Jan 31, 2015

Some Reflections on Psionics

In Necrocarcerus, I use Courtney Campbell's Psionics supplement, which is an adaptation, rationalisation and upgrade of the AD&D 1e DMG Psionics system. It is an excellent free supplement.

After I ran a psionic combat the other day, one of the non-psionic PCs mentioned that it felt like in Shadowrun, when the decker starts hacking and everyone else gets up to use the bathroom, get a coffee, etc. until it's done. I feel like this comment is unfortunately accurate. While it was fun for the PC doing it, everyone else was confused and bored. I therefore find that I'm dissatisfied with with this system for several reasons, most of which derive from the source material (the AD&D 1e DMG's psionics system):

1) Psionic combat plays like an overly-complex mini-game that only involves psionic creatures. Psionic combat takes too long, requires too many calculations, and has too moving parts to understand their interaction in a straightforward way.

2) Psionic powers use points, but the value of any given point seems unclear, and many of your powers have different effects based on your total point value.

3) Psionics is too sealed off from other powers and non-psionic characters. Magic and psionics don't interact except in a handful of special cases.

4) Psionic combat and psionic powers seem really distinct from one another, like there are two power systems within the same class, which are used in different situations without much overlap.

On the other hand, there are several things about psionics as it currently stands that I like:

1) Psionics feels totally different than arcane or divine spellcasting, both stylistically and mechanically. I like that the resource allocation decisions differ between its pool-based system, and the slot-based system of spellcasting.

2) Psionic combat is a cool concept. I like the idea of different attack modes having different effects.

3) I like the distinction between minor powers that are cheap and easy to use, and major powers that are not, but are broader in their application. More generally, the powers outside of psionic combat are mostly interesting, flavourful, and well-designed.

All of this is a prelude to a larger rewrite of the psionics system. While it isn't fully worked out by any means (I'm concentrating on the Necrocarcerus rules document and aiming to finish v.1.2 ASAP) here are some ideas I'm kicking around. Some of these are adaptations from both Courtney's spell pool system from Numenhalla and AD&D 2e's Complete Psionics Handbook.

1) Magic and psionics are interchangeable. Anti-magic shells block psionics, psionic barriers block magical mental effects, my shield blocks your fire darts and vice versa.

2) Psionicists characters and creatures have a power pool equal to their HD. Wild talents have a power pool equal to half their hit dice. You recharge your power pool by resting overnight.

i.e. an 8th level Psioncist in Necrocarcerus has 8d8 to manifest powers, fight in psionic combat, etc. with (because Psionicists use d8 HD in Necrocarcerus). A 10th level wizard with a wild talent rolls 5d4.The Lesser Dreams of the Ghoul Star (a sort of embodied undead fragment of an intelligent, malign star) roll 7d12 because they have 7 HD, and those HD are d12s.

Wizards are crappy at psionics because their brains are mostly full of spells.

3) Instead of points spent, powers require the psionicist to roll dice from the power pool and exceed a target number. To maintain powers once activated, dice from the power pool must be dedicated to the power. The number of dice rolled to manifest the power is the the "Mastery" level the power manifests at, and the dice dedicated depend on the level of the power - 2 for a discipline, 4 for a science, 8 for a grand art. Dice that come up less then 3+ when manifesting a discipline, 5+ when manifesting a science and 9+ when manifesting a grand art are lost from the power pool until the character rests (i.e. you always burn the dice you lose manifesting a grand art).

(The hard/boring part of actually making this system will be restatting out all the powers)

4) Psionic combat uses grapple rules. Courtney and I both use a system where grappling is handled by both sides rolling their hit dice with the winner pinning or stunning the other side.

In this, psionicists and psionically active creatures can initiate psionic combat against any intelligent creature they can see (provided they aren't already in psionic combat) without needing an attack roll. Psionicists and psionically-active creatures roll their power pool. Non-psions have a penalty, either of the number of dice (possibly half their level or HD) or the type (d4s vs. the usual d8 of a psionic character or creature).

If the defender wins, the attacker is stunned for a round and loses a die from their power pool until they rest. If the attacker wins, then the defender loses all dice from their power pool and they render the defender helpless until they choose to retreat from their mind.

5) The different attack and defense modes would each change this dynamic in one way or another. Attackers and defenders choose their modes of attack and defense respectively when they decide to initiate psionic combat.

Psionic Wave would let you grapple multiple opponents. Psychic Crush would let you cause real damage to your opponent. Id Insinuation would let you charm or frighten an opponent instead of rendering them helpless. Ego Lash would let you puppet them (while your own body remains helpless) and Mind Knife would upgrade your die type by two but wouldn't cause any other effect upon success. The attacker selects when they first initiate psionic combat which they're using.

Empty Mind causes the attempt to initiate psionic combat to fail unless the attacker first passes a saving throw. Shield Thoughts allows you to defend even when you are surprised, unaware, dazed, stunned, unconscious, asleep, etc. Fortress of Intellect lets you both interfere in psionic combat between two other characters and drag your nearby nonpsionic friends & drones into the combat to add their dice pools to your own. Spire of Iron Will lets you increase your die type by one. Cerebral Barrier nixes any other mental effects you're under, and causes you to merely be stunned for one round if you lose the psionic combat.

These are just preliminary notes, obviously, not a fully worked out system at this point.

Jan 28, 2015

A Procedure for Fast Random Treasure Values

I use a variety of generators to create random treasure - amethyst plates with intaglio portraits, bronze idol-gears, hallucinogenic spices of incredible piquancy, etc. Often there is no straightforward comparison to items in the various treasure guides and referee manuals to elucidate what the value should be. As well, the actual guidelines in the various referee manuals out there is often fairly convoluted. I strongly dislike the method in Swords and Wizardry, for example, which involves generating a total value for the hoard then calculating random percentages of magical items, then swapping things in and out, and takes forever, and leaves you with a hoard that has a value far distant from the original value calculated.

I have developed a different method, which I will offer here for your use as you please. It relies on a simple die progression: d0/d4/d6/d8/d10/d12/d20/d100, which has eight values.

To generate the value of a hoard:

Roll a d6. This tells you the number of significant digits in the hoard's value. If you plan to feature hoards of 1 million gp or greater in value, you may adjust the die type upwards as you please.

To generate the value of specific items in the hoard:

Roll a d8 and a d4. The d4 tells you how many significant digits in the item's value, and the d8 tells you which die type from the above progression to roll for the leftmost significant digit (the "head"). If an exact value is required, based on a use of the Appraise skill or whatever other method you prefer, roll 1d10 for each remaining significant digit. "0" on the d10s is read as zero, not ten.

e.g. You roll a 6 on the d8 and a 4 on the d4. This means the item is worth roughly d12 x 1000 gp. The d12 comes up 10. The item is worth roughly 10,000gp. A PC uses the appraise skill, so 3d10 are rolled, generating 3, 0, and 5. The item is worth 10,305 gp.

One continues using this process until the total value of the individual items in the hoard has the same number, or greater, as the number of significant digits in the total hoard value.


I typically roll the head and the d10s simultaneously to speed this method up. After using this in my own games extensively, I find that I often simplify it mentally to a statement like "This item is worth d6+2d10" which means a value between 100 gp and 699.

I often use multiple similar or identical lower value items - so you might find 2d6 busts of similar value in a single hoard, which also helps speed things up.

Jan 21, 2015

Necrocarcerus Update Preview

I'm still finishing the Necrocarcerus House Rules Document v. 1.2. It's substantially done, except for one section on Morale, a rewrite of the Nepenthe section, some additional entries on the gear table, and some additional talents.

Rather than leave everyone waiting, I thought I would release a pdf version of the current document - call it Necrocarcerus v. 1.19 with the holes there. A lot of the changes between 1.1 and 1.2 are the result of playtesting versions 1.0 and 1.1, filling in gaps, rewording unclear parts, or just plain changing things that weren't working as intended.

Version 1.1 is 749KB as a pdf, with about 28 pages of content. It's also no longer under the OGL, which I only did with 1.1 to cover myself legally. As it currently stands, everything in Necrocarcerus that is my own work is free for you to use as you please, so long as you don't assign some weird copyright license restriction thing to it yourself. This means basically the entire document except for a handful of names of things (books, classes, gods, worlds). I don't really care if you attribute it to me or whatever (though it would stoke my ego).

The changes are too long to list here. I'll point to a few of the ones I consider more important that derived from playtesting though, if only to explain the logic of them.

Stat bonuses don't add to skill checks anymore. This was to encourage situational bonus grubbing (aka engaging with the world) over whichever character had the highest stat making the roll.

Removed the Listening skill and added my perception system instead, which was based on a suggestion by Chris H after a few sessions where we were trying to figure out how to handle these situations.

Chase rules and some rules for grappling. The latter two come from a situation in which the PCs grappled with a wood elemental (unsuccessfully) and then got chased around by some paladins from one of the living worlds. The chase rules that ended up in the Necrocarcerus document are more concise than the original blog post, and have one major change: Rolling a "7" now allows melee, while merely matching dice means only missile exchanges.

Rules for summoning and binding creatures, since one of the characters is a weirdomancer who can summon elementals and elementines regularly, and does. This has had the effect of trivialising a few fights. I realised I had missed a section in the Swords and Wizardry Complete rulebook where it mentions such creatures are unwilling servants that require constant attention, and wanted to figure out a way to represent that mechanically. I didn't want to gank summoning, but I did want to put a few clear constraints on treating elementals as essentially 8/12/16HD NPCs who are friendly, intelligent, and superpowered who show up to help the party.

Added the Focus and Animal Handling skills. I figured I needed something to govern caring for, healing, etc. animals as horselikes and other beasts became more prominent in the game. The Focus skill is a revival of a long-held interest of mine, a variation on the idea of "Fatigue Saves". Want to do something boring and tedious but that will succeed given a long enough period of unrelenting exertion? That's the focus skill.

There's also a ton of tiny typo fixes, which I'm still working through (I caught a few just after uploading 1.19). I also ended up rearranging the order of sections so they make a little more logical sense (I hope).

I'm tremendously interested in feedback, comments, and criticism of the document, so feel free to chime in with your impressions of it.

Jan 19, 2015

Read Magic: Non-Spell Methods

I propose that Read Magic ought not to be a spell, but a skill that spellcasters have. Read Magic is almost always a sub-optimal choice to memorise, especially if casters can't cast scrolls with spells of higher level than they can memorise. At best, you are trading out one spell for another (on a scroll). There are some downtime uses for it, and some extremely uncommon edge cases where it might be handy, but it is almost always going to be the worst choice of all the spells a caster can memorise.

The main hindrance on Read Magic being memorised is the overall scarcity of spell slots. So by removing it from costing a spell slot (by turning it into a skill), we remove the main factor discouraging its use.

Here are several proposals for using Read Magic as various kinds of skills, depending on your preference.

Spellcasters have an equivalent chance to read magic as a Thief of equivalent level does to Hear Noise. (e.g. starting at 3-in-6 and increasing in Swords & Wizardry Complete)

Roll 5+ on your Decipher skill to read magical texts.

"Magical Writing" is a language. PCs who take it as a starting language may decipher spellbooks, scrolls, etc. using their % Chance to Learn New Spell. Arcane, Divine, Druidic, etc. may be separate languages as you please.

I use a combination of the last two proposals.. The first one requires the least work on the part of referees, and will probably be amenable to people who are using systems without skills and who are looking for a simple solution with a minimum of die rolling.

In Necrocarcerus, you may learn the "Magic" language, which allows you to read spellbooks, scrolls, and other magic writing of any origin without a roll. If one doesn't speak or read a language, one can use the Decipher roll. In practice, PC wizards tend to pick up the "Magic" language, while non-wizards characters will usually have to make a Decipher roll. PC languages are set by intelligence, so wizards tend to know the greatest number of languages, while skills are broadly equivalent across classes. This means that having a wizard in the party allows one to easily interpret magical writing, while without one (a rare occurrence in Necrocarcerus but admittedly possible), one is left relying on chance. I like the feeling of this.

Jan 13, 2015

A Proposal for Routs

I've yet to find a system in D&D for running away from fights that I really like. Here are paraphrases of the major options found in old school D&D:

1) Compare speeds of the slowest character fleeing with those of the fastest character pursuing. If the fleeing characters are faster, they get away. If they are slower, they must drop treasure, rations, or equipment to slow the pursuers down.

2) Roll some dice (a d20, 2d6, whatever) for each side and add the speed of the slowest party member in each case. If the fleeing characters roll higher, they get away. Otherwise, the monsters can attack them.

3) Each character rolls some dice when they run, which variably extends their movement. If the fleeing characters can stay ahead of their opponents for some set period of time, they escape. Otherwise, the pursuers catch them and they must begin fleeing all over anew.

There are some alternates of each of these which vary the details slightly, but the basics are still one of: Straight comparison, variable movement & roll high.There are elements of each of these systems that I like, but I generally find that their feel in practice is the wrong mix of agency, chaos and time for what I want in a system governing routs.

I propose a system governing routs should have minimal decision making in it, and lots of chance, that it should take more than a single roll or decision to determine whether the PCs get away, and that it should have an indeterminate end point. Ideally, it should also be quick to resolve any given roll, with serious but not necessarily decisive consequences for for failure (the monsters should not automatically kill the PCs if they fail to successfully flee).

With this in mind, I propose the following system for routs. It relies on the Necrocarcerus system of encumbrance (which uses four categories: Unencumbered, lightly encumbered, heavily encumbered, and overloaded).

1) A chase roll starts as a roll of 2d6. Each side in a chase will make a chase roll each round.

2) Pursuers and fugitives may split up from other pursuers and fugitives, respectively. This allows them to make separate chase rolls.

3) Compare the die values of each chase roll with the others. If they match, then those characters or groups have come in contact long enough to conduct a single round of melee combat. If there are multiple available groups to attack, the pursuers may choose which they attack (all groups with matching values are considered to be present though). At the start of the next round, both sides make chase rolls again.

e.g. The pursuers roll a 1 and a 5, and the fugitives roll a 2 and a 5, the pursuers may attack the fugitives that round. If one set of fugitives had rolled 2 and 5, and another set had rolled 3 and 4, only the first group could be attacked. If the first set of fugitives had rolled 2 and 5, and the second had rolled 5 and 6, the pursuers could choose either or both to attack (provided they had sufficient attacks to distribute).

4) If the pursuers roll a "7", then they catch sight of the fugitives long enough to make ranged attacks (if they have them). If the fugitives roll a "7" then they have ducked out of sight long enough to hide (either making a Stealth check or Hide in Shadows check) and the pursuers must spot them using their passive perception in order to continue chasing them.

5) Each category of encumbrance above Unencumbered adds an extra d6 to a fugitive's chase roll. Characters may drop gear to lighten their encumbrance load.

6) Groups leave the chase when one side or the other's chase roll comes up with all the die values the same. i.e. Doubles if they are rolling 2d6, triples if they are rolling 3d6, etc. Fugitives successfully escape, while pursuers have cornered their victims and ordinary combat resumes without the possibility of escape. Ties go to the fugitives. If there are multiple groups of fugitives, each group must successfully escape on its own. A single pursuer chase roll can only corner one group.

7) Chases also end when the pursuers decide to break off the chase, or when all the fugitives are hidden.

Jan 11, 2015

A Final Few Touches

Version 1.2 of the Necrocarcerus House Rules Document is nearly complete. I reduced the average font size to 11, but it's still bigger than 1.1, and is currently sitting at 27 pages. Before I issue it, I'm hoping to get some inspiration for the few outstanding sections I need to complete:

1) Chasing & fleeing rules
2) Summoning creatures
3) A redo of the nepenthe section
4) A light rewrite of the initiative & combat round order chart

Changes are going to be pretty extensive, I've been playtesting stuff with the Necrocarcerus group, rewriting sections that seem to cause confusion, adding material, and coming up with stuff to fill gaps in Swords & Wizardry.

Additional material includes:

Grappling rules
Perception rules
Movement rules
More gear (duct tape, film for cameras!)
More talents
Additional rules on money, including loans and credit
+ the above mentioned sections still undergoing development

There's also a ton of errata and little tweaks. Some long-term projects that won't be included in 1.2, but that I am slowly working towards include a rewrite of the cleric class along the lines of talysman's Clerics Without Spells idea; fatigue saves for every class in the game; incorporating research rules for talents, proficiencies and skills akin to the Crimson Pandect's spell research rules; a graft system whereby you can hack apart your body and sew on augmented bits; and eventually incorporating all the various procedures I use during the game as in full instead of links to blog posts.

In the mean time, if anyone has any good chasing or fleeing rules, let me know.

Jan 10, 2015

Perception Rules for Necrocarcerus

Here are a set of perception rules built from a suggestion by Chris H earlier today after a Necrocarcerus session that I'm planning to put some variation of into Necrocarcerus 1.2. Perception mechanics are a good example of the kind of mechanics that should be built from the basic paradigm of a group check and then adapted to situations where individuals use them. For this reason, perception should not be a skill, but rather something made easier or harder by the number of participants.


Perception mechanics cover only situations in which PCs do not specifically describe how they are investigating an object or area.

Characters who are actively hiding may be spotted by exceeding the results of their Stealth check. Objects like hidden doors have static concealment scores.

Passive Perception Scores

Passive perception is used when characters are not actively searching. The passive perception score of a group of characters is equal to the number of them who are not distracted and are able to perceive their environment (i.e. they have adequate light).

Active Perception Checks

A group of characters makes a single active perception check whenever they search an object or area. Checks may also be used for tracking enemies.

Active perception checks involve rolling a single d6 and adding the number of characters in the group who are not distracted and able to perceive their environment to the result of the roll.

Additional Material From Elsewhere in the Necrocarcerus Document:

Only areas that are adequately lit may be actively searched. If PCs have a light source in a dark area, they may only search the area or object the light source illuminates until it is moved, using an action.

Hirelings do not normally add to perception scores or checks, though named NPC allies accompanying the party do.

As Yet Undecided:

What "Hide in Shadows" does? Three options suggest themselves, varying in power:

1) On a successful Hide in Shadows check, the character counts as having rolled the maximum possible Stealth check (based on their skill, using Skills: the Middle Road). This still incentivises them to better their Stealth check, though they would rarely roll it.

2) A successful Hide in Shadows check allows a reroll of the hiding character's Stealth check, keeping the higher result of the two.

2) On a successful Hide in Shadows check, searchers use only their passive perception for the purposes of detecting the character.

I'm open to suggestions about which to adopt.