Thursday, 21 August 2014

D&D 5: Roll-Under Skill Checks

So, D&D 5. I have a strange fascination with it. The idea of playing the latest thing which everyone's talking about does actually seem quite appealing. And there are a lot of things I really like about the new edition (backgrounds being one of the main ones). There are, of course, also a few things I'm either suspicious of (will need to be tested out in play) or distinctly not keen on. As ever, though, house rules can come to the rescue. This post is about one aspect of the new D&D that is distasteful to me and some ideas for making it more palatable.


I don't have anything much against them in principle, especially in a system (like D&D 5) where all characters can attempt to use all skills. That's cool. I also really like the simplicity of the proficiency bonus and the lack of "skill points" or whatever. What gets me, though, is the d20 system. I've ranted about this before on various occasions here and on google+.

My basic problem with it is that it introduces a very large random factor into things which, to me, don't seem that random. I'm totally cool with there being a large random element in combat (d20 + modifier vs AC) and with saving throws (d20 + modifier vs DC), but for skills it seems that the random element (d20) is way too significant. For example, the difference between the strongest person in the world (STR 20, +5 modifier) and an average person (STR 11, 0 modifier) is equivalent to only 25% of the random factor. I've always (since D&D 3) thought this seems weird, and WotC seem to disagree. Looks like it's time for a house rule then.

When I think about ability checks, what I really like is the semi-canonical, trad, "roll under your ability score on d20" system. Nice and simple. Rolling against a number on the character sheet. (Yeah, rolling low is better, how inconsistent... but whatever.) A couple of options:

Super Simple Roll-Under Skills
To make an ability check, simply roll d20 and compare it to the relevant ability score (as determined by the DM). Equal or under = success. A natural 1 always succeeds and a natural 20 always fails.

When making a check for a skill you're proficient with, add your proficiency bonus to your ability score.

Slightly More Complicated Roll-Under Skills
Sometimes you might want to give some kind of difficulty rating to an ability or skill check. You know... some chasms are wider than others, some walls slipperier than others, some locks more tricksy than others, etc. D&D 5 play material will no doubt be full of talk of "a DC 25 INT (History) check" and what-not. So it'd be nice to be able to use those difficulty ratings with a roll-under system. Here goes, DC to modifier:
  • Very easy (DC 5): +2
  • Easy (DC 10): +0
  • Medium (DC 15): -1
  • Hard (DC 20): -2
  • Very hard (DC 25): -4
  • Nearly impossible (DC 30): -8
That seems about in line with the kind of modifiers I'm used to in old-school D&D.

I know that this completely changes the probabilities of success and failure. My argument is this: who cares? (Well, I gather that some people do indeed care about such mathematical aspects of the game, but I and no one I play with fall into that category.)

Roll-Under Saving Throws?
This approach could, of course, be applied directly to saving throws too, for the full old-school "roll against the number on your sheet" approach. Personally, I'm happy with luck (i.e. the d20 roll) being more of a deciding factor than raw ability when it comes to saving throws, so I probably wouldn't go down this route. Something to consider though.

Opposed Checks
They don't come up that often, in my experience, but I suppose I should also come up with a less random solution for opposed checks. That's easy: ability score + d6 (+ proficiency bonus, of applicable). Highest score wins.


Any thoughts?

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

From the Vats: Monster Design Contest Winner!

The oracles have been consulted!

The winner of the vivimantic monster design contest is thus decreed:

The Sage Anders Lager

guilty of constructing the genetic Horror known as

the Body Stealer

Thanks to everyone who submitted something for the contest. We have a nice compilation of nasties which will be compiled into the From the Vats PDF.

(Apologies that it took me so long to announce the winner! Real-life busyness has abounded of late.)

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Underworld Lore #4

Get it here:

Featuring three obscure deities undergoing near-death experiences, written by myself.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Wizardzine #1: Table of Contents

The contents of Wizardzine #1 are now coalescing a bit. I still have writing to do in some sections, but the overall structure is pretty much fixed now.

Everything in this issue focuses around the topic of aquatic and oceanic magic.

Wizards of Renown
Each discussed with details of their research, marks of magic, domains, and servants.
  • Ephenedrine the Sirene
  • Naxamh, Master of Spirits
  • Master Harlwn of the Luminous Docks
Tomes of Magic
  • 12 tomes containing a set of spells, with details of the construction, author, and history
Magic Items
  • 20 new magic items
  • 10 new monsters
  • 30 new spells
  • Aquatic Monster Summoning Tables
  • Sea Wizard Spell List
  • Aquatic Familiars
  • Tables for Random Selection

(ps. regarding From the Vats, I plan to compile and read the entries to the monster contest today. An announcement of the winner should be coming soon!)

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Wizardzine #1: Tomes

Further to the list of spells contained in the first issue of my forthcoming zine, just for fun, here are the names of the tomes which are described in its pages:
  1. A Treatise on the Aspects, Phases, States, and Conjuncts of the Fluid Element
  2. Communions and Conjurations
  3. Gbahal
  4. Leviathan
  5. Phalaine’s Tome of the Seas
  6. Rituals of the Vasandian Shipwrights
  7. Songs of Sea, Wind, and Wave
  8. Summons to the Sea-Drowned
  9. The Archipelagist’s Notes
  10. The Wrath of the Sea Gods
  11. Transmutations
  12. Untitled (being the notes of the adventuress Martha Wainlord)
These volumes of lore, in addition to containing spells of worth, are accompanied by physical descriptions, tidbits of history, and potential adventure hooks. They'll make nice treasure items for referees to plant!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Monster Deisgn Contest: Last Week

If anyone has any freaky biologically warped monstrous creations, send 'em my way for publication!

You may win stuff! See here for the details.

Deadline this Sunday (August 3rd).

Advanced Spell Research

I love the idea of spell research in D&D. It happens, in my experience, with unfortunate rarity, but I still love it. In my opinion, research is what wizards should be all about. Those pesky adventure things may provide some interesting opportunities to uncover secrets about lost magicks, enchanted items, mystical creatures, planar anomalies, and so on, but a wizard's true work is in his lair.

For some time now, I've been contemplating  ways in which one could make the spell research process more appealing to players and more interesting. This post is about the latter.

The traditional spell research rules are pretty vague and boring: Spend some amount of money (possibly involving the procurement of rare tomes or ingredients -- which is cool). Spend some time. Maybe make some kind of die roll, depending on the system. It either works or it doesn't. If it fails maybe you try again. Logan recently posted some interesting stuff developing some variance on the success side of the equation. (The DCC mercurial magic system is another similar approach.)

I'm also interested in the failure side of things, as well as what happens during the process. I don't imagine spell research as a long process of noodling followed by a eureka! resulting in a fully functional spell. I like the idea that the magic-user works his or her way through a whole sequence of baby spells, developing an idea which eventually, all going well, bears fruit in the perfection of the envisioned spell. Maybe all does not go well, though, or maybe the research is interrupted or abandoned, leaving a semi-functional spell. A reckless wizard might choose to still cast this imperfect dweomer... Perhaps it's still useful in some way, despite it not living up to what its creator intended.

I've done this kind of thing informally a couple of times in play, when a PC wizard has attempted and failed a process of spell research (I had the player simply make an INT check to see if the research worked first time off). We had a transparency spell (see The Complete Vivimancer) which only affected the skin of the target and a cannibalize spell (see Theorems & Thaumaturgy) which permanently added 1 pound of warped flesh to the caster's body with each casting. In both cases, I gave the player the option of continuing the research (entailing more time and money) in order to try and perfect the incantation, or to stay with what he had. (He chose to keep the cannibalize variant but put in the extra time to perfect transparency.)

I'd like to come up with something a little bit more systematized for this kind of thing. A couple of things I have in mind:
  • A slightly more detailed spell research system with various stages, leading up to the fruition of the final spell.
  • Tables of minor and major complications which mutate a spell's functioning. These would be applied to partially developed spells, either during the research procedure or after a failed research procedure.
  • Tables of drawbacks: detrimental side-effects which accompany the casting of an imperfect spell.
I'll develop these things and any other ideas on the topic which come along in future posts. Feel free to feed me with any ideas you have on the subject!