Sunday, March 31, 2024

Trapfinding and "rules elide" as a design goal in 3e D&D

 This started as a question on the queer OSR server (discord invite) about if a rogue's trapfinding ability in 3e is an example of Jared Sinclair's "rules elide" in effect.

I think rules elide matters a TON for 3e D&D. In fact, it (although not under the same name) was one of the primary design goals.

A lot of people think of 3e as the first "modern" D&D. It's the first one produced by WotC instead of TSR, it's the one that really made a break with old-school play design and goals, and it's the one that really started on stuff like character builds and balanced set piece combat that characterize "modern" Dungeons and Dragons.

But in reality, like every other edition of every RPG, 3e is a response to what was going on in the game immediately before it, and what the problems and issues were with 2e as designers, players, and the people who made 3e saw them to be. When we really think about 3e as a "modern" D&D, most people are thinking about 3.5, especially later 3.5 when a definitively "modern" approach to supplement and game design had been developed (an emphasis on character balance, set piece combats, and character creation with "builds" of interlocking parts.)

But 3.0 is a different beast in some ways.

And one of the fundamental problems with 2e as the game designers of 3e saw it was just how inconsistent 2e was as a ruleset. (My source for this is the 3e preview articles in Dragon Magazine, 1999-2000.) 2e was an iterative improvement upon 1e AD&D before it, and 1e AD&D was an iterative improvement on OD&D (largely by Gygax as an attempt to formalize and integrate the rules into something suitable for fair tournament play.)

In neither 2e or 1e had there been an attempt to completely strip down, refashion, and rebuild D&D from the ground up as a refresh of the core game design. Indeed, if you compare the two, you can see that they substantially have the same math and game concepts, but 2e adds more options, clarifies various parts of the rules, and rewrites parts to make them for "useful." (My quotation marks.) For example, the 1e DMG has huge portions devoted to random monster tables for various parts of campaign/adventure design, while the 2e DMG has far fewer specific tables and instead devotes that same space to teaching a DM how to create them with specific mathematic models (a 2-20 range you get from rolling a d8+d12) and filling them with the much larger, much more diverse array of monsters 2e had. However, those same monsters, with minor conversions you can do in your head on the fly, are usable in either version. (This also extends to player content: the Complete Wizard's Handbook for 2e specifically says it's usable with 1e games as well.)

Why did neither 1e nor 2e do this complete refresh? It's pretty simple: the rules worked well enough. There was a strong enough play culture and a strong identity of what D&D "was" that even though the rules were wobbly sometimes (math not quite working, the vagaries of divining what Gary Gygax meant in the 1e core ruleboooks), the overall core play experience was good enough for the vast majority of players. (2e, if you've never read it, does an absolutely terrible job of actually teaching you how to play or run D&D, but most of the rules are there, it just doesn't tell you how to put them together into anything. It assumes you already know, from someone else teaching you or experience with Basic/a starter set game.)

And the designers of 3e didn't disagree with this. Instead, they had a problem with the second-order effect of it (not how this core design of AD&D previously worked, but what it created in things following from it). And that second-order problem is pretty easy to see: if you look at 2e supplements, they are, universally, a MESS. Not each one individually, but taken together, they are completely indigestible. And one of the biggest problems is that they had to keep reinventing wheels. 2e had a much, much larger publication history than 1e did, and each "core line" rulebook was also interacting with the flurry of individual settings, each with its own variant rules. It was impossible to keep everything straight, so 2e supplements are full of notes like "this supplement uses the psionicist class as developed in The Complete Psionics Handbook" because they had to specify all that stuff. But wait, that version of the psionicist was made obsolete by the later version from Player's Option: Skills and Powers. What if you wanted to use Skills and Powers and the Dark Sun stuff that depended upon the Complete Psionics Handbook? Good luck.

It wasn't just the issue of overlapping, substituting publications though. Each of these takes on say, psionics, or seafaring and weather, or adding additional armor types and functions, would be going back to the 2e core rules and then building from there. And because the 2e core rules were a bit wobbly, the resulting rules in these supplements would be just a bit more wobbly, and these rules would conflict with each other from supplement to supplement. (If you've worked to ever make something physical, like a box, you're familiar with this: get one dimension slightly off, then everything else is off just a little bit more to match the first wrong dimension, and everything ends up fucked and your box wobbles.)

So when the grand refactoring of 3e occurs, putting everything possible into d20+modifier versus DC as the core mechanic and solidifying all the other parts of the game from that basic core mechanic and shared, common terms, it's attempting to create a solid foundation for 3e, not just in the core rulebooks but in any other supplements. And as a 3e player who spent a lot of time staring at these supplements, it worked pretty well. 3e isn't perfect, not by a long shot, but you can look at the vast majority of its pieces right from the 3.0 core rulebooks in 2000 to the final releases in 2007 and they use the same rules and they have the same mechanics underlying them. (You do still have the problem sometimes of overlapping, substituting publications though. It was possible to have a "legal" option from early in the edition that wasn't legal later on.)

How does this relate back to the trapfinding ability though? Well, it's pretty simple and yet also illustrates the design problems that 3e did struggle with. If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so it made sense to tie the traditional "thief skills" into the overall skill system that 3e added. (That system was itself an evolution of non-weapon proficiencies in 2e, which were one of the biggest problems with wobbly overlapping rules. 3e offering a mostly-authoritative general list with the same core mechanic as everything else made a big difference in clarity and consistency.)

So, great, rogues are the best at skills, they've got their same skills as they've always had, but they'll be the best at them in terms of having the most and being good at them. And this also makes adjudicating those skills easier, because now there's no difference between a thief's climb walls thief skill or the Climbing nonweapon proficiency, it's just one Climb skill. (Thief in this case meaning the 2e or earlier class, and rogue being the 3e class.)

Except. If other people can take thief skills now. If they're all just the same skill. Why take a thief at all? You can just spread out the thief bits and have the wizard do it or something. So the rogue's trapfinding ability is specifically included as a form of "role protection," saying that you must have a rogue to disable these kinds of traps and no one else can do it. This trapfinding rule exists solely to protect the rogue's role in the party and make it so no one else can replace them.

There's actually very few rules like that in 3e that are specific to one class to the point of excluding others. Some feats work like that, but by and large 3e is explicitly built to allow you to get to whatever character build goal you want from a variety of starting points. All the way back in the 3.0 DMG at their introduction, it tells the DM that prestige classes shouldn't require specific classes to take, but instead have character statistic requirements that can be met in a variety of ways. (So instead of having a prestige class require being a 5th level barbarian, it requires the attack bonus of a 5th level barbarian and a barbarian's rage ability; this means you could meet the requirements with 1 level of barbarian and 4 levels of fighter, for example.)

This example is actually relevant to trapfinding, which is that it's a 1st level ability for a rogue, so you can just grab one level in rogue and do the rest of your levels in say, ranger and still be able to find traps just as well as a character of the same level who's only got rogue levels. (And you very specifically want that level in rogue to be your very first level, because 3e's skill system is a goddamn mess and if you do it any other way you will be catching up literally forever. But I digress.)

Back to rules elide. Yes, 3e D&D has a very formalized system for trapfinding and disarming. To refer to Jared Sinclair's post, it's got a system that's like his Example 2 about lockpicking. But I think the how of how 3e gets to that formalized system also tells us a lot about the game, as Jared discusses with his examples 3 and 4. Indeed, 3e wasn't telling us that locks or traps aren't important: one of the slogans used for its release as 3.0 or around then was "Back to the Dungeon!" - WotC wanted you exploring ruins and disarming dangerous traps and fighting monsters and wresting magical treasures from them. That's very clear if you look at the adventure design guidelines in the 3.0 DMG, 3e is absolutely trying to be a classic dungeon crawl game yet again. (This is a response to 2e, which got away from the dungeon for grand plots and frankly weird, stumbling, adventures stemming from the popularity of the Dragonlance module series.)

But trapfinding still isn't the only way you can interact with a trap in 3e. Indeed, the trapfinding ability itself notes this - most characters can try to find traps using the Search skill, but only the rogue can find the vast majority of them (basically anything harder to spot than a pit trap covered with a rug). Most people can try to disarm traps, but only the rogue can disarm magic traps. If you've played a dungeon crawl though, not all traps are disarmed. Players do other things: you go around a trap, you avoid it, you set it off hoping you'll be out of the area of effect, you hack it to pieces before it can go off. And 3e does allow for these interactions, because it very clearly has dungeons mapped out on graph paper with 5 foot squares (yes, 5, not 10 feet) and its traps do describe their area of effect and use the common mechanics for how to resolve them (so an attack roll versus AC, or a saving throw to get out of a trap's way.) Again, we're seeing that refactoring 3e did in the design here: 3e doesn't have special rules for resolving a trap's effects because wherever possible a trap uses the same rolls and rules as standard attacks or spells. Breaking a trap works the same way: there's no specific rules for breaking traps, but there is a common set of rules for breaking or attacking objects, and traps follow those rules so you can resolve breaking a trap with those same mechanics 3e has already given you.

I think the reason that I was asked if "rules elide" applies to the trapfinding ability is because the trapfinding ability says a lot about how the game is supposed to work in 3e. It does formalize using Search and Disable Device to interact with traps, and it does carve out that place for the rogue and only the rogue to be doing this activity. However, this isn't really any different from previous editions of D&D, because thieves also had Find/Disarm traps in their thief skills. 3e has just expanded these to general skills that mostly anyone can use, it's just that the trapfinding ability is required to make the best uses of them.

However, I do think "rules elide" applies differently to interacting with traps overall in 3e, and I do think it was an intentional choice on the part of the designers. If we go back a couple paragraphs, you'll note that I've listed the standard ways most PCs interact with traps, and how 3e does provide the mechanics for resolving those interactions. But what about other interactions? What if you want to do something non-standard? What if you got a giant lodestone and just rolled it through a dungeon and set off all the traps that way? The 3e rules can't account for that, can they?

No, they absolutely can't. They admit as much, on page 9 of the 3.0 DMG, that "often a situation will arise that isn't explicitly covered by the rules." with some tips on how to resolve such situations. However, we've just spent a lot of time and space discussing how these standard interactions are accounted for, and I think that is actually the elision: a flip in game design principles.

Think about how an OSR game is written. You write up your classes, your races/ancestries, your spells and your monsters. Writing an OSR ruleset isn't really a tabula rasa experience, but what you're doing is essentially trawling the dream sea: you're picking things you like and explicitly putting those in the rules and saying "okay, fighters in my game work like this and fireballs explode like that and dragons are this dangerous." Anything you don't say isn't set in stone. You're not saying people can't play other classes or have other spells, but this is the start of what you've put together.

Writing the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons is a little different, because there's no tabula rasa at all. It's the new edition of D&D, for crying out loud! So when you're making those same choices and putting those things in the rules, you're dealing with a lot of existing expectations about what D&D should contain in its races, classes, and so on. (There was a huge outcry over the 4e PHB 1 not containing gnomes or druids, for example.) And 3e contained many of the classic standards, including ones that hadn't been included in 2e's core rules: half-orcs, monks, assassins.

It's not just limited to character building blocks, though. It's also the process of figuring out how people play the game and either facilitating that or telling them what needs to be done differently. And again, 3e contains the rules for the common ways to deal with traps - and no uncommon ways. To echo Jared's point, by providing resolution mechanics for the common interactions with traps, 3e is also suggesting that other ways aren't meaningful to the game's rules. They're possible (you can lodestone the trap) but you just do the fallbacks for situations that aren't covered by the rules. And I think this was intentional by the designers. Go back up and look at the discussion of how 2e supplements kept reinventing the wheels of mechanics like sailing and weather; each one of those was performing its own elision about how to resolve sailing mechanics for your ship campaign, and none of the pieces fit together because those elisions weren't the same. In contrast, 3e is making the choices about what to elide right now, in the core rulebooks, and is just leaving the rest out.

In other words, 3e's design principle isn't "provide some stuff, and let the players fill in the rest of the possibility space" it's "provide everything we can, to make the possibility space manageable collectively for everyone playing the edition." And that is a deliberate choice, because 3e was responding to a previous design model that hadn't been working for years. Now, this assumption that 3e's designers can provide everything might seem arrogant, but I think it's less arrogant than it appears. 3.0's designers (in contrast to 3.5's) were a lot of old TSR hands. WotC essentially absorbed the entire TSR design staff, got them to do 3.0, and started their infamous Christmastime yearly cuts AFTER 3.0 was released. So the people who made 3.0 had a lot of experience designing D&D already, and were able to draw upon that experience when providing everything they could, because they had a fairly good idea of what most D&D players did or wanted or required from the game already. They weren't blank-sheet thinking about "how do PCs interact with traps," they had decades of experience telling them what needed to be accounted for. Therefore, the common interactions were accounted for in the published rules. 

(As a related aside, this approach lead to a misconception about 3e's design philosophies: a lot of people look back at it and think it was some sort of simulationist attempt to create the guiding physics and metaphysics of a complete D&D world because of everything 3e covers, and then those people get upset when the pieces don't come together to create a complete world simulation like if it was GURPS or HERO System. [Common examples are the peasant railgun or the value of ten foot poles and ladders.] That's a misunderstanding. Instead, the pieces 3e provides are meant to account for the games and experiences people had been playing D&D for, and are meant to be consistent as game mechanics, but there's no effort to simulate a world beyond the players themselves. [Note the word simulate here. 3e cared about the world beyond the players but it didn't attempt to mathematically or philosophically simulate it as a complete system. The game doesn't concern itself with providing details on how much money a town of NPCs makes, it tells you how to build that town as a play experience and have the PCs go to a tavern or do some shopping or have a quest there. That distinction is often lost because people get confused by the existence of say, trade good tables. Trade goods exist because they're treasure or plot objects for PCs, not to simulate a whole economy around the PCs.])

Now, does the rules elision around traps in 3e matter? It absolutely does, because the decisions of what statistics apply to traps and how to interact with them means that there's player characters who are good at traps or not good at them. Related to "role protection" is the idea of "spotlighting," or who gets to spend time being the important character doing things in an RPG session. If the rogue has the trapfinding abilities, then the rogue more frequently gets the spotlight time about traps because they're the best at overcoming that obstacle. They get to be the center of attention with traps. (This isn't solely reserved for the rogue though. Adamantine weapons in 3e D&D can cut through basically any non-adamantine material like butter, so there's often a fun experience of a PC getting an adamantine weapon and then resolving traps or locked doors for awhile by just cutting walls open and going around any obstacles. Same obstacle but a different PC gets spotlighted.)

This issue is even stronger when you think about how 3e does character building, with characters accruing new and better abilities as they level up through a series of player choices. There's absolutely a social pressure to give the spotlight on dealing with traps to the rogue when not only are they the rogue, but they've taken a feat to make them extra good at disarming traps and spent their extra money last downtime on a set of magic thieves' tools. Consequently, the other common options of how to resolve traps fall to the wayside, because the social spotlight goes back to the rogue. And even more so, the uncommon options get completely forgotten. (Don't need to carry the lodestone when the rogue can disarm anything short of a god's own chastity belt.)

And this is why people feel that 3e and later games encourage "playing from your sheet" in terms of just using the abilities there, instead of being creative. The sheet improves as a function of player choice, and people want to see that choice made meaningful in play, so it demands the spotlight. A felicitous imagination of what to do is replaced.

I don't think that's any different in OSR games, though. (At least traditional ones, like S&W or OSE. Your game may vary.) PCs still gain levels, and magic items add new capabilities. Eventually, players do figure out a best option or a best character for doing something. They decide upon their own procedures, and they do carry the lodestone around to each and every dungeon. A lucky roll on a treasure table gives the wizard a scroll of passwall, the wizard makes the roll to scribe it into their spellbook, and then the whole party can enjoy just getting around traps instead of having to deal with them for awhile. Eventually, the same social pressures and spotlights will emerge, and in my experience it doesn't even take very long; a few sessions in and an OSR group will probably have figured out a go to mapper and caller and those get spotlights the same way.

The distinction is just that there's less explicit rules elision in these OSR rulesets, generally, and that there's less agency in OSR games to allow players to craft the specific characters they want to get the specific outcomes and spotlights they desire. (It's the long-term effect of rolling a random character and getting attached to their story, instead of creating an OC and being attached to their story before seeing it in play.)

To conclude, rules elision is a thing in D&D in general. If you don't want it for trapfinding, you're going to have to go back to OD&D and skip the Greyhawk supplement. And that's a legit way to play! But it's certainly not what the designers of 3e D&D were doing 20 years on, and I don't think it's reasonable to think that they would. Is 3e still D&D though? Yes, absolutely.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

A simple tool for numbering random tables

 I have been thinking of a spreadsheet like this for ages, but I never actually made it. Until today. Lots of people probably have little tools like this saved for their own use, but I've never actually seen anyone share one, so here it goes.

This is a Google Sheet that simply takes a list of table entries and their corresponding ranges and does the math to get the ranges ready in readable format.

Here it is:

(Make a copy of your own use, of course)

Step 1) All you need to do to use this is copy and paste your own data into it. It takes two columns of input: the right hand column (B) is your actual entries, expressed in text (I'd recommend maybe just putting stubs here if you have especially complicated text, especially stuff with formatting or "non-standard" characters in the sense of not being alphanumeric in standard English.) The left-hand column (A) takes your range of numbers that correspond to that entry. When you enter values into these columns the sheet might get confused for awhile, that's fine.

Note: the tool does not know what sizes dice come in, it doesn't even know what rolls are. it's just adding numbers. so if you have 4 entries for a d4 table they just get numbers 1 2 3 and 4 (and you can probably do that by hand, so you don't need this any way.)

Columns A and B can extend as far down as you need them to, you'll just need to adjust the other columns to match.

Step 2) Sort Column B (your entries) in whatever way you want your entries to be sorted by. If you look at most RPG tables (at least, most I've encountered), they're actually sorted alphabetically by entry and then the result ranges filled in to match. (Here's the OSE SRD for an example.) To sort Column B alphabetically (what you should do as the default unless you know better), select the top left data entry (column A row 2). Then go to Data - Sort Range - Advanced Range Sorting Options. Here, click sort by Column B A to Z. When you do this, it should change the sheet a lot. In particular, Columns B and G should be the same text, sorted the same way.

Step 3) If you have more entries than were originally on the sheet, you need to drag the entries in columns D, EF and G down to match your number of entries in columns A and B. Doing this is a simple drag operation. Click ONCE on the top left entry in column D, let go of the mouse button, then click once again and drag your cursor right to column G, then down as many rows as these columns already contain data (by default, down to row 12.) Release the mouse again. Click on the little blue dot in the lower right corner, then drag it DOWN as many more rows as you have you have data in column A. (So if you had 15 rows of data in Column A, drag down to the 15th row in these three columns.)

When you're doing this, it should look like this or similar after the first drag select. You can see the blue dot at the lower right for the second drag select.

When you do this, it should fill out all of columns D, E, F and with the data you need. In particular column F should look like your dice ranges.

If you have less entries in column A than were originally on the sheet, it's simpler. Click on the lower-right cell you want to empty (by default this will be column G row 12), let go of the mouse button. Click again and drag left and up until you select the other cells corresponding to empty entries in column A. Then hit Backspace or Delete on your keyboard to empty the cells.

Step 4) Click once in column F, row 1. Then click again and drag (like you did in step 3) to the lower-right entry in column G (in the example, this is row 12). Now right click to bring up the context menu and select copy, or hit the copy shortcut on your keyboard (ctrl-C for Windows, Command-C on MacOS). Switch to whatever you're writing your game in and paste it there. Most applications will recognize this as text in table format - so if you have a table already formatted, paste into the upper left entry you want to put data in and it'll fill out the rest of the table automatically. If you just paste it into the document itself, it'll insert a basic table and fill the data in there.

If stuff looks weird, click on the headings for columns F and G and make sure they're both set to plain text type. (Icon on the application menu bar that looks like the numbers 123 next to the phrase "Defaul...", click Plain Text in the drop down.)


(Disclaimer: I don't know complicated Excel or Google Sheets shit. Like I said, lots of people probably already have tools like these made. I tried to explain it as easily as I could, just in case someone really has trouble with computers. I just did an Excel bird course in university for a "science" credit.)

(Behind the scenes details: column D is the previous row in C + 1. [Hardcoded to 1 for the first line.] Column E is the same row's column D plus the same row's column A. Column F is the most complicated part, it looks something like "=IF(D2=E2, D2, JOIN("-",D2,E2))". The IF statement checks if D and E were the same, and if so it just prints E [accounting for a one number range.] Otherwise it runs the JOIN, which prints D and E with a hyphen between them [one of those things that means special shit to computers, so it's put in quotes so it's just accepted as text], for the common display of dice roll ranges. Column G is just column B repeated for easy copy and paste. Again, really simple shit if you actually know Google Sheets.)


Tuesday, September 14, 2021

5 Latter-Day Magic Items Converted to OSE

 Here's five magic items from later editions of D&D converted to rules-light, old school presentations. I've used Old School Essentials as a base, since it's the current lingua franca for much of the OSR.

Thanks to spearsandspreadsheets for giving me some ideas for what to convert!

Dwarven Plate

Sources: 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide

This massive suit of plate mail is made of adamantine (found in meteorites), impregnable against any attack.
Weight Weighs 1,000 coins.
Protective Qualities The wearer reduces the damage dealt by any physical attacks against them (weapons, monsters, or traps) by 3.
Resistant Highly resistant to any damaging effects and saves as a level 12 dwarf.
Unenchanted Special because of its materials and is unenchanted by default. A spellcaster may be able to enchant it using magical research.

Immovable Rod

Sources: 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide (note: there's already an OSE version of the immovable rod in the Advanced Treasure book, but this is a bit closer to the original)

This rod is a flat length of iron with a button on one end.
Anchoring: Pressing the button causes the rod to anchor itself to its current position in space. Once anchored, it can only be moved by a wish or other godly magic. (Even gravity does not affect the anchored rod.) An anchored rod can support up to 80,000 coins of weight.
Releasing: Pressing the button again releases the rod.
Ladder: Two or more immovable rods can be used in concert as a ladder unaffected by gravity.
No Charges: Does not use charges, may be used an unlimited number of times.

Ring of Climbing

Sources: 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide

Grants supernatural climbing abilities.
Climbing: The wearer can climb on most surfaces automatically. They have a 1-in-4 chance of climbing a sheer or slippery wall or other vertical surface. If the roll is failed, the wielder falls at the halfway point, taking falling damage as appropriate.

Ring of the Ram

Sources: 2e Dungeon Master's Guide, Baldur's Gate II

Grants the power to attack enemies or objects with telekinetic force that looks like the head of a ram.

Attacking Enemies

Usage: A target within 30' may be attacked for 1d10 damage.
Resisting: The target may save versus spells to resist being knocked down or pushed away 30'. Circumstantial modifiers may apply (target is unusually stable, unusually strong, or larger than human-sized).

Attacking Objects

Usage: An object within 30' may be smashed open, with a 5-in-6 chance of being broken. Magically locked or held doors or portals can be broken open by this effect.
Resisting: Magical or enchanted objects may save versus spells to resist being broken.

Usage frequency: The ring may be used up to once a day.

Screaming Bolt

Sources: 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide

A crossbow bolt that screams as it flies, causing fear.
Number Found: 1d4 screaming bolts are found at a time.
Enchantment: +2 bonus to attack and damage rolls when used.
Screaming The bolt screams through the air as it is fired. All enemies of the wielder within 20' of the bolt's arc of fire must save versus spells or be struck with fear and spend their next turn fleeing from the wielder at maximum speed.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Rest, Healing and Hit Points

This is a set of healing and rest house rules I came up with for the Swords and Wizardry Forgotten Realms campaign I'm running. They should be usable for any retroclone or relative of D&D from Basic through to 2e AD&D; design notes are at the bottom.

They speed up healing hit points (and only hit points), as my game uses a Death and Dismemberment table with a fair amount of grievous wound results that lead to actual convalescence. The rules also add more detail to resting, including inn room quality, camp preparations, and so on.

Feel free to use these, hack them, and adapt them for your own game. If you do use them, I'd love to hear how they work for you!

These rules replace the standard natural healing rules. These rules only handle recovering lost hit points, not recovering from grievous wounds, diseases, or other such conditions.
A creature that can naturally heal from injury (ie: not undead or a construct), heals hit point
damage as long as it rests for an extended period. By default, this is eight hours of sleep, for
humans and many other such creatures. Depending upon a creature's abilities, the duration
and nature of this rest may differ:
elves dream in the reverie instead of sleeping; thri-kreen do
not sleep or dream but must still rest. This period of rest can be interrupted (such as by
nighttime attacks) to a limited degree, but severe or prolonged interruptions or poor
conditions may prevent any healing from occurring. Rest for healing's sake can only be
accomplished once every 24 hours, unless a special effect allows otherwise.
The basic rate for such healing is the formula (
X+Constitution bonus) x HD = hp healed per rest.
X as a value represents the quality of rest, and is 1 by default unless modified. (Most modifiers
to rest affect the value of
X.) X can never be reduced below 1 and can never exceed 5. A
creature's constitution bonus is the bonus for having a high Constitution score which is added
to hit points per Hit Die. (If a creature would have a Constitution penalty, treat it as 0 for the
purposes of resting.) Every creature has Hit Dice; only whole Hit Dice count for the formula. (ie:
A monster with 4+1 HD has 4 HD for this formula.)
The default values for the formula which apply to many creatures are (1+0) x 1 = 1 hp healed
per rest. This includes low-level monsters, most NPCs, and first-level PCs. (Exceptions do apply,
of course.)
Resting In Communities
Resting in a community can increase the value of X, depending upon the quality of
accommodations used. In general, accommodations (including inns, boarding houses, and cost
of living expenses during extended downtime) are rated 1 to 5 for quality. The
accommodation's quality is the value for
X when resting in that accommodation. (Example: a
first-level character with no constitution bonus is resting in a rating 3 quality inn room. Their hp
healing rate is (3+0) x 1 = 3 hp healed per rest.) Higher quality accommodations are usually
more expensive, or require some other basis (such as a well-outfitted stronghold.)
Even if a creature is resting on the streets,
X would remain 1. (Yes, this does mean there's not
really much benefit gained from the absolute worst common room resting spot.) Sleeping
rough does possibly risk guards pushing the sleeper to move, pickpockets, and other such
calamities, possibly severely interrupting rest and allowing for no healing. Paying for
accommodation reduces the risk of any such interruptions to nil, unless danger is already
established in some way. (ie: assassins in the night,
Psycho-style accommodations, sudden
cataclysmic events.) In other words, paying for or establishing accommodation guarantees safe
sleep without the random encounter tables coming into play. (And now the worst common
room resting spot has a use again!)

If a creature is resting for a tenday in the same community and has had no severe interruptions
to rest or other taxing activities during that time (combat, extreme exertion, etc), they regain all
of their hit points at the end of the tenth rest.
Resting In Dangerous Areas
Equipment, skills, and preparation by adventurers can increase the value of X.
Especially good food eaten during rest (premium rations, exotic treats, a well-cooked meal)
X by 1. Any source of food may only provide one bonus per rest in this way: for
example, a character could eat a well-cooked stew of freshly caught deer and then share a
bottle of elvish wine with their comrades, providing two separate +1 bonuses to
Especially luxurious equipment (a premium bedroll, finely-made tent or similar) can also
X by 1. Any single piece of equipment can only provide one bonus per rest, and only
for the people directly using it to rest. (Only one character can sleep on a premium bedroll, but
multiples could share a large exceptionally-well made tent.)
Engaging in acts of camaraderie and morale can also increase
X by 1. (A bard might tell stories,
the party could play dice or cards before going to rest, et cetera.) This bonus can only be
gained once per rest.
Poor environmental conditions can reduce
X if not properly handled. Freezing in cold weather
or sweltering in hot weather without proper preparation would reduce
X by 1, as an example.
Extremely poor conditions (such as severe dehydration) may count as severe interruptions,
preventing effective rest at all! The GM will inform the PCs of any such conditions that apply
and give them an opportunity to resolve them as part of making camp as appropriate.
Resting in dangerous areas always risks interruption and random encounters. Unless resting is
persistently interrupted (a foe using guerilla tactics or a particularly unlucky night), rest is not
prevented by interruptions during the rest period. In general, a party resting in dangerous
areas should expect that between making camp, resting, any interruptions, and beginning-of-adventuring-day preparations (including tearing down camp), the party has actually been
resting for twelve hours or three "watches" as a rule of thumb. (Most actions in D&D, S&W, and
similar games that are described as taking an entire "day" actually describe an eight hour long
period similar to the North American workday, so twelve hours at rest does not prevent
traveling, exploring, or day-long activities from other sources.)
If a party wishes to reduce their chances of being interrupted in dangerous areas, they may rest
, without lighting a fire. This reduces
X by 1 by default, prevents engaging in acts
of camaraderie to increase
X, and other bonuses may not be available (such as preparing a
well-cooked meal.) However, resting clandestinely generally halves the chances of random
encounters while resting (depending upon the location and possible encounters, the exact
amount may differ.)
Special Note: There are many spells and magical effects, from
rope trick to Mordenkainen's
magnificent mansion
that help make resting in dangerous areas safer or more pleasant. These
effects are adjudicated on an effect-by-effect basis. Particularly strong effects may allow
creatures to rest like they are in a community.
NPCs Resting
NPCs have access to the same tools as PCs, depending upon their level, wealth, and other
resources. NPCs usually do not have a Constitution bonus to hp, and the quality of their home
determines their rest quality in their communities. NPCs are unlikely to have special
preparations for bonuses to
X while resting in dangerous areas, but will act to resolve poor
environmental conditions.
Monsters Resting
Monsters are extremely unlikely to have access to any bonuses to X while resting in dangerous
areas, and monsters never have Constitution bonuses to HP. Monsters are immune to any
environmental conditions in their native environments/habitats or other areas they are resistant
to. For example, a fire elemental can rest safely in a volcano, even though it is not their native
habitat and would count as a severe interruption for most creatures. However, a monster
count as resting in a community if it's in its lair or a similarly safe space, and may receive a
bonus to
X for high quality accommodations. (This is dependent upon the monster. A dragon
resting on its massive hoard of coins has no soft bed nor royal meal, but certainly counts as
sleeping in quality 5 accommodations.)
Design Notes
This system makes healing hit points, and specifically hit points, much easier than the default in
many old-school editions of D&D, clones, and relatives. It assumes that you have other systems
in place to promote downtime, including downtime spent resting or healing. (Diseases,
poisons, or severe injuries from critical effect or death and dismemberment tables are common
examples.) Healing hit points this quickly makes them clearly luck/grit/exertion in the narrative,
instead of direct meat points. This system does not work for all games or all narratives, and it's
not meant to.
Tenday is what the
Forgotten Realms uses instead of weeks, a period of ten days of which there
are three to a month. If your world uses a different calendar, replace tendays with a significant
number of days in your world. If you don't have days or your timekeeping is wildly different, let
me know how you've hacked this! Similarly, accommodation quality going from 1 to 5 is taken
from the 2e
Volo's Guide supplements for the Forgotten Realms; you may change this for your
own setting.
The Retired Adventurer's Into the Depths house rules:
The Infinity Engine series of D&D computer games
Swords and Wizardry Complete Rulebook (SW)
Player's Handbook (2E AD&D)
These Dragonsfoot threads: &

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Occidental and the Oriental in Faerun, Part 1

 I'm a giant fucking nerd, so when I was reading Edward Said's Orientalism for class today my mind inevitably went to applying it to the Forgotten Realms. And there's a lot to be gained there, by applying Said's critique and analysis of Orientalism to the Forgotten Realms.

So let's do it!

First off, a couple notes. I didn't read all of Orientalism in one go, just the first third; this isn't academically rigorous but is good enough for application to elfgame settings I believe? Also READ IT YOURSELF IT IS SO GOOD AND SO INFLUENTIAL.

I'm White and born and raised in Canada, same as the creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood. Just so you know my bias here.

Importantly, Said's definition of the Oriental (the historical/cultural use in the real world) is not the same as it has typically been used in D&D. In D&D it's used as a synonym for East Asian, like with the various Oriental Adventures rulebooks and settings. Historically the real world Orient has also included the Middle East and West Asia as well.

Keep this in mind because I'm not talking about Kara-Tur here (the Oriental Adventures setting, set far to the east of Faerun as an East Asian complement), but I'm talking about Faerun itself.

And what's Faerun? Here's a map:

(Map taken and hacked up from thank you for the simple outlined map)

This is Faerun, the chief continent where the Forgotten Realms takes place as a setting. Depending upon the edition, it generally ends to the east somewhere around Semphar or Durpar.

Even if you're a very very casual fan of the setting, you've likely heard of SOME of the names on this map, like Waterdeep and Cormyr. But why those two? Why haven't you heard of any of the rest?

Here's a quick edit to that map:

I've overlaid onto the map labels for the areas that are generally considered the main focus of the Realms from 1st to 3rd Edition: the Western and Eastern Heartlands, and the North. The vast majority of printed FR content - game sourcebooks, novels, even comics - occurs in these regions.

But what's the rest of the world for? Why is it there? Why not write more about those parts? There's so many books on Waterdeep and Cormyr and the North, why can't we get something different?

Well, that's where Said's Orientalism comes in.

Foreign Diplomats: The Other at Court

A quick synopsis: in Orientalist doctrine, the world is divided into two halves. The known, civilized, sociable Occidental half, and the exotic, mysterious, fantastic Oriental half. Said questions Orientalism as a cultural project: not the actual places collected as the Orient itself, but the stories and studies and writings Europeans have done of the Orient. Orientalism tries to explain the Orient to Europeans according to European worldviews, creating its own self-perpetuating idea of what the Orient is or should be, only informed by these stories and not actual experience with Oriental peoples, cultures, or places.

On that map of Faerun, the areas referred to as the Heartlands are so named because they're where Ed Greenwood set his significant home campaigns in the Realms prior to publication. The Company of Crazed Venturers came first, in Waterdeep; the Knights of Myth Drannor was the second, in Cormyr and the Dalelands. As you can see, one group fits in the Western Heartlands, and the other in the Eastern.

Both Waterdeep and Cormyr are stable, cosmopolitan places that are centres for trade and culture. As part of creating a living, breathing, believable world (a goal Ed has worked very hard at over the years), trade and culture require other places to exchange things with. And Ed named many of the places outside of the Heartlands as locations for trade and for cultural exchange with. In particular, much of the nations to the east of the Heartlands were originally named so that exotic or mysterious foreign dignitaries could make appearances at royal court in Cormyr!

Those nations, places like Turmish and Chondath, were originally constructed as Oriental narratives in comparison to the Heartlands as the known European/Occidental space. Ed created them as mysterious, exotic Others for his players to make comparisons with. These foreign dignitaries aren't always villainous, scheming, or opposed to the players and moral action (no, Evil is the Zhentarim and capitalism is Sembia) but they are definitively created as an Other.

Race is inextricably a part of creating this Other, as well. The peoples of the Heartlands are largely White and the assumed default; the Turmish are Black, and most of these nations to the south and east of Cormyr are home to people of colour.

From the very beginning of the Forgotten Realms, even its first few publications in Dragon Magazine, there is a division between the known and the unknown, the native and the foreign, the Occidental and the Oriental.

Multimedia Project 1987

I've talked about the publication of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set elsewhere so I won't get in to too much detail here, but the important detail is that beyond the Heartlands much of the Realms wasn't detailed prior to publication. Most of Ed's work had gone into the Heartlands, and places like Turmish and Mulhorand were his foreign dignitary NPCs and names on maps, not fleshed out full states.

This was great for the TSR of 1987, because when they picked up the Forgotten Realms to be their new flagship campaign setting (to replace Greyhawk), they had a significant corpus of existing information about the setting to produce in and around the Heartlands but also lots of empty spaces on the map for them to expand and fit in new products.

The first published Forgotten Realms product wasn't even by Ed Greenwood or really even a Forgotten Realms product. Douglas Niles' Darkwalker on Moonshae novel was originally an entirely separate project but the Moonshaes were rolled into the Forgotten Realms for publication and given space on the western coast. Other writers and developers added their own pieces: Vaasa and Damara come from the Bloodstone AD&D modules (also published before the FR itself), and R.A. Salvatore described choosing Icewind Dale as "his" part to write in by jabbing his finger at the map where no one else had claimed a spot yet. (Jeff Grubb at this point was coordinating the entire line and stitching Ed's original works together with the new additions by TSR staffers.)

This also applied to Ed's Oriental nations and places. FR3 Empires of the Sands covered Amn, Tethyr, and Calimshan. Amn had been partially worked on by Ed (he used it as a small starter campaign setting he ran for kids at his job at the library); Scott Haring added the Orientalist trappings of caliphs, harems and genies to Calimshan. As written in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set Thay was a land of fell, evil magics - Steve Perrin expanded it in FR6 Dreams of the Red Wizards into a scheming place redolent of incense and with bearded, scheming wizards. (Another Orientalist archetype.)

Most significant was Scott Bennie's FR10 Old Empires, which took Mulhorand and Unther and filled them with extradimensional refugees from real-world Egypt and Babylonia, struggling in eternal wars lead by their untethered god-kings, making an explicit connection between nations and regions of the Realms and cultures of real-world Earth.

This wasn't a mistake on Bennie's part, to be clear: TSR had explicitly asked for these kinds of places to be inserted into the Realms, so that it could have "an Egypt land" for groups wanting to play in those kinds of games. Historical/mythical reenactment was something that TSR pushed hard for D&D around this time with the HR (Historical Reference) series of supplements for Second Edition AD&D. Ed notes his pre-publication Mulhorand was inspired by Robert E. Howard's Stygia, itself a pastiche of Egypt; real-world Egypt was not a crazy revision. (Especially because the name - the Forgotten Realms - itself refers to Narnia-style portals between the Realms and the real world, now forgotten by the families guarding the extradimensional portals.)

What is notable, however, is that many of the additions by TSR's staff were real life cultures or places with the names filed off. Mulhorand was Fantasy Egypt; Calimshan was Fantasy Araby. Because of this, the direct inspiration for and influential texts upon these parts of the Realms were themselves Orientalist - either Orientalist studies of the real world Orient, or Orientalist stories like Stygia in Conan and other pulps. Again, this was a common practice for many fantasy settings of the time and certainly was something in TSR's other D&D settings until that point (Greyhawk, Dragonlance and Mystara); the Orientalist fantasy as something exotic, fantastic and unknowable is incredibly fertile ground for D&D gaming! (If you're not aware of its limitations, racial, and cultural biases, that is.)

It was also very easy, and that was also appealing to this disparate group of designers and writers suddenly filling up a vast world with new creative projects. TSR saw the Realms as their Next Big Thing, and pushed lots of new products there to make it a commercial success: it was their best multimedia project, with novels and adventures and game books and comics.

Creative fatigue lead to this process not just being limited to filling out the rest of Faerun, however. What made the Forgotten Realms so appealing was Ed's relentless focus on handcrafting a believable, realistic, world that felt livable in, and the Heartlands were full of these details. Unfortunately writers beyond Ed also worked in the Heartlands, and reduced it to Occidental, not Oriental, archetypes. Particularly in the novels, you began to see treatments of Cormyr as medieval England in all but name, Amn as equivalent to Renaissance Spain, and so on. These trite reductions made the Realms feel like nothing but outdated stereotypes, and they happened just as TSR produced a number of wildly inventive unusual settings that were far more captivating and weird (Spelljammer, Dark Sun and Planescape in particular.)

But one place escaped this harm, by finding the historically exotic in something definitely Occidental.

The North; or "Where All Those Damn Drizzt Books Are"

I highlighted a third area on the map above, and now it's time to talk about it. The North, also called the Sword Coast North or the Savage Frontier, has eventually come to outstrip even the Heartlands in terms of publishing attention.

Unlike most of the other areas outside the Heartlands, the North had at least partially been worked on by Ed. His Company of Crazed Venturers game took place along its coastline and in Waterdeep; FR1 Waterdeep and the North largely consists of his materials from that game that didn't fit into the original Forgotten Realms Campaign Set. FR1 was still sketchy though, and focused primarily on Waterdeep itself, not the entire region.

Filling out the North fell to Jennell Jaquays. Her FR4 The Savage Frontier (published as Paul Jaquays) is the best of the original set of regional supplements filling out Faerun, specifically because Jennell was able to synthesize Ed's original ideas for the North with her own historical reenactment: Vikings. Jennell wrapped Ed's history of Waterdeep around an indigenous population called the Uthgardt. These Uthgardt did have a history of island pillaging and a strong warrior culture - but Jennell also placed them inland, giving them animist spirituality and deep ties to sacred sites across the entirety of the North. The "barbarians" of D&D now had a home, both informed by popular culture and made into something fresh and new.

To some degree, writing for the Realms at this point was like checking off representation requirements from existing AD&D materials. It was in this manner that R.A. Salvatore pitched his Icewind Dale trilogy to TSR brass, having identified the very top of the North as open for new projects and suggesting a novel of strange magics with a human barbarian, a dwarf fighter, and halfling rogue. There wasn't much to really make his pitch stand out, so Salvatore stammered out suddenly that there would also be a drow character! A good drow, one like that new race in Unearthed Arcana. A good drow? Now that had some potential - and soon The Crystal Shard (now book 4 in the Legend of Drizzt) was approved.

While The Crystal Shard kept in Icewind Dale, its follow up, Streams of Silver, did not. Bruenor Battlehammer, king of the dwarven Clan Battlehammer, searches for his lost realm and finds it, deep inside the North. Bruenor's Mithral Hall tied him, and Drizzt, and the other characters, inside the North, giving them a place to grow as characters. Grow they did, and Salvatore's further novels about Drizzt delved into the BDSM/Mafia mashup drow city of Menzoberranzan deep under the North. Drizzt, the drow, and the North, became exceedingly popular characters and settings, with further novels and game supplements to match. In Drizzt, the Realms had something weird and unusual to match Planescape and Dark Sun in terms of appeal, even if it wasn't visible on the surface.

The drow are still essentially Oriental, I think. They are a twisted, dark Other to the typical D&D elf, and Salvatore filling them out with female-dominant kink tropes echoes the exoticized sexual appeal that Orientalism trades in. Drizzt's process of becoming a hero is essentially reconciling himself to Occidental ethics and repudiating the darkness of his homeland, becoming a respectable "good drow," even if not everyone can see that.

Okay, this is over 2000 words so I'm going to stop here for the night, but here's my list of what I want to cover in future parts:

-The Oriental text versus reality, parallelling sourcebooks versus actual play
-how the underlying Oriental/Occidental split influences what we think is interesting about the Realms, and what gets more products in 2e and 3e
-how criticizing Oriental texts can be used to criticize the Oriental spaces in the Realms
-as always why 5e dropped the ball so goddamn hard (aka why the Sword Coast feels so fucking small and why Chult was super disappointing)
-and yeah I have to talk about malicious versus naive Orientalism, aka why Mulhorand works and why Maztica doesn't

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Real Forgotten Realms Part 2: What The Realms Isn't

Yes, it took me 20 days to get back to this. This has been quite the busy month, personally.

When people talk about the Forgotten Realms, one of the common criticisms is "having too many high-level NPCs who take all the spotlight and fix all the players' problems for them. Why do the PCs have to slay the evil Lord Malthiir of Mulmaster, why can't Elminster do that with his absurd power level?"

I say that this is common because when I talk about the Realms with people, this is one of the common criticisms that is brought up frequently, from old-school and new-school players, people with all kinds of experience with the setting. I'm not going to dispute that criticism here, because I want to admit something to you instead: it's completely founded in truth.

A short historical aside: the Forgotten Realms were originally created by Ed Greenwood as his home campaign, and were purchased by TSR when TSR needed a new campaign setting for AD&D. They asked Ed because he'd written a lot of very popular Dragon articles about the Realms. Why did TSR need a new campaign setting? Well, at the time, they had two: Greyhawk and Dragonlance. Greyhawk was tied up in legal disputes with Gary Gygax, while Dragonlance had been designed for the very specific Dragonlance modules and novels project. Dragonlance was very successful and sold like crazy, but the things that made it sell well also made it very inflexible. The Forgotten Realms, then, were a new "core" setting for AD&D, where they could put a lot of their other projects and creative properties and tie things together. This began as soon as the very first Forgotten Realms product, which wasn't by Ed Greenwood or part of the "main" Realms: Douglas Niles' Darkwalker on Moonshae was his own Irish-inspired fantasy setting for D&D that got folded into the Forgotten Realms.

Shortly after the Old Grey Box was released, 2e AD&D came out. 2e AD&D introduced a number of story and setting changes to the game, a lot of which were motivated by uneducated fearmongering about D&D (such as the removal of assassins, and the name changes for demons and devils to tanar'ri and baatezu.) Each of TSR's campaign settings, then, had to be updated to fit these changes. And for the Forgotten Realms, TSR decided to take another stab at the multimedia project model Dragonlance had shown sold so well. So, the transition from 1e to 2e for the Forgotten Realms wasn't just a new supplement, it was an Event, a big marketing push with lots of new products. (This model TSR and WotC would return to again and again; collectively these are referred to in the context of the FR as "Realms-Shaking Events", or RSEs.)

And that Event was the Avatar Crisis. The gods all get thrown down from the planes, forced to live as mortals on Toril, and duke it out, rearranging magic and which god controls what and so on. The most prominent/popular event to come from this is the Bhaalspawn of the Baldur's Gate computer games, a nice addition to Bhaal, the god of assassins, dying. Because, you see, Bhaal had to die: he had to die, so all the assassins would die, because assassins weren't appropriate content for 2e AD&D. In other words, the Avatar Crisis is metaplot as fuck. Editorial determined what changes needed to be made, and the authors and designer who wrote the corresponding trilogies of novels and adventures had to follow those changes. (Books 4 and 5 of the Avatar Crisis were published years later as a follow up RSE, hence the official name changing from the Avatar Trilogy to the Avatar Crisis. There's also tie-in comics from DC, but I haven't read those.)

And those modules: well, they're fucking abysmal.

Shadowdale. Tantras. Waterdeep. Honestly, any group that actually completed these should get a fucking medal. These are EXACTLY what people are thinking of when they talk about FR adventures where the NPCs solve all their problems for you, where you're stuck to a railroad where explosions happen and none of your choices matter. Because again, these were metaplot as hell.

These were patterned after the Dragonlance modules, which were also very railroady, but there's an important difference. In the Dragonlance modules, the players play the story-crucial characters (like Goldmoon, the new cleric proving the gods are real) from a pregenerated selection. The novels are really the retellings of the module playtesting, with the various designers and writers breathing life into these characters; the modules allow you to make you their own. The pieces still move on train tracks, but you're the pieces.

The Avatar Crisis modules DON'T have you playing the plot-crucial characters. Instead, you create your own PCs - and then get attached to the plot-crucial characters through increasingly more implausible coincidences and schemes. You find out the same plot as the novels - not by taking part in it, maybe by seeing it. A lot of it is just read out by the DM in boxed text; when the modules bother to actually fill in the PCs on the important things going on. Essentially, the PCs just babysit the actually important characters - Midnight, Cyric, Kelemvor - and have the events happen to them. Affect the outcomes? Take your own choices? Oh, no, definitely not: the metaplot must go on. The PCs get captured, kidnapped, forcibly teleported around, all to make sure they're in the right place for the right event. Worse yet, because the PCs AREN'T the main characters, they never even see or participate in many of the most exciting moments in the actual novels (such as Midnight's journey through the Fugue Plane.) The actual climax to the whole trilogy - a rooftop battle with Myrkul the god of death - is won no matter what the PCs do: if they fail, Midnight and Elminster win for them.

Why do I bring this up, you might ask? If you're trying to convince me the Forgotten Realms are good, why do you confirm all the worst stereotypes first?

If I hide it, then I have to spend a lot of time covering up how bad these are. I'd have to lie, and pretend they don't exist, or justify them in other ways. My argument would be weakened by not addressing crucial disputative evidence.

If you're familiar with the logical structures of arguments, you probably already know what I'm going to say. You can never prove a negative: I can't say that the Forgotten Realms are never bad. But I can prove a positive: I can show you how the Forgotten Realms are good, and interesting, and prove THAT. 

See, that's the secret, and it always has been, ever since the Old Grey Box in 1987: you've always been told to use what you'd like, and throw out what you don't. Make the Realms your own. I can't account for every product ever, and to be honest, there are a fair portion of terrible ones out there. I can show you the good ones, and why they're good, and teach you how to make the setting your own and make the Realms work for you.

One last thing. Remember how I said there were multiple novelists for the Avatar Crisis, but only one designer? It's true. All three of those horrible modules were written by Ed Greenwood. Next time we'll talk about what the Forgotten Realms is, by showing you how Ed really sets up games when he's not forced to write to a metaplot. And I promise it won't take as long.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

The Solo Dungeon Jam For Everybody!!!

I started an game jam to create solo dungeons in the style of Gary Gygax's original random dungeon tables: Submissions are open for two weeks (or a bit longer, you'll just need to message me to approve your submission personally), and you don't need to be familiar with solo dungeons, dungeon design, or a specific OSR system (the jam uses B/X, with links to free copies of the rules included.)

I'm looking forward to breaking out some of my favourite tables and playing through what other people come up with!