Monday, March 25, 2019

Spellbooks as Treasure


Are you like me, and enjoy the concept of spellbooks as treasure, but don’t like to detail individual spells in that appear in the book?

[Insert Informercial Image of GM clumsily injuring themselves trying to write the names of spells on a piece of paper to detail a spellbook]

Have I got an idea for you!

Flexible Spellbooks as Treasure

Part of this concept comes from the idea that some spellbooks literally are just a wizard jotting down notes for something he wants to try in the future. Some of those notes may be so well detailed, it would be easy for another wizard to look at those notes and complete the spell formulae.

Instead of detailing every spell in the spellbook, under this method, we’re just determining three things--rarity, theme, and spell levels.

Rarity

Rarity runs parallel to the rarity level of items in the DMG. A spellbook will have the following rarity:


  • Common (maximum of 1st level spells)
  • Uncommon (maximum of 3rd level spells)
  • Rare (maximum of 5th level spells)
  • Very Rare (maximum of 7th level spells)
  • Legendary (maximum of 9th level spells)


For purposes of selling a spellbook, treat the spellbook as a consumable item if you are using the rules in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.

Theme

A theme defines the general kinds of spells that will be found in the spellbook. You can be creative with your themes, but in general, the easiest theme is to utilize the schools of magic, such as abjuration or necromancy. If you are using the Deep Magic supplements from Kobold Press, this would be a great way to introduce a book of clockwork magic or time magic.

You could also have a theme like “fire” or “ice” spells, but in this case, you may be doing more adjudication with your players as they brush up against the edges of what your invented theme entails.

For each die of spell level you sacrifice, a spellbook may have an additional theme. See the next section, right here . . .

Spell Levels

A spellbook will have several spell levels’ worth of spells based on the following:


  • Common--2d6 (7)
  • Uncommon--3d6+3 (13)
  • Rare--4d6+5 (19)
  • Very Rare--5d6+7 (24)
  • Legendary--7d6+9 (33)


For each 1d6 removed from this total, a spellbook can have an additional theme. A common spellbook could have a maximum of two themes, and a legendary spellbook could have up to 7 themes.

The spellbooks have whatever spells in them that the spellcaster wishes to find, and for each spell detailed by the owner of the book, subtract that many spell levels from the book as “defined.”

If someone rolled the bare minimum spell levels for a legendary book, they would start with 15 spell levels. They want to be able to add Meteor Swarm to their own spellbook, so they state that the spell is present. This means that there are still seven more levels of spells in the book to be defined. That could be seven first level spells, a fourth level spell and a third level spell, or any combination that adds up to the seven remaining spell levels.

As with other aspects of 5th edition rules, I added the average number of spell levels, in case you would rather just use that instead of rolling.

Why Aren’t the Individual Spells Worth as Much as the Book?

If you assume that these books are “workbooks” filled with “almost” complete formulae from wizards that were talented enough to write for a broad audience, you can also assume that not every wizard will get the same exact items from the spellbook. Another wizard may look at this spellbook and see a whole other set of formulae they can easily complete to add new spells to their spellbooks.

But to communicate this clearly--no, your party wizard can’t sell their spellbook and get cash for it if they have the requisite number of spell levels in it. Treasure spellbooks are exceptionally well written and open ended.



Friday, March 22, 2019

Once More Unto the Breach (of Alignment)


Okay, I promise, I’m almost done with my whole ponderings on alignment, but the reason it’s a compelling subject isn’t because it is something terrible that should have never been explored. It’s a problem because it’s a tool for definition that was applied for the wrong aspects of the game. It is the metaphysical equivalent of basing alignment on atomic bonds.

Hey, what if ionic people want to have friends and share, so they are good, and covalent people are more likely to mix their bonded elements in an even sharing structure, so they are neutral, and metallic people are based on mutual loss, so they are evil? Right? Okay, that’s probably a little strained, but honestly, so is applying cosmic forces to everyday mortal motivations.

Warning, I’m going to go deep Star Wars nerd here for a moment.

The Nature of the Dark Side

There was a huge uproar in the Star Wars world when the New Jedi Order books played with the idea that there isn’t really a Dark Side, that people are just people, and they can do good and evil, but the Force is just the Force. Some people loved it, some people hated it, but I never quite felt like it rang true for the universe presented in most of the Star Wars products.

Looking at the very last of the Expanded Universe novels, Crucible, has a lot going on. But for our purposes here, we’re just going to look at what Luke “discovers” in the novel. Luke finally has a feeling that he has reconciled what Jacen felt about the Force and the traditional views on it when he realizes that the Dark Side exists, but it isn’t evil. It is predatory and dangerous, but those as aspects of life. However, a mortal being trying “live” in the Dark Side and draw power from it is not balanced or healthy. They become predatory and dangerous because that’s what they are drawing upon.

Even in the current canon, in the Dark Disciple novel, Asajj Ventriss shares some thoughts on the Nightsisters’ view on the Force with Quinlan Vos. Essentially, they are willing to use the Dark Side, but only in limited circumstances, because, once again, it is framed as a predatory thing. It’s dangerous and powerful and can overwhelm a user. The Nightsisters understood the concept of being wary of the Dark Side and considered the Sith to be dangerous fools for thinking that they controlled the Dark Side, seeing them as people that have given themselves over to the drives of a wild predatory beast, and being arrogant enough to think the power didn’t affect them.

Defining Cosmic Forces

In other words, the Dark Side is tied to forces in the universe that may be natural, but a mortal being trying to harness that power can easily be overwhelmed by it, and become needlessly dangerous, cruel, and predatory. So, how does this all play into alignment?

Well, maybe to put things back to “cosmic order,” we need to zoom out and see things in a more cosmic manner. It may be corrupting and dangerous to follow some gods, for example, but as cosmic beings, they may just be creatures that embody a big concept without any real concern for nuance.

So how can we reframe the alignment scheme and not dismantle the D&D multiverse? Well, let’s start with the pillars.

Replace good with rapprochement. Replace evil with strife. Replace law with order. Chaos gets to keep being chaos because chaos does what it wants. Replace neutrality with accord.

Cosmic scale beings embody a pillar of metaphysical truth. A being that lives in Rapprochement only wants beings to get along and experience joy. They don’t care that sometimes, learning limits is important for growth. On the other hand, beings that live in Strife only want to introduce impediments to others. Pain, suffering, and challenges exist for their own purposes, without regard to the strengths that might be gained from overcoming those elements, or the lessons learned from them.

Order is clear. You want quantifiable, easily measured results. An orderly being that is one with Rapprochement will carefully hand out an equal measure of joy and friendship to everyone, even if that means it takes an eternity to get to some, and they may not fully appreciate it. But they will have a system for determining where they start. An orderly being that lives in strife will make sure suffering is calculated and occurs on a schedule.

Chaos, again, is clear. No schedule, no reason or forethought. Chaotic Rapprochement means you try to make the first being you see happy. Chaotic strife means whoever is closest probably gets the brunt of your wrath.

Beings that live in accord “get” a wider range of viewpoints and may realize how and why you can use the other elements to achieve goals. This means that many neutral cosmic beings might be more relatable to mortal beings, and neutral gods may be gods of more nuanced concepts.

To put this in broader terms, this means that the Nine Hells would have the cosmic “keywords” of Order and Strife, while the Abyss has Chaos and Strife. Hades may only have the metaphysical quality of Strife, without Order or Chaos.

How Does This Change the World?

There are a few consequences to reframing the argument in this manner. It’s a little more palatable to say that strife is meant to be part of creation than evil, and that strife, when out of balance, feels much like unbearable evil, because it no longer serves a specific purpose.

This likely doesn’t change how most interactions with demons, devils, or angels will go, but it does reframe the idea that, as cosmic beings, they may literally be the embodiment of strife or Rapprochement, so they just can’t understand more nuanced views of the cosmos. That’s something left for minds that are more tethered to the mortal realm.

Essentially, just like how elementals are literally beings of fire, water, earth, or air, beings from the outer planes may essentially be metaphysical elementals of strife, order, chaos, or Rapprochement. Characters that get divine spells may be mortal and not subject to these alignment qualities, but they may be partially infused with raw metaphysical elements (and maybe that’s part of the leveling up process--conditioning a mortal form to store larger amounts of raw alignment energy, which would also explain why a cleric of a certain level is valuable to a different god when they switch deities).

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sheev Palpatine?

If you remove alignment as something mortals have, and change it to something they might hold as a philosophy, and reserve it for powerful planar beings, do you need to change “good and evil” to something else? Probably not, but at the same time, I like the concept as a reminder that these are cosmic forces way beyond what any mortal is going to ever embody.

Additionally, it strikes me that even if you remove alignment from mortal beings, it may still be easy to see followers of “evil” gods as still being “close enough” to being evil that they can be written off as a guilt free murder target. Returning at least a little bit of the concept that gods may not be “good and evil” so much as cosmic forces that are in or out of balance might also make it a little easier to not assume that someone that got caught up in the local temple of Bane is completely irredeemable.

The point isn’t to remove villains that may be dealt with through violence, but to remember that you probably should have a few Darth Vader’s in your game for every Palpatine, and that Han was Imperial military before he took a very circuitous path towards the light. If you’ll pardon my introduction of a bit of Star Wars into my D&D philosophical meanderings.




Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Alignment and Disposition


After my deep dive into alignment and what it came from, and how it got multi-purposed into D&D possibly in ways that it was never intended to work, I started thinking about one of those functions, most notably the disposition of beings that you might run into in an encounter.

Way back in the shrouded days of early D&D, you might get multiple monsters on a single page. There as a stat block and maybe a paragraph, and that’s all you knew about the monster. In order to make the most of this real-estate, alignment had to do some of the heavy lifting of explaining how the creature would interact with people when encountered.

If you consider that part of alignment’s function was to help people determine how an encounter should unfold, what if you could just define the “tenor” of an encounter just as quickly as you summarize an alignment?

Let’s look at some possible quick summaries of the overall mood of creatures when encountered:

Hostile

The beings in this encounter are hostile and will attack the player characters unless intimidated or convinced that their own welfare is at stake in such an attack.

Aggressive

The beings in this encounter are ready to attack, but they won’t make the first move. They can be reasoned with, but their reaction to any false step will be to attack.

Neutral

The beings in this encounter are not disposed to help or harm the PCs, but a failed interaction might make them willing to do something minor to hamper the PCs, and a positive interaction may make them willing to do something minor to help the PCs.

Friendly

The beings in this encounter are predisposed to helping the PCs, unless they prove that they have negative intentions in mind. Even then, the creatures are more likely to leave an encounter than to engage with the PCs.

Now, once you have those levels of initial interaction set up, it helps to color the individual encounter. It’s not impossible to get out of a hostile encounter without a fight, and if you really want to attack the flumphs offering you food and shelter, you can totally be a horrible person and do that.

Example One

Let’s look at an orc encounter. Forget alignment, let’s just say that the orcs in this encounter will be assumed to be hostile. The orcs have never had particularly good interactions with humans, so they are inclined to drive them off or get rid of them whenever they cross paths. They don’t have a history of raiding nearby humans, just being a danger to humans that travel through their territory.

The PCs run into the orcs. The orcs are hostile, but nobody is surprised in this encounter. The first PC to act decides to try and intimidate the orcs. The orcs outnumber the PCs two to one, so the DM decides that the PC has disadvantage on the roll. If they roll high enough, the orcs decide these humans are a little too dangerous to fight, and they retreat.

Example Two

The PCs run into a pack of hungry wolves. The wolves are an aggressive encounter. They won’t attack first, but it won’t take much for this to turn into a combat. The party ranger makes a survival check and determines that one of the wolves in the pack is about to give birth, and the other wolves don’t like anyone near their territory while she is vulnerable, so the PCs retreat to another clearing, and the wolves keep to the immediate area of their den.

Example Three

The PCs run into a sprite in the woods. The sprite is naturally gregarious, but it doesn’t really care one way or the other about the PCs, other than as a potential source of conversation or amusement. If the PCs annoy the sprite, it may later sneak into their camp and steal something interesting. If the PCs spend some time to amusing the sprite, it might give them a blossom that acts as a potion of healing that it happened to find the other day.

Example Four

The PCs run into a procession of pilgrims on their way to a holy site. The clerics in the caravan specifically look to perform services for those then encounter. They offer blessings, food, and healing to anyone that needs them, while their provisions last. If not attacked or insulted, the pilgrims will help the PCs with the wounds they picked up from various fights from their encounters in the nearby dungeon they have just left.

Standardized elements have a lot of power. The system detailed above is a hybrid of what alignment and reaction rolls accomplished in early D&D. But the description of alignment doesn’t specifically deal with how characters will react face to face, so it require extrapolation, and reaction rolls, even today, are things that tend to exist somewhere in the middle of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and even then, it almost always feels like the explanation for how they work is a little fuzzy.

There are cases where alignment doesn’t perfectly line up with the intent and disposition of a character in an encounter. A band of hobgoblins might be more than willing to kill any humans they run into, but if they are used to working as mercenaries, they are probably more properly aggressive than hostile--it’s hard to make money from fighting if you kill all your potential employers. Additionally, a good aligned dragon or a powerful celestial is probably neutral towards the PCs unless they are already working towards an end, they are also engaged in pushing forward. Why waste time with simple mortal beings unless they are furthering the greater good?

The State of the Game

There seems to come a time in many recent editions of D&D where people start to discuss players killing everything they meet versus other means of resolving encounters. Much of this seems to come from a lack of expressed intentionality--why is this encounter happening? What is the mindset of everyone in this encounter?

In many cases, alignment becomes a clumsy answer. “These orcs are here to do chaos and evil!”

Well, how are they doing that? What does that mean? Do they really want chaos and evil above all other things, right now, in this moment?

While many adventures over the years have given much more detailed descriptions of how creatures will react to player characters and the purpose of a given encounter, would it have made it clearer to have a single, defined term serving as a keyword for the encounter? Standardization can have a lot of power.