Thursday, August 17, 2023

10 Low-Fantasy Bandit Gangs

Art @Ben Bauchau

[1] The Dog-Faced Bandits
Group of bandits who wear cloth masks, stitched to resemble dog faces. Most of them aren't actually that ugly. Mostly deal in capturing people and ransoming them back to their families- they target nobles and the children of wealthy merchants; low born captives are simply killed instead. Most of them carry a mancatcher as their main "weapon", otherwise, they are armed with cudgels or short bits of chain used to flog disobedient captures- they are in the business of kidnapping, not killing.

Their leader is an insanely tall, skinny middle aged man. He's like 7 feet tall- +1 to Attack, Damage, AC, and HP. Paranoid- keeps his own tent and private treasure hoard boobytrapped. The big scar on his face from one of his own boobytraps. He's proud of this- because he claims that nobody else could have given it to him.

[2] The Savages
These bandits dress up tribal garb, feathers, and untanned animal skins over their armor and other gear. Often wearing face-paint, they go into battle hollering and screaming. Good tracking and survival skills- but mostly subsist on attacking travelers and caravans moving through the patch of forest they call home. Don't use bows- but are quite skilled at throwing javelins. Very superstitious around magic or signs- only attack groups that they deem auspicious.

Their leader is a androgynous child which they claim to be their God. They bring all their tribute before them and consider any they touch to be special and put aside. This is all a farce. The true leader of the gang is a nearby wealthy merchant who pays this gang to pretend to be a bunch of jungle savages and worship a kid, an ex-pickpocket from the city, all as performance to throw off his involvement- these "savages" very conveniently always let their captives go and never seem to find any "omens" telling them to attack the merchant leader's trade goods on route- it wouldn't take much to put two and two together, but the local authority is definitely fooled.

[3] The Dreadful Skeans
Terrible reputation. Group of murderers and cutthroats that wear all black, use knives, and are known to torture now and then when it suits them. They will kill literally anyone for money- children, women, holy men, doesn't matter- if you pay, they'll end them. Their calling card is leaving a bunch of body parts out in a public place or on the doorstep of the closest family member of their next victim. Most of the recruits from this gang were extremely desperate; but stay after being able to live out their most evil of desires on their hapless victims.

Their leader is an absolute psychopath. While once being at least mildly respected assassin-for-hire has lowered their standards (and prices) just to kill more people that he's becoming a nuisance to the local criminal underworld. After betraying a recent contract-owner and killing him for criticizing his methods- nobody wants to work with the leader any more and high bounties are being put on their capture or destruction of this terrible gang.

[4] The Sunshiners
Mostly known as a bunch of drunks. They rarely actually do the whole "bandit" thing. So named because of their special brew- a local honey mead recipe with a bright golden color- is what they spend all day making and drinking. Most of them are overweight and fight with big wooden quarterstaves and mallets- prefering nonlethal options. Most people who get robbed by them report it as being a pretty pleasant experience- they'll take your stuff but leave you with a great story.

The leader of this gang is a golden-haired fat man with a musical laugh. He really regrets the life he's begun here and wants the gang to go straight- just a little land with enough space for an apiary and brewery is all he would need. Most surprisingly- they actually would go straight if offered the chance.

[5] The Longhairs
Group of rebels and ne'er-do-wells who just so happened to all have long hair when they got together. Originally they were going to call themselves "the destroyers" but this name stuck, now it's kinda become their identity. They use standard weapons and light armor to mostly not get in their way of their quick smash-and-grab style of robbery. At least one nobleman's daughter is hiding out among them pretending to be a man so she can have a taste of freedom- though now finding herself trapped among a bunch of killers in way over her head. Only reason they've survived this long as a group is because a bunch of bounty hunters kept chopping off women's hair and presenting the locks to the local authority to try and collect the bounty money- now they're requiring heads with the hair still on them.

The leader of this gang is an ugly little man who keeps his hair in a top knot. Has a spear taller then he is that's painted yellow and has killed five boars, or so he claims. He wants to learn how to breathe underwater or at least through his ears- will keep any wizards or sorcerers he captures alive and will let them go if they teach him the trick.

[6] The Hand
Bandits without a face or calling-card; they act more as a secret society that terrorizes the local populace. Essentially, they trade favors for favors. If you do something for them, they'll make something happen for you. Many men have delivered packages or stolen objects, left them hidden in hollow logs, and just a day or two later the husband of the women they fancy is suddenly found dead. Actually finding out who is organizing this group is extremely difficult- everything is kept as secret as possible and many locals are involved in some way, getting blackmailed into secrecy else their own participation will be revealed.

This gang has no actual leader; it's only a group of people who trade favors for favors. If you send in a letter requesting something be stolen; you'll get a letter back from someone who would be willing to steal it, but only if you do this for them, and so on. All it would take is one request not getting fulfilled to make the whole organization come crashing down.

[7] The Great Riders
Group of raiders who go after small towns and wealthy farmers. Probably the most dangerous and effective out of all of these bandits, simply because they ride horses. Not too good at shooting on horseback- mostly prefer to throw burning torches on your roof and run away if you don't give them everything you own. They're lucky enough to have found a hidden mountain valley with good pastureland and drinking water for their beasts not too far from here.

Their leader is a knight. Like, with armor and a title and everything. His lands were beset by banditry and then hit with a bad famine- decimating his serfs and putting him deep into debt without any taxes to collect. The only person well-off was the current bandit leader- so he decided to just become the bandit leader instead.

[8] The Iron-Knuckles
This gang of "bandits" mostly just stick to the city and the back-streets. They punch each other in the head all day and have become unreasonably strong- granting them all a bonus of +1 AC, but are quite poorly trained with actual weapons since they usually just go unarmed- meaning they have -1 to Attack rolls if they're using weapons. Otherwise, stat them as a group of lvl 1 Monks. Despite how troublesome they are and how many people they robbed, the fact they haven't killed anyone has really slowed any progress in bringing them to justice.

Their leader is a woman- who wants to prove she is as strong as any man. She also cheats like an absolute bitch. She has iron rings under her hand bandges, iron splits under her clothes for protection, will throw dirt in your eye, etc. If you manage to beat her in a fair fight she'll step down as the leader and let you become the new one if you want- or disband the group under your order. Despite their rough nature; this group is still held by some standard of honor.

[9] The Nine Black Hooks
Known for their symbol- which is any piece of fabric with nine black hooks drawn on it. The leaders never came up with an exact order or pattern for these; so all the bandits just kind of have random hooks drawn all over their banners. They have a fortress in the hills with high walls- and all around the base of the fortress are sentries who are captured men from their raids. These men have a collar around their neck that's tied to the posts along the wall of the fortress, meaning they can't leave, and each is armed with a spear and is ordered to stab anyone who comes close; else they'll pull the rope and choke them to death. Because of their human shields- nobody has taken a serious attempt to siege or destroy them yet.

The leader of this gang is a self proclaimed sorcerer, though his powers are questionable. He takes a drop of blood of everyone he captures and dips it in his tea to alter the taste; this lets him know what to do with the captives he takes. Some are killed, some are added to the defense, and some are ransomed. Every once in a while he'll take a sip of the tea, start choking and screaming, and demanding the prisoner be let go at once.

[10] The Drakes & Cockles
Group of sailors and pirate scum joined by a loose federation and secret code phrases. The most common way to identify one is if they have a tattoo of a duck somewhere on their body. Strangely, this band robs pirates and mercenary vessels more then honest folks; they have a system of slowly joining and infiltrating pirate crews and eventually starting a mutiny to take the ships for their group. They've caused every dishonest soul along the coast to become extremely paranoid about recruitment.

The leader of this gang is the unassuming first-mate of the most notorious pirate captain of the ocean- the captain has no idea who this guy really is. This is the gang's biggest scheme and it's over ten years running- he's just waiting for the captain to show any sign of weakness to take over and become the next terror of the seas.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Hylics is Post-Apocalypse Cuphead

Yes, you read that title correctly. I'm going to be assuming that anyone reading this is familiar with both Cuphead and Hylics 1 and/or Hylics 2. Both are great indie games made by small teams with a unique artstyle and really good music. Both are an homage to classic game genres- Run & Gun Shooters or Oldschool "Four dudes in a line" turn based JRPGs. But the similarities end there- or so you thought.

Naturally, this will spoil major "plot" elements for both games. You have been warned. I should also mention that I have not watched the Cuphead show, nor do I have any plans to, so this blogpost will not contain spoilers for that and if there is any "lore" from there I missed then you can consider it non-canon for the purposes of this nonsense.

The Evidence
Both worlds have a fixation on gloves. Cuphead is a cartoon, and classic cartoon characters are known for their big white poofy gloves. Hylics takes the glove-love to a whole new level with gestural combat- gloves are one of your primary equipment slots. It's never in the direct spotlight, but gloves and hands are very important to the theming of both worlds.

Both worlds have magic. Magic isn't exactly uncommon in fantasy, cartoon, or sci-fi universes, but there is something specific about Cuphead and Hylics magic systems; both feature on a liquid-like resource for the main character's specific abilities. In Cuphead, Cuphead and Mugman drink "potions" which seems to be the source of their powers in the form of their "shots", similar to spells or energy-based attacks. Hylics uses juice as a recovery item for your will points, but you always have access to every gesture you've learned. While Cuphead and Mugman simply "equip" their shots, it isn't unthinkable that "in universe" they are drinking the potions before a boss fight to regain their energy for that specific type of shot they are performing. They also aren't pure video game abstractions, because they are actually bought and sold in universe by Porkrind the shopkeeper.

The characters of both worlds are also very diverse; composed of humans, talking animals, robots, and inanimate objects. Cuphead has a cast that is much more recognizable on what or who they are; dragons and genies and a giant evil flower. The main cast of Hylics is composed of a moon-man, a bug dude, a fish-bug-maybe robot dude, and a girl who casts spells. Hylics enemies are even weirder but include giant ghost-like invincible skulls, cultists, fish who swim through the air, weird animals, and a guy driving a car (found in an underground dungeon by the way). While thematically very different, the sort of "anything could be a person" feel of a classic cartoon is preserved in Hylics's bizarre roaster of enemies and NPCs.

You know what's not bizarre about Hylics? The food. Your consumable items are all food items- very generic and very western. Burritos, cookies, juice, bananas, and so on. While many games have sort of generic food with healing and/or recovery effects- It's important to note that Cuphead also has magic food in its world; the "Wondertart" being an important plot point in the DLC. Powerful "magic" food like bananas and cupcakes in the Hylics world.

One of the more underground fan theories about Hylics regards the Sages. The Sages are three powerful or wise beings that give Wayne & Crew the "Sage Tokens" needed to unlock the ultimate gesture in each game. Interestingly, each Sage has a name and the Sages are different in both Hylics games. In Hylics one, they are the Sage of Brains, the Sage of Computers, and the Sage of Death. In Hylics 2, they are Sage of Monitors, the Sage of Accretions, and the Sage of Satellites. The interesting fan theory is this; the Sages change between games because the Sages always represent something very important to the game world; the Sage of Death being tied to the afterlife, which is how players gain more maximum HP, or the Sage of Computers being how players learn new gestures (by looking at monitors). What does this have to do with Cuphead? Well- Cuphead doesn't have Sages, but there is a strange parity between the three "super moves" that you learn by clearing the mausoleums in the game, with each one sort of representing a core aspect of the game; the Super moves including a laser (projectiles), invincibility (avoiding damage), and ghost form (with a pink heart- representing parrying/using your own body as a weapon). This one's a bit of a stretch but it feels a bit too synchronous not to include. 

Both settings also have an afterlife- with death being a temporary and often reversible thing. Cuphead has permanent death (Ms.Chalice) of which her mission in the DLC is to find a way back, and temporary "battle" death, such as characters exploding or getting turned into food but being fine again in the outro- once again it's cartoon logic. In Hylics, the afterlife is a place you travel to every time you die and return to, and in Hylics 2 it is also the fast travel location. While the Astral Realm is mostly shown as an outer space or abstract realm; the Afterlife in Hylics is very pink- the same color as the "hearts" of beings in Cuphead. Cuphead, Mugman, and Ms.Chalice all turn into ghosts when they run out of health but you can parry their heart since it's pink to bring them back before they float off screen in co-op. It's not a perfect match... just yet.

The Proposed Timeline
Cuphead is a cartoon world, with a timeline and aesthetics that hint at a place in time. It has a history of its own; shown in the statues and background "lore" of Ms.Chalice, a playable character in the DLC and a useful NPC in the base game. Ms.Chalice is a long dead ghost that appears to be of the same "race" as Cuphead, Mugman, and Elder Kettle- basically a living cup. These chalice people are depicted as wearing togas and holding swords, spears, and shields- indicating they are an ancient culture. The Cuphead of the current time is early 1920s and 30s Americana, which is a given as this is the time period that the cartoons the game is based on were made. Contemporary by their standards then, now a vision of an unreal past.

As for Hylics, it has no defined time- However, we can infer a general time period from elements in the game; everything from the fabled water cooler, color televisions, and even a "Sage of Computers" all indicates a fairly modern time period- a 90s to 00s morass (obviously, as a fictional world, actual real world timeframes are irrelevant; but it follows a general progression as a secondary alternate "real world".) As for the game itself- it has a timeline and "lore" from the events of Hylics 1 to 2, which even includes at least one if not more apocalyptic events that destroy and recreate the world. The most notable of which is the Accretion- the events of Hylics which directly tie into Hylics 2.

So what great event could possibly bridge the gap between these two eras, exactly? What else? The war. The bomb. Let me explain.

Cuphead isn't the real world. It isn't based on a real time or place; but it has the markings of an era. It's animation style is unmistakable- rubberhose. It's the character of the 1930s and great depression era animation. But Cuphead does have a defined story. Somewhere during the events of Cuphead or immediately after are the events of the Delicious Last Course- Cuphead's one and only DLC (at the time of writing this). And the final battle of this- and the final battle of Cuphead- you fight Mr. Saltbaker. It's a great fight- and the only Cuphead boss animated on ones instead of twos, giving it a really surreal feeling and a great send off for the game. Saltbaker's animation is really good, by the way, not just hamming it up for this shitpost. If you haven't played Cuphead, it's pretty good.

But I mean, honestly, just look at it. This isn't rubberhose 30s animation anymore. This is Golden Age animation. This is just straight up Pinocchio- the 1940s cartoon. Things are changing in the Cuphead world. There is no set timeline or history, but things are progressing. We are leaving the old, nostalgic era, with all its film grain fuzz, and we are entering the second world war. The simple moralist views of the past, what with the Devil tricking people, is quietly going to fade away as the horrors of the modern world change things. The bomb. Modern thinking, and then, the Postmodern. This is the inevitable fate of Cuphead's world.

The descendants of this cartoon world interbred with each other. While the creatures of Hylics are only vaguely based on real life creatures, for the most part, they have common traits with real world creatures that are cartoonized. Dedusmuln is basically a bug. Wayne is a crescent moon- the sun is a living thing in Cuphead, as in many cartoons- and you actually fight the Moon as a boss in Cuphead. (Though she's really a Zeppelin.) It's not unthinkable that, many years after the initial war and ideological paradigm shift that broke the Cuphead world apart, the descendants in the trippy wasteland of color and imagination would warp into Hylics enemies and beings. They make plenty of logical sense- their designs are exaggerating and 'toonized versions of beings that don't exist. The gags of Hylics are intended for an audience of another world, not ours. Ironic layers of subverted meaning- perfectly postmodern.

There's a lot of thematic similarities between the two works as well. Both are cartoonish. Hylics is almost a spoof of JRPGs storylines with slapstick humor thrown in the mix. You fight a weasel summoner, find a warm burrito in the toilet, and pester a guard until he gives up. Everything is being controlled by Dracula. It's wacky and zany and you're not supposed to take it too serious. Hylics 2 actually tries to have a plot, but past its layer of weirdness its actually very simple. Hylics 2 is also much less random for the sake of it and has a bit less humor- but the humor more comes from the writing and funny situations. Both Hylics games are relatively upbeat- which to me fits well with the cartoon world of Cuphead. Most people assume that a post-apocalypse has to be grim, dark, and hopeless- but that's not necessarily the case. If you start with a colorful cartoon world, and blow it to pieces, it doesn't suddenly turn gray.

Physicality & The Gnostic Connection
On a more meta-level, both worlds have a surprisingly similar origin. Both are made by artistic minds who greatly value authenticity. For Hylics, Mason Lindroth makes almost everything out of clay. Even Hylics 2 and the teased "next Hylics game", which day make use of 3d animation and graphics, are still fundamentally based on clay sculpting- the models and props used by Mason's own hands and digitized to be used in a game world. The animations of the spells and attacks are Mason's own hands, turned into animations for use of the various gestures. Everything about it is based on a level of physical creation- literally sculpting the game's world, enemies, and designs by hand as clay.

Cuphead is very similar. For those unfamiliar with its development; one of the reasons why Cuphead took so long to make (and the DLC took 5 fucking years) is because everything in Cuphead is hand animated. You may not even notice it in the game, but every single boss, asset, animation, and level in Cuphead was created on paper- though the development team took some shortcuts with allowing these assets to be digitally colored, this was only to reduce the already insane workload and level of dedication required to fulfill this project. The purpose of this was to add the tiny mistakes, the effects of ink and pen on paper, and the imperceptible human element to the entire project. Now if this was actually worth the effort they went to for the project, that's a discussion for a different time, but it is unarguable that this elevates Cuphead above another project for the sheer level of craft alone.

Now obviously, there is a massive difference in the scope and budget of the projects. Hylics was a small RPG maker game that was never meant to be a serious indie project to compete on the video game market, where as Cuphead was a successful Kickstarter with massive praise and mainstream attention. But I find it fascinating how both projects have such similar underlying themes. Weirdly enough- this is even present in their gameplay, despite them being radically different and almost complete genre opposites. Cuphead's creators made the game to combine their love of classic cartoons and oldschool NES style sidescrollers like Contra and Mega-Man- games focused on fast action and platforming. This would make it totally at-odds with Hylics turn based, tactical battles with chill music and party-based combat with an emphasis on teamwork.

But the important thing here is the context of these challenges. While both games have radically different game design structures- one thing is carried throughout both works. When you're in a battle, or a Cuphead stage, or whatever else- your abilities and capabilities are not determined by your characters level or power-ups, but moreso by your own skill as the player. Hylics is based on JRPG tropes and mechanics, made in RPG maker, but you never actually level up. There is no direct increase in stats based on your progress through the game. Instead, you only get stronger by either adding new party members, interacting with certain items, or finding new gear or consumable items which can help carry you through harder fights. Cuphead is the same- you can switch loadouts of weapons or charms to make certain fights easier, but these are all side-grades or fitting for different situations. There is no straight up "better" upgrade or weapon in Cuphead, just more options.

Now you may be saying "hold on, Cuphead is a sidescrolling, boss-rush shooter. It has literally nothing to do with RPG mechanics! That entire genre is like that!" and you are 100% correct. This is purely a reach. But, if I may interject, consider the time period and development of this game. I am not a game developer, but games take a very long time to make and much of that development time comes with changing ideas, priorities, and the different market-realities of the time. Do you really think, throughout its entire long and storied development, that the Cuphead developers didn't once stop to consider the possibility of changing the game's genre to something more popular at the time? This game came out in 2017 originally- during the current peak of the indie Roguelike phase. While I'm glad the original vision of sticking with a cartoon retro-style shooter game was kept, I think it's foolish to believe that the Cuphead developers never at least considered the possibility of giving their game more mass market appeal. Something with permanent player progression, exploration of a larger world with content spread thinner throughout, or just an easier and less challenging game overall.

This underlying concept of not having level-ups or out-of-character forms of progression directly tie into the underlying themes that both games have- this kinda-sorta everyman fighting against greater cosmic forces them themselves. Neither Cuphead or Hylics really have a bombastic or overly complicated plot- you aren't a chosen one or something special. There is a great degree of physicality to both their designs- with Cuphead being a literal Cup, and object of no consequence that most people use every single day, to Wayne being a very simple shape to make with clay- a simple moon. Cuphead's plot is literally about freeing people from enslavement by a spiritual entity- Hylics has this idea much more strongly however- with the Gnostic terminology sprinkled throughout- though this is mostly set dressing. There is a blind-idiot God currently controlling the world, but he isn't the Demiurge. There is a Pneumatophore, but you just use it to air-dash and get around the game world. It's not meant to be an exploration of a spiritual belief predicated on existentialism. It's just weird, trippy, short experience- and that's all it has to be.

So in conclusion- Do I think Hylics is a Gnostic video game? Not really, and neither is Cuphead. But it cannot be just a coincidence that one of the only RPGs where you never level up just so happens to be named Hylics.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

(Rant) The Incredibly Persnickety Dicey Dungeons Nitpick

So running with the theme of talking about video games (and not tabletop games) on this blog- I have yet another indie Roguelike style game that I play from time to time. This one is Dicey Dungeons. I quite like this game; basically it has turn based battles where you get a collection of randomly rolled 6 sided dice (and they are always six sided die) and assign them to your moves/equipment to win fights and move deeper down through the dungeon. Probably the most interesting thing about this game is the unique characters- there's a witch who assigns each face of her dice to spells in her spellbook, a robot which can determine whatever rolls it wants, a fighter who can grow dice or a rogue who can shrink dice- with extra mechanics sprinkled in. Like you use a "+1 to dice value" card on a die that's a 6, you'll get ANOTHER die at the value of 1, since the game can't give you a die of 7 value, and so on. It's got decent mechanics, and has some really cute visuals. I especially love the personality of the enemies, the host, and the music is great. Overall, good game, though it is really hard. Often feeling unfairly so.

Sneezy is the best monster in this game and I will
fight you if you disagree.

One of the best things about the game is how monsters and equipment (your attacks) are designed. Monsters use equipment cards like you- and they are activated in different ways. Some will simply do the amount of damage equal to the die's value placed on the card. Others will have a drawback or limitation, such as only taking Odd or Even dice. Some have "countdowns", which means the value placed on the card counts it down until it reaches zero, which it then activates. Pretty much every mechanical concept you can squeeze out of a six sided die is used here- which is good.

However, I have one little nitpick. One incredible little thing- not even a complaint really, more of a "missed opportunity" that the game developers no doubt knew about and didn't think it would be an issue or annoyance to anyone- anyone except for me that is.

So Dicey Dungeons has some really fun mechanics for status effects. Since dice are your primary means of attack, defense, and healing- status effects primarily influence your dice. An example is your dice can be lit on fire, meaning if you use them they deal some unavoidable damage to you. Another good one is frozen- if your dice are frozen, it means the highest value die you rolled will be set to a one. For some characters and loadouts this is a death sentence, but for others it doesn't matter as much.

On top of this, this game has elemental damage. Certain cards deal elemental damage when used; the usual suspects are here. Fire, Ice, Shock, Poison, and Weaken are all damage types. Some enemies are weak to these damage types, taking more damage, where as other enemies are strong to them, and take less damage. This is very common in games and makes thematic sense; like a Yeti being strong vs ice. Makes sense. The issue for me is that these "elemental" attacks are the primary source of the elemental-themed debuffs, which can very specifically trivialize some encounters in the game. The elemental damage or resistance of an enemy just feels like a tacked on secondary mechanic which belies the usefulness of specific abilities against certain enemies.

What do I mean by this? Let me use the Aurora as the example. The Aurora has one of the most straightforward by interesting designs. From the picture above, you can see her abilities. She has a very specific AI- every turn she rolls four dice and ALWAYS uses them on her storm or weather-themed attacks, which deal elemental damage + apply debuffs. Then, when all the attacks are used up, she'll spend her last dice on the "Mood Change" and switch to a new element, but still having 3 attack cards with a countdown of 5. Mechanically, despite how simple it is, it gives the character a lot of personality- a weather-goddess figure going through wild mood swings and having low but consistent damage while applying many powerful debuffs. Simply put, its one of my favorite fights in this game.

Here's the thing though; the Aurora isn't weak to any elements, nor is she strong to any elements. She takes regular damage from everything. But she gets absolutely destroyed by the Freeze status effect. 

Because of how freeze works, each point of freeze converts your highest rolled die into a roll of 1. This works on enemies too, and since all of Aurora's cards are countdowns, it means that turning her dice into ones means she can barely use her cards. I once had a run as the Witch with a strong debuff deck with multiple elemental attacks; and I found myself using tons of ice to stack multiple Freeze debuffs on the Aurora, making the fight trivial.

The thing that bothers me here is that the elemental-themed status effects, which are fine and thematic, are already assigned to the elemental damage flavored cards. Cards that burn enemy dice or freeze enemy dice are going to do Fire or Ice damage respectively; meaning that the debuff and the elemental damage type are one and the same in practice. My issue is that because of the design of the enemies always being the same; meaning you can plan and predict how dangerous an enemy will be based on your build, it makes these thematic choices and blending of debuffs and attacks along with the enemies less strong. In other words, I don't want elemental damage to exist, but I want the Aurora to be known to be Weak to Ice because of the effect ice-cards have on her because of her abilities and moves.

There are more ideas. Because of how the Burn status effect works, it burns a die and deals damage to you if you want to use it. Enemies in this game will always use burning dice unless if it defeats them (I think) so this status effect is just bonus damage. But I really like the idea of fire-themed enemies who are Strong to Fire simply having more dice then other enemies, but only use a few of them. Such as an enemy who rolls three dice, but can only use 1 or 2 cards maximum. Then, if a die is burnt, they can avoid using the burning dice and use the other die instead, thus, making them Strong to Fire. On the flipside, there are some enemies who have decent or strong attacks but only roll one die- limiting what they can do each round. Under this paradigm, these enemies would be Weak to Fire.

My other annoyance with this disconnect is that there are several enemies in the game who almost fit with this scheme. It's like the developers went halfway to making the game designed this way, having roll mechanics and enemy designs that are themed around these debuffs and status-effects, but gave up halfway. A good example of this is the Snowman and Fireman, two mid-level enemies which both have status effect cards of Ice and Fire respectively. The annoying thing here is, as I was playing the game, I noticed that they were "strong" against the elements of their type because of their design; the Snowman has four cards that are all Odd-only attacks, and throws four dice. Meaning freeze would just let them use more of their cards- turns their die into 1s, an odd number. But Freeze in this case is still useful as it makes the amount of damage less, since each card deals the amount of damage equal to the die put in. If the game was designed to make it more fitting this concept, then the Snowman's cards would deal flat damage as long as the die put in was even, so every freeze you put on them just makes it more likely a big 6 or 4 will turn into another 1 roll for them to use. The Fireman is similar; rolling 4 dice, but only having two cards, meaning two of their dice are superfluous, and only uses even number dice to attack. My issue here is that these enemies have elemental typing; Snowman is "weak to fire" and Fireman is "weak to ice", despite them also being "Strong vs Ice" and "Strong vs Fire" from the status effects. Enemies also only have one typing, so even though I personally think snowman is "Strong vs Ice", he has the "Weak to Fire" element- and its worse yet because, theoretically, he actually isn't that weak to fire since he throws four dice and only uses the Odd ones- any Even dice he gets that are on fire won't do damage to him, since he won't use them.

Shouldn't this guy also be "Weak to Ice"?

I understand that this tiny nitpick isn't an issue; it barely even sounds coherent, plus it opens up another door- why is the developer telling you what an enemy is weak or strong too? Shouldn't you be figuring that out on your own?I think there would be perhaps a greater value in the game if there wasn't elemental damage types; just the themed elemental debuffs, with the enemies of the game matching the element in their design and equipment. So if there is an enemy that benefits greatly from pairs or low dice- then they'd be Strong to Freeze, since it makes ones more often. Therefore, you would design any enemy that has these traits as being winter, ice, or snow-themed. Enemies who would be "Strong to Poison" would be enemies who have some form of healing in their equipment to offset the small but consistent damage that poison does- but wouldn't that type of enemy be good against ALL types of damage too? See, this is where the problems crop up.

Secondly; the game doesn't have quite enough dice mechanics to justify building that many status effects. A good example is the "locked" status effect, which just makes one random dice you or the enemy rolls unable to be used for anything. It's actually a really strong status effect- but throwing multiple dice (especially if the enemy has few cards to actually use and just throws multiple dice to try and get high rolls or pairs), could be a counter to this. However, the same counter would also be good against burning, since once again, that means more dice the enemy doesn't have to use on their turn. Another status effect, Shock, is also countered by many dice. Shock is like a stun; it just locks your equipment for that round, needing a die to be spent to open it up to be used by another die, so enemies with many dice are the counter to this. Are you then going to thematically limit the look and design of every enemy in the game? If every enemy who threw many dice, and was therefore strong against Fire, would also then theoretically be Strong against lightning too, since having many dice counters both. I mean shit, having a lot of dice counters every status effect, since all of them rely on attacking the enemy's dice.

Hopefully, if you read this nonsense, you get what I'm picking at. It's a nitpick.

Friday, August 4, 2023

10 Fantasy Sharks

[1] Hater Shark
Kinda small for a shark, big attitude. It's hate you and everything you stand for. It's a ball of rage. If a fishermen snags a fish it was hunting; the shark will ram his boat over and over until it sinks. This shark has a magic resistance value of 50%, meaning it avoids, ignores, or straight up refuses to acknowledge half the spells you might throw at it. Its leather is highly valued for thieves and assassins, as not only does it make some cool red leather, but because the gloves carry on some of the shark's antimagic properties- meaning your hands are less likely to trigger volatile wards or magical traps. Also if you use speak to animals on this shark and try to talk or barter with it, it will call you a racial slur and attack you anyway.

[2] Lemon Shark
Piss yellow medium sized shark. Stats as shark. Not too scary, but social and tends to come in packs or in a feeding freenzy. The first time it is struck in combat or hits someone else; all of the water in 40 feet in all directions turns bright yellow with a strong fresh smell. The lemon-juice is mildly acidic, stinging your eyes and causing disadvantage on all checks to see or attack underwater if you don't have acidic resistance. On the up side, any wooden boots that pass through this cloud will have a beautiful citrus finish.

[3] Oblivion Shark
Dark black, big, but lazy and kinda slow. This shark is said to have an orb of annihilation in place of where its stomach should be; notable as it can eat anything that fits down its throat- including fully armored submersible warriors. If pierced, the shark bleeds black nothing. This shark is most infamous for the fact that any being with a soul consumed by it seemingly does not appear in any afterlife nor can be raised from the dead- giving the theory that this shark also digests and consumes souls. For this reason, a great bounty and project of eradication has been begun by religious orders to end this threat to the immortal souls; while others protect these sharks in an attempt to give those most damned a chance to escape their punishment.

[4] Gentleshark
Looks like a Great White, except with even bigger teeth. Happens to actually be sentient. While not capable of speech; is extremely empathetic towards other intelligent beings, and is commonly found rescuing or helping lost marooned sailors or shipwrecked humanoids. Most commonly known for its bow- which it will close its eyes and nod its head downwards in a show of respect. Most people are still scared of them and will attack them on sight before knowing their true, helpful intentions; and as such these sharks have learned to help people sight unseen. The Merpeople ride these into battle.

[5] Backwards Shark
It's a shark that swims backwards. It kills its prey by slapping them with its tail until they die, then opens its mouth and sucks in the pulp and bloody water left behind. Chainmail or other forms of armor don't do anything- as this shark deals blunt damage. Con artists often sell its teeth as a "warrior's charm"- if you wear a necklace made of this shark's teeth you get -1 to attack rolls. Wearing its tail, however, will give you a bonus of +1 damage with any blunt weapon. The tail will unfortunately rot away after about a month, losing any magical properties.

[6] Pirate Shark
This shark likes to attack boats to steal its treasure and hoard it in the shallows. Its incredible sense of smell is tuned in to gold and silver; can even smell it through the hull of ships. Coordinates with other sharks to attack boats to get at the treasure- sinking the vessel isn't its main goal. Will ignore anyone in the water unless if they have gold in their pockets or pouches- then it will attack them to get at it. God help you if you have a golden tooth. Not actually intelligent- its more like an oceanic lesser-dragon fish. Inexplicably prone to losing one eye in battle.

[7] Finger-Biter Shark
Incredible small shark; only about the size of a housecat. Looks cute with a big eye and small mouth. Tends to "hunt" by lunging at incredible speeds at larger creatures and biting off small parts of them; the tips of fins, fingers dipped in the water, octopus tentacles, and so on and then dashing away to eat it in peace half a mile away in open water. Can reach absolutely ludicrous speeds with enough space to build up momentum; this is a common sight in aquariums or private collections- a small glass tank or bowl makes this fish absolutely harmless and it will simply nibble on your fingers cutely after rocketing off from the far corner of the tank.

[8] Gringori Shark
White shark with black highlights around its eyes and face. This shark emits a constant low hum- comparable to a church hymn or sacred mantra. The "ohm" is both a threat that this shark is coming, but also a sound of healing that revitalizes the shark after battles with its rivals. As long as you aren't bleeding, you can swim right besides this shark and enjoy its healing noise vibrating through the water without fear of being attacked. If you spend an afternoon swimming around with this shark in peaceful waters- either restore 1 extra Hit-Point OR get an extra saving throw on a disease you are suffering from, whichever the swimmer wants to recover from more.

[9] Bespoke Shark
These sharks aren't natural and are instead made. In order to make them, you have to find a leathery shark egg while its still in development and bring it to your own body of water with a pinch of magic dust. If you put it in a castle's moat, the shark will become long and grayscale like a knight. If you put it in a koi pond, it gains splotchy colors like a koi and stays at a small size. If you put it in a cauldron, it grows hair and becomes a witch shark. You can customize the colors by spilling ink into the water, and the shark will prefer prey with the same kind of blood as any you pour into the water which it now lives in. These sharks are fashionable pets- but they are all still wild animals. They don't view their "owners" any different then they'd view some other random creature in the water.

[10] Apple Shark
The worlds only vegetarian shark. It exclusively feeds on fruit carried away by ocean currents and can survive for several days in brackish waters- often swimming upriver to gather food for its young. It's not named for its color in any way; the shark has mouth-pouches used to carry food over long ocean voyages. As such, the first time one of these was speared and caught, it had a mouth full of apples. It's teeth is specially designed to cut through vegetation; attack with advantage against defenders with wooden shields. Also deals double damage against treants, dryads, woodwives, and all other manner of plant-based creatures. It's just unfortunate they aren't exactly very common in the ocean.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Halls of Torment is Goated Too + Weapon Mechanics

Based on this other post about Vampire Survivors.

With this burgeoning game genre of "Garlic-likes" as some may call it; the concept of fighting hoards of enemies in a short burst, with permadeath, has become popular. Several games have copied this formula; though in my opinion, none of them really were quite as good as Vampire Survivors. That was until a game called Halls of Torment caught my eye.

It's a top-down indie hoard survival game with permadeath, much like vampire survivors. A few things set it apart; the most obvious being its artstyle. I absolutely love it. Even though I know it is designed to trigger that nostalgic Diablo 1 & 2, Fallout, early digitized 3d computer- almost shamelessly so- I still love it.

Secondly, the game has some unique features. Firstly, it is a lot harder then vampire survivors, and much more involved. Enemy elite and bosses have telegraphed attacks and danger zones you have to avoid, and you need to focus some of your level-up bonuses on your defenses to avoid being killed later in your run when enemies simply become too numerous to avoid completely. On top of this, there is a secondary form of progression in the form of items. Much like Diablo, these items are lovingly rendered in that early 3d style, and you have a set of equipment slots with different bonuses. While you can find these on your runs, your main source of them is from your loadouts you can take with you every run once you "retrieve" the item- meaning you place an item you find in a bucket and have the Wellkeeper pull it up for you.

It's an extremely cool system because this means if you find an awesome item; you have to sacrifice it for the rest of your run. You can also only retrieve one item per run- which is a great way to make early "farming" runs of the game feel more meaningful. That was one issue I had with Vampire Survivors- with so much of your power coming from your upgrades- it often felt like runs where you made a mistake or with the weaker characters were just filler content to get permanent upgrades until you get to your "real" run where you actually try to survive the full 30 minutes on a map or complete an objective. Halls of Torment avoids this issue somewhat; but unfortunately it doesn't avoid it completely. You also have a "Shrine of Blessings" in this game, which let you upgrade your stats for a gold cost. I somewhat dislike this; as I thought the focus on recovering and retrieving items (and buying them from the greedy Wellkeeper of course) was much more interesting. Since the items are all kinda-sorta balanced with each other, it makes the concept of finding new items to unlock or empower certain builds more interesting. I don't necessarily hate the Shrine, I just feel it adds an unnecessary layer of power creep on top of a formula that is already pretty interesting. I could also understand it if the blessings were really weak, like 1% or 2% boosts, and cost thousands upon thousands of gold to get- a sort of endgame upgrade system for players once they've found and purchased all of the good equipment in the game, but no- these blessings are actually cheaper then most items and provide bonuses that are similar in strength. If we just say this is the "early game discovery" part of the game and we assume you've maxed out your blessing shrines first, then that's fine, but the fact you can refund gold from it and you unlock new blessings to upgrade as you do more in the game makes it feel more like a "permanent" fixture of your base. It just feels a little unnecessary, almost like it was included to increase the games parity with others of its type and the grind instead of having a more tightly focused, item and build focused type of game I was imagining early on.

But enough complaints; the biggest departure from Vamp is the fact characters actually have to aim. Each only has one weapon or attack type by default- but all of them are unique. This is probably the biggest draw of the game and most interesting part. The Swordsmen for example chunks a big cone in front of him- dealing damage to all enemies within. Getting multiattack upgrades on him makes more "waves" come out when his attack cooldown is refreshed. This is hugely different from the Archer, who fires more arrows with long range as she levels up. More interesting characters include a Cleric who deals a set amount of damage equally distributed in a large cone (meaning it absolutely destroys bosses and elites but does very little damage against large hoards) and the Warlock who summons ghosts who home in on enemies, which synergizes well with summoning items, or the Exterminator, who uses a flamethrower and burns every thing with damage over time, but lacks burst damage up close. It's great.

But this also gave me a new idea; much like my original Vampire Survivor blogpost- more abstract ideas on combat systems and damage which I think are interesting- not just for video games, but tabletop games as well.

In the last post, I talked about damage in a hypothetical tabletop game with no rules or mechanics in the combat beyond just flat damage plus a range or frequency variable. Not even armor or damage mitigation of any kind. I was a bit disappointed with how it worked out- because the idea was more based on how even something as small & simple as this could be leveraged into a pretty wide and diverse set of character strategies and tactics with the intention to improve the gameplay.

I've talked about weapon differentiation before in its myriad forms- but let's go simpler and wilder. Let's say that weapons are fundamentally different in how they work based on how you make your attacks. Things like damage or To-Hit values are totally separate from this. You don't pick a weapon based on its stats, you pick it based on what you actually need for the situation. Also also; I am 100% sure somebody else has written these exact same concepts, if not entire published games using the same ideas, but I've got a vision here- the sort of nega-space game design where you make basic mechanics shittier and harder to use but in exchange gain a more rewarding and complete experience, the QWOPlikes of tabletop roleplaying.

For this; we're going to assume you're playing a tabletop game with the minimum amount of setup for tactical combat; a grid with miniatures or tokens to represent squares. I'm sure there is a whole 'nother blogpost one could make on pure theater of the mind versions of these; we can save that for another content drought.

Weapon Attack Patterns

Swords are reliable. Pick one adjacent square and attack it. I think this not only fits swords thematically, but gives them a practical tactical use as a 1v1 duelist weapon; the weapon of the main character, etc. Two Handed Swords do the same thing, but you can also choose to hit two adjacent spaces next to each other around your character instead; splitting the damage evenly. You obviously also lose out on using a shield, dagger, or second sword.

Axes swing and cleave. Whenever you use an axe, you have to pick a square and the two squares adjacent two it around you are also attacked. For example, if you pick to attack an enemy in a square directly above you, then the upper left and upper right squares are also attacked. You hit all the squares and damage is split evenly between them. To compensate for this, axes tend to have the highest base damage of all the weapons; or at least those who use them prefer to stack on strength and the like. However, there is a catch. It is anyone in the squares you can hit with this- meaning you can also hurt your allies. You can't focus on a single enemy, such as if they are in a formation, and enemies who reflect damage or have a "thorns" effect will be very difficult for you to deal with.

Greataxes / Battleaxes do the same thing as an axe but at a range of two, and hit everything in that area- or a cone of 8 spaces. Yes really. Sounds amazing until you give enemies the ability to counter attack, or enemies who get enraged when they take damage.

Maces can only attack in the four cardinal directions, no diagonals. This means you'll want to be in formation and get right in the enemy's face. Presumably, you'd combine this with armor piercing, chance to stun, bonus damage vs undead; etc. to make it a more attractive choice over a default sword since its more limited. Originally, I was going to make it so these can only target nonliving things; but I have a better idea for its big brother-

Sledgehammers / Two Handed Blunt weapons pick one square adjacent to you and attack that. Remember, these attack squares, not necessarily what is inside the square. You make the action on your turn and it is only resolved at the end of the round- meaning a fast enemy can simply move away. You also can't change your target once you make it, meaning if an ally gets shoved prone onto that square, you're going to splat them. Omega damage bonus to compensate. You'll also be doing damage to the environment itself since you're attacking a square; if you're fighting on a boat you are 100% going to knock a hole in it doing this. If you attack an empty square of open space (such as over a pit in a dungeon or side of a roof), the momentum carries you over the edge.

Spears can poke, letting you target any square a distance of two spaces away to attack. You only attack one of these distant squares, meaning your allies can stand between you and the enemy and you can attack thru them without hurting them. However, you can't attack any squares adjacent to you.

Daggers act as an instant attack; but only against an enemy who has already been attacked and only diagonal to you. This means you couldn't use a dagger with a spear or weapons with good reach, because they'd be out of range, but you could hit enemies that your allies have hit. It also makes it good with a sword, which is realistically the only weapon people are going to dual-wield with a dagger anyway. Tactically this makes daggers feel sneaky, as they should, especially if this hypothetical combat game only allowed you to move in the cardinal directions. Just imagine a thief dual wielding daggers, dashing around to stay in poking distance of enemies while never actually committing to their face. It's perfect.

Polearms attack two spaces in a row in any direction. You can't shorten it- you always hit two spaces. This makes it really good at hitting enemies hiding behind the frontline but less effective on single foes- and way less effective on defense.

Flails attack and move at the same time. You have to move in the same direction as your attack; pushing enemies out of the way. This is a really simple rule that I am 100% sure has been made or posted about by others before but its so simple and thematic I love it.

Whips are the opposite of flails, meaning you move backwards the opposite direction you attack. They have reach- so you can attack up to two spaces in any direction, but you have to move back after it. Unlike flails, you don't push people out of the way when you do this- meaning you can be cornered.

Staves / Double-Blades can attack any adjacent target and attack twice a round, but the second attack must attack a different target on the other side of your first target. Staves are already pretty well differentiated in tabletop games- usually having a defense bonus or something similar- the idea here is if you're surrounded this weapon is useful, otherwise, not as much.

Unarmed attacks deal a set amount of damage and split that damage evenly among all adjacent enemies. This one requires a little explaining. If you're in a fistfight, you aren't going to be able to focus all your effort on one person if a bunch of people are all around you at once- and there's a pretty good chance a wild swing or elbow will connect with someone you didn't mean to. The idea here is that Unarmed combat is very strong against single targets, but much less useful against crowds. The only class who benefits from high amounts of unarmed damage would be a Monk, who also have the mobility to get around and put themselves in the best positions to make use of this reliable damage. Plus I'd imagine that if you have a hand (or two) free, you can also push enemies around, or grab an ally to pull them back, etc.

Bows can pick any space up to a range(?) and fire an arrow at that space. Much like sledgehammers; this damage is only resolved at the end of a round, meaning its possible to miss your attacks if enemies can move out of the way in time. This also gives the game a bit of a troll-physics feeling, with arrows falling down in slow motion. However, you can fire from behind your allies, making using a bow all about prediction.

Crossbows fire a bolt in a straight line up to (range). They do not pass thru allies and will hit whatever is in the way. Also they take a round to reload and do a gazillion damage. Actually I have a pet peeve about crossbows where people assume they must be insanely strong because of their drawstrength, but not understanding the length of the string/string action meaning its similar to a warbow, but it's a game so I don't mind plus it's fun.

Slings can hit any space you want beyond adjacent and don't hit allies. They deal more damage up close and extend their range by 1 every round you spin it around without throwing; so first round you can only hit guys two away and it deals 1 damage, second round you can hit people two or three away and deals 2 damage at two range or 1 damage at three range, and so on until you're one-shotting Goliath.

Boomerangs fly two spaces at a time in any direction, but only in straight lines. If you hit an enemy with this, it chains to the next enemy you can hit in a two-space straight line, and the next, etc. You can only throw a Boomerange if it has a valid path back to you. And yes, you can hit allies with it. Will be the most Based weapon-user at your table because their turn will take three times as long as anyone else.

Magic spells could obviously do everything here and more- but any spell should be equally as clunky or hard to use as any of the weapons on here. Magic Missile is reliable but does low damage, Fireball blows up everything on half the battlefield, Touch Spells are countered by whip-users zoning you out, and so on.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Six Desperate but Heroic Lords

Sir Gridwane of The Fens
HD- 10 AC- 15

Attacks- 2 w/ Bow (d6+1) or 2 w/ Sword (d6)

Special- Move Thru. Underbrush / Immune to Entangle

Tall and clad in gray-green light armor with tree motif. Perfect salt & pepper hair. Joined by twelve Fighting-Men, all in light armor and trained with swords and bows. They like their bows more then their swords. Two are elves. Gridwane also has a magic bow (+1) and a magic cloak which lets him slip through bushes and thorns like they weren't even there.

Sir Gridwane is a kindly lord of a forested land; well connected to nature and the animals of the land. He's here because his grandmother got fused to a tree. That's not unusual where he is from, it's just he doesn't have enough money to make her comfortable right now so a little treasure would go a long way. If you help him out he'll teach you how to make you acorn ale.

[2] Dragonlord of Highguard
HD- 12 AC- 18
Attacks- One w/ Flame Greatsword (d12+1 Fire Dmg)
Special- Immune to Fire, Commands Kobolds

Dazzling armor, emblazoned with red and gold. Dragon's face carved into the helmet. His armor is magic and gives him immunity to fire and also prevents him from aging. No shield. He is imbued with dragon-power and kobolds will always surrender to him and obey his commands- unless a true dragon is nearby and says otherwise. Currently accompanied by 2d20 Kobolds.

The Dragonlord is a dragon rider and very powerful. However, his last dragon mount died and now he's stuck here and can't fly back to his homeland which is only accessible by things that can fly. Looking for a juvenile dragon to train or a dragon egg to raise up if he has to. Will also settle for a gryphon.

[3] Two-Ton Lo Chi
HD- 15 AC- 12
Attacks- One w/ Strong-Iron Kanabo (d10) or Roll-Over (d4)
Special- Drunken master, Roll-Over

Outrageously fat lord from a far away rice kingdom. Wears a green robe with dragon design- his belly poking out. No armor or helmet- only gauntlets to protect his hands. Currently guarded by six elite samurai and shadowed by an elite ninja who wants to kill him. He can smash you with a Kanabo but can also use Roll-Over to literally roll over your square and behind you instead of attacking for a turn, letting him escape if he's cornered or flanked. It only does 1d4 damage and knocks you prone but you're basically getting flattened by a sweaty sumo wrestler so it isn't a fun experience.

Two-Ton Lo Chi's land is in disarray after his clan's sacred Jade Mirror was broken. Looking for something very reflective to serve as a replacement. Anything from a mirror shield, really shiny sword, silver goblet, etc. will suffice. If you help him, he'll give you a magical healing gourd from his land. The gourd need only be filled with water and after 1 day will become a healing elixir that restores 1d4 hit points- this can be done an infinite number of times. If your party seems morally dubious the ninja will offer you fifty thousand gold to help kill the lord instead.

[4] Master of Malsits
HD- 9 AC- 14
Attacks- One w/ Ebony Blade (d8+1) and One w/ Dueling Dagger (d4)
Special- Ambidextrous, +2 To Saves, Healing Potion

Slender, black leather. Moves like a cat. Silver braclets. Sword is made of black-metal and razor sharp- counts as a magic sword +1. Dueling dagger used for parries and rapid stabs. Can attack two separate people every turn in melee, or can use his dueling dagger at add its damage roll to his AC for one round. Carries a potent healing potion which restores 2d8 Hit-Points and can drink it while still attacking or blocking with his other hand- will attempt to drink the potion when at or below half health.

Dark and brooding, but holds to his word and a unwavering slayer of evil beings. Very wealthy and feels bad about flaunting it, despite his advisors constantly telling him to keep up appearances as a lord like him should. Still unmarried. Currently here seeking a specific family heirloom; without which he cannot have children and his family will end. Real name Jeffery. If you help him get the heirloom back he'll kill any one person in the world for you as a favor.

[5] Lady Johanna Umbal
HD- 7 AC- 14
Attacks- One w/ Glass Sword (d8)
Special- Destroys Illusions, Sworn-Protectors

Strong warrior-woman lord of an island nation. Her sword is made of blue-green glass and cuts through illusions, glamors, false walls, and all manner of magical trickery. She wears chain armor with a black symbol to represent her house of the black soil- volcanic island with extremely fertile farmlands. She is joined by her four younger brothers- her sworn protectors who are immune to all first level spells in exchange for their vows of celibacy, silence, sobriety, and vegetarian diet.

Johanna is a strict no-nonsense type and wastes no time in explaining her situation. Her island is sinking into the ocean and will be completely flooded in five years if she doesn't find something truly unbreakable and unmoving to act as its new foundation- a unmovable rod or something of a similar size made of adamantine (like a sword). If you help Lady Johanna, she will give her sworn protectors to you, who will be sworn to serve you dutifully for one year and a day in her stead. One of the younger brothers is a weak link and will easily break all of his vows if offered a night on the town; thus making all of the brothers lose out on their magical protection.

[6] Sir Olan of House Shian
6 AC- 18+

Attacks- One w/ Shield Bash (d6)
Special- Greatshield, Damage Block, Great Steed

Very old and frail man dressed in livery. He's shrunken considerably in his old age and his armor doesn't fit very well. Carries a shield bigger then he is; inscribed with a magic rune which glows when facing a foe. This shield grants tremendous protection from all attacks in a 180 degree angle coming at him. Sir Olan can also summon his horse, a huge black beast named Siegebreaker. This horse can outrun any normal horse and ignores caltrops- it can only be harmed by magic weapons.

Sir Olan is here seeking treasure to buy a cure for his daughter's illness. It's extremely expensive. If you go with him and give him the best cut of the treasure, he'll give you Siegebreaker.

Friday, April 28, 2023

(Rant) The CON score fiasco + Some Fixes

Art @Linay Art
So for the longest time in D&D, one of my biggest grievances and little nitpicks is about the Constitution score, mostly, in how it grants extra health. There's obviously nothing wrong with it on the surface, it makes logical sense and gives an extra little bonus for your character. Some people will naturally be tougher then others and have more or less hit points; and in a dangerous place like a dungeon having a higher Constitution score and more hit points is a useful metric to have. Plus, latter games and editions added on to this with saving throws; especially against disease or poison, as Fortitude saves are among the most common kinds to be introduced if we're using a stat based metric.

However, I have a few issues with it purely based on the math. Even more baffling is how it was ever implemented in the game in this metric, which is a separate topic, and every retroclone and homebrew shitbrews also continued this trend- which is the crazy part. How does nobody else see a problem with this?

The Bonus Hit Point Problem
In D&D, Hit Points are determined by dice, your hit dice. Classes tend to have different amounts of hit dice, or more commonly, different sized hit dice. Part of the fun of the game is seeing what you get- you can roll some levels and get 6 or more hit-points, which is really good, or you can get only a 1 or 2, which is still an improvement over all but feels like you're getting robbed. Your Constitution modifier grants you either more or less Hit-Points per Hit-Dice equal to the modifier. Meaning if you have +1 CON, you'll get an extra Hit-Point every level or so.

It's fine. It's simple, easy enough, though I don't think it's as elegant as it could be. But here is where the problems crop up, at least for me.

Now of course, disclaimer, "balance" doesn't matter in a TTRPG. We get it. But there's an issue where one stat is SO much more desirable then any other. If you had an option to swap two stats at character generation, you'd be a fool not to put your highest stat in Con, regardless of what character you are playing. Obviously, that's powergaming, but you can't fault people for it based on RAW.

Think about it. While other modifiers grant bonuses in other areas; they have a rough equivalency. +1 Strength grants +1 to hit, which is a 5% increased chance to hit. Dex grants AC, which is once again a +5% chance for opponents to miss on an attack. Even the strongest character classes, Barbarians or Fighters, who have hit dice of d8 or higher, are still getting a much higher benefit out of hit points in terms of raw numbers out of their maximum potential health; a +10% increase to total hit points or more. And this is only going on maximum rolls; average rolls of 4.5 for a d8 or 5.5 for a d10 are actually being improved by 20% or higher, granting a MUCH bigger benefit for the same random chance to have a higher Con or a higher Strength or Dexterity with random character stat generation.

With that said; I am a very strong believer in random stat generation. Rolling 3d6 down the line to determine your character's attributes is fun to me, and my preferred method of both GMing and generating my own characters. Given the OSR scene, the fact you can sometimes get weak or strong characters is part of the fun of the game and this method is popular as well, at least when compared to more standardized stat arrays for 5e homebrew and such. Of course, this is mitigated by high character lethality, low impact stats, and strong linear advancement in classes meaning a bad stat spread isn't necessarily a huge deal- and if your character dies anyway, you can just make a new one lickety split.

But once again, you can't tell me that you aren't more disappointed from getting a bad CON roll then any other stat. And there is a second problem with the above; rolling for stats before choosing a class.

How I tend to do character generation is to roll for stats, then select a class that fits. This is the most fun method for myself; and I assume a very standard practice. While I can't be 100% certain, the fact that OD&D and other retroclones have minimum stat roll requirements to play the more "special" classes like Elves or Paladins and the like indicate to me this is how people tend to do it. This is the optimal method of random character generation; because you have to roll your stats randomly but you get to pick a class, giving you a strategic choice based on your roll. Part of this is the understanding that, while you aren't necessarily trying to minmax, you are going to pick something that fits your stats and attributes. If you have high strength, probably a Fighter. High wisdom? Probably a Cleric. Intelligence but low physical stats? MU for sure. I like the implied character background and generation of this method; almost implying your character is choosing their career based on what they are naturally good and gifted with; or feeling a sort of implied backstory and baggage that affects your characters starting attributes. Low Dex and High Con can means somebody is fat and out of shape; an ex-merchant down on his luck, or a cloistered monk thrust out into the wider world- these are great character concepts made by just two rolls of the dice created in about fifteen seconds.

But here comes the problem- what kind of character should you make if you get a good CON roll? In my mind, you would mentally imagine someone tough; and in an effort to contribute to the team and party- you'd pick a roll that benefits the most from this. So a frontline Fighter, Barbarian, Paladin, Dwarf, Cleric; which is great, because these characters thematically fit what you'd imagine a high Constitution, beefy or stocky warrior would fit. But once again, here's the problem; if you pick a class with a big Hit-Dice, you are actively getting less benefit from your Constitution score. Your d10 or d8 hit dice is objectively and unquestionably less impacted by a +1 flat bonus then a d4 or d6. In fact, its so badly designed, that you are actively encouraged to play a class with a big HD if you have a low Con score. It is objectively the most optimal and best choice to play a Fighter if you have an average stat spread but terrible Constitution. And conversely, who benefits the most from a big Con score? The Wizard. The guy with the smallest hit dice; to the extent that a +2 Con score is going to pretty much double his maximum hit points.

This is one of the most ass-backwards tabletop mechanics and things I have every encountered. I figure most people just never give it much serious thought; because it drives me up a wall. Once again, it's not necessary to have everything in a game be perfectly designed, balanced, or every playstyle given some kind of benefit- bonus hit points is simple enough, but it's just so bad. It feels like an incorrect rule; something dreamed up and then tossed away after the most preliminary play testing before put to paper. And yet despite this, this is how D&D works from the first editions to now, how Swords & Wizardry works, how LotFP works, and how all these other retroclones work. I feel like a conspiracy theorist noticing the big lie that all the sheeple just consume without thought or question. What the hell is going on?!

Sidenote: Obviously, the above doesn't matter if all characters have the same size hit die. I know there are some retroclones like this; in which case hit points remain a simple bonus for everyone, with the classes most exposed to danger and/or classes that get the most hit dice total being the ones who benefit the most from it. This solves the issue handily- but is the minority.

But anyways; enough whining. Now its time for the solutions.

New Constitution Modifier Benefits
You can see my attempts to change this in various rule-posts I've made on this blog before. Personally, I don't much care about sharing my homebrew rules anymore, mostly because actually playing a campaign is a treat at this point- and I feel like sharing rule fixes and ideas is basically wasted space. Everybody already has their own game or their own homebrew they like to tweak- I'm not going to be changing any minds with my own rants and solutions. But frankly? I hate the Con score bonus hit point thing so much, I'm gonna do it anyway.

Oh, and all of these assume a relatively wide spread of Con modifier ranges. Most games go from +1 to maybe +3 at a score of 18 or -3 at a score of 3, which are really uncommon at character generation. I like to use a maximum spread of +2 to -2 at character generation for stats. While most characters will be about the same and have a lot of +0 stats, a few will be exemplary enough for attribute bonuses to actually be noticeable.

Solution 1 - Rerolling
Whenever you roll your Hit Dice, roll it a number of extra times equal to your Constitution modifier, positive or negative. Then, take the highest number (if positive) or lowest (if negative). This means if you have a -1 Con score, roll your HD twice and take the lowest one. If your Con is +2, roll three Hit Dice and take the biggest.

This method bounds HP to a certain range based on the character's class or Hit-Dice size. So a level 3 Fighter with a Hit Dice of d10 is going to have between 3 and 30 Hit Points no matter what their stats are like. This is useful for getting a general feel for total resources a character could have, regardless of stats. Secondly, it makes any permanent hit points gained or lost through various magical means or equipment feel more "supernatural" and impactful, because it breaks them out of the very concrete range of hit points anyone could have. Finally; it also has the benefit of making more "swingy" (bigger) hit dice being more benefited from this, as it adds some consistency. You won't get as many results of 1 or 2 on a big ten sided dice, making characters with good CON scores have higher and more constant gains per level. While I'm not gonna do the math on this one, I get the feeling that the Fighter with the big hit dice will enjoy having a high Con score but be even more crippled by having a low Con then maybe he should be; at least compared to something like the MU. I get the feeling they'd mathematically shake out to be the same, but somebody with -2 Con may as well just play an MU and go up by one hit point every level and just be happy with that. Feels fair enough.

The problems with this solution? Firstly; it makes Con way too important. Arguably even worse then just a flat +1 or -1 added to your health scores. We're far and away from a small little +5% bonus to hit or avoid damage. Secondly? It's arguably way too good at first level too, because instead of just getting +1 or +2 to your piddly starting health pool; you now have two chances to max it out. While the potential maximum isn't as high as a flat bonus, you're basically never going to have characters starting with really low and dangerous hit point values. (But the opposite is true for those with negative Con, who now get the worse of their only two hit dice rolls!). I used to use this solution for an old homebrew, but decided to change it by just giving everyone a minimum starting Hit-Point value. So no more 1 hit point Magic Users, you'll start with 2 Hit Points no matter what, so take the shitty Con score and live with it. It's not that bad.

Also; perhaps most obviously, this entire rule becomes totally and completely unusable if characters can gain or lose their ability score values during a campaign. What are you going to do if someone finds a +1 Belt of Constitution and now their modifier goes up by one? Are you going to have them reroll all their Hit Dice and take the new one if its higher? Remember the last individual hit-dice roll they made and have them redo it with an extra roll? No way. that's a nightmare. At least the bonus HP per HD is easy to adjust on the fly; just multiplying the Con modifier with the characters HD, positive or negative, and adjusting the total accordingly, which is probably the reason the oldschool games actually use it.

Solution 2 - Starting HP Total Only
Your Con bonus adds or subtracts from your total maximum hit points, but only once. So at first level, if you have +1 Con, you get +1 Hit Points and that's it. If you increase your CON score later, you get +1 more max HP, or -1 less, and so on. You just adjust your Hit Point total by your CON modifier, it's that simple.

There is only two issues with it. Firstly, it may be hard to remember 100% what your actual Hit Point total is. You may increase your Constitution score and gain a point, then level up, then the DM hits your character with a curse that reduces your maximum HP by -1d6 points until you slay the Wampus Cat, and then you lose the magic item that granted you that CON bonus, so now you gotta reduce it by one again. I'm sure you can keep track of it all with some proper notetaking, but it seems like it could slide around and be annoying. At the speed of how Tabletop Games run at however, I don't see this being an issue.

Second; it feels a little underwhelming, especially if you're coming from more classic retroclones. Everyone has been gaining all the bonus Hit Points per level, now it's just once period. That could feel like a serious downgrade if you've playing characters with high Con before and now feel much weaker. However, overall, this change makes the Constitution score more in line with other stats, but doesn't fix the problem of Constitution being THE number one stat overall at character generation. It also doesn't pair up with the HD gain of the various classes in the game, meaning you won't have anyone picking to be a Fighter just because they rolled high Con, but at least it isn't backwards like the old method. This also means that your bonus HP from your Con score becomes less and less relevant as time goes on- actually making the Constitution score less "endgame viable" then Strength, Dex, or another stat. However it's worth noting that most characters who use stat modifiers (like a Fighter with a high strength score) are also gaining bonuses from their class along the way; meaning that  +1 from a high Strength score matters a lot less when they have two attacks per round with +3 To-Hit at a certain level then at first level, when it was the only thing changing how likely they were to win a combat encounter. I don't think it's necessarily bad that one stat gets more or less valuable as time goes on; after all Charisma often grants a bonus to starting gold which only matters once in the whole campaign, but it's a fair point to consider.

Solution 3 - Percentile
You gain or lose maximum hit points by a percentage; based on the Con score. So if you have a +1 Con, you gain +5% or +10% maximum hit points. This solution is simple, though math heavy, and puts it in line with all the other stats in the game. If +1 Strength gives you +5% chance to hit, then +1 Con gives you 5% maximum hit points. This is the one I ended up using for these old rules; but it was kind of a last second band-aid choice that I didn't really stick with.

Two problems; first, given the nature of randomly rolled stats, this solution could potentially do a lot more or little to two separate characters just given what they rolled. If you're using round up or round down is an extra point of confusion. Given how small this bonus could actually be, an overage or mistake could easily cost or gain an entire extra hit point and end up making a big difference; but only mathematically speaking. The actual effect on the game is very, very minimal. Even at a 10% bonus, most OSR/DIY characters aren't going to get over 30 to 40 Hit Points total, so it acts as a small bonus that can maybe absorb one small attack. Of course, even one hit point could mean the difference between life and death, so this feels about right for how Con score bonus should work.

The second problem is ease of use. Most people are only going to write down one hit point total for their character. This will mean it will include their bonus Hit Points in their character's HP total. So if you gain or lose Constitution later, do you take the entire total, which includes the bonus hit points, and use 5 or 10% of that to determine the next increment or bonus of hit points? Like if you go from Con +1 to Con +2 and get +5% bonus hit points, you're not just calculating your character's base Hit-Points into the new total, but including the previous bonus Hit-Points into the equation, which could easily round up to an extra +1 hit points based on how you want to round it out. It's not just a +5% from going up a modifier tier, but a +5% of another +5% from before. I wouldn't even trust myself not to fuck up this math, much less other people I'm playing with. Without really good notekeeping, this could become a serious problem. While most campaigns don't see characters changing their attribute modifiers that much; if someone finds a magic item or catches leprosy or something and the setting is adjorned for the week; nobody is going to remember exactly how much hit points they actually rolled for their level when they added it on to their character sheet as opposed to how much the Con modifier gave them. The only way to solve this would be to write the Con modifier's bonus hit points as a separate amount; at which point the player is basically keeping track of two health pools and doing twice the work for minimal gains in the gameplay department. It's just a hassle.

Solution 4 - Soak
Your Constitution modifier grants a number of temporary hit points or damage reduction applies to the first hit you take in combat. Meaning if you have a Con modifier of +1, you take -1 damage from the first hit you take in combat. If you have a Con modifier of -2, however, you'd take 2 more damage from the first hit in combat.

This solution makes Constitution a much more fight-centric stat, and also pairs well with Flesh/Grit systems, as while Con itself is your "Flesh" stat, Grit could be boosted by especially tough characters. It also makes Con very beneficial to fighters, who not only have the most maximum HP but also will take less per combat, multiplied by the number of times they get to use this bonus. Characters with poor Con, on the other hand, will be in an even more perilous position because of this.

Second idea; instead, you could make your Con modifier added to healing gained on something akin to a second wind or Short Break mechanic. In a more action-focused game, a Short Break could restore 1d6 Hit Points to every party member (or just their class HD), which you add your Constitution modifier to every time you roll it. This has the knock on effect of, once again, making Constitution once again more important for low maximum HP classes then higher ones, and also makes it more of a sustain stat as opposed to making high Con characters feel actually tougher to kill, which is arguably the only and entire purpose of the stat in the first place.

Solution 5 - Armor Class
Your Constitution Modifier is added to your Armor Class. Dexterity no longer increases or decreases your Armor Class; instead, it's Constitution.

This is the easiest one, and the one I went with. It also makes people the most mad. Yeah, I know. Here's the thing; Dexterity is already a great score with a lot of uses. Stealth, Ranged Attacks, Finesse weapons if your game has those, prime requisites for Thieves, and is probably the stat called upon the most for random roll-under or "DM looks at your character sheet to see if your stunt works usually" kind of calls. Dexterity is already well represented enough. Plus, making Con the AC bonus instantly puts it in line in usefulness with Strength/Dex/other stats, giving a roughly 5% increased chance to avoid damage.

Now you may be saying; but what about my dexterity fighter!? What about my monk, my survivability, my light armor user archetypes! And those are fair criticisms of this change. But most of the above is based on roleplay, equipment choice, and character class- having a high dexterity doesn't let you attack multiple times and only increases chances for enemies to miss slightly, and rarely impacts things like dodging spells (only indirectly; which still works within this ruleset). Second, by using this method, you could decouple the idea of a fast or agile character away from AC- AC could become the mostly toughness and damage-absorption related statistic; as in "taking hits but not really getting hurt by them", and Dexterity fully moved into the heroic swashbuckling, thieving, and agility-based conceptual space. For example; instead of having Dex grant AC, just using certain weapons like rapiers increase it instead, which already fits the type but doesn't make Fighters (who are already most affected by having bad or good stats) need Dexterity in addition to Strength and Constitution to feel "powerful" in their role. (Though as we've seen above, Constitution already is the least useful on them, if we go by the rules everyone else seems to use). In my mind, I'd prefer a high Dex rolled character to want to go towards being a Thief over wanting to be a Fighter when deciding on your class- which was part of the purpose for this entire change in the first place.

If you really, really still want Dexterity to be directly useful for combat; make Dexterity a bonus To-Hit, Strength to damage (melee only? melee and bows? You pick.) and Constitution a bonus to Armor-Class. That way you have the trifecta of useful physical stats; damage, accuracy, and toughness all in one place.

I almost put this on a Vagueposting for how long it got, but it certain fits into the Rant corner. Either way, if you stuck with it this long, thanks for reading.