Sidebar: Playtesting (Part II)

In a previous post, I mentioned that I am running a game that uses many of the house rules that I’ve posted here in my blog. In that post, I mentioned many of the problems we discovered with the skill set I had created and some of the tweaks we made to rectify those problems. I also mentioned some of the problems that I had trying to run skill encounters. Since then, we haven’t had any significant problems with the skills as written and my ability to run skill encounters has vastly improved, with my players sometimes not even realizing that I’m running skill encounters at all.

Alas, the same cannot be said of the shadow-tattoo artist class. My player decided to take the animal totem tattoo, which would allow him to summon any monster from the summon monster spell lists at will. My initial thought on this was that even though this might seem a little overpowered, the fact that the creatures summoned with this tattoo have half as many hit points as a normal summoned creature and only do half as much damage if their opponents make a Will would balance things out. While I’m not entirely convinced that this isn’t the case, I have decided to make animal totem a lesser tattoo.

Here’s why: Imagine that Karra, the 6th level shadow-tattoo artist, chooses to spend every round summoning creatures instead of attacking. Assuming that she only summons one creature each round, using the summon monster III spell, she could potentially have 6 creatures in play by the sixth round.

Now imagine that I, as the DM, have three opponents in play; each of which has to make Will saves to determine if they can see the shadow creatures as illusory. Multiply that by 6 creatures and that’s 18 Will saves that I have to make. Keeping track of all that requires a lot of bookkeeping and making animal totem a lesser tattoo is an easy way to limit the number of summoned creatures that can be on the board at any given time.

Another reason that I decided to make animal totem a lesser tattoo is because even though the summoned creatures might be weaker, there’s no way to get rid of the damn things. Kill one and another pops up in its place. Because of this, I just tended to ignore the things in combat unless one of them stood between a PC and one of my opponents.

That leads to abuse. Thinking about it, I could see how a creative player might choose to summon an army of shadow creatures before going into combat, sending the creatures in first to act as a wall between the PCs and their opponents. Sure, the summoned creatures might deal only half as much damage if their opponents make their Will saves. However, melee fighters would have a very difficult time getting anywhere close enough to deal damage, while ranged fighters and spellcasters would have a heck of a time making any sort of attack, because of the attacks of opportunity they would provoke from the summoned creatures.

Okay, now I’m convinced that a least version of this tattoo is wholly broken and I think it makes much more sense to change it to a lesser tattoo.

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Sidebar: Reimagining the Gnome

The 3.5 gnome is by far the worst player character class in the Core Rulebook. Consider some of the following problems:

The Gnome’s Ability Adjustments Do Not Assist in the Race’s Favored Class
Dwarves get a +2 bonus to Constitution, which helps them as fighters, because they can take more hits in combat. Elves benefit from a +2 bonus to Dexterity, which boosts their low armor class as wizards. Half-orcs get a +2 bonus to Strength, which helps them hit things harder as barbarians. Halflings get a +2 bonus to Dexterity, which helps them stay nimble and stealthy in combat. Gnomes… well I guess the +2 to Constitution boosts their hit points, but what about that hit to Strength? That’s a pretty big hit for a character that’s supposed to be a light fighter. Now combine that with the lower weapon damage that Small creatures deal and you have a character who might as well not even engage in combat.

Now granted, halflings take a hit to Strength and that sucks for them too. As rogues, though, they can make up for this loss in weapon damage with their sneak attack. Gnomes, on the other hand, are the only race whose best ability score doesn’t even show up in the list recommended for their favored class. In fact, there’s no class that lists Constitution as a primary ability score. Granted, there are a few that list it as a secondary ability score, but even then, there’s always another race that can do a better job playing that class. This leads me to my next problem with 3.5 gnomes…

3.5 Gnomes are Second Best in Every Class
No matter what class you name, there is another race that outperforms the gnome in that class. Just using the core races and classes as an example:

  • Barbarian: Please! What’s a +2 bonus to Constitution going to do for you when you already have a d12 in Hit Dice? The only advantage a gnome barbarian has is that he’s Small, which boosts his Armor Class, and even there, the halfling’s got you beat. Your only hope for survival is if you put down your club, hide under a rock, and hope that no self-respecting barbarian comes looking for you.
  • Bard: Elves and halflings, with their +2 to Dexterity, will have a higher Armor Class and will be better able to wield your Dexterity based weapons than you. Heck, even a half-orc, with a -2 penalty to Charisma, would make a better bard, because he’s more likely to hit things with his +2 Strength bonus (or are you going to overpower him with your silent image spell that has a +1 DC on its saving throw)?
  • Cleric: This seems like a class much more suited for a gnome, since it lists a high Constitution as a recommended ability. However, remember that a cleric relies on Medium and Heavy armor in order to resist taking damage, which means that your base speed of 20 feet is further reduced to 15 feet. When the party is running away from the goblin horde, that means your ass is getting left behind.
  • Druid: This isn’t a bad class for a gnome. Granted, you won’t be using that scimitar of yours for much of anything other than cutting up meat, but you can stand in the back and summon animals all day. That said, I bet you’ll be wishing you could trade out your speak with animals ability for something more useful, particularly since speak with animals is on your class’s spell list. In fact, I’m guessing , the elf’s immunity to magical sleep effects will look particularly appealing right around the time your character first comes into contact with a group of pixies.
  • Fighter: Even though a dwarf has no bonus in Strength, he will still outperform you as a fighter simply because he does not take the size penalties to damage that you take for damage. Also, he won’t be taking up the rear like you will, thanks to his ability to maintain his base land speed in medium and heavy armor, so you’d best just hope that the dragon tracking your party doesn’t like gnome.
  • Monk: Strength helps your unarmed combat ability, huh? Too bad you take that -2 penalty. It really sucks being a gnome.
  • Paladin: Oh so you want to play a paladin; riding around the countryside on the back of your trusty, riding dog steed? I guess that’s fine, so long as you don’t mind spending the entire campaign having your character compared to this guy.
  • Sorcerer: This was the class you were born to play. In fact, it was your favored class in a previous edition. Alas, it’s not your favored class anymore and if you want to multi-class into anything that makes sense for your character (druid/sorcerer perhaps?), you have to take an experience penalty. Bummer.
  • Wizard: Yeah, this isn’t a bad class for you. However, imagine how much cooler you’d be if you could use a longbow too. Elves can do that. You cannot. Also, with all of your innate, spell-like abilities, you’re only resistant to illusion spells? Really? A dwarf has no spell-like abilities and yet he gets a bonus to all his saves versus magical effects. What the hell’s wrong with you, gnome!

With all of these downsides, there’s really no reason that you should ever want to play a gnome. That is, unless you want to show the rest of the party just how badly a character can suck at doing just about anything.*

Reimagining the Race
So now that we’ve laid out some of the problems with gnomes, it’s time to talk about some of the changes I’ve made to the race. First, I dropped the Constitution bonus and replaced it with Charisma. While this makes gnomes the only race to get a bonus to a mental ability score, there isn’t any physical ability score that I can think of that would make sense for the race and make them better at their class. Giving gnomes a +2 in Charisma gives them something that no other race has and I feel it’s essential to making them a playable race.

Another change that I’ve made to gnomes is that I’ve given them many of the abilities of dwarves. For example, the gnome now has the same ability to wear medium and heavy armor that the dwarf does while still maintaining his base land speed of 20 feet. I also gave gnomes the same resistances to magical effects that dwarves have. I feel that these changes are in keeping with the flavor of the races, both of which live underground, and have an affinity for gems and mining. I also think that these changes give gnomes advantages playing classes like cleric, druid, and maybe even paladin that other Small races do not enjoy.

In addition to these changes, I’ve transplanted some of the abilities given to Pathfinder gnomes to my own, reimagined race. For example, instead of a +2 racial bonus to Craft (alchemy), gnomes can select one of any of the Professions. They can also use speak with animals on all animals and not just burrowing ones. Finally, gnomes can use their spell-like abilities, regardless of their Charisma score.

Last but not least, I’ve listed the favored class of the gnome as either bard or sorcerer. Granted, it’s not entirely in keeping with the other races, which typically only have one favored class from which to choose. However, humans and halflings can choose any class as their favored class, so I don’t feel like it’s too much of a stretch of the imagination to allow gnomes to select one or the other, since quite frankly, they would make excellent versions of either.

I feel that these changes make gnomes playable and not the pariah character race of 3.5.

*Believe me I know. I have tried several gnome builds, all in a vain attempt to show the people in my group that gnomes are a playable race. Thus far, I have only succeeded in confirming that gnomes are the worst race imaginable to play and that even a goblin, with its penalties to Strength and Charisma, is a better choice than playing a gnome.
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Reimagined Races: Gnome

Gnome

  • +2 Charisma, -2 Strength: Gnomes are fun-loving and amiable, but they are small and therefore not as strong as larger humanoids.
  • Small: As a Small creature, a gnome gains a +1 size bonus to Armor Class, a +1 size bonus on attack rolls, and a +4 size bonus on Stealth checks, but he uses smaller weapons than humans use, and his lifting and carrying limits are three-quarters those of a Medium character.
  • Gnome base land speed is 20 feet. However, gnomes can move at this speed even when wearing medium or heavy armor or when carrying a medium or heavy load (unlike other creatures, whose speed is reduced in such situations).
  • Low-Light Vision: A gnome can see twice as far as a human in starlight, moonlight, torchlight, and similar conditions of poor illumination. He retains the ability to distinguish color and detail under these conditions.
  • Weapon Familiarity: Gnomes may treat gnome hooked hammers as martial weapons rather than exotic weapons.
  • +2 racial bonus on saving throws against spells and spell-like effects: Gnomes have an innate resistance to magic spells.
  • Add +1 to the Difficulty Class for all saving throws against illusion spells cast by gnomes. This adjustment stacks with those from similar effects.
  • +1 racial bonus on attack rolls against kobolds and goblinoids.
  • +4 dodge bonus to Armor Class against monsters of the giant type. Any time a creature loses its Dexterity bonus (if any) to Armor Class, such as when it’s caught flat-footed, it loses its dodge bonus too.
  • +2 racial bonus on Notice checks.
  • +2 racial bonus on any one Profession check of his choice.
  • Automatic Languages: Common and Gnome. Bonus Languages: Draconic, Dwarven, Elven, Giant, Goblin, and Orc.
  • Spell-Like Abilities: 1/day – dancing lights, ghost sound, prestidigitation, and speak with animals. The caster level for these effects is equal to the gnome’s level. The DC for these spells is equal to 10 + the spell’s level + the gnome’s Charisma modifier.
  • Favored Class: Bard or Sorcerer.
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Sidebar: Playtesting

Thomas Huxley once said (and I paraphrase a little) that the great tragedy of science is the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact. I think it’s similarly true that the tragedy of gaming is that a beautiful house rule is often slain by an ugly playtest.

Of course, those tragedies are also what make science and gaming more beautiful. By testing our assumptions, we are able to discard ideas that don’t work and replace them with ones that do.

This is what happened this weekend when I subjected my house skills, my bard class, and my shadow-tattoo artist class to a playtest. Overall, the playtest went very well. The players like the new skill set and feel that it gives their characters more freedom to select skills and new opportunities to use their skills creatively while roleplaying. They also liked the flavor of the new classes that I introduced.

That said, there were a few editing issues that we had to address. For example, the shadow-tattoo artist’s shadow bolt ability said that it could and could not be combined with metamagic feats. This was entirely an editing error, resulting from some earlier ideas I had about how the ability should work, and I have since corrected it. Another thing that came up was that the character sheet I created did not list which skills had to be trained in order to use them. This was an easy fix and I have since updated the sheet to make it much easier to see which skills can and cannot be used untrained. Finally, while I thought the conversion table I had listed on my blog would be enough to aid players in figuring out how to convert 3.5 skills to my new house rule set, what I realized pretty quickly is that I also need a cheat sheet that shows the original skill from 3.5 and what its new equivalent is, which I have since added to my blog.

In addition to these editing issues, there were a few rules that didn’t work out quite the way I had hoped. Take the Ride skill, for example. When I first designed my skill set, I placed this skill under Athletics. While this made Ride a Strength based skill, rather than a Dexterity based one, my reasoning was that it would actually be an improvement for fighters, paladins, and rangers- who often use the Ride skill in combat- because they wouldn’t have to diversify their ability scores so much. What I didn’t take into account is that while this might make things better for Medium-sized characters, it screws over Small creatures, who take a penalty to their Strength scores because of their size. Since being able to ride Medium-sized animals is one of the things that makes playing Small creatures enjoyable, placing Ride under Athletics actually discouraged players from playing Small creatures, because it added penalties to their Ride checks. (It also just occurred to me that placing Ride under Athletics makes ogres and other Large creatures amazing riders.) Because of these problems, I have since moved Ride from Athletics to Agility, where it should have resided in the first place.

Another thing that didn’t work out quite as well as I had hoped were skill encounters. After trying to run a Gather Information skill encounter (partly because I wanted to see how the rules worked in action, but mostly because I love the idea of skill challenges), I realized that the number of successes I said players needed to make was a little insane. As such, I have reduced the number by 2 for each complexity rating. I also learned while I’ve been running skill encounters according to the rules as written, I should have been ignoring the rules in favor of game flow. You see, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Fourth Edition, it explicitly states that you are supposed to roll initiative in order to establish an order of play. This is a rule that I carried over from Fourth Edition when creating my own house rules. While this rule might work very well in certain circumstances, I discovered that in most cases, it actually deters good roleplaying. For example, when I ran my skill encounter, I had two players talking to a tavern owner while two other players talked to a shopkeeper. Because the two players talking to the shopkeeper rolled higher initiatives than one of the players talking to the tavern owner, it broke up the conversations and even confused one player into thinking that the players were talking to two different tavern owners. It also discouraged players from combining their efforts. For example, one player said that he might have given the tavern owner money in order to boost the Gather Information check of the other player in the tavern by +2. Because of the way that I was running initiative, however, this thought didn’t occur to him and as a result, the two players had a very difficult time trying to get any information out of the tavern owner.

After some discussion with the players about the problems that they saw with running skill encounters the way that I had, one of the players asked if he could show us how his group runs skill challenges in Fourth Edition. I told him I didn’t mind and the rest of the players concurred, so he took the reins and ran the same skill encounter I did all over again for the party.

Let me tell you, watching him run that encounter was like watching someone perform poetry. Players who had never participated in a skill challenge before were coming up with unique ways to assist one another and to use their skills creatively to relate to the villagers and find out the information they needed from them. I’m still trying to digest everything that happened in that encounter but one of the things that I realized very quickly was how fluid everything was when he abandoned the initiative concept and instead asked the players how they wanted to cooperate together in order to get the information they needed from the tavern owner and the shopkeeper. When I run encounters like this one in the future, I hope I can do them half the justice.

As I continue to run this campaign, I hope to keep you abreast of our experiences playtesting the rules I’ve written for this blog. In the meantime, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below. Thanks.

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Sidebar: Recalling Spells

A while back, I posted a link to Shamus Young’s blog entry, “A Retrospective Glance at D&D 3.5.” In the article, he talks about how returning to 3.5 after playing 4E helped him see some of the flaws with that system.

“A few hours go by and while in combat I hear something that hasn’t been said around me in a long time, “I am out of spells.” Until then we have had a few small skirmishes, but now this player had to kick back and make conversation with the other magic user who had run dry. They were completely out of the game for about an hour, and I had forgotten just how much that sucked thanks to new spell system in fourth edition.

As I said in my earlier entry, I think this is an insightful observation of the problems with the 3.5 spellcasting system. However, I don’t think that the 4E power system does a particularly good job of addressing the problem. In my experience, 4E players tend to hoard their daily and encounter powers, relying almost exclusively on their at-will powers to get through combat. Either that, or they expend all of their daily and encounter powers at once and then rest for the day. This tendency either turns combats into long, tedious slogs that can last four hours or more, or it recreates the problem of the 60 second day that so many players saw as a problem with 3.5. So while I can respect 4E’s attempt to address the problems with the 3.5 spellcasting system, I think there are better ways to go about it. I also think that there’s a way to address this issue without creating an entirely new combat system.

Design Considerations
In designing the rules for recalling spells, I had to take into consideration several variables. For example, I didn’t want players recalling spells that they hadn’t cast or prepared for the day. After all, it would be real easy to increase one’s daily fire power by casting fireball and then replacing it with three magic missile spells. I also didn’t want players to expend all of their spells in one encounter and then use subsequent encounters to recall those spells for the day. Another issue I had to consider is how the mechanics of recalling spells would affect spellcasters who have a limited number of spells they can cast each day. Third, I had to consider how such a rule change would affect spontaneous casters versus casters who prepare spells. Finally, I needed to consider how such a change would affect campaigns that include psionic characters, who don’t cast spells, but who would still be at a disadvantage if they couldn’t refresh their powers.

I think the system I came up with addresses many of the issues people have with the 3.5 spellcasting system, while still encouraging players to manage their resources appropriately. That said, I welcome any criticism or feedback people may have about this mechanic.

By the way, here’s another take on the same concept.

Refresh Spellcasting

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Recall Spells

By taking a short rest, you can recall some of the spells you cast during your most recent combat. You may recall a maximum number of spells whose combined levels do not exceed the level of your highest level spell known. For example, a 5th level wizard could recall a 3rd level spell; a 2nd level and a 1st level spell; or three 1st level spells. For purposes of recalling spells, 0-level spells are considered to have a spell level of 1/2. You cannot recall spells from earlier combats.

If you prepare spells, you can only recall spells you cast in the last combat. For example, a 5th level wizard would not be able to recall the fireball spell if she hadn’t actually cast it in the last combat.

If you are a spontaneous caster, you can only recall spells of the same level you cast in the last combat. For example, a 6th level sorcerer who casts fireball would only be able to recall a 3rd level spell.

If you cast spells whose total spell level exceeds the level of your highest level spell known, you must choose which spells you wish to recall. For example, a 5th level wizard who casts two 2nd level spells in a combat must choose which of these two spells she wishes to recall.

In order to recall a spell, you need a relatively peaceful environment. The time required to recall spells is 15 minutes. Additional time spent trying to recall spells from your previous combat automatically fails.

Using Psionics
If you are playing a psionic character, you can recall a number of power points equal to the minimum needed to manifest your highest level power. Like recalling spells, you need a relatively peaceful environment and the time required to recall power points is 15 minutes.
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Sidebar: Spell Duel

You’ve seen it before. Two spellcasters square off in an epic battle of wits and magic, where winner takes all. It’s the sort of duel from which legends are made of. So why is it that every magical duel in Dungeons & Dragons goes a little something like this?

That’s why I created rules for the spell duel. I want something that feels as dramatic as the duels I see in movies, not a grocery list of spells that each spellcaster can cast until one fails their save, or happens to die first.

Now there are a few different ways that one could implement these new rules into their game. I added spell duels as a feat, because at the time, I felt like it was the least disruptive way to include these new rules into the game. However, as I think about it, I don’t really see any reason why one couldn’t do away with the feat and just include the skill encounter as part of combat rules. Granted, it gives spellcasters a way to tie up opponents for several rounds, but an ability that you can only use once per day isn’t all that game changing, and the fact that it’s an ability that’s only really useful in select situations makes me think that perhaps it would be better as part of combat rules.

I’d like to know what other people think. Do you think that spell duels should be considered a feat, part of the combat rules, or do you have other thoughts on the matter?

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