July 2011

Greetings gamers!

Tonight I’m taking my seat back behind the screen and running an old Dungeons & Dragons adventure, Keep on the Borderlands.

Cover of Keep on the Borderlands


This adventure originally came in the Basic D&D Box Set. I found a copy of the box set (minus the number tokens) at a used book store a few months ago and the adventure was in good shape. Someone left in the box a 3×5 card with the stats for a young black dragon that supposedly lurked in Room 52. I wonder if they defeated the dragon?

I’m not going to use the old D&D rules for the game tonight thought. I picked up the Dragon Age RPG Box Set 1 a few weeks ago and I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to test out the rules. The rules system appears to be lean and friendly and after reading the Players Guide book once I was able to make a character in about 5 minutes. The bulk of my gaming experience is with 3rd Edition D&D, so being able to complete all the crunch for a character in 5 minutes and not be worried about making an unoptimized sack of crap was refreshing.

I’ve got 3 players for tonight’s session. One of the players is an experienced gamer, with many years of D&D and WoW under his belt and he’s playing a Dwarf Mage. Another is new to gaming and I made a City Elf Rogue for him. The third player is a veteran of 3rd Edition D&D and other RPG’s like Rifts, and he’ll be rolling up a Human Warrior. As someone familiar with the Dragon Age RPG might have noticed, Dwarves can’t be Mages according to the rules for the system. Well, we’re playing a D&D version of the game, so I’m relaxing the restrictions on what races can be which classes. The only other mechanical change that I’m making is to modify the short rest mechanic (or breather, as DARPG calls it). During a breather Mages will get back 1d6+Magic mana points. I’d rather not have the group rest for an hour just so the Mage can cast a few more spells.

One of the things that the DARPG Box Set is lacking is a wide selection of monsters. I’ve found some excellent fan material that I printed out and will use for the game. The 3 Volume free PDF’s are called Esoterica from Thedas and present new rules, materials, monsters, spells and more, all done in a very nice style that mimics that game’s original art. I also found some alternate versions of the maps that came with adventure and will use the updated map for 4th Editions Chaos Scar Keep (Thumbnail at the bottom for those without DDI).

I’m looking forward to the game tonight and think the DARPG rules, or AGE system, will work well with the Basic D&D style of play the Keep was meant for.










Greetings gamers!

I’ve been away from the blog for a bit, focusing on real life random encounters that have taken time away from both blog writing time and actual gaming time. But I haven’t stopped thinking about D&D and I’ve been mostly pondering the mechanical side of the game. Today I want to write about the base mechanic in D&D and offer a different way of doing things.

The current mechanic is simple to grasp: Roll a d20, add your modifiers and try to meet or beat a target number. Higher numbers indicate a harder task, whether it’s attacking an enemy or making a skill check. The basic mechanic for representing adventurers becoming more powerful is to give them a higher modifier on their d20 roll. This in turn requires a higher difficulty number to ensure that the level appropriate monsters and challenges are in fact a challenge. As the target number of the task increases (Difficult Class for skill checks, Armor Class for attacks) the adventurers must continue to increase their own bonuses in order to keep up with the tasks facing them.

So of the three parts of the equation (d20 + modifier > or = target number) the only numbers that are increasing at the modifiers and the target numbers. The d20 roll remains the same in that you’re always going to roll between a 1 and 20.

There’s a few problems with this setup. One problem is the possibility that target numbers and modifiers don’t scale at the same rate. If the target number is increasing by +2 each level but the adventurers only gain a +1 modifier each level, it will be increasingly harder for them to succeed at tasks. The reverse is also true. If the modifiers are increasing at a faster rate than the target numbers then tasks will become trivially easy. So it’s important to maintain an even relationship with respect to both of the numbers advancements.

If those numbers aren’t advancing evenly then a player may be forced to spend character resources (such as feats) in order to fairly compete with monsters of appropriate level. A number of the feats in 4th edition are referred to as Math Tax feats, as they usually provide simple +1 bonuses to attacks with certain weapons. Adventurers without these feats can find themselves falling behind their allies that do have them when attacking monsters, through no fault of their own except for failing to take a feat that works to correct a flaw in the progression of modifier/target number advancement.

Gamma World takes a different approach and simply has the adventurers add their level as a bonus on attack rolls. This eliminates the need for Math Tax feats (indeed, there are no feats in Gamma World) but doesn’t fix the need to make sure the modifier/target number advancement is even.

What I’m proposing is something similar to other task resolution mechanics, such as the one used in the Serenity RPG. In that game you roll your dice, add them up (rarely do you add a modifier), and see if you’ve beat the target number for the task you’re attempting. The target number is assigned by the GM prior to attempting the task and it follows a scale with an adjective description of the difficulty rank. Easy tasks have a target number of 3, Average tasks are a 7, Hard tasks are 11, Formidable tasks are 15, and so on. The scale continues with Heroic, Incredible, Ridiculous, and Impossible, adding +3 each time to the target number.

One key aspect of this system is that’s level independent, which is a good thing as Serenity RPG doesn’t have character levels. So whether you’re a greenhorn just out in the black or a seasoned veteran that fought on U-Day, an Easy task is always difficulty 3. Hard tasks are always difficulty 11. Without levels, character advancement is handled by increasing the die type you roll for attacks, so if you roll a d10 for Shooting Things and you advanced your characters Shooting Things ability, you’d be rolling a d12 when you Shoot Things.

The advantage of this system is the consistency of the target numbers for the different degrees of task complexity. What I want to do is take that idea and use it in D&D.

Here’s a chart.

1 – Automatic Failure

2,3,4 – Simple

5,6,7 – Easy

8,9,10 – Common

11,12,13 – Average

14,15,16 – Tough

17,18,19 – Hard

20 – Heroic

Rule 1: Level Appropriate tasks are Average.

Rule 2: Tasks above the parties level increase the Difficulty Rank by 1 rank per level above party. Ex: Level 6 monster vs a level 5 party: The monster is +1 rank, so it’s a Tough task. Level 7 monster vs a level 5 party: the monster is +2 rank, so it’s a Hard task.

Rule 3: Tasks below the parties level decrease the Difficult Rank by 1 rank per level below the party. Ex: Level 4 monster vs a level 5 party: The monster is -1 rank, so it’s a Common task. Level 3 monster vs a level 5 party: The monster is -2 ranks, so it’s an Easy task.

In order to succeed on a task, the adventurer must roll equal to or higher than the difficult rank. So if it’s an Average task, he needs a 11 or above to succeed. For Tough tasks, he needs a 14 or above.

Note: This applies whether it’s the player making the roll or the DM. Monsters use this to determine how hard it is to hit the adventurers as well. More on that later.

So now the base mechanic looks like this: d20 versus difficulty rank. There’s no modifiers to add, no armor classes to configure. If it’s level appropriate, you need an 11 or higher. Lower level tasks are easier and higher level tasks are harder. To answer a question some of you may be asking: What about a monster that is 3 levels about the party, thus making it a Heroic task? You need a 20 to succeed. In the cases of monsters that are higher than 3 levels above the party (off the chart), you can only succeed on a natural 20 (and you probably shouldn’t be fighting that monster anyway). For tasks that are more than 3 levels below the party, you still need a 2 or higher: 1 is always an automatic failure.

There’s the main mechanic. It scales with levels in the sense that higher level monsters are harder to fight, but the target number for task difficulties don’t change. You don’t need to have math fixes in order to give your character a boost to attacks or worry about whether a particular monsters armor class is fair for the given party level. This mechanic works for any kind of task resolution, including attack rolls (versus armor class and the other defenses), skill checks, and any other d20 check you might need to make.

The change in mechanic brings up other questions, such as: If everyone is the same difficulty rank to hit, where’s the differentiation between the classes? In other words, how can this system represent different class abilities, like Fighters being able to hit in melee better or Rogues being able to dodge better. In brief, this can be accomplished by class abilities that shift the difficulty ranks around. For example, let’s say that a Fighter has the Weapon Focus class feature. It allows him to attack creatures as if they were one shift in rank lower. So if he’s swinging his sword at a Hard ranked monster, he only needs to succeed on a Tough difficulty to hit. If you don’t want to shift a whole rank, you could add a bonus to the roll. So now Weapon Focus adds a +1 whenever he attacks with a weapon (Note: this modified system isn’t opposed to using modifiers on d20 rolls, but it doesn’t use them as the main mechanic for determining a characters ability to succeed). It doesn’t change the difficulty rank a whole shift, but now he can hit a Hard creature with a roll of 16.

For that fast Rogue, his ranking could go up one shift when he’s attacked. Say he’s attacked by a Hard monster (monster is 2 levels above the Rogue’s level); the monster normally only needs a 5 to hit the Rogue (since the Rogue is two levels below the monster, the Rogue is an Easy task for the monster), but because of his Rogue ability Uncanny Dodge, the monster treats him as one level higher, making the Rogue a Common task for the monster (thus needing an 8 or higher to hit the Rogue).

One immediate consequence of this change is that it is relatively easy for higher level creatures to attack lower level creatures. Any monster 2 or more levels above the party is a serious threat. Conversely, any monster 2 or more levels below the party is barely a challenge.

Another consequence is that a lot of the class features and abilities from classes become relatively meaningless. I’m aware of this and specific class features is something I’ll be talking about in a future post. In the meantime, I’d like to know primarily whether this makes sense and secondly whether you think it’d be a good mechanic.