Doom of the Savage Kings – Review

Answering the Raven Crowking’s call, a review of Doom of the Savage Kings, DCC #66.5: A Level 1 Adventure by Harley Stroh.

I have run Doom of the Savage Kings for two different groups (see my session reports).

What you get

  • An opening quandary
  • A rumor table
  • A dungeon
  • A village
  • A wilderness region
  • A situation with multiple possible solutions

What I love about this adventure

The situation starts with an immediate decision – do you save a woman being carted off for sacrifice? Do you defy the village lord and his strongmen? From here, a rich adventure situation and locale unfolds as the time pressures mount.

The adventure instills a strong sense of Norse/Celtic villages. As I read and play through this adventure, I think of King Hrothgar’s Hall from The 13th Warrior and Theoden’s Hall from the Lord of the Rings.

The tightly written Doom of the Savage Kings sits on the top-tier of campaign opening adventures. The opening quandary pushes characters to show their true colors and sets the initial tone of their upcoming career.

Polymorph, Wild Shape and the Barbarian Rage

TL;DR A barbarian suspends any active rage and may not enter a rage while polymorphed via a polymorph spell.

The other evening, in running the D&D 5E adventure Tomb of Annihilation, the players brought forth a raging King Kong. The warlock polymorphed the raging barbarian into a giant ape. We went with the rage continuing for the barbarian; after all we allowed the druid/barbarian to rage in wild shape. But that polymorph ruling festered as I thought through the long-term ramifications – a huge pile of hit points that burn at a far slower rate.

Before we get too far, let’s look at rules:

Rage In battle, you fight with primal ferocity. On your turn, you can enter a rage as a bonus action… Your rage lasts for 1 minute. It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you haven’t attacked a hostile creature since your last turn or taken damage since then. You can also end your rage on your turn as a bonus action.

 

Polymorph The creature is limited in the actions it can perform by the nature of its new form, and it can’t speak, cast spells, or take any other action that requires hands or speech.

That’s a little murky. Rage requires a bonus action to activate, so while polymorphed a character could not start nor deliberately end a Rage. But what about polymorphing someone already raging? Is it important that Enraged is not a game condition, akin to poisoned, restrained, etc?

Let’s look D&D team responses on Twitter.

From Jeremy Crawford, lead rules designer:

Polymorph replaces your game statistics, including class features, with those of the beast. If you’re a barbarian, you lose Rage.https://twitter.com/JeremyECrawford/status/905513072898531330

Mike Mearls, co-creator of 5e responded Yes to the following question:

Barbarian rages, get Polymorphed into Giant Ape. Does the character keep the rage on them as a Giant Ape? https://twitter.com/mikemearls/status/899824708027154432

Conflicting answers from two reliable sources. Jeremy Crawford’s response provides deeper transparency into the reasoning, so I’m inclined to lean towards that answer.

I also want to look towards why barbarian/druids can rage and wild shape. For reference, here is the relevant druid wild shape ability.

Druid Wild Shape You retain the benefit of any features from your class, race, or other source and can use them if the new form is physically capable of doing so. However, you can’t use any of your special senses, such as darkvision, unless your new form also has that sense.

Where druid wild shape grants explicit permission to keep the benefit of any features, polymorph does not. Polymorph instead limits the actions you can perform.

My refinement to polymorph is:

The creature loses the benefits of any features from class, race, or other sources and instead can perform actions according to the nature of its new form. It can’t speak, cast spells, or take any other action that requires hands or speech.

Let’s Read “Star’s without Number” – Equipment and Vehicles

A part of my Let’s Read “Stars without Number” series. Go grab your free copy of SWN and join in.

Equipment and Vehicles

Encumbrance

  • Readied Items – half Strength, rounded down
  • Stowed Items – full Strength

A readied item is immediately available during a character’s turn. A stowed item is on the character’s person, but require more time to draw out.

The system appears quick and easy to adjudicate. Some items require more than one slot for being readied or stowed.

Credits and Money

A quick concession on the interchangability of credits from planet to planet, followed by stating that even precious metals may not be precious after extensive asteroid mining.

Equipment Legality

A reminder that different systems may have different laws for weapons and armor.

Forbidden Science

Thou shalt not:

  • make tools of humankind – no genetic tech to enslave or control humanity
  • create unbraked minds – AIs must be braked
  • create devices of planetary destruction

Technology Levels

Postech – Any technology that is functional and maintainable since the campaign wide Scream Pretech – Pre-Scream technology more sophisticated than Postech

From sticks and stones (TL 0) to 2st century tech (TL 3) to Postech (TL 4) to Pretech (TL 5) and beyond.

To build a Spike-drive (and FTL transporation) you need TL 4.

Armor

Because no one likes getting shot.

  • Primitive – useless against TL 4 and up weapons, but it’ll help against bows, arrows, revolver bullets
  • Street armor – lightweight and wearable under normal cloths
  • Combat armor – for military and law enforcement
  • Powered armor – immune to TL 3 or lower weapons, a step below a mech

Different armor takes up 0, 1, or 2 slots along different tech levels.

Ranged Weapons

A variety of weapons from TL 1 up to TL 5, each taking 1 or 2 slots. Advantages of TL 2 weapons are ease of maintenance; most any planet with minimal tools will do.

Some weapons can fire in burst mode; Spend 3 rounds of ammunition to get a +2 to hit and damage.

Melee Weapons

An abstract list of weapons with two variables: size (small, medium, large) and technology (primitive and advanced). From there you, as a player, name the weapon. Monobloade, knife, pulse-guisarme, chainsword, etc.

Larger weapons do more damage, inflict more shock, and require more slots.

Plenty of variation and options.

Heavy Weapons

These weapons require tripods, fixed support, or vehicle mounting.

Some heavy weapons can lay down suppressive fire, using double ammo, and automatically hitting everyone for half damage to anyone not under hard cover.

General Equipment

  • Ammo and Power
  • Communications
  • Computing Gear
  • Field Equipment
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Tools and Medical

A wide variety of equipment to support hacking, healing, communication, tinkering, and power.

Of particular note is the Lazarus Patch; A one time medical device that greatly reduces the difficulty (to 6 instead of 8) of the Heal skill check for reviving people.

Lifestyles, Employees, and Services

Guidance on how to pay for the type of lifestyle your character wants (or is living).

A quick chart of wages for employees by skill type and skill rank. And a chart for services and their costs – Bribes, forgeries, intensive medical care, interstellar mail, workshop rental, passage, and wildly decadent party. A laundry list of services an adventurer might want.

Vehicles & Drones

A list of vehicles and drones, and their game statistics. Plenty of interesting options.

Cyberware

Expensive personal modifications, that incur system strain; which reduces a character’s limit for psionic healing and stimulant drugs.

Artifacts

Stars without Number assumes a past when technology was more potent, even bordering on magic. This chapter provides some ideas of what that tech could be.

Modding and Building Equipment

Stars without Number provides a ruleset and framework for building and modifying equipment.

Modifications require three things: time, money, and pretech parts. Characters have ample time and can earn money, but to get pretech parts, they’ll need to search, scrounge, and adventure for it. And then spend time to maintain.

Characters may also build new equipment, choosing to jury-rig something, build it out normally, or even strive for a masterwork device (which allows a mod installation that requires no maintenance).

A character has a threshold of maximum maintenance – better of Int or Con modifier plus 3 times the character’s tech skill.

Conclusion

As is traditional with sci-fi, characters have access to a laundry list of equipment, many of which will require a significant number of credits or pretech components. All of which drive the characters towards adventure.

Which is what an equipment list should be; A list of aspirational items that the players seek to acquire.

Do you prefer your RPG Combat as War or Sport?

I was reminded again today of a long running thread on Enworld.org discusses the difference between Combat as War and Combat as Sport.

There are two competing ideologies about combat in RPGs. The modern one, Combat as Sport, is based around the idea of two more-or-less evenly matched sides engaging in combat where luck and good play within the intended rules of the combat system prevails. The older ideology, Combat as War, favors seeking every possible advantage in order to make the fight as quick and deadly as possible (and I do mean every possible advantage).

Combat as Sport assumes two sides crashing against each other, likely evenly matched. Here each side aims to build on tactical advantage and to gain tempo; optimize the action economy and so forth. The majority of dice rolls occur during the conflict.

Combat as War assumes each side engages in operational and strategic positioning, one side may well be unaware of the other. Then pow a surprise strike that aims to decide the outcome with minimal reliance on dice rolls. In a Combat as War game, a long-running combat encounter is a loss for the attacker. They are likely depleting more resources, and putting more up to fate.

I prefer “Combat as War”. I suspect other OSR advocates, acolytes, and adherents favor Combat as War as well. There is no room for LeRoy Jenkins in a Combat as War game.

“Combat as War” assumes that the characters will engage in antics to eek out every advantage. The antics and scrappign together a plan is the wheelhouse of tabletop RPGs compared to other systems that have combat elements (e.g. boardgames, wargames, computer games)

When GM-ing a game, nothing compares to the crazy ass shit that players come up with when they:

  1. have time to prepare
  2. know the odds are against them
  3. scratch for most every advantage
  4. and decide to go for it

Take a moment to reflect on your most memorable game sessions and encounters there within. What makes them memorable? What details do you highlight? What makes you smile?

I believe the best “Combat as Sport” story pales in comparison to the story about planning for and executing a strike for a “Combat as War” story.

For Combat as Sport, I imagine the following:

I saw the ledge and knew if I could push the ogre over, we’d win. I went for it, and rolled a nat 20. Woo! Bye bye ogre!

For Combat as War, I envision the following:

We heard there was an ogre guarding a bridge. And they are nasty. So we hatched a plan. First, we’d lace a shank of mutton with a sleeping drug, then someone would approach and attempt to engage the ogre. The ultimate goal was to get the ogre to take the shank of mutton and eat it. Jehat, the rogue with a silver tongue and quite a few evasive maneuvers, approached.

If I have to sit through someone telling me a gaming story, I’d much prefer a Combat as War over a Combat as Sport story. In the real world, I’d rather hear a war story than a sport story.

Game Mechanics and Manifestations of Combat as War

In D&D, mechanics that circumvent the HP mechanic point towards Combat as War:

  • 3E’s poison that does ability damage
  • 5E’s exhaustion mechanic
  • 0E to 3E’s save or die mechanics
  • 3E’s coup de grace mechanic
  • 1E’s assassination table
  • 0E to 2E, and 5E’s morale rolls

Assuming an attacker has access to these, they can strike quick and decisively at a target (albeit relying on a failed save). The cost of spells, in early editions of D&D, was once spent they required far more time to get recover (a full night’s rest and 10 minutes per spell level per spell to re-memorize).

And at a more basic level, look to the XP rewards for early editions. Most of the XP (80%+) came from acquiring treasure. Whereas fighting monsters brough perhaps 20% and a higher chance of death.

Another thing to consider, combat in war-mode tend to be quick and decisive affairs. Not the multi-round grinds of 4e and to a lesser extend 3e and 5e.

Game Mechanics and Manifestations of Combat as Sport

In D&D, mechanics that shift position on the battlefield or are inexhaustable resources:

  • 3E to 5Es Attacks of opportunity
  • 4E’s marking an opponent
  • 3E’s 5 foot step
  • 3E’s cleave and great cleave
  • 4E to 5E’s Healing surges and hit dice
  • 4E to 5E’s “at the end of each round make a save”
  • Powers that encode rules for moving others on the battlefield
  • At-will combat spell powers

Combats in sports-mode tend to be multi-round affairs; Each team vying for position and building on their accumulated tactical advantages.

D&D as Sport or War

By default, the current incarnation of D&D is Combat as Sport. Characters recover hit points quickly and time is a bit abstract. To bring about a more Combat as War element, make sure that time matters. Taking a long-rest outside of a secure location should come with risk (random encounters). Likewise, short-rests should come with danger. Consider modifications to Death Saves (e.g. a failed save sticks with you until you complete a long-rest). Shift XP from combat towards milestones or wealth accumulation.

In other words, shift the game towards an operational and strategic perspective.

Litmus Tests for Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War

Within the fiction, what is the impact of a single roll? As a GM, how much could you place on the line with a single roll? How much does the system allow to be put on the line? The more at stake with a single roll, leads towards a system that is more Combat as War. In Burning Wheel, I could place an entire season’s military campaign on a single Tactics test (with a linked Administration test from the quartermaster).

Another way to rephrase this is: does a dice roll represent a change in momentum or a substantive change in fictional state?

Do you have a gruesome critical hit chart? What does resource management look like? What does the press your luck mechanic look like? What tools do you have to mitigate a bad roll of the dice? How long are your typical combats? What is the ratio of time between combat and not combat?

Further discussion

Systems

As I’ve looked at my game shelf, I thought I’d start to categorize. And there are varying degrees of War and Sport.

Combat as War

Combat as Sport

Tangent

As a software developer, I see analogues to compiled languages vs. interpreted languages. Compiled languages optimize execution, at the expense of greater upfront resources (e.g. compile the code into an executable). Interpreted languages distribute their source code, and when the time comes to execute, the entire code-base is read into memory and then executed.

Combat as War assumes more planning and quick conflict; It is the compiled software language. Whereas Combat as Sport is the interpreted software language.

Let’s Read “Stars without Number” – “Systems – Hacking, Advancement, and Hazards”

A part of my Let’s Read “Stars without Number” series. Go grab your free copy of SWN and join in.

Systems

Stars without Number details:

Remaining are:

  • Hacking
  • Character Advancement
  • Environmental Hazards

Hacking

A quick discussion about accessing computers. You can hack in a Main Action if you spend an hour planning, or spend 10 minutes for an off-the-cuff. If you don’t have 10 minutes, you can spend a single Main Action at an increased penalty.

You can acquire data or control a system (for a short period of time). Progressive hacking attempts get harder. And failure means there is a chance of triggering an alarm.

And if you are hacking something corporate or government, you’ll need to have direct access to a line and sometimes through two points (via line shunt).

From hacking you can:

  • Answer a specific question
  • Get general information
  • Complete database acquisition
  • Suppress a system
  • Subvert a system
  • Sabotage a system

What I like about this system, is planning matters, but also sneaking in to gain access to a terminal or plant a line shunt matters. The planning of a hack is a team affair, and the skill check for hacking is a quick matter.

Character Advancement

Characters advance quick during the early levels – a session or two per level – up until level 4, then advancement begins slowing down. So that by level 11 you’ll need 12 or so sessions for advancement.

When you level up you:

  • Roll your hit points again. Take the new result if its higher, or take the previous result + 1 if its lower.
  • Increase your attack bonus, if applicable. Warriors increase each level, others gain a bonus every even level
  • Improve each saving throw by 1.
  • Gain and spend 3 skill points; Experts get 1 extra skill point.
  • Choose a new Foci at level 2, 5, 7, and 10. If the Foci grants a skill rank, check the additional considerations.
New Skill Level Skill Point Cost Minimum Character Level
0 1 1
1 2 1
2 3 3
3 4 6
4 5 9

Psychic’s may buy additional discipline techniques with their skill points.

Attribute Boost Skill Point Cost Minimum Character Level
1st 1 1
2nd 2 1
3rd 3 3
4th 4 6
Final 5 9

Characters may buy, at most, 5 attribute boosts.

Environmental Hazards

SWN details the dangers of space:

  • Falling
  • Poisons
  • Diseases
  • Radiation
  • Hard Vacuum

Training in Heal or Biopsionics can make all the difference in treating exposure to these hazards.

Conclusion

The Hacking system reminds me of Divination spells in D&D. Consider the availability of a tremendous amount of information, and its possible impact. Characters will most certainly seek information in their planning.

Tomb of Annihilation – a quick update

Contrary to my latest posts about Stars without Number, I continue to run a mostly once a week session of Tomb of Annihilation. Originally, I was running two different groups, but getting high schoolers together to game is a real challenge. So I’m down to one.

Some of the Highlights

  • Agreed to play a concert at the lobster people’s breeding grounds, instead of backtracking and losing a few days
  • Had a shin-dig with lizardfolk as they shared some food
  • Befriended an Allasaurus, after it chomped dead a halfling
  • Fled a fort after they refused conscription
  • Watched several party members plummet to their death
  • Fought off a swarm of small poison wielding frogmen
  • Fought a quartet of clay gladiators that vanquished much of the party (on my birthday the dice were hot for the opposition and cold for the players)

The group has entered the second phase of the adventure; They’ve made it through the jungles of Chult and are exploring the ruins of Omu. They know they are not alone – they have evidence of Red Wizard activity, Yuan-ti, and the occasional roar of something truly ferocious.

And in last session, when the first party member fell, I called for a DC 14 Death save. A few months ago (in real time), the DC was 12. And now, the failed death saves don’t clear after healing. The meat grinder is a grinding, and they continue forward. Thus far, we’ve had 6 character deaths.

Let’s Read Stars without Number – Scenes, Saves, and Skill Checks

A part of my Let’s Read “Stars without Number” series. Go grab your free copy of SWN and join in.

Systems

Stars without Number details more systems than combat and healing. SWN also details:

  • Scenes and Durations
  • Saving Throws
  • Skill Checks

Scenes and Durations

Instead of copious tracking of time by the minute and hour, there is the concept of a scene. Powers that last for a combat, or the duration of a break-in job, or a hostile negotiation.

I like this unit of measurement. There are further guidelines that its about 15-minutes and assumes a bit of rest between scenes, but is not a hard and fast rule.

Saving Throws

A quick discussion of saving throws. Somewhat familiar territory for anyone that’s played any version of Dungeons & Dragons. Like 2E and before, you roll a d20 and get above your save score.

The three saves: Physical, Evasion, and Mental – akin to 4th Edition D&D’s saving throws where the better of Str or Con modifies Physical; Dex or Int modifies Evasion; and Wis or Cha modifies Mental.

I like the following quick statement:

Mental saves can also be used when no other saving throw category seems to apply and only blind luck and ineffable intuition can save the hero.

I know as a GM there are times where I’m looking for a luck roll. This little sentence gives me clear permission to use the Mental saving throw as a luck test (considering that the luck save did not make it from the Core edition to the Revised edition).

Skill Checks

Here we have a deviation from the modern D&D systems. Skill checks use 2d6 plus skill rank plus ability modifier plus a possible situational modifier. And no ranks means -1 to the check, if you can even make it at all.

I like the explicit advice that failing at a check need not mean that you don’t accomplish it, but could mean you succeed with a complication; This is up to the GM.

And this advice is crucial for keeping a game going. If the characters need to get through a door or make a landing for the adventure to continue, let failure mean they get through the door or make the landing, but notify the guards, it takes longer, or the ship sustains serious damage on the landing. (see a previous blog post for more in depth discussion)

And as one would hope Stars without Numberprovides concrete guidance on setting the difficulty of a skill check. See the table below:

DC Skill Check Difficulties
6 A relatively simple task that is still more than the PC would usually be expected to manage in their regular background. Anything easier than this isn’t worth a skill check.
8 A significant challenge to a competent professional that they’d still succeed at more often than not.
10 Something too difficult to be expected of anyone but a skilled expert, and even they might fail.
12 Only a true master could expect to carry this off with any degree of reliability.
14+ Only a true master has any chance of achieving this at all, and even they will probably fail.

It also discusses when to call for a check and when not to call for a skill check:

As a general rule of thumb, if failure at a particular task would make the PC seem notably incompetent at their role in life, then they shouldn’t have to roll a skill check for it. In addition, if failure or success at a check really doesn’t matter in the game, if it won’t produce some interesting result either way, then a check shouldn’t be made.

With the 2d6 system opposed skill checks notably favor the player characters; As compared to the usual “ties favor the aggressors.” Below is a table of probabilities of success for a PC.

NPC
Mod -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5 6
PC -3 56% 44% 34% 24% 16% 10% 5% 3% 1% 0%
-2 66% 56% 44% 34% 24% 16% 10% 5% 3% 1%
-1 76% 66% 56% 44% 34% 24% 16% 10% 5% 3%
0 84% 76% 66% 56% 44% 34% 24% 16% 10% 5%
1 90% 84% 76% 66% 56% 44% 34% 24% 16% 10%
2 95% 90% 84% 76% 66% 56% 44% 34% 24% 16%
3 97% 95% 90% 84% 76% 66% 56% 44% 34% 24%
4 99% 97% 95% 90% 84% 76% 66% 56% 44% 34%
5 100% 99% 97% 95% 90% 84% 76% 66% 56% 44%
6 100% 100% 99% 97% 95% 90% 84% 76% 66% 56%

Something feels right about 2d6 for skill checks. A bit less swingy.