Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Towards a Unified Mechanic

I returned home from the lake to find that no progress had been made on the kitchen while we were away.  Disappointing, but to quote Edward Norton, "I am Jack's complete lack of surprise."  Construction projects always take longer than expected.  My father was a contractor who specialized in building and renovating homes.  When I was six years old, he decided to tear the roof off our house and add a second story.  The project still wasn't finished when I left home.  I'll be happy if the kitchen is done by the end of July.

The trip was great, nonetheless.  The weather was fine and I spent four days canoeing, hot-tubbing, reading, and thinking about a task resolution mechanic for S&W.  There's nothing like taking a game out for a test-drive to find out what you like and dislike about the rules, and there were a couple of things that I felt needed changing after having played last session.

For one thing, I rather dislike that clerics and elves don't get spells at first level.  That makes them very dull to play and fairly useless at low levels, so I'm going to adjust their spell progressions to give them a spell at first level.  The other thing I disliked was having small weapons, like short swords and daggers, deal 1d6-1 damage.  This was illustrated when the thief got in a backstab then rolled a '1' for damage.  Since 2 x 0 = 0 this was a really underwhelming backstab.  Henceforth all weapons will deal 1d6 damage.

The biggest thing I learned from last session, though, is that incorporating the SIEGE mechanic from C&C into S&W isn't a good idea.  I wanted to make attribute checks by rolling under the attribute score on 1d20, but having a totally different mechanic requiring the player to roll above a target number for skills and class abilities is going to get confusing real fast.  Having multiple resolution mechanics also upsets my desire for elegance, symmetry, and simplicity.  One of my primary goals was to have a resolution mechanic that will allow any character to attempt anything, while still providing niche protection for specialists.  For example, I want a system that will allow any character to try to be stealthy, but give the thief a much better chance of succeeding.

The SIEGE mechanic allows characters to add their level to the roll to succeed at any task that is a class or racial ability for them, thus allowing them to become greatly superior to laymen after a few levels.  This works great, but the SIEGE mechanic, itself, relies upon adding attribute modifiers, which are scarce to non-existent in S&W, making it difficult for characters to succeed at all at non-class abilities.  I wanted to use the 'roll under your attribute' mechanic for everything.  Since attribute scores in S&W are mostly in the low to medium range, rolling under the attribute score makes every attribute point worthwhile (i.e. a dexterity of 12 gives you better chance of success than a score of 11), and by making the roll on 1d20, instead of 3d6, even characters with low attribute scores could still have a reasonable chance of success.

Here's what I came up with after sitting in the woods for four days:

1. All attribute checks, skills and abilities, and saving throws will be made by rolling under the character's effective attribute score on 1d20.
2. 'Effective attribute score' is defined as the base attribute with all positive and negative modifiers applied.
3. Positive modifiers will include the character's level for all saving throws and when attempting to perform class abilities, and situational modifiers appropriate to the circumstances.
4. Negative modifiers will include the level or hit dice of the target creature when attempting a skill, ability, or saving throw that contests another creature, and situational modifiers appropriate to the circumstances.

Example 1 (sneaking): Joe, the 4th level fighter wants to sneak past some 2HD Hobgoblin guards.  Joe has a dexterity of 12 and is wearing chainmail armour.  The negative modifiers would include -2 for the hit dice of the hobgoblins and a -2 penalty for wearing chainmail, so his effective dexterity is 8.  Joe needs to roll 8 or less on 1d20 to succeed.

On the other hand, Sneaky Pete, the 4th level thief, who also has a 12 dexterity and is wearing leather armour has the following modifiers to his effective dexterity: -2 for the hit dice of the hobgoblins and +4 for his level.  His leather armour bestows no penalty.  So his effective dexterity is 14; he needs to roll this or less on 1d20 to succeed.

Example 2 (saving throws): Joe and Pete have confronted the evil mage, Malifico, a 6th level magic user.  Malifico casts a Hold Person spell on them and they are entitled to a Charisma saving throw to avoid its effects.  Joe has a 10 Charisma, while Pete, a charming fellow, has a 13.  They modify their Charisma scores by +4 each for their levels and -6 for Malifico's level, so their effective Charisma scores are, respectively, 8 and 11.  I wanted to incorporate the level of the spell caster as a negative modifier for saving throws since I figure that it ought to be a lot harder to resist , say, a Charm Person cast by a 20th level archmage than a 1st level magic user fresh out of his apprenticeship.

Example 3 (attribute checks): Joe wants to lift a heavy pillar that has fallen, trapping Pete.  His strength is 14 and so needs to roll a 14 or less to succeed.  Sometimes attribute checks are in the form of a contest, in which case both sides roll.  If they both fail then they are in a stalemate and the contest continues for another round.  If one person succeeds and the other fails, the one who succeeded wins.  If both succeed, whoever succeeded by the greatest amount wins.

For example Joe and Pete agree to arm-wrestle to see who gets the extra treasure share when they're dividing up the loot from their latest quest.  Joe makes an attribute check against his Strength of 14 and Pete makes a check against his Strength of 9.  Joe rolls an '11' and Pete rolls an '8.'  Both succeed, but Joe succeeded by more so he wins (of course, Pete already helped himself to some of that extra share while Joe wasn't looking, so it was a win-win situation for him anyway).

Niche protection is further ensured by not requiring specialists to roll in certain circumstances: if Joe and Pete want to climb a cliff face which has lots of hand and foot holds, Joe can make a climb check to succeed, while Pete just scampers up the cliff without making a check - such a climb is child's play to him.  On the other hand if they want to scale a tall castle wall, which is smooth except for narrow mortar joints, Pete can make a roll to climb the wall, but such an ascent is impossible for Joe, who will have to wait for Pete to get to the top and throw down a rope.

I'm quite pleased, in principle, with this unified mechanic that uses the full 3-18 range of attribute scores.  It also makes magic items that give a bonus to an attribute score a much bigger deal.  I look forward to trying this system out next session and see how it works in practice.


Anonymous said...

One thing about contests. Consider having the victor in a double success be the character with the higher score instead of differential. It removes a math operation from the procedure and still advantages the stronger character.

Shane Mangus said...


Glad to hear you guys had a good trip. Sorry to hear that the contractor dropped the ball on the work you needed done this past week. It sounds like you used you down time wisely, and worked in some gaming concept time. I like what you came up with, and found it interesting that the Siege Engine wasn't the right fit. It amazes me how a small change in one D&D-based system can make a radical difference in another. I look forward to hearing how all this will pan out in your next session.


Sean Robson said...

I'm actually a bit concerned with the amount of arithmetic involved in the ability checks and saving throws. It sounds good when I think about it, but I'm afraid it might get confusing in practice. I'm hoping that when everyone gets the hang of when to add their level and when not to it will run smoothly.

I'm surprised that SIEGE didn't work, also; it's the one thing I loved about C&C, but I found that without ability modifiers, it becomes nearly impossible to succeed at non-prime checks. I suspect that SIEGE might work better with Labyrinth Lord than with S&W.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

Curious why you didn;'t use 3d6 instead of d20. for attribute checks

Sean Robson said...

My first inclination was to use 3d6, but eventually I decided to go with the d20 because its linear probability gives an equal likelihood of any given number between 1 and 20. So characters with very high attribute scores can still fail while those with low scores have a slightly better chance at succeeding than the bell curve would allow. This also allows for magic items that could raise an attribute score above 18.

Sean Robson said...

I appreciate all the feedback and questions. This is still, very much, a work in progress and I'll undoubtedly continue to tweak the system over the course of subsequent game sessions until I get it right.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

d20 is tempting to me as well, though I tend to hand-wave most things.