segunda-feira, 7 de outubro de 2019

Them Bones of Adventuring - XXV: Stealth Revisited

An ongoing exposition on table procedures for common exploration feats and rules, which began here with part one.


Though for the most trivial of sweeps a simple stealth check can be everything a situation calls for, the books leave any mincing past that completely up in the air and each referee to fend for himself. A system to arbitrate the use of stealth can be, much like the act itself, a tiptoeingly minor but important part of the game, and one to unexpectedly punch above its weight, tending as it does to present a way for players to jump the script fencing and avoid, among other things, combat. And we all know how the more modern shades of DnD design are ever so anxious that a player should not be able to “skip content”.

My initial belief that stealth merited more gradation than that found in a single roll saw me making the wrongheaded departure in the direction of calling for rolls every single turn, thinking this was going to bring about anything of interest beyond failure. Engaging the superpower of hindsight, it is easy to see the previous attempt to tackle this standing as somewhat naïve, for even highly skilled sneaks will be bound to statistically falter in the face of reiterated rolling (and with casuals standing less of a chance than a yakuza’s pinky) as well as recognizing that having different speed settings to the stealth approach made for nothing but an illusion of choice, as a player will simply always default to the one he’s most confortable with (typically the slowest) and edge out the rest, this working against the abstraction as well given that attempting stealth ought to be something that a character is presumed to engage in to the best of his ability at all times, rendering choices of “speed vs. silence” as pretty much moot by design in all but the most rarified of cases.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Complexity

To call back the earlier post, stealth is one of those areas of play where the thing's decisiveness can prove stifling, pointing to rules that suffer from being excessively abstracted. A practical approach will require something sensible, able to neatly tie off a number of disparate situations, preferably without cutting down player agency and remaining easy to ascertain at the table on the back of as little refereeing discretion as possible. To this end I am now inclined to favor a one-roll-and-done mechanic that quickly frames a scene and leaves the rest in the hands of the player.

Considering these four typical situations that need to be accounted by stealth rules:

1. Characters employing stealth to move up to or past a fixed position

2. Characters sneaking up on a moving target or tailing it from a distance

3. Use of Stealth in Combat

4. Ambushes

I'm casting for something that will allow those less furtive a chance to literally get by while still presenting an optional layer of challenge for characters who wish to aim for a correspondingly greater prize. Past resisting the temptation to demand multiple rolls one must equate that stealth can both be used for avoidance as well as to pave the way to a potential attack, as settling for the variance inherent to a single roll (plus a to-hit roll) has to prove enough to ensure an assassination attempt is kept an uncertain prospect at best. Finally, simplification also dictates that Stealth should be a roll against a static total, to be applied to PCs and NPCs alike, the opposition’s Passive Perception being the obvious clean fit.

Muting Sound, Eluding Sight – Rethinking the Sensory Distance

Abstractionwise stealth typically faces the problem of dealing with either the sight or the hearing of the opposition (or, panning out this thinking, the senses of smell or touch for certain creatures), it being highly situationally dependent which one is to take precedence. Regarding human perception, highly attuned to motion as it is, the notion of stealth is pretty much dependent on ruling out the visual – being a given that a character will need to be out of sight, disguised, immobile or all three – and pinning the variable on sound by default. This means the opposition is already implied to be with its back turned, looking the other way or have its sight obscured for the standard Stealth attempt to even happen.

For simplicity’s sake, no matter a creature’s sensorial mainstay, its awareness threshold is always represented by a partially adjudicated, partially randomized distance based on a reverse engineering of the random encounter distance: its sensory range, rolled as 3d6 x 10’.

Any character – even one on sentry duty – will inevitably display an uneven level of competence and concentration at any given moment, as tiredness, momentary distraction and sheer boredom all take a toll that the referee translates as a rolled total representing three concentric (but non-overlapping) fields of sensorial awareness, prosaically called Long, Medium and Close distances, each representing a liminar point at which Stealth becomes more difficult to maintain.

The sensory range is segmented into the different thresholds by ordering the three d6 results from highest to lowest, meaning that, for example, a roll of “2,5,4” translates into a sentry with a 110’ total sensory radius of which the first 50’ (110’-60’) are considered “Long” and thus traversible on the back of a simple successful Stealth check, the next 40’ (60-20’) are considered the “Medium” threshold and the last 20’ are considered “Close”, each implying a DC increase; By resorting to this segmentation, we know that a character attempting a backstab would need to have a roll beat three consecutive DC increments but those wanting to simply bypass a guard post could make do with just the basic check or even none at all, depending on the terrain’s configuration, happenstance and actions taken by the players to effect a distraction, for though Stealth is a lonely business best left in the hands of specialists a canny party ought to get itself across a wide range of situations by relying on a frontrunner to run some interference and facilitate the rest of the pack’s journey.

The Crunch

Stealth Procedure

0. The possibility of Stealth

- A player prompts the referee to rule if a character can feasibly hide or attempt an approach under stealth.

1. Situation and modifiers to the Stealth check are determined

- Referee points out any salient challenges presented by the situation that the character can perceive (such as the defender’s field of vision, randomized or otherwise).

- Player tallies up any modifiers from Dexterity and training in Stealth as well as possible constraints in terms of equipment load affecting the character.

- A sketched outline of the terrain may be requested, if it is deemed relevant. 

2. Character’s Stealth attempt is rolled (along with the defender’s Sensory Distance)

- Referee secretly rolls 3d6 and a d20 for the character's stealth (or more, if the character benefits from Advantage or multiple characters are attempting to move under stealth), ordering the three d6’s into the defender's sensory tiers.

- The sensory distance emanates from the closest defender, the stealth DC being provided by its passive Perception score (or the highest score present, if unclear).

- Once challenged, the rolled Stealth either fails to beat the DC and the character draws notice or the attempt succeeds and movement proceeds undetected.

- Note that no matter how weak the rolled attempt, any consequences of failure are only triggered if and when the character crosses into the sensory threshold proper, a distance that – it merits repetition – is not known to the player.

- Fumbles immediately give away the character's exact position to the defender, granting him the Initiative. 

3. Player input

Far from being a completely mechanical process, the player is encouraged to use available maneuvering space in whatever way possible to better his position, be it through use of cover (visual or aural), moving to skirt the enemy’s senses or arranging a distraction.

- Past the initial check and as long as the character doesn’t take actions that’ll draw undue attention, the player is free to dictate the character’s movement and take slow measured actions within the enemy’s sensory range.

- As the character decides to move and a closer sensory threshold is breached the previously successful result is again measured against the increased DC, then being allowed to ride on if it remains successful or the character being detected if it fails to measure up.

- If a stealthing character is hidden by cover at the point a threshold would be passed then the increase to the check’s DC is delayed until such a time as the character emerges from behind it. If cover is used to fully bypass a threshold then the character becomes exempt from the difficulty increase for that threshold.

- While within the enemy’s sensory distance, a character that takes any sort of action carrying a risk of detection or is faced with a drastic enviroment change, be it noise or movement-wise, may have his Stealth check confronted with hostile Perception checks.

For example: a party’s advance scout is following an enemy warband through a tangle of forest trails when suddenly a clearing carpeted with dry leaves is reached. Now, to keep track of the quarry, the scout must decide if he risks detection by crossing the clearing while still within earshot of those being followed – prompting a public Perception roll from the opposition – or if he allows the group to move away in hopes of catching them at a later point, keeping the current Stealth value being used but at the risk of losing track of the foe.

The archetypical situations

Though this is a truism applicable to almost all facets of the game, the open-ended nature of stealth begs one to repeat that, depending on player ingeniousness, particularly complex and well thought-out approaches may obviate the need for rolls on each of the following.

Approaching a fixed point under stealth

The standard situation, often relying on tactical use of terrain and thence a defined/sketched environment.

- Depending on the actual circumstances, the character will move at a rate from between half normal walking speed down to a crawl of just 5’ per round.

Shadowing another character

Concealed or disguised movement in close pursuit of another within a complex environment that defies a clear distance positioning, such as a network of tunnels or a city’s streets.

- Stealth is rolled as normal but sensory range is witheld, as distance is assumed to expand and contract in a fluid manner as the parties’ course unfolds. Instead the sensory range is left unrolled and stealth thresholds are passed as the player declares that he wishes to move closer.

- Once determining hard distances becomes important (i.e. someone wants to use a ranged weapon or a character gets caught) the potential gap of the sensory distance is rolled and resolved into the concrete encounter distance.

- A character shadowing another generally moves no faster than a walk (normal movement speed).

- Attempts to open but discreetly follow another through an urban environment rely on Wisdom rather than Dexterity.

Mounting an ambush

Requiring favourable conditions to be an option, ambushes invert the logic of the standard attempt, as the concealed character becomes the fixed point and the quarry is the one approaching.

- Roll the foe’s sensory distance as normal; the Stealth check is made with Wisdom instead of Dexterity; as the enemy pointsman approaches, so rises the likelihood that the ambusher will be spotted.

- If a small group of characters hides hastily each rolls individually as usual but if they’ve had time (10 minutes) to prepare a planned ambush then the character with the highest stealth potential (Wisdom plus Stealth training) can make a single roll at Advantage to prime the entire group.


Stealth in combat isn’t about definite concealment but rather about seizing an opportunity to blindside foes for just long enough to escape or deliver an unexpected blow. The abstraction of the sensory range isn’t used, as mutual awareness is assumed by close proximity.

- Disappearing in the midst of a melee after having been noticed is exceedingly difficult and requires a rare set of occurrences to pull off, needing not just cover but also a window of distraction from potential witnesses to slip away, such as the enemy targetting a different character with missile attack or being already engaged in melee combat.

- The check to engage in stealth still needs to beat the foes' highest passive Perception score, as the hostiles being distracted only permits stealth to be attempted in the first place. In certain complex combat situations, the hectic pace and limited communication possibilities may make it possible to hide from just some of the members of an opposing side.

The Sensory Thresholds

The abstraction of the distance tiers is not only meant to translate purely into terms of distance but also represent how off-guard a target will to be caught the moment a character approaching under stealth decides to reveal himself.

- Long tier (the defender’s edge of aural perception, generally given as 3d6 x 10’), Stealth DC = defender’s Passive Perception

This triggers the basic stealth check and beating it will usually provide enough leeway to skirt around a roving patrol, bypass a sentry post or follow a target from a discreet distance. Failing at this point means there's a chance a character might get spotted (see the post's last header) as the sensory radius is entered and Initiative be rolled to see how the situation unfolds, though by dint of distance things might not necessarily evolve into a combat.

- Medium tier (gotten by subtracting the highest die from the 3d6 pool rolled), DC increases by 1

By slinking into this tier, a character is able to line up a shot with a missile weapon without distance penalties and, if the character (or the majority of a party) spring an attack from this distance they’ll have Advantage when rolling Initiative.

- Close tier (gotten by subtracting the highest remaining d6 from the above pool), DC increases by 1

This distance lends itself to melee combat as well as the use of thrown weaponry, characters that reveal themselves from this tier automatically win Initiative and roll a contested check to determine if the target is surprised.

- Assassination (directly adjacent to the target) DC increases by 2

If this point is reached the ultimate prize is at hand, as the character will be ensured of having both Initiative and Surprise, and may attempt to deliver a killing blow with a melee weapon.

Selective Silence – circumstancial caveats to the Stealth procedure

Between the quality of the opposition and the many facets of an environment able to influence a Stealth attempt a single post cannot hope to cover all the happenstance a referee might have to represent in the course of play, so here's the costumary set of general rules of thumb:

Character’s equipment constraints

- Being encumbered will mean Disadvantage on the check.

- Inventory slots filled past those classed as fast-access increase the roll’s fumble margin and so does wielding a weapon of unusual size or configuration (i.e. a flail or anything requiring both hands).

- Wearing an armour type that limits the input from the Dexterity modifier to AC likewise extends such limitation to all physical checks, including Stealth attempts.

Defender’s situation

To model situations where differences in the defender’s perception are a significant factor, such as when dealing with creatures with exotic senses or whose attention is sharpened or dulled can be done by modifying the amount or size of the dice rolled for the sensory distance, with additional dice implying additional sensory thresholds and viceversa.

Example: sentries posted at the gates and certain tents of a military camp can be adjudicated as being particularly alert, rolling 4d6 and dropping lowest for sensory range on account of this or, conversely, demoralized rank-and-file determined to be idling at a low ebb, rolling 3d6 and dropping the highest result can be appropriate.

A defender targetted by an effective distraction may mean a number of things, from temporarily shutting out their outer threshold of awareness as long as their attention lies elsewhere to allowing a Stealth attempt where none was possible before.

Surrounding environment

Circumstances propitious or adverse to the stealth attempt itself as related to matters of footing or background noise may be represented either through granting Advantage or Disadvantage to the stealth attempt, as usual. Though advantage could be modelled in terms of 5 point modifications to the DC rather than a second d20 roll, I’d personally disadvise this on the grounds of avoiding conflicting modifiers, as the DC is already being affected by the sensory thresholds.

Advantageous examples would include attempting stealth near the roaring banks of a waterfall, crossing a hall richly appointed with fur carpets or mingling amid a street alive with crowds whereas for disadvantageous examples one can imagine trying to sneak over creaky floorboards or forcing a path through patches of dried plant growth.

Some circumstances might simultaneously carry advantages (or the opposite) to both the stealth roll and the sensory distance, such as moving about unnoticed amid a foggy downpour, both impairing a sentry’s sensory range and granting advantage to the stealth attempt due to the muffled sound.

On Getting Caught (shades of failure)

Since stealth is acutely hinged on make-or-break, liable to result in a combat, a chase or on someone raising the alarm, it behooves careful approach by both referee and remaining players alike, firstly by attending to their fictional positioning as well as minding the sequencing of actions, as characters who “stay just outside the door, ready to spring if something goes wrong” might realize only too late that they’re actually three full combat rounds away from being of any use. In parallel to this a basic mechanical gradation of failure becomes important, as failing a Stealth check at a guard's farthest sensory tier cannot mean quite the same as it happening at a closer distance.

A simple failure will thus mean enough of a disturbance has been made to potentially give a character’s presence away. Yet this, depending on target and circumstance, won’t necessarily mean a character finds his outline starkly painted against a white background all of a sudden, rather it will mean a prey might instinctively flee, a predator or guard cautiously investigate (prompting an active Perception check against the rolled stealth total), and a social creature may hesitantly start seeking to get the word out. All cases where a decision isn’t immediately apparent should merit randomization in the shape of a Wisdom check or a reaction roll adjusted by a halved-Wisdom mod, with low numbers bringing ill to the character, middling totals granting a round of indecision to be followed by further rolling and the unlikely boxcars or natural one meaning the target ends up shrugging things off or talking himself out of alarm.

In any event, failure is still failure. The character who makes a sound is merely granted a chance to retreat or hide but may not reattempt an approach under Stealth and the alerted target, despite not necessarily pin-pointing an intruder, becomes agitated enough to be impossible to surprise. All of this, of course, is mooted in the face of a fumbled roll, which does pretty much equate to doing something egregious enough to be loudly and clearly found out.

Ultimately, uncertainty and indecision are ores that lie in rich, deep veins, ready to be mined by a canny referee for tension at the table, without it ever straying into fudging.

terça-feira, 13 de agosto de 2019

Them Bones of Adventuring - XXIV: Wear and Tear

An ongoing exposition on table procedures for common exploration feats and rules, which began here with part one.


Forgotten but not gone, this charred-out husk smolders still, the posting efforts proceeding at a pace quite unabated if solely within the sconced limits of my mind. The more prolonged my absence, the more for me to take to the belief that time and space cannot behave quite the same way for obscure weblogs tending to the roleplaying persuasion.

As proof that that which though dead yet still lies and that nature abhors a vaccuum let me kick and bend myself into a shape of some sort, perchance more pleasing to the eye; If the fingers can be snuggled deep enough down the back of my throat I'm certain this can still be made to work, and that with strange aeons even these house rules may somehow be brought to fruition...

On the Journey Fantastic Significant

Not for the last time, Tao of DnD came through with vital conceptualization of something that I’d long been grasping for but never quite reached.

I’ll self indict: opening the post, my jaded inner voice did not exactly peg “equipment wear and tear” as a rivetting matter well worth table time waxing on about.

That skepticism persisted for all of two paused nasal exhalations; Alexis’ post is exceedingly good. The takeaway from it – along with a slew of other ones in the same vein made by him at the time – being that the meaningful overland journey lies over a framework of iterative procedures that, having a real (even if marginal) mechanical consequence and not being handwaveable in the face of whim or whine, are fit to become the cornerstones of mentally simulated distance, aknowledging the prose only insomuch as it provides the oil amid all these shifting gears.

Following his efforts in this field as well as his online campaigns has effected profound changes to my thinking regarding the abstraction of distances, and how there needs to be something more to the matter than just stamping the passports and saying it’s done. Most casual DMs would think nothing of hopping past all the “boring bits”, diving straight into the trap of narrativism. Yet an arch is not all made out of keystones and so the costs levied by distance in more than just time are a matter to which this blog’ll doubtlessly return at a later point.

Of course, mechanically speaking, he sounds down to depths that I am completely unwilling to reach, my personal preference being for rules shoaled within the limits of the pen and the paper. As such I mean to drag this idea to the yellow-watered end of the kids’ pool, the better to suit my preferences and that being where this post comes in.

Aknowledgments where they’re due: the system’s rationale is all his and the link above is absolutely required reading. What follows is merely a watered-down adaptation whose sole concern is with averting the spreadsheet.

They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To

The idea behind wear and tear is that characters won’t just buy their staples at the very beginning of their adventuring career and call it a day for the rest of their lifetime (or until such a time as the decision comes to make an upgrade).

Slow and accretional loss of equipment integrity and reliability is what’s intended, something that will have players feeling the need for acquiring better grade of equipment or mulling over replacements and spares when an expedition is being planned.

In addition to providing one more reason for characters to go back to market it presents an additional variable in the field, one more rude angle of surprise for how things can and will go wrong in a hostile environment, organically birthing adventure and drawing closer to effective immersion: a party reaches its fifth day into an expedition only to find their longest coil of rope is showing signs of fraying, the formerly trusty axe head is close to dislodging or that a barrel holding precious water has leaked out unchecked during the night. Do they fold and double back, forge cautiously ahead with their newly imposed needs in mind or improvise something else altogether?

The mechanic should be slow to take its toll but still have a meaningful enough impact over time to justify its existence, with an individual character able to go a long spell without experiencing the least bit of equipment wear but, as a whole group rolls and racks up some results, the idea that the party’s collective resources are being taxed nevertheless lodging itself on each player’s mind.

The Crunch

This system presumes both a die-roll based item breakage and the use of a slot-based inventory.

The Wear and Tear Roll

Every time a roll to determine wear and tear is called by the referee, each player rolls a d100 and compares the result to the character’s inventory:

On a 21-100 - No equipment deterioration occurs;

On a 1-20 - The item occupying the corresponding slot acquires a wear mark or notch and, if the result exceeds the character’s Wisdom score, the player immediately makes a new d100 roll;

- Rolls pointing to empty slots have no effect.

Worn Items

The limits of the slot-based inventory require that special attention be given to worn items. The system looks at “clothing” as a wholesale category, not feeling a need to further dissect it beyond separate consideration for footwear.

Thus, here's when a d100 wear and tear roll will carry additional results:

- A roll of “1” affects the character’s worn armour and/or clothing in addition to the respective slot;

- A roll of “2” affects the character’s footwear in addition to the respective slot;

- A roll of “3” affects the backpack (or other container) granting a character his slots in addition to the respective slot.

When to roll

Civilization: a standard of one roll per month or even less, depending on the character’s lifestyle.

(Taking civilization as a concept far from perfectly bounded at a city’s gates, but rather extending a'ways into the surrounding countryside and even to some well maintained routes amid otherwise hostile ground).

Wilderness or Underworld: one roll at the end of each day of travel or exploration (with more rolls callable if it is determined that an environment or stretch of ground is particularly demanding).

Breakage and Wear Marks

As previously established, objects may break when subjected to inordinate stress, be it a weapon’s fumbled attack roll, a rope supporting excessive weight or the entirety of a character’s inventory meeting with a hard fall or immersion in water.

Breakage is only called exceptionally though; for the most part things don’t just break while being carried and subjected to casual wear, instead slowly degrading into tatters.

- Objects have no hit-points but are assigned a breakage die by the referee, considering the item’s relative durability and condition.

- An object accumulates wear marks (or notches) that both signal how close the item is to breaking as well as its market value.

- Whenever breakage is called for, an item will break if a '1' is rolled on the breakage die or gain an additional notch if a '2' is rolled instead.

- Each notch halves an item’s base market value, the very first notch marking an item as “used” and impacting its asking price accordingly.

- Once an object accrues wear marks totalling up to the whole of its breakage die it meets structural failure as it comes undone from excessive use, transportation mishap or inherent vice.

Abstracted Interpretations

As can be surmised, the abstracted material degradation of equipment is a place fantastically rife with those rusty hooks dubbed judgment calls; the need for the process to be streamlined for ease of management seeing off most notions of detail, completeness or relative material durability.

Large and complex objects such as armour or clothing are usually not apt to run afoul of total structural failure, generally these either gaining notches instead of having their breakage die rolled (such as for clothes and fabrics) or, being objects especially suited to punishment and rugged use such as armour or a backpack, degrading much slower and in a piecemeal fashion.

Some sample durabilities

Sundry items will have a breakage die of 1d4 to 1d100, depending on their relative durability.

Weapons: as per the damage die.

Armour: durable by design, armour will sport a variable breakage die like any other item but even as it sustains a number of notches equal to the die this will mean downgrading the AC bonus by one and starting a new die afresh with an additional notch already etched rather than scrapping the item.

Objects at the extremes of durability

Fragile items that are not especially accounted for (meaning some protection or measure of padding that costs actual slots) will break immediately the first time their slot comes up on a Wear & Tear roll.

Victuals and consummables can either spoil, become the target of vermin or fall to mishap, usually wholesale if the slot comes up unless some mitigating factor presents itself.

On the other hand, solid objects such as gems, coins or sling bullets can degrade, rust up and tarnish to a point but won’t really break under mundane circumstances, though the containers carrying them might.

Containers and grouped objects

A group of discrete objects in a slot will prompt additional randomization to determine which among them has become worn.

If a slot with a container comes up, mundane wear and tear will apply to the container first. More drastic instances possibly dictating that both container and contents are worn down or, for the case of delicate objects such as arrows, ruined.

If a container fails, an ad-hoc call will be required to determine the consequences of its failure. If a backpack tears up items will fall to the ground; mending a container, if even feasible, might cost slot capacity.

For containers with fluids, a Wisdom roll to notice a leak on time may be called for and will imply the loss of a rolled percentage of the contents regardless as well as some rational thought given to the fate to the spilled liquid and what other items it might ruin. Having one’s possessions doused in lamp oil makes for a promise of fun.

Noneuclidean Inventories

Readers of even marginally pythagorian persuasion will no doubt notice that, speaking in terms of probability, this whole procedure is blasphemously flawed, being that it implies that characters with more possessions will experience wear and tear more often. The use of the daily d100 roll is meant to mitigate this, making it so that the odds, despite incongruously wobbly, won’t be excessively fazed by the number of filled slots, translating to an overally low percentile difference (depending on one's tolerance threshold).

Other inventory sizes will require a different wear & tear roll so as to keep the randomization notionally proportional to the 80/20 split between “safe” and “worn” results relative to a humanoid’s inventory, meaning a d200 for beasts of burden capable of holding 40 slots, etc.

T'is also worth nothing that five humanoid inventories will translate into five rolls per day to the one roll allotted to all the items carried by a beast of burden, though this can be either compensated for by multiple rolls or simply be considered a feature.

segunda-feira, 15 de abril de 2019

Them Bones of Adventure - XXIII: Underworld Delving Encounters

An ongoing exposition on table procedures for common exploration feats and rules, which began here with part one.


As both mine own thoughts as well as those of the gestalt have been steadily coming back to dungeon exploration and random encounters I figured I’d belabour the thinking presented in this post so as to tie into a greater procedural structure.

Random encounters can be held to serve a vital function as exploration timer, the “stick” part of an equation, to treasure’s “carrot”. Much as I appreciate their unpredictability and the emergent gameplay they offer I still did wish they had some better integration into the play experience, getting more out of them as a feature that added to the game as a source of decision points rather than just an immutable fact of life for the would-be delver.

I can understand why a cynic would dismiss them as a cheap thrill of dungeoneering: they usually carry little weight, amounting to piddling setbacks or speedbumps with HD; to be allowed to be more than nuisances, their nature and terms of engagement must be better defined, lest they cause a party to perish whimsically. As there is only so much structure to which one can bind a procedure before it starts feeling helplessly artificial, ultimately, this randomness will tip the scales onto the “game” side of the balance rather than serving a narrative purpose, as some crude pieces of game-wiring must by necessity be exposed and loudly twanged each and every time. It is up for the canny referee to then provide enough oxygen to fan the flames of emergent narrative rather than settling for cold algorithm.

Grounds Fit for Spawning

The use of a random encounter table and associated encounter chance presumes a place at once big enough and with enough creature activity to be assigned a periodic roll during a delve. Small complexes are better served by having either a simple adversary roster (with keyed initial positions, subject to change) or even simpler “present/absent from lair” percentual toggles for keyed room contents.

Past the assumption of an underground sprawl sufficient to propitiate the use of this kind of procedure, even the act of relying upon it can be tailored to transmit a mood and tone and be made gameable by dint of allowing the actions of a party to either exacerbate or mitigate the chances of encountering the sources of fruitless, potentially deadly attrition contained therein.

Most if not all published modules suffer from an excess of unlikely neighbourhoods and untenable stati quo encounters in near-adjacent chambers, stretching believability past even the fantastical. It bears the question of whether the brunt of the load should be shouldered by random encounters, while leaving the keyed material for setpieces, inanimated background dressing and terrain features.

The gist of my current thinking on this:

.: The roll for chance of encounter should be made public and be sensibly influenceable by actions taken by the party; This should not be seen as breaking the fourth wall since the occurrence of an encounter indicates precisely that the party has become aware that something is off.

.: Modifiers to the roll should be avoided, with preference given to different sized dice so as to keep the result as quick to assess and transparent as possible, given that it’ll be oftentimes repeated.

.: The encounter roll proper should be separate from any subsequent rolls for determining encounter specifics, which by necessity must be kept hidden, for despite the fact that the party is aware that something is close by means not at all that the characters will know what it is or where it lies.

On Stealthful Exploration

Minimizing the number of irrelevant choices becomes important when winnowing game mechanics down to a simplified core. One such false idol for the beleagered delver party is the declaration of silence: whatever its members may happen to be doing from moment to moment, from checking for traps to searching a room, it must be presumed that it is being done at the very lowest volume the activity will condone. The PHB makes a show of tripartite scaled movement, but the question is: does anyone run such a tightly wound joint that halving the movement rate of a cautious party as it explores excavated halls measured in tens of feet and saying it takes a minute longer to cross a room mean anything at all? I very much doubt it.

While a party moving overland can validly declare to be moving cautiously as this carries the impact of a cost in ground covered, as less distance travelled over the course of hours does accrue and translate into more days spent in the outdoors and more provisions spent, those cavorting about the corridors of daedalus, their motions defined by halting progress, faltering stops for listening around and nervous turning of corners have quite no such choice: moving discreetly is not so much an option as it is the norm, one for which a referee ought to require signed declaration if the party ever states to be breaking.

As such, there are only two recognized movement modes down in the underworld: cautious (the gold standard) and heedless (when on the run from someone or something). To get a better deal out of it, tangible measures have to be taken by the players, ones with attached tradeoffs, rather than just wrily stating that “the party takes it slow”.

The Crunch

The Encounter Roll

Transfering random encounters across the threshold of nuisance into that of serious deterrent means that many of the preconditions and outcomes inherent to the procedure should be clearly communicated to the players, even if then varnished with prose.

As a way to paint undertones of urgency, the random encounter roll is made out in the open, the referee explaining what die is being used and the reasons why. Past that, there is arguably a need for veiling the results derived from the procedure, insomuch as the consequences won't always be fully apprehendable by the characters, with whatever fragmentary information eventually pieced together functioning as exploration of a sort, as the players begin decyphering a dungeon’s internal logic.

Despite liking enriched die rolls the advice goes against resorting to this check’s result to tell if characters are tired, hungry, light deprived or otherwise cut short the duration of spells or other effects, limiting it instead to strictly unpredictable effects such as spoor, dungeon-related events (still allowing for the classic gust of wind that snuffs light sources) and, of course, the encounter itself.

Fool of a Took!” – When to Check

A dungeon encounter is checked on the following conditions:

- For every 10, 30 or 60 minutes of in-game delving elapsed, depending on the scale, population density and activity level of an underground complex.

Despite 10 minutes being standard, for the sake of injecting some dynamism in an environment, there may be places where a check is called every 60 minutes so as to represent fallow slices of the underworld (such as the Mines of Moria), these time intervals then becoming reduced as the disruptions borne by events begin to pile up and the anthill comes alive with activity. Normalizing then requiring a number of successive checks without returning any encounters or a number of hours of stillness.

The above timings are either worn down by the duration of prolonged tasks such as searches or, for the case of time spent on nothing but trifling actions and simple cautious movement, abstracted to a rough basis of “d6 rooms explored per every 10 minutes” or, if covering ground already mapped before, “2d6 rooms entered per every 10 minutes”, rolled and counted down in secret by the referee.

Past the point of entering the last room in the countdown, the rolled total can then double as the number of player declarations taken by the referee before the encounter is suddenly rolled for. This extra granularity is meant to deliberately disrupt exploration mid-point, broadening the range of possible individual character positionings rather than always declaring the encounter roll once the party inches past the threshold of the last allotted room and then relying on the staid default formation.

- Whenever noise or commotion is made, including combat (one roll per every minute – 10 rounds – of combat) or rushed movement (one roll per d6 rooms traversed).

Chance of Encounter

- A roll of 4+ means nothing happens;

- A roll of 3 can either be reserved to trigger dungeon-specific conditions as needed but by default also returns an empty result;

- On a roll of 2 the party finds tracks, spoor or other traces of recent activity (unlocking the possibility of tracking, if the traces are recent);

- On a roll of 1, an encounter comes across the party, their efforts at stealth nonwithstanding;

This is a standard result mapping, of which some results can only happen if the party is moving about. The chance of encounter can also be increased by specific hostile actions or events, such as the party being actively searched for (e.g. if they’ve allowed an alarm to be sounded).

Encounter Die Size

- The standard die size of the encounter check is dictated by the environment, varying with each dungeon level or location. It is meant to account for a five-element group moving cautious and silently, bearing one significant light source. From here, it can get better or worse, depending on the group’s composition and measures taken by the party:

Encounter die size decreases (increasing the chance of an encounter):

- For every two additional characters in the group

- For every two characters donning heavy armour or heavily encumbered

- Per significant light source beyond the first

- If the party hastens or otherwise forgoes its cautious movement

Encounter die size increases (lowering the chance of an encounter):

- For every two less characters in the delving party

- If the delving party does not move (also cancelling out any encumbrance and armour penalties gained above)

- If a significant light source is extinguished

- When the party hides (quality of hiding place determining the die size)

Thus, if a group of five delvers burdened with treasure is looking at crossing an expanse of dungeon boasting a standard encounter chance of d8, tested once every 10 minutes, the players will know that choosing to press on in their present condition is bound to bring attention to their doorstep on a 1 in 4, whereas they can lie still as they rest for an hour with an adjusted range of a 1 in 10 chance of being found, heard or tracked. This could be further improved to a 1 in d12 by the choice to douse their sole light and rely on the dwarf’s sight instead (with a light spell at the ready), though this would severely limit what actions the characters could take and with potentially grievous consequences should an encounter actually occur.

- Just as a dungeon has a standard encounter die size, so it will have a minimum size of d4 as well as a maximum size cap, usually d20, though this can rise further for labyrinths spanning leagues or when the party absconds into a particularly effective hiding place.

- If a party splits past a significant distance, meaning far enough apart to have darkness and unguarded passageways between the delvers, separate encounter rolls will be merited for each splinter group.

Dying of the Light – Interactions between Light and Encounter Mechanics

Being thrust into the dark is unnerving. So is trying to make light interact meaningfully with random encounters in a way that doesn’t just spell “the less of it, the better”.

Some creatures will be indifferent to light, others will shirk from it, others still will rely upon it just as much as the characters. This is not about them. Although the encounter abstraction factors in the possibility for the party to intuit the presence of others from either vestiges or sounds, their sensorial handicap will pretty much ensure that underground denizens cannot fail to notice an overlander party first, shining like a beacon. Yet, despite the use of one or more sources of illumination being a surefire way to increase a group’s chance of detection by hostiles, there are tradeoffs to consider:

- Characters need light to function in the underworld, a referee wanting to emphasize this fact might contemplate always questioning the light bearer first as to any actions or movement taken, the rest of the group then having to follow the lead when accounting for their respective actions.

- The extent of bright light radius covering the lead character (relative to an encounter’s approach) will determine the minimum encounter distance, guarding against hostile stealth attempts that cannot cut through to a target enveloped in a pool of bright light.

- Each significant light source beyond the first adds 5’ of bright light and 5’ of dim light to other sources overlapped by its radius. This may seem of little consequence but could well be the difference that allows the party to get to grips with foes that would otherwise wear the characters down from beyond the reach of their senses.

Party Formation & Marching Order

Overshadowing the tactical reasons, a notional positioning of each character relative to the other atoms of the group is necessary to provide a default answer to reiterated uses of the encounter procedure, dispensing with the need for each player to exhaustively restate where their character stands each and every time a check is triggered, leaving at most a limited range of positions as the formation expands or contracts to suit the terrain or the size of the room. This standard arrangement being overriden, of course, whenever explicit placements are stated by players.

Mutual Appreciation Society – Encounter Distance

Whenever an encounter occurs, the encounter distance roll itself serves to establish when (and, rarely, if) each party becomes aware of the other. This is a situationally fluid topic: for medium distances, it is assumed both groups have become at least dimly aware of each other; for short distances it is assumed that the encounter has slipped by unnoticed until now as it has the drop on the PCs, whom it has actively ambushed or around whose vicinity it has been skulking for some time; finally, for long distances it becomes a possibility that the party has become aware of the encounter but the opposite hasn’t yet happened.

The roll for determining the Encounter Distance from the contacting character is made in secret and framed by two fundamental factors:

- A minimum distance equalling that character’s coverage by the bright light radius, if not blocked by obstacles or interposing cover.

- A standard maximum distance of 2d6 x 10’, increasing the dice size for encounters with large-plus creatures and for every six medium-sized creatures (or whatever other factors that may prove relevant).

Skill Interactions with Encounter Distance

As regards skills, where some might find this a situation made for flexing the stat blocks of the parties involved, this approach leans instead towards simplicity:

Perception: If the character who is the point of contact has ranks in Perception, add a roll of his proficiency die to the encounter distance.

Stealth: If the encounter is deemed to be making a stealthy approach the referee makes a roll of the highest Stealth proficiency die common to the whole group and subtracts it from the encounter distance (for the sake of simplicity it is assumed that only groups of creatures wholly proficient in stealth would manage to engage in a cohese approach relying on it).

The Encounter’s Path of Approach – Biasing the Encounter Distance & Determining Point of Contact

- Firstly determine from which directions the encounter might conceivably come from. This must account for the labyrinth’s topography, creatures’ special movement modes if any and the party’s present location (of which the referee should keep tabs through the use of a dungeon blueprint of some sort). Encounters will typically originate from unexplored directions but parties who don’t (or can’t) secure their rearguard can run afoul of all manner of unwanted surprises.

- As the distance dice pool is rolled, trace an imaginary line between its highest and lowest result, adjusting and translating this to the closest point in the actual topography and informing the players as to the encounter’s path of approach, even if it is not yet visible, the characters having intuited its direction through sound, air displacement, smell or other factors.

- If a double is rolled (or other unclear result), it means the party becomes aware of the encounter but is unable to pinpoint its path of approach: if it is not yet visible, the referee randomizes its approach some other way but does not disclose to the party where the encounter is coming from.

In any event, determining an encounter’s bearing will provide a biasing point to enable the distance rolled to make sense:

- The character standing closest to the encounter’s path of approach becomes the point of contact from which the encounter distance is then biased, being the one who detects it first.

Going for the simplest example, if a party is wholly inside a room with a single door (a cul-de-sac) when an encounter is rolled this’ll mean the referee determines its distance relative to the character standing closest to the doorway and the direction of approach as conforming to the immediate surroundings of the chamber’s sole point of entry. Rooms or hallways with more complex connections will allow for a greater range of possibilities, assuming the party doesn’t actively take steps to minimize possible angles of approach.

Contact – Close Encounters of the 3d6th Kind

Finally, depending on the encounter’s rolled distance, path of approach and skill interactions one of five situations will typically present themselves:

For long distances (180’ and above)

1. Distant Sighting: Party has become aware of the encounter without being noticed in turn;

For medium distances (40’-170’)

2. Imminent Contact: The distance roll places the encounter beyond a door or tunnel bend from where it is heard approaching, affording the party a window of opportunity: the players get one combat round to act plus another granted for each distance die that came up a 4+ before the encounter materializes. Note that movement beyond half speed will result in the party’s stealth becoming immediately compromised;

3. Avoiding the Light: The encounter lies in sight of the party but has shirked the group’s light radius, meaning both parties are aware of each other but whichever decision the players take will have to be made without knowledge of the other side’s exact nature, position or intentions;

4. Standard Encounter: The encounter occurs within the light range meaning that the two parties become mutually aware as one steps through the other’s visual threshold, unfolding normally;

For close distances (0’-30’)

5. Ambush!: The party has been waylaid, ambushed or suddenly become aware of a lurking threat: the encounter has initiative and the party will need to roll for surprise;

These are merely guidelines, not an airtight behavioral algorithm meant to overcome all logic. It is certainly possible to conceive of encounter types who would rather keep a safe distance and are instead thrust by a low roll right into the clutches of a numerous melee party, it being up to the referee to reconceptualize such occurrences as they appear (e.g. the lone goblinoid wasn’t looking to attack but is instead a skirmisher or would-be thief, drawn by food or curiosity). Likewise, if the party gets a glimpse of an encounter that lies at an inacessible spot tentative communication or missile exchanges may be possible but a full-fledged interaction is unlikely to occur;

While underground, all of the above works from the assumption that the party is carrying a light source and whatever denizens encountered are not. If an encounter itself is carrying a light source, recognition is much more immediate, with situations “3.” and “5.” becoming moot.

Hammers and Anvils – Mastering the Dungeon Environment (Closing Thoughts)

It would be admittedly easier to downtune the complexity instead of mucking about with encounter approach vectors, party formations and light source placements, it being all perfectly abstractable down into less granular mechanics – purely discretionary encounter placement; allowing any character trained in perception to contribute a proficiency roll regardless of their positioning and keeping the highest result; employing a single “collective light radius” modified by the number of sources, again without placement being relevant, the list goes on.

However, this is one of those cases where I’m willing to brave the muddy waters of “more is more” and retain the complexity for the sake of tactical engagement with the delving experience, one where judicious use of spikes, barred doors, alarm spells and improvised traps in conjunction with clever positioning of lookouts and sources of light, careful choice of party formation and disposition within a room can all serve to influence both the encounter chance as well as its potential spotting distance intervals, allowing a savvy adventuring group to exploit the chokeholds of a dungeon’s topography to engage in unfair fights or selectively keep some of its weaker elements out of harm’s way, allowing, in essence, mechanically meaningful answers to tactically interesting questions that arise from delving.

segunda-feira, 18 de março de 2019

Set & Setting - IX - Spellcasting Revised

Set and Setting is a series of posts intended as aid in fleshing out a world by way of setting-specific rule design and reinterpretation.


Ah, the growing pains of heartbleeding.

With the sliding noose of the four core classes tightening about the wrists I’m finally forced to spend some time considering the caster classes once again.

The bemused sigh comes easy as one recalls the way concepts are toyed with as a cat’s plaything, pawed about the mind until, their interest quite spent, they’re posted to little fanfare and some relief only to find the passing of time casting an increasingly harsh light on ideas once thought to be set in stone.

Platitudes about how things don’t change if they aren’t posted and are not posted if changes aren’t made aside, banging the head appendages against the Cleric’s reconceptualization and attempts to harmonize it with previous ideas led me to reread what someone that I’d swear wasn’t me did post regarding the salient issues, namely the need to build ties to a Magic System as of now still regarded as pretty much a proverbial house of cards.

Garbage In

Treading back over worn pathways, a few months of perspective bring me to a dismaying conclusion: It needs to go.

Well, not all of it, warm feelings are still nurtured about the caster type distinctions, rather, it is the casting mechanics proper – something common to all casters – where the rules seem to fall decidedly short.

Some preliminary conclusions that a savvy reader probably reached immediately upon parsing the original post, now from a timeworn and more dispassioned perspective:

1. Establishing difficulty ratings on the fly from the back of top-heavy complex rule structures is a sure way to clog up a game’s flow, each pause for discretionary refereeing an ebbing tide for gameplay.

2. Combat demands quick, simple and unfailingly consistent resolution mechanisms to keep the plates spinning. Exceptions are acceptable only at such a time as critical success or failure occurs, these allowing limited forays into unpacking complexity.

3. Even transcending combat, where the stakes are highest, a system nevertheless has to gain from player-facing transparency, facilitating antecipated calculations to settle the decision on which is to be the desirable course of action.

All these points were infringed on some level by both the magic system and the divine beseeching proposals. Each relatively stable in a vacuum but proven wholly unmanageable past some preliminary attempts at replicating dynamic combat or multiple intervenients making reiterated use of the mechanic.

Finangling difficulty ratings to the decimal point amid the running does not conduce to seamless play. Things need to be simpler and straighter to remain manageable, all while preserving the design thrusts behind the original attempt, these being “a caster having well-rounded attributes matters” and “casting has a perilous random component, being more difficult than just a snapping of the fingers (or a standard action & expended slot)”.

So, once again, from the top…

The Crunch

Spellcasting (Revised)

- Spellcasting is a standard action that requires at least one free hand.

- Casting a spell will draw attacks of opportunity from any foes in melee range.

- A caster struck amid the process of spellweaving immediately loses the spell.

The Spellcasting Roll

- Casting a spell requires succeeding on a Spellcasting attribute check, DC equal to spell level (or slot level, if applicable).

- Instances where a spell requires an attack roll use the difficulty to hit the target instead, if it is higher.

- Failure on the casting roll will void the slot’s content from the spellcaster's memory.

- A natural ‘20’ will unleash the spell without striking it from memory, trumping any constraints (see below).

- A natural ‘1’ will mean a mischanneling has occured.

Constraints on the Spellcasting action

Spellcasting is a very special type of action, one marrying the greatest need for precision and utmost concentration, and as such easily disrupted by constraints, each translated into game terms by the need for the spellcasting roll to not just beat the base difficulty but also be made under a relevant attribute of the caster, to wit:

- Constraints of Burden, imposed if the character is encumbered or otherwise attempting to cast while physically hampered, such as when bound with shackles or submerged in water: the unadjusted casting roll must be lower than or equal to the caster’s Strength attribute.

- Constraints of Dispersion, imposed on the casting of a spell on a turn in which the character has taken any other action, including movement: the unadjusted casting roll must be lower than or equal to the caster’s Wisdom attribute.

- Constraints of Concentration, imposed when the caster is being actively distracted or is already concentrating on another spell: the unadjusted casting roll must be lower than or equal to the caster’s Intelligence attribute.

- Constraints of Resilience, imposed if the character sustained damage since his previous turn: the unadjusted casting roll must be lower than or equal to the caster’s Constitution attribute (or under half the score, if the damage sustained exceeded the character’s class HD).

- Constraints of Stability, imposed when casting is attempted on unstable footing or in physically disturbing – though not necessarily damaging – circumstances (amid a jostling crowd, on a galeswept ship deck, etc.): the unadjusted casting roll must be lower than or equal to the caster’s Dexterity attribute.

When a casting action is about to be declared but before the final decision is taken the referee will run the player through any constraints derived from the situation at hand that the character is currently experiencing, though in most cases these ought to be self-evident.

- Failure to conform to any single constraint on a casting action will result in a casting failure.

- Failure to conform to multiple constraints will result in a mischanneling, as if a natural ‘1’ had been rolled. 

Other Errata:

- Resting now restitutes a caster’s full complement of slots.

- The Wisdom saving throw (DC 10 + spell level) to avoid overchanneling is now granted by the use of a spell focus during casting, which must be held in one hand while the casting proper is effected with the other.

Revised Overchanneling Table

Mostly unchanged, some entries clarified, some made harsher, others less so.

The Pudding Proof (further design notes)

With the original take the difficulties were hard to establish and escalated much too quickly, leading to frequent casting failures and in turn to efforts to compensate this by establishing that failed spells could remain memorized, making the previous iteration slide down the slope of chain-overcompensation, the intent being to restrain casters, not render them useless.

Drawing from past digressions, I now think that it is much more important to maintain the flow of play without compromising the game feel than it is to bog down the proceeds as the referee makes painstakingly sure that a difficulty rating is fine-tuned to the tee that matches one among a dizzying array of possible circumstances. Going forward, the DC is set deliberately low and isn't meant to be much of an obstacle in becalmed circumstances; It just mattering to have an ever-present chance of mischanneling, with additional difficulties arising from the situation impacting the casting difficulty through broad strokes, in a more organic way and without overconvoluting the numbers proper.

Instead of voluble DCs, circumstances will lead to the roll being reframed but all hinging on the single d20 rolled in cross-reference with the charsheet right in front of the player, an idea somewhat in the vein of Disadvantage’s simplicity, only stat-based, so as to lend importance to a well-rounded character rather than one focused on a single stat, retaining a measure of complexity while being much less wobbly in its math (hence both more transparent and predictable, in a good way).

As one can well imagine, rules were made to be broken: of the six caster classes in the pipe it is expected that some of them might be granted class-derived dispensation from certain constraints due to their arcane training. Or not, I haven’t quite decided if that is a good idea.

'Last comes the proof in the pudding: will the average player (or poster-slash-referee rereading this in three months’ time, enroute to go tilting at the next windmill in line) be able to run with these mechanics from the back of his pocket with but a minimal reacquainting effort? I've learned that my best answer can't hope to beat the simple act of waiting out for three months.