Monday, October 22, 2018

Seizing the Initiative

I've seen some posts in the OSR blogosphere about initiative that are interesting in their takes on the idea, but to which I want to respond ...

In Dungeons and Dragons, of course, "initiative" is the roll that one makes at the beginning of combat (either once, or every round of combat, depending on editions ...) which determines the order of combatants and their actions.

Noisms at Monsters and Manuals talks about it directly in "Seizing the Initiative", in which he points out that "initiative" is a thing that one can actually observe "being seized" in sports matches or in historical accounts of battle, even if the precise ... Platonic ideal, one could say ... cannot be directly observed. In a match between two teams, one of them suddenly takes charge seemingly of everything and destroys the other team. This is not modeled well in the D&D "roll for initiative" rule, he argues, and might better be modeled by some action that could be taken by players or NPC enemies to "seize the initiative" for their team and ensure that they act first (until the initiative is taken back).

Emmy Allen at Cavegirl's Game Stuff has an excellent post about how RPGs fail to model the realities of skirmishes and combat when one has actually partaken in modern recreations of melee combats with swords, spears, shields, etc ("Shit games don't get about combat situations"). She doesn't talk about initiative in particular, so much as "reach" weapons (spears), missile weapons, shield walls, and formations in general, and their effects on the people involved in a combat. But these things are basic parts of "initiative" ... some D&D games use "reach" as the deciding factor for "initiative", i.e. spears always strike before swords ... AD&D complicated things by having smaller/faster weapons strike first after the initial round, though this is not unreasonable when considering the effect of the Spanish rodelleros (using sword and buckler) against pike formations in the 16th C.

And just recently, Patrick Stuart at False Machine has written an idea for initiative in which it is literally a physical thing carried by the characters which can be seized back and forth, OR as a mechanic related to how much information the player/characters are trying to ascertain before they act, this post being, "Physical Initiative and Query Initiative". In a sense, I quite like the Physical Initiative--you could tie it to a standard bearer-character, or a drum/pipes character keeping time for the march, and if they are captured or killed, they can no longer provide initiative for their own team (Patrick has even more bizarre and interesting versions that are worth checking out).


So these are all interesting ways to think about what D&D or its descendants are modeling, and about how one might model things in one's own game to better match what one thinks "initiative" is (or more broadly, just to remember that any game mechanic can be fiddled with, changed, or forgotten, to fit what you want to happen in your game!).

But, I think this quibbling over "initiative" as a mechanic actually misses the initiative of those playing the game. Sure, in my game as in most "OSR" games, a d6 is rolled each round, one for the player/characters, one for the monsters they're fighting, and the higher result wins. There are lots of fiddly particulars depending on the referee--Aleksandr Revzin has the players win on a tied roll; I ask magic-users to declare spells before initiative is rolled, and if their side loses initiative and they get struck by an attack, their spell fizzles; also, concerning tied rolls, I have all attacks happen simultaneously, so that even those "killed" in the round still get their attacks off.

All of this is largely cosmetic, though.

Initiative proper is whether the players understand what's going on well enough in the melee to coordinate their attacks. Better yet, initiative is the players having planned the melee before hand, lured the monsters to where they want them to be, and then to attack them with maximum force.

A die roll, you go first/they go first doesn't matter much when one side has overwhelming odds. Players who understand that, set the situation up to have overwhelming odds, and then engage--those are the players who actually have the initiative.

As referees, truthfully, we could always have the initiative. We have fuller knowledge of the environment, of the numbers the goblin (or whatever) tribe could bring to bear when fully alarmed, of the tricks, traps, and spells that can be brought to bear against the players. But the game is designed to allow the players to have the initiative (usually); they enter the goblin-caves of their own will; they are the ones sneaking around, choosing where to go; if they set off the alarm, so be it, but they have their own wits about them to try to silence any alarm they can.

Even when they do end up in melee combat, the player/characters can take the initiative. Stand in the hallway rather than the broad chamber so you can set up an un-flankable battle-line; lay down flaming oil to keep enemies off your flank when you can't withdraw in time; focus attacks on one enemy at a time to make sure they go down, rather than dividing attention among multiple foes; all of these and more are tactics that will see a party through, regardless of what they roll for initiative any particular round.

I don't know how many combats I've watched as a referee in which players just attack whatever, and nobody takes the initiative to direct their fellows as to the best course of action. Melees like that go fine against goblins ... but against well coordinated enemies, they tend to go poorly. I think initiative is already in the hands of the players ... the dice roll is just there to keep things from being stale (yeah, don't get me started on waiting an hour to get back around to my turn in 3e/Pathfinder/5e!!)

Monday, August 20, 2018

DIY 30 #16: Three Scrolls

Continuing the "three magic items" theme, esp. those that are not magic swords, have three new scrolls:

Scroll of Tongues
A short vellum scroll; all writing on it disappears after a day, leaving the scroll free for further writings.

The value of this scroll lies not in any permanent record, but rather in the fact that anything written upon it in one language can be read by any literate creature, regardless of their own native language. E.g. a human might write a message on the scroll in the Common tongue, and an Elf might read the same message in Elvish while an orc would read it in Orcish, or a giant in Giantish.

Alas, it is nearly useless for learning new languages, because the reader comprehends whatever was written in his own native tongue ...

Scroll of Spellcatching
Prized especially by spellcasters eager to learn new spells, nevertheless, this scroll is useful to any class of character. It is a blank scroll; when carried upon one's person, it will "catch" the first spell cast against the person, totally negating the spell's effect, and inscribing the spell's formula magically onto the scroll (even a fireball spell would be affected, albeit partially; the carrier of this scroll would be immune to the damage of the spell, and the spell would be inscribed upon the scroll; but the magic would act normally upon all others within the radius of the spell's effect).

Though any spell level may be "caught" and negated in this way, the scroll will only every "catch" one spell. After that, it counts as a spell scroll with that particular spell inscribed upon it (to be used or learned by a magic-user, and unusable by any other class but perhaps a high level thief). Those unable to cast or learn spells from scrolls will find the item useless at this point ...

Scroll of Psalms
A scroll of paeans to the right gods ... only clerics (or other priest-like classes) may use these scrolls, and then only by chanting the psalms or paeans round-by-round.

A character chanting the poetic prayers upon the scroll cannot otherwise act; they are essentially casting a spell, though insofar as they are chanting prayers from the scroll, the effects cannot be fizzled like a spell in melee.

After 1 round of chanting, all allies within 30' gain a +1 to hit; after 2 rounds, allies within 30' gain a +1 to damage; after 3 rounds, allies within 30' gain a bonus of 1 to their armor class; after 4 rounds, allies within 30' receive 1-6 hit points, either as direct healing, or as "temporary hit points". The "chanter" of the scroll must continue to chant each round thereafter for his allies to retain these bonuses; if the chanting ceases, so too do the benefits proffered by the scroll.

Rune Wand
A bonus "scroll" type ... Items of this sort are long wands carved with a series of runes representing a spell; they are functionally identical to spell scrolls (whatever spell is contained within is "used up" when the runes are activated by reading them), and are just a different medium of storage of the magical dweomers.

DIY 30 #15: Three Potions

Continuing the thought that I tend to think of items as magic swords or magic rings, here are three potions to offset my predilections:

Potion of Elemental Fury
These potions imbue the drinker with the power of one of the four dominant types of elementals (fire, water, earth, air; roll a d4 to randomly determine the type associated with the potion). A fire potion burns as it goes down and fills the drinker with a fiery heat; an earth potion is gritty like thick coffee, and fills the drinker with a sense of gravity and deep connection; a water potion tastes of seawater, but fills the drinker with a sense of liquid grace; an air potion seems but a breath of heavy gas which leaves the drinker light-headed and with a sense of "floating".

All potions of elemental fury cause a creature to fight as a staff elemental of the potion's type (AC 2, HD 8, unarmed damage 1-8), but each potion also grants additional abilities appropriate to its type:
-- fire grants fire immunity, so that even magical fire attacks deal no damage;
-- earth grants regeneration of 1 hit point per round, and poison immunity so that poisons do not affect the drinker;
-- water grants waterbreathing and immunity to any kind of gas-based spell, e.g. cloudkill or stinking cloud;
-- air grants the ability to fly, as well as protection from normal missiles as the spell

Characters affected by a potion of elemental fury are incapable of breaking through a circle of protection against elementals like that created by a scroll of protection versus elementals.

Memory Moss
Not a potion per se, but a "helping" of obliviax (memory moss), this black mold can easily be swallowed over the course of a melee round. It is alive with the "memory" of one spell from 1st to 3rd level (determine level randomly with a d6, so 1-3 is 1st level, 4-5 is 2nd level, 6 is 3rd, and roll the spell randomly once level is determined). The only way to know what spell is contained within is to eat the moss.

A character eating the moss gains the ability to use the spell contained within as if they were a magic-user that had memorized it (i.e. just the once). Even a fighter or a thief could eat the moss and thus be able to cast the spell, but neither such character would be able to cast the spell while wearing armor.

There is, of course, the risk of attaining undesired memories by eating memory moss. A successful save versus spells allows a character to ignore such alien memories, but the referee is free to create new plot hooks or strange behavioral hang-ups for those who fail the save ...

Dweomer Potion
Without access to a good reference library, this potion is night worthless; such a potion, dripped over an enchanted item, throws off certain auras and other magical signs that may be cross-referenced in the correct tomes to identify the magic item's properties. The potion is viscous and tastes vaguely of salts and minerals; anyone with memorized spells will cause it to react as it would to a magic item, such that the dwimmers give off an aura and a slight scent of ozone.

Each potion contains enough material to identify 2-7 items or potions. Characters with extensive libraries for magical research (worth 5000+ gp), or perhaps specific encyclopedias, will have a decent or better chance to succeed with the potion for themselves, using their own reference works.

Sages will always buy these potions, though they will talk the price down as much as possible. It is up to the sellers to determine its real worth for the buyer.

Love Potion
Bonus potion, don't forget love potions. They're good for role-playing, and/or for getting players to come up with creative ways to get past encounters using them.

DIY 30 #14: Three Staves

Yes "staves" is a correct plural for more than one staff, i.e. walking stick, and the one that I prefer. For multiple groups of employees, "staffs" is correct.

Anyway, these could be staves or rods; but the idea was that I tend to focus on magic rings, magic swords, and miscellaneous magic when I devise new items, and so I should begin expanding my horizon.

Rod of the Gerontes
A short walking-stick, shod in iron, usually topped with a disc bearing the seal of the office the rod was dedicated to (i.e. the mayor of the palace, the high priest of the city-cult, or the head of a particular guild).

This rod grants +1 to all reactions, +3 to reactions with those specifically associated with whatever office it was originally dedicated to (e.g. a harbormaster's rod would grant +3 reactions when dealing with ship captains, rowers, or other seafarers). It may furthermore be used to cast a charm person spell, each use costing 1 charge (and the rod will be found with but 3-30 charges).

Unfortunately, for those who take up this rod, it is a walking stick meant for old oligarchs; merely handling it permanently ages a character 1 year. Bearing it as an item temporarily ages the bearer a further 10 years, thus reducing strength, dexterity, and constitution each by 1-3 points ... one week of rest apart from the staff will restore one ability score back to its "prime/original" score, but no amount of rest will restore the 1 full year first lost when handling the rod--only a wish or similarly powerful spell might restore lost youth.

Flowering Staff
A staff of dead wood that has since sprung into new life, bearing green shoots of new growth and a flower (or more) miraculously blooming at the top. Perhaps the gods themselves have caused it to flower as a sign of forgiveness that was thought impossible (the Pope's staff at the end of the Tannhauser legend); perhaps the life-blood of a god of life and death has washed over it (Jigo's staff at the end of Princess Mononoke).

The staff now has the following powers (and from 3-30 charges):
-- entangle per the spell, costing 1 charge
-- control plant per the ring, costing 2 charges and lasting as long as the user concentrates on the magic
-- animate tree (or similar plant) per the treant ability, costing 3 charges and lasting 7-12 rounds
-- and lastly, the power to absolve a character of major transgressions, per an attonement spell, or to reinvigorate a character of one lost life-energy level, per a restoration spell; use of this power exhausts all remaining charges

A flowering staff may not be recharged, but if one of its green shoots is planted and cared for over the course of a year ,with proper blessings, a new staff of the same type might be grown ...

Thyrsus and Tambor
Staves of this type are long ceremonial staves topped with a pine cone (or representation of one), with tambors that hang down on either side of the pine cone. When shaken, they produce a rattle and a clash of tiny cymbals.

Combined with prayers to the right (Chaotic) gods, the sounding of these staves and their tambors serve as a call to revelry. All creatures within 30' of the chanting must save v. spells or join in the chanting and the enthusiasmus, being essentially charmed by the staff-bearer. If the staff-bearer or her associates are carrying wine, it may be offered out to incur a -2 penalty on the save against the magic of the thyrsus.

This charm is not as powerful as the spell; it lasts for 1-3 hours, and those charmed are generally unwilling to join any combat, preferring revelry, song, and the drinking of wine. Calls to fight will be ignored at best (or allow a second saving throw at +2 to throw off the charm!). The bearer of the thyrsus must also remain in the midst of the revelry, egging the party on and indulging in excesses herself, to keep the charm going.

It is of course eminently reasonable that charmed creatures should offer intelligence about the dungeon or situation to the staff-bearer, or be otherwise helpful without directly engaging in combat. Perhaps they have treasure they should wish to share, magical or otherwise; or perhaps they have advice that they can offer. The possibilities should be extensive.

Friday, August 17, 2018

DIY 30 #13: Three Magic Rings

Dragon Ring
This ring was created by a too-ambitious magic-user hoping to harness the power of the dragons, and though it certainly does benefit its wearer with certain powers, it ultimately comes with a major drawback.

First, the benefits: First, the wearer of the ring is able at will to detect precious metals within 60', able to determine direction, but not precise location. Second, the wearer gains the ability 3 times per day to breathe fire as a dragon. This breath attack extends from the wearer's mouth in a cone, 60' long and 15' wide at its furthest point, and it deals damage equal to the wearer's current hit points. Those caught within the cone are allowed a saving throw versus breath weapons to take half damage. Third and lastly, the wearer gains an aura of dragon awe, so that creatures entering melee against him must succeed in a morale check or forfeit their first attack (but are able to attack normally thereafter).

The wearer of the ring will ultimately discover that it is a curse, however. Immediately putting on the ring, the wearer will find himself unwilling to relinquish any wealth for frivolous purposes (including unwilling to remove the ring or otherwise give it up); this means that gold may be spent for lodgings and food, and to purchase necessary equipment, but for no other purposes: no carousing, no spell research, no wages for hirelings or mercenaries, no magic item creation, etc, etc.

After a month spent wearing the ring, the character's alignment changes to Chaotic as the draconic nature of the ring exerts itself on his spirit. Any class whose powers rely on alignment will suffer the full penalty of losing their class abilities, but be unable to atone without also removing the ring (e.g. a Lawful cleric who changes to Chaotic will lose all spells and undead turning abilities until/unless they atone or confirm their new alignment). It is at this point that the character's skin and eyes really take on a reptillian, draconic cast.

After a full year wearing the ring, a character is actually transformed bodily into a dragon. And no, this is not supposed to be a cool "I get to play a dragon" thing, it is rather at this point that the referee takes the character sheet away and informs the player that the dragon-character has settled down into a long draconic lethargy, sleeping on whatever wealth he has acquired, aroused only in defense of its hoard.

Ring of Cold
This ring is perpetually covered with a dusting of brown mold, which might be mistaken as rust. It is bitingly cold to the touch, and putting it on will reduce the wearer's hit points by one until the ring is removed (and the hp must then be healed back).

It otherwise acts as a ring of fire resistance, so that it grants +4 on saves against fire attacks, allows the wearer to ignore all normal fires, and reduces damage from magical fire attacks by 1 point per damage die (or per hit die of the creature in the case of a dragon's breath, which isn't rolled).

The fire resistance in this case, though, is granted because of the brown mold colony that has been enchanted into the ring. After suffering three major magical fire attacks, e.g. a fireball, dragon's breath, etc., the brown mold explodes forth from the ring, growing over the wearer's body. The mold deals 1d6 cold damage cumulatively for 5 rounds as it grows, after which it continues dealing 5d6 cold damage per round. This damage is also dealt to anyone within melee range. The body of the wearer will quickly be devoured and transformed into a brown mold colony once the character's hp reach 0, and continue to deal 5d6 cold damage every round to those within melee range.

Cold spells will cause the mold to go dormant for a number of rounds equal to the number of damage dice of the spell; and in the case of this ring, the mold is susceptible to acid damage, so that 8 acid damage will cause the colony to discorporate.

Ring of the Skeleton
This ring is formed of pale white bone. It acts essentially as a ring of sustenance or a ring of warmth; the wearer does not need to eat or breathe, and is immune to all kinds of cold damage. It further grants immunity to charm, sleep, and hold spells.

Unfortunately, its use entails certain downsides. The wearer may be turned as an undead creature of hit dice equivalent to the character's level (as close as possible). Furthermore, the wearer's body begins to show the effect of not-eating ... the character's body quickly wastes away until it seems only skin and bones remain. If allowed to continue (and the ring can only be removed with a remove curse spell) in this way, the flesh actually will wither away, leaving the character as only an animated skeletal figure. If the ring is removed at this point, the character will die. The character's charisma is permanently reduced by 6 due to becoming undead and a walking memento mori. As undead, the character will be destroyed by a raise dead spell, and cannot be merely raised from the dead if destroyed; once undead, only a wish spell or something similarly powerful is able to restore such a character.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

DIY 30 #12: Harpe of Castration, Ring of Darkness, Shadow Cloak

Three items associated with the cult of Skotia, goddess of darkness, silence, and death, or with goddesses of darkness in general:

Harpe of Castration
A "harpe" is a kind of sickle-sword; the most famous depiction is of Perseus' sword, which resembles a short sword with a hook on the back of one side of the blade--but what is more likely is that a harpe was more of a real sickle-sword, with a curved blade and perhaps with the cutting edge on the inside of the curve.

This particular harpe has been enchanted in imitation of the mythology of Skotia and her emasculation of her son, Ophalle. It is a shortsword +1, +3 vs. men. Additionally to the extra bonus to hit and damage, when a critical hit is rolled against a man in combat (a roll of a 20 on the die without modifiers), the blade threatens the opponent's genital integrity. Whether this actually risks castration or emasculation in such a moment is up to the referee, but the effect of the threat is such that the target of the attack must making a saving throw against fear (or paralysis if there is no particular fear save), or fight at -2 on all dice rolls for the remainder of the combat.

There are tales of priestesses sent out to collect fifties of cut-off phalluses for their goddess, in much the way that David was sent by Saul to collect the foreskins of the Philistines. The reward for such a quest is conjecture, and the truth of such tales is debatable as possible fear-mongering by more male-centric cults.

Ring of Darkness
A thin ring of a dark metal, a ring of darkness is so light that it seems almost nothing in the palm. And yet, worn when under darkness' cloak, the power inherent in the ring is palpable.

A ring of darkness confers several benefits on its wearer while the wearer lurks in shadows. First, the wearer gains the ability to heal through regeneration at the rate of 1 hp per turn. Secondly, the wearer may become invisible at will. Thirdly, rather than becoming invisible, the wearer may become incorporeal, and thus struck only by silver or magical weapons, as well as capable of passing through walls and other solid objects.

However, if the wearer is exposed to sunlight or any other significantly bright light while using the powers of the ring (e.g. the daylight spell, or a chamber filled with bright torches that banish any shadow), the powers immediately cease, revealing the wearer in whatever capacity they were intent upon.

Lastly of note, the use of the powers of invisibility and incorporeality incur a risk with every activation: upon activating the power, the wearer must make a saving throw versus death or suffer one permanent point of Constitution loss (only a wish or some similarly powerful magic might restore it!). If a character is ever brought to 0 Constitution by the invocation of these powers, they immediately fade away into the Shadow Realm, a place from which they can no longer access or affect the Prime Material Plane. This is permanent; though it is left up to the referee to devise some means of restoration from such a fate, if they so desire ...

Shadow Cloak
This cloak is nearly insubstantial and seems to be but an ethereal wisp of shadow that one throws about one's shoulders and secures with a silver cloak pin. The insubstantiallity is no illusion--this cloak is a shadow, literally pinned by the cloak pin.

Any character wearing the cloak while in melee may command the cloak to attack exactly per the description of the shadow creature in the rule book. It attacks on the wearer's initiative.

It is possible for an enemy to strike the cloak pin that binds the shadow, rather than the character wearing it. Only particularly intelligent or aware monsters should generally take the option to do so. The cloak pin has an AC equal to that of the shadow monster, plus any Dexterity bonuses (or penalties) appropriate to the character wearing it. It can sustain 6 hp of damage before breaking; if broken, the pin no longer binds the shadow, and the creature will most likely (1-4 on a d6) attack the wearer of the cloak, or (5-6 on a d6) continue attacking whatever creature it had been commanded to attack, before fleeing away and seeking some dark hole in which to hide and succor itself in shadow and hatred ...

DIY 30 #11: Vows of Good

One of the ways available for Good characters to "advance" in the Cult of Good is to swear great vows in accordance with the values of the Cult. (using my alignment rules)

These vows are 1) the Vow of Peace, 2) the Vow of Poverty, and 3) the Vow of Purity. Before any of these vows may be sworn by a character, that character must first pay at least 5000 gold for a public liturgy of Good, OR perform such a boon for the Cult of Good that the character is blessed by a leader of the Cult. This blessing (of the liturgy and/or the leader) confers a permanent +1 bonus to all saving throws.

As to the Vows themselves:

To swear the Vow of Peace, a character swears to: 1) always attempt peaceful resolutions for any encounter with "monster", and 2) never to kill, except in extremis in self defense. The benefit of swearing such a Vow is that the character becomes capable of laying on hands for healing like a paladin of equal level, i.e. 2 hp/level.

To swear the Vow of Poverty, a character swears to 1) never own more than one suit of armor, one shield, four weapons, and four other magic items, and just enough gold for day-to-day expenses; 2) all other gold must be donated to the Good Cult, though 20% of such donated counts for bonus experience. The benefit of this Vow is that a character may summon a divine Warhorse (or other servant?) that will serve faithfully unto death, HD 5+5, AC 5. If the Warhorse is slain, another may not be summoned until at least half a year has passed.

To swear the Vow of Purity, a character swears to 1) never again carouse (spending gold on drink and whoring for xp); and 2) never to engage in illicit sex, nor to become inebriated in any manner. The benefit of this Vow is that a character receives +2 on all saves, cumulative with the blessing conferred by the Good Cult before any Vow might be sworn.

(These are, of course, generally the restrictions and benefits of the AD&D Paladin class ... I wrote them for my game when it was strictly B/X D&D, and Paladins were not an available class. Other benefits for taking on these Vows might be negotiated between the character and the leaders of the local Good Cult)