here, eventually), I have given dwarves and elves the option of gaining a couple of points of To Hit bonus, but this is limited to roughly +1 per 4 levels at the cost of the only skill points they get to develop other abilities and mainly meant to give these characters some slight flavor.

Tower of the Stargazer

stargazer_coverAfter running my players through a short introductory adventure I’d written myself in order to set the scene of the Windfare Dale setting, I presented them with a numer of “hooks” when they returned to town. The tale of a master thief passing through the town recently and local legends about a lightning-stricken tower off in the wilderness seemed to do the trick, so off they went to the Tower of the Stargazer.

First, a warning; this review / play report contains a few spoilers.

Let me start by saying my group had a terrific time in this tower; they all liked the adventure very much and I was also pleased with our sessions (they spent two entire four-hour sessions on this adventure). The adventure has a good setup, a nice atmosphere and feels easily adaptable to almost any setting and campaign style.

The PDF looks good enough, the formatting is a bit dated but the text is well written. The only real suggestion I would make if the adventure ever got an update would be to structure the presentations of the more complicated chambers in a better way; an initial presentation of the whole room, its contents and what is immediately apparent about them followed by another structured list describing each section or component in more detail. Some room descriptions run many pages, and even though I prepared thoroughly I found myself needing to pause the action a couple of times to just get my bearings and make sure I wasn’t making a mistake. My advice to the GM would be to not only read this adventure beforehand, but also compose some notes or mark critical passages with a colored pen.

It was my intention to try to run this adventure almost completely “by the book”, but I did make a couple of changes. Nothing major, but a few encounters and problems just didn’t feel right for my group of players. All in all, the central locations and interactions went unchanged.

The tower is indeed suitably lethal; in our group, three characters met their end in the tower, all of them in suitably grisly and/or comical ways. An unfortunate rogue died from a classical poison needle trap on a locked chest. Sweeter still was how his friend the dwarf was so frustrated with this he started hewing at the chest with his axe; a chest containing nothing but a demon trapped in a glass jar, which was promptly released and treated to some dwarf burger. Also, one character fell prey to the best set-up trap/bait in the adventure, managing to get himself sent into the void and eaten alive by space flora…

To sum up, I think this adventure is a very good introduction to OSR gaming (and at just over €2 for the PDF at the moment, an utter steal). The setting for this adventure is very static, without random encounters,no real time constraints and reactive encounters; for later adventures, I’d say this was a weak point, but for an introduction it is excellent. If the players manage to find all treasure in the adventure, they may very well advance to second level even if they were absolute beginners beforehand – this might not be to everyone’s taste, so have a look at the treasure at the end of the adventure and make sure it fits into your “XP economy”.

Humanoids or not?

There are few monsters more prolific in classic D&D gaming than the classical humanoids; goblins, orcs, kobolds and many others are staple opponents – especially at lower levels. And they are fun opponents! As smart or stupid as the GM is willing to make them, and with a wide variety of different powers, weapons, tricks and backstories.

For me, they are also often a lazy option. They come with pre-packaged concepts, they are generically evil and most players won’t even stop to consider who and what they are – they’ll just hack away. I don’t advocate too much moralizing in my games, but I like it when the players see the characters for what they really are.

James Raggi, the author of LotFP, states his dislike for using humanoids quite clearly and he suggests using humans instead for anything non-monstrous. I have, as usual, not taken it quite as far as him – I’ll use humans for the most part, but throw in a few unfamiliar humanoid races that the players haven’t met hundreds of times before.

anmunak

Meet the Anmunak. The original inhabitants of the Vale, a primitive people who once inhabited the fertile river valleys and built their monuments and sprawling temple cities. Their society fell prey to a group of cosmic beings called the Quathroc (more on them later), who usurped their gods and sent their society into a spiral of madness and depravity, and were later displaced by the more civilized people who moved into the valley.

If you want to study the Anmunak closer, you can take a look at this PDF file or search the Library.