What I’ve Been Doing

Life is an ebb and flow… just like the frequency of my posts on this blog.

At the moment, much of my creative energies are being directed toward the middle-school Pathfinder club I am running. I started a thread about it on the Paizo forums, and I’ve been maintaining a blog that the kids themselves have added posts to.

Make sure to pay the blog a visit and say hi!

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Opposed skill checks… entirely unnecessary?

I have noticed that a lot of published adventure materials (as well as the Core Rulebook) instruct that opposed rolls be made:

Perception vs. Stealth
Sense Motive vs. Bluff
etc., etc…

But aren’t they actually unnecessary? Can’t we just treat one of the “rolls” as a flat DC?

Let’s take a Sense Motive roll as an example. An NPC tries to lie to a PC. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume the NPC has a +0 Bluff modifier, and the PC has a +0 Sense Motive modifier.

If you treat it as simply a DC 10 skill check (DC 10 + opposed skill modifier), then the PC has a 55 percent chance of succeeding. I don’t think this changes with opposed rolls.

To illustrate further, let’s say we want to invent a dice-rolling game in which I have a 50% chance of winning. Either you and I can each roll a d20, and I win if my roll higher than yours and we re-roll if we tie. But what’s the point? I might as well roll a single d20 and win if I roll 11 or higher. (Or flip a coin!)

Basically, rolling two d20s seems like doing double duty. And since skill checks are not automatic successes on a 20 or automatic failures on a 1, nothing is added or subtracted to the possibility of success by rolling d20 twice.

I see this also applying to Perception vs. Stealth rolls. HOWEVER, it doesn’t necessarily work when the skill you are trying to “beat” is being practiced by multiple creatures. I suppose the rules intend the party to detect the LEAST stealthy individual among a group of hiding creatures, thus adjusting all the probabilities. However, as a GM I skip all this because it’s too much work for little payoff (and it makes Stealth checks too easy to defeat) — and so I just have the PCs do Perception checks against a flat DC.

Conversely, if an NPC is trying to detect whether a PC is bluffing, I don’t see why the PC should just try to do a Bluff check against a flat DC based on the NPC’s Sense Motive modifier.

So I don’t see where opposed rolls are necessary. Or am I missing something?

Posted in Rule Rants, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Early D&D: Baking-In the “Sweet Spot”

The amount of XP a Thief needed to advance to each new level in Basic D&D. (chart borrowed from Jeff’s Gameblog)

There is a very interesting thread on the Paizo forums right now, about how to give more of an “old-school feel” to the Pathfinder RPG ruleset. The discussion has been widely varied — not in small part due to the fact that “old school” means different things to different people — from suggested houserules that emulate AD&D 1e and 2e, to use of battle grids, to adventure and encounter design.

Several people in the thread have said that old-school play involved more real-world time passing between gaining new levels of experience.

Sure, I can see that being true once you got to higher levels of play in 1e and 2e, but that wasn’t true at the earliest levels: to take the most extreme example, the Thief in AD&D 1e achieved 2nd level at 1,251 XP, then 3rd level at 2,501 XP. And advancement speed also depended on the GM, who could drop a big treasure hoard in 1e, where gold equaled XP, and level up the characters as he or she saw fit. Heck, Gary Gygax even introduced a rule that no character can advance more than 1 level of experience at a time from a single play session — something unheard of in D&D in later editions.

One thing I like about the older rulesets was that the “sweet spot” of mid-range levels — at which the players no longer were common pushovers, and still had not maxed-out the limits of the game system and able to overpower all monsters and obstacles in their paths — was baked-in to the XP progression charts. Sure, the first few levels were obtained fairly quickly, but because advancing to the next level involved a doubling of the previous level’s XP requirement, each subsequent level involved a much longer effort than the previous one.

At the same time, each character class could only obtain so many Hit Dice; after 9th level or so, you could only get +1 hit points or +2 hit points per level, and regardless of your Constitution score.

Together, these rules presumed a “training period” during which adventurers strove toward a heroic ideal, with progress being quick at first but eventually slowing-down and plateauing. This was definitely true of the Fighter and Thief classes, but then there were the spellcasters who continued to uncover new secrets of the universe, who at the very-highest levels continued to obtain new tiers of power. Still, for them the XP requirements were so large that every “unlocking” of a new tier of power entailed a significant amount of play. This led to increasing imbalance among the classes, but at the same time it was consistent with the concept of magic being all-encompassing and powerful and was seen (for the Magic-User at least) as the reward for being extremely weak at the lowest levels.

Starting with D&D 3rd Edition, there was assumed to be a standard number of encounters to advance to each new level — about 13 encounters — and this remained at each level, all the way up to 20th. So the new norm of what every Level 1 adventurer was potentially capable, if they “simply worked hard and tried,” was to the 20th level adventurer. Gaming-time-wise, you skidded past the “sweet spot” at the same rate as you did the earliest levels. At the same time, the Fighter-type and Thief-type classes also continued to obtain abilities that kept them power at a closer pace with the spellcasters.

The end result is the opposite of a plateau in the “sweet spot”: a geometric curve upward in power that parallels the progression between levels of spellcasting power. And these new tiers of power are achieved at the same, unchanging rate. This is figured into the math of D&D 3rd Edition and its derivatives (including Pathfinder): the XP rewarded for defeating a creature is doubled for every 2 Challenge Rating (CR) levels one goes up. And CR by definition is equivalent to PC levels. So therefore one 5th-level PC “packs the same punch” as two 3rd-level PCs, just as one 13th-level PC packs the same punch as eight 5th-level PCs. And so on, and so on.

This, combined with the flat rate at which one obtained experience levels, has two effects: (1) the “sweet spot” is truncated and supplanted sooner by high-level play, and (2) gone is any sense of any an ideal to what mortals can achieve. To clarify this second point, there no longer is an in-world “elite club” of the mortal world’s movers and shakers — in 1e, there wasn’t much of a difference between a 14th level Fighter and an 18th Level Fighter. But in 3rd Edition forward, the difference is immense. The legends of your community are not nearly as legendary, when viewed in light of their higher-level neighbors, or in light of what they eventually could be if they went on, say, two more adventures. (Incidentally, this also compounds the difficulty of creating a believable “sandbox” setting with widely-varied encounter levels, and makes the escalation of monsters’ power over the course of a campaign more extreme and conveniently-coincidental.)

And so, in 3rd Edition D&D and its derivatives, the “pinnacle,” that achievement of legendary status, lies at 20th level. Instead of savoring the taste and feel of the “sweet spot,” the players during middle levels of play are still hurtling toward ever greater levels of power, with the expectation of attaining that greater power baked-in to the XP and rewards system.

This is my long-winded way of saying that, when Pathfinder RPG goes through its next iteration years from now, I would like the “sweet spot” to stay sweet much longer. In the time, I am wondering how maybe I could “fix” the recipe to make it better suit my tastes.

cakeHere is a very rough idea I’m thinking about to expand the “sweet spot” in Pathfinder RPG. (Keep in mind that Pathfinder’s Medium XP progression assumes a 20-encounters-per-level progression.)

Levels 1 and 2 – 13 encounters
Levels 3 through 5 – 20 encounters
Levels 6 through 12 – 40 encounters
Levels 13 and up – 60 encounters

Suggestions, comments?

Posted in Old School Review, Rule Rants | 4 Comments



Sketch by cooey2ph

Endeavoring to lead a game
Of Pathfinder, I am ashamed
To say I’ve never read (but seen)
The work of J. R. R. Tolkien.

For if I am to weave a tale
As skilled as those in Rivendell,
I must immerse in lofty prose
Until my thought to tongue smooth flows.

All for eleven twelve-year-olds
Hungry for a tale well told,
In which they go where evil lies
To find their glory, prepared to die!

And so today’s to Inspiration!
From heroes, and from those who to tell,
From those of high and lowest station,
From those who strain to listen well.

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Why Pathfinder’s Barbarian Rage Rules Are Stupid and Need to Change

According to Pathfinder rules, Amiri the Barbarian is more likely to wield that giant sword, but also more likely to die after being knocked down than any other character class.

According to Pathfinder’s rules as written, a Barbarian, upon ending her rage, loses the HP she had gained as a result of her +4 morale bonus to Constitution. These are ALWAYS subtracted at the end of her rage, unlike temporary HP.

Quoted from the Core Rulebook:

The increase to Constitution grants the barbarian 2 hit points per Hit Dice, but these disappear when the rage ends and are not lost first like temporary hit points… If a barbarian falls unconscious, her rage immediately ends, placing her in peril of death.

Many monsters focus their attention upon other enemies, once the enemy in front of them has fallen unconscious.

Of course, this all leads to the perverse result that barbarians — the paragons of fortitude and hardiness — are more likely to fall unconscious and/or die than other characters because of how the rules of Death and Dying work. And why? Not because they were weak, but because they were really mad when they got knocked down.

Does this make sense to anyone? Not to this blogger. And doesn’t this defeat the purpose of rule mechanics, to simulate an (admittedly fantastic) reality? And since we have assigned the Barbarian the largest (d12) Hit Die, shouldn’t that mean our rules should make the Barbarian more likely to be badass and not more likely to be dead?

Conceptually, negative HP are not the equivalent of positive HP. Positive HP measures how hard it is to knock a PC down; negative HP measures a PC’s distance from death and the likelihood he or she will stabilize. In fact, Pathfinder already introduces a different set of rules for negative HP, by basing it on a different set of factors than it does positive HP.

Positive HP is an abstract amalgam of the PC’s level, class, Constitution, and luck. It describes not simply the amount of physical punishment a PC can withstand, but also the PC’s ability to avoid blows and the training that comes with his or her class. Hence, a PC’s positive HP increases with experience, having a martial character class, having a high Constitution, and good luck.

In contrast, negative HP denotes one thing alone: the PC’s constitution — or her ability to avoid slipping into death after being knocked down in relation to the power of the blow that struck her down.  Hence, a character dies upon reaching his or her negative Constitution score.

When a Barbarian rages, having more positive HP makes sense. After all, she is now a nigh-unstoppable killing machine, someone to fear who can dish out more damage and is now harder to knock down.

However, once the Barbarian is knocked down, does she now become more likely to die because of her rage? This Rot Grub thinks not. Why do we even care at this point? After all, when I’m unconscious, I’m already not angry anymore. So why simulate a transition between more-angry unconsciousness and less-angry unconsciousness? And why should becoming less angry induce a coma?

Enough of my rant. I did not raise this problem just to complain, but to fix it. So as a result of my theorycraft and frustration, I have arrived at the following houserule and proposed rule revision to Pathfinder:

When a Barbarian’s rage ends while in positive HP, subtract the HP gained from the rage, but never go below 1 HP. If the Barbarian is at negative HP upon ending rage, do not subtract the HP gained as a result of the rage.

Questions? Comments?

Controversy and rage are always welcome at The Rot Grub.

EDIT: I’ve noticed quite bit of traffic to this article. Please feel free to peruse my site. Also, if you want to know what I’ve been focusing on lately, namely it’s been twenty middle-schoolers with little Life XP but high scores in Imagination and Enthusiasm!

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Marrying the Old School with the New

I have been looking for more concrete advice about how to “flex” my Pathfinder game to incorporate more old-school elements, such as randomness, exploration/sandbox, and potential lethality.

I stumbled on an article today that is one GM’s own thinking-out-loud on the subject of adding “old school” to a Pathfinder campaign, followed by attempts to implement the ideas in play. The blog looks like a good read.

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Old School Review 3 – A History of Hit Points, Part One

From the Mentzer Basic D&D Red Box (1983): When was the last time we saw a D&D player’s manual showing a PC fleeing?

Today, we will begin trying to quantify that amorphous term “Old School Roleplaying,” insofar as it describes a style of play and a vision of fantasy heroes.

(This is the next installment of what I will now call my “Old School Review” series – an eagle’s-eye view of the evolution of the presumed play style of Dungeons & Dragons over time, often through the lens of particular aspects of the game system.)

As I wrote in a previous post, the primary inventor of the D&D, Gary Gygax, had a much more low-powered view of PCs, at least at lower levels of experience. At first level, not only are the PCs not able to perform superhuman feats, but there is not much separating them from common people, albeit with some specialized training. The typical 1st-level “fighting man” in early D&D was not the soldier, but the plebeian.

Accordingly, in the original AD&D Players Guide, Gygax described dungeon-delving as a sneaky, evasive affair, with combat to be avoided at all costs.

The modern view of fantasy roleplaying has “powered-up” heroes at first-level. Whether this is bane or blessing is not the subject of this post. Rather, today’s subject is quantifying this increase in power of characters, through the lens of D&D’s evolving rules on hit points and on death and dying. We will examine this in mechanical terms, and also in terms of the prevailing assumptions these suggest for the system’s game world.

Before delving into the various editions of D&D, here are the ground rules for this Study (yes, I’m weighty and portentous like that):

1. Criteria
We will look at (1) generation of starting hit points and (2) the rules for death and dying (hit points are only relevant in the context by which they prevent you from dying anywayz). When applicable, we will look at the evolution of other D&D rules when they are relevant.

2. Human fighters only, please.
Any comparative study needs to narrow its focus to limit what you have to compare. Let this be the human fighter: since spellcasting characters are kind of, by definition, extraordinary to begin with, they provide a bit of white noise when we’re trying to examine how the game system envisions typical people, the vast majority of whom we can assume, through practice, can accomplish the basic M.O. of fighters: fight. You may be a weakling, but with practice you can be better, ignorance by the gods and disjunction from the Elemental Forces notwithstanding. And Thieves/Rogues were not a class in original D&D. Humans are the default race in all versions of D&D.

3. First-level characters only.
In all iterations of D&D, all heroes can potentially become heroes about whom legends are written. We are examining instead how each iteration of D&D treated people who aspired to become those mythic heroes.

4. Presume typical 1st-level enemies and encounters.
It’s come to be a cliche that 1st-level characters will encounter monstrous humanoids, weaker undead (skeletons, zombies), and vermin. For good reason: these monsters tend to do less damage and give 1st-level PCs a fighting chance.

OD&D (White Box)

Average starting HP = 4.59

1. Fighting Men start with 1d6+1: after Constitution is considered, an average of 4.59 hit points. A Constitution score of 15 or above grants a +1 bonus to the total. Because ability scores are determined by rolling 3d6 in order, and ability scores are fixed upon generation, this extra HP is not likely (only about a 9% chance). This comes out to a ~0.1 HP bonus to the base 4.5 total.

2. You are dead once you are reduced to 0 hit points.

(It is also important to note that, under OD&D original rules (“white box”), the vast majority of monsters, and all weapons, do 1d6 damage when they hit. Only particularly large or strong monsters do more damage, such as ogres, which do 1d6+2 damage on a hit.)

Verdict: Fighting Men have a somewhat less than a 50-50 chance of being killed by a single monster blow. This is mainly by virtue of the extra hit point they receive at 1st level.

Interestingly, nearly all “hits” in OD&D, whether from a dragon’s bite or from a common rat, did 1d6 in damage. Perhaps this explains the origin of the term “hit die” and “hit points” to describe PC health? I always wondered what the origin of the term “hit point” — strange when you think about it — was. Apparently, the term “hit die” originated, not as a term to describe a creature’s constitution, but rather how much damage a blow would deal. Thus, saying that a character in OD&D had “two hit dice” was shorthand for saying they could approximately withstand “two hits.” Gygax’s original idea of hit points as abstract — encompassing the ability of high-level characters to dodge blows — is seen here quite literally.

Since then, many more factors (such as Strength bonuses to damage, weapon type, etc.) have complicated the situation. But we still use the terms “hit points” and “hit dice” in D&D to describe a creature’s ability to withstand damage, even though the magnitude of these numbers — under the useful idea that hit points are abstract — now vary widely in modern systems.

It is interesting that there are no separate rules for generating stats for NPC characters. (“Only the lowest level of character types can be hired.”) Thus, NPC characters also have 1d6 hit points. This alone tells us that the system presumes that 1st-level Fighting Men are not more likely to survive a goblin’s blow than are commoners. Therefore, your typical Fighting Man is your Average Joe (or Joseph).

OD&D with Supplements

Average starting HP = 4.62

Supplement I: Greyhawk introduced many alternate rules and differentiated further the classes for OD&D. What follows is how hit points are handled under the alternate rules.

1. Fighters start with 1d8: after Constitution bonuses, an average of 4.62 hit points. A Constitution score of 15-16 grants a bonus to this total; a 17 grants a +2 bonus; and an 18 grants a +3 bonus. Ability scores are still determined by rolling 3d6 in order. Once we do the math, our rolled-up Fighter has an average starting HP of 4.62.

2. You are still dead once you are reduced to 0 hit points.

(Also, weapons now do variable amounts of damage, as do monsters. The best one-handed weapons for fighters do 1d8 damage. Some monsters have multiple attacks, and others (especially giants and dragons) can do far greater amounts of damage than 1d6. However, these monsters are not likely encountered by 1st-level PCs.)

Verdict: We see that 1st-level fighters have not increased in survivability at all, at least according to the rules. In fact, when you factor in that strength bonuses to damage have now been added, a 1st-level fighter is more likely to die from a strong fighter’s blow than before.

However, the purpose of variable damage rules was also to allow Dungeon Masters to pit characters against creatures that do less damage. A goblin does 1d4 or “weapon type” in damage. (The strong assumption here is that you would apply the 1d4 die — why else give this option, other than to consign the goblin to “weaker than a human” status?). Conversely, 1st-level characters will wither before the world’s greater creatures: cloud giants, for example, inflict 6-36 points of damage with their blows.

As for how fighters compare to NPCs in the world, we now most consider the fact that magic users, who are considered not to have martial training, now only have a 1d4 hit die. Retainers and hirelings may be presumed to be fighters in their large majority, but the farmers and craftsmen of this fantasy world may be presumed to have a 1d4 hit die, barring bonuses for high Constitution.

Therefore, in theory, fighters are less likely to die in a dungeon, than the peasants of their time–but only so much as to be able to go toe-to-toe with an orc (1d6 damage), who, by their natures, were meant to be a step above commoners to begin with.

In summation, your typical Fighter was a person who was distinguished by a fair amount fighting experience. Perhaps fighting is his or her profession; perhaps he or she has received some formal training, bullied some people, or defended the village in the past. You do not want to get in a brawl with this person. The Fighter has some training with weapons that do more damage as well. At the same time, the Fighter will still have trepidation while plumbing into a dungeon, where a well-aimed sword swing from a skeleton or deviously-hidden pit trap could mean instant death.

It is interesting to see, how the D&D system has evolved, the rules allowed for more variation in the game world. The mechanics now provide more “colors,” by which the DM can paint the creatures in his or game world.

We will look at later editions of D&D in future posts.

Until next time: “May the rot grub not eat you.”

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