So, the 1st level Sleep spell in D&D bugs me. I don’t actually mind that it’s an encounter-ender for low-level characters… in fact I regard it as a bigger problem that 1st level MUs don’t really have any other spells nearly as worthwhile. Maybe Charm Person, at least outside of a dungeon, but that’s about it. But being awesome once a day isn’t a deal-breaker. No, what bugs me is the ritual of going around and killing all the sleeping foes afterwards. Not only is that particularly unheroic (granting that not everybody needs to play a heroic character) it just doesn’t feel particularly like the magic in stories that inspired it.
Over the years I’ve played with a number of DMs that had various solutions to this: some made you roll for damage against the sleeping foe, and if you didn’t kill him in one blow he woke up. That mainly served to make players more cautious about arranging a gang-stabbing of any multi-hit die creature they slept and sometimes the spell being wasted; not trying to kill the creature almost never came up. A free round of attacks was basically the best chance you were ever going to have, and chances are you’d be meeting it again. One DM made you roll to hit as well, though at least she applied bonuses. I think I recall one in the early days of playing who would count it as an alignment infraction if a Lawful (or maybe */Good… can’t recall which edition) character killed a sleeping foe; hardly anybody played Lawful characters at his table. A couple have removed Sleep from the game, or made you start with random spells and by the time you found a spell book with Sleep you likely had better mass-murder spells. Some have allowed saves against sleep in addition to the max number of creatures affected (not necessarily horrible if you extend the same thing to the PCs). But nothing I’ve encountered really did more than make the process of casting Sleep then slitting throats a bit more risky and likely to fail.
So I’m considering the following house rule: if you try to attack or move a magically slept creature, you fall under the spell as well. No save, no limit on the max HD. To me that feels a lot more like the sleep spell in literature, including spells like abandoned castles with all the inhabitants sleeping for a hundred years. The 1st level Sleep spell would just be a lesser version of that.
Another version I considered would be the spell would be broken on all sleepers if any of them were attacked, but that seems like it leaves too much room for rules-lawyering it. E.g., trying simultaneous attacks, tying them all up and throwing them off a cliff all at once, smacking your own companion with a small attack to wake the rest, and so on. They could all probably be patched, but I think the result would be a multi-paragraph list of conditions like a 3rd edition spell.
One thing that I think is attractive about this, besides having more of a fairy-tale or fantasy feel, is the way it makes Sleep a very different spell, with different purposes, than something like Fireball or Cloud Kill. You always need to think about what you’re going to do when they wake up… are you using it to cover your retreat, give yourself time to burgle the place, pass deeper into the dungeon and figure you’ll deal with them on the way out, or what. You can’t count on clearing the level one sleep spell at a time. And on the flip side, if an enemy spell caster uses sleep on you it’s no longer time to roll up a new character unless the GM is having the monsters be far more merciful than the players ever are.
I guess my one worry is whether it’s just too different from the way players are used to using Sleep. The whole reason for using D&D instead of something like Zounds! is because of the instant familiarity and buy-in. There’s definitely a certain amount of tweaking and house-ruling that just the way D&D works, but there’s a point beyond which you might as well play something else, and changing one of the most reliable 1st level spells gives me some pause.
Doing this all in one post, ’cause I can’t be bothered to schedule a post a day for all of Feb.
1: First person who introduced you to D&D? Which edition? Your first Character?
I picked up the original “White Box” D&D from the local game store, before anybody else I knew had ever heard of it. This was back in 1975, so nobody outside of Lake Geneva and a few college towns even knew what it was. I don’t remember my first character, but I was the DM of most of the games I played until my brother Alex started his own campaign. My first player character was actually probably in a game that my 6th grade science teacher agreed to run for us, once we explained what it was. My first PC that I clearly remember was Berken the Bold, but that was later, after we had switched out the D&D “alternate” combat system for Melee/Wizard.
2: First person YOU introduced to D&D? Which edition? THEIR first character?
Hm. Probably Alex, maybe my best friend at the time, Ike. Still White Box, and no idea what the character’s name was. The first Alex character I actually do remember was a Traveller character, Lord Admiral Death Vendor, M.D. (crazy Traveller career-path character generation).
3: First dungeon you explored as a PC or ran as a DM.
Something I created based on the example in book 3. I don’t think I gave it a name, even, it was “the dungeon”. At that point I’m not even sure there was a town outside, I think I had a shop on the first level, because the players had to buy stuff somewhere, right?
4: First dragon you slew (or some other powerful monster).
Now this I do remember: we killed a T-Rex in the dungeon that my 6th-grade teacher ran after school. That was an epic battle… I think only a couple PCs were killed, but I think we each had only a few HP left.
5: First character to go from 1st level to 20th level (or highest possible level in a given edition).
I don’t think I’ve ever hit max level in 40 years of playing. I did have one character (Berken) who graduated to demi-godhood because he became so powerful he was boring to play, but by that point we were playing Alex’s house-rules and I don’t think there officially were levels any more.
6: First character death. How did you handle it?
Roll up a new character, of course. After a while we made resurrection pretty cheap and easy, just because it was getting boring rerolling scrubs.
7: First D&D Product you ever bought. Do you still have it?
The old white box… and no, I don’t, more’s the pity. I think it got junked when my mom moved while I was in college (along with a lot of my comics… the age-old tragic story).
8: First set of polyhedral dice you owned. Do you still use them?
Purchased separately, and good grief, no. I don’t think they lasted a year before we’d lost some or all of them.
9: First campaign setting (homebrew or published) you played in.
I think the first actual campaign setting was based on Arduin… before that it was just “the dungeon” and later “the town.” Inspired by that we made whole campaign worlds and solar systems. My biggest and longest-lasting setting at the time was The Four Kingdoms, though later on Neng lasted more years but with different groups of players. Alex’s world started out without a name, but eventually there was Sorrock’s World and… um, I forget. Cargoth’s World?
10: First gaming magazine you ever bought (Dragon, Dungeon, White Dwarf, etc.).
Dragon, but I was a much bigger fan of The Space Gamer. I pretty much fell out of playing actual D&D pretty early on, certainly before Basic was released. We moved on to different systems and homebrews.
11: First splatbook you begged your DM to approve.
Splatbooks are after my time.
12: First store where you bought your gaming supplies. Does it still exist?
The Games People Play, in Cambridge, MA. And yep, it’s still there.
13: First miniature(s) you used for D&D.
I think we got some Ral Partha minis? But mostly we were playing “theater of the mind” style. Minis were expensive, and we had no money. I remember I had to save up my allowance for 2 months (maybe more) to buy Empire of the Petal Throne… still probably the most expensive game relative to my income I have ever bought.
14: Did you meet your significant other while playing D&D? Does he or she still play? (Or just post a randomly generated monster in protest of Valentine’s Day).
No, but she plays now.
15: What was the first edition you didn’t enjoy. Why?
AD&D 1e… too fiddly and complex, and by the time the DMG was released I thought I was done with D&D forever.
16: Do you remember your first edition war? Did you win?
The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?
Actually I did used to get involved in edition wars, except it was D&D versus other “better, more realistic games.” I’m kind of ashamed of that, but in my defense a lot of the vocal D&D supporters I was arguing with were big “you’re playing RPGs wrong!” dicks.
17: First time you heard D&D was somehow “evil.”
All during the Satanic Panic I never actually met anybody who held that view, it was just something stupid in the news. Even now, I never have, though I’ve met people whose parents actually fell for it.
18: First gaming convention you ever attended.
Only ever attended some mini-cons, or SF cons that had some gaming events.
19: First gamer who just annoyed the hell out of you.
One of my high school “friends” was a complete “Loony” player… looking back I’m pretty sure he only played because it’s what the rest of us were doing, but he had no real interest in anything except being disruptive.
20: First non-D&D RPG you played.
Traveller. SF was more my bag than fantasy, anyway, so my longest running HS campaign was actually a Traveller campaign.
21: First time you sold some of your D&D books–for whatever reason.
I don’t think I ever did. You kids with your internets and ebays don’t know what it was like back when you threw stuff out because how the hell would you ever find somebody to buy it, even if you thought it was “worth something”?
22: First D&D-based novel you ever read (Dragonlance Trilogy, Realms novels, etc.)
I think I got through Quag Keep, but remember nothing. I know I never finished the first Drizzt book. I’ve read a bunch of stuff that was inspired by or parodying D&D and/or RPGs in general (e.g. the Joel Rosenberg Guardians of the Flame series), but I’ve never really cottoned to any of the official D&D published fiction. They mostly came out during the phase when I was snobbishly avoiding D&D, but nothing I’ve really heard about them since has convinced me they’re a treasure trove awaiting discovery.
23: First song that comes to mind that you associate with D&D. Why?
Behold the wizard! Beware his powers! Unspeakable powers!
because that’s what I want my D&D games to be like.
24: First movie that comes to mind that you associate with D&D. Why?
25: Longest running campaign/gaming group you’ve been in.
My current gaming group has been together for 13 years, I believe. Not the same campaign, though. My Friday night group has been only a decade, but we actually don’t play D&D as much in the past few years… more board-games and the like. Still, when we do play, it’s the same campaign… though the GM makes us create new characters whenever we get to around 5th or 6th level, since she thinks 1-5th is the “sweet spot” for D&D adventures.
26: Do you still game with the people who introduced you to the hobby?
I did the introducing, and not really. Alex and my siblings are the only folks I still see from back then, and they’ve mostly fallen away from gaming.
27: If you had to do it all over again, would you do anything different when you first started gaming?
I would do everything differently. Well, maybe not, but I’d like to think I’ve learned a bunch about what’s fun and what’s not over the years, and wouldn’t make a lot of the same mistakes. A lot of that is captured in this blog.
28: What is the single most important lesson you’ve learned from playing Dungeons & Dragons?
Rules make good servants but poor masters.
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Having played Numenera again, I’d have to say that the two biggest fun-sucks are deciding whether to save XP for improvements or spend it to reroll or avoid GM Intrusion, and the decision as to whether to spend the XP to avoid GM intrusion and if you accept it having to decide who to give the extra XP to. These are terrible, terrible things to force the player to do in the middle of every exciting situation, wrenching the players out of any immediate visceral reaction to the what’s happening in the fiction and forcing them to consider long-term character goals and emphasizing the fact that its fiction at the worst possible moment by making potentially exciting twists and developments provisional upon the players’ decision about whether to spend resources to prevent it. It is in a word, bletcherous, and it doesn’t need to be.
In order to dial up the awesomeness in Numenera, you only need to make two house rules:
First Make GM Intrusions compulsory, but allow the players to mitigate them instead of retconning them. Instead of saying “This happens, unless you choose to spend now to make it unhappen” say “This happens, what do you do?” Then allow the players to either spend XP to automatically succeed at some attempt to cope, or proceed normally with the usual rolls. Thus instead of “GM Intrusion: You drop your weapon!” ”Spend an XP. I refuse.” it becomes “GM Intrusion: You drop your weapon!” ”But I manage to catch it with my other hand! Spend an XP!” or “They grab you from behind!” ”Just as they do I catch a glimpse of them reflected in the shop window and manage to wrench myself out of their grasp!” Or if the player doesn’t feel like spending the XP, “I try to wrench myself free. (Rolls)” It may seem trivial, but keeping it so the fiction always moves forward with no “taps back” is, imo, really important for maintaining a high level of engagement.
Second Reward players for spending XP on immediate and short-term benefits by making it required. In fact, instead of calling what you get awarded for accepting GM Intrusion and discovery XP, let’s call it Numenera Points, or NP. NP can be spent on anything except Long Term Benefits and Character Advancement. XP are gained by spending NP. XP can only be spent on Long Term Benefits and Character advancement. If you keep the ratio of spent NP to XP earned at 1:1 characters will advance a bit faster, so if you like you can adjust this for your campaign so that, e.g. you spend 2 NP to gain 1 XP. This automatically solves the problem of hoarding NP… there’s no real reason to, and if players do, they gain no particular benefit; it’s not like they are trying to save to improve the character at the same time as keeping a bank to use during play. Those functions are now handled separately by XP and NP, and you can adjust the conversion ratio for any desired pace of advancement. Most importantly, players are now rewarded instead of punished for engaging with the mechanics of the game when they spend NP.
To a lot of people these differences are too subtle to care about; they’re perfectly happy to stop playing their character and ponder how to manage their resources or discuss tactics and rules minutia with other players mid-sword-swing, and rewinding what’s going on in the game is no more distressing than playing an interrupt card on an opponent in Magic the Gathering. On the other hand, there are people like me who are really bugged by “dissociated mechanics” to the point where it can be really hard to care much about what happens to the character, who becomes a token to push around on the board. The thing is, people who don’t mind dissociated mechanics aren’t bugged by associated mechanics; in fact many of them seem to be completely blind to the difference between them… so tweaking things to make the mechanics associated with what’s going on in the game world is a win-win. Engagement with the mechanics is still perfectly satisfactory for those that don’t care how its connected to the fiction, and those that do care can now use the mechanics without the pain of having to step back from the fictional world to make OOC decisions.
Some quick impressions of Numenera from Monday’s game:
- I like the mad-lib character generation. I might even steal it.
- The names Glaive, Jack, and Nano for the character types aren’t particularly evocative for me. Nanotech is the new phlebotinum and it already feels worn out.
- Cyphers is a bad name for the one-use devices. The one thing they’re not is mysterious, since to make them worthwhile you know exactly what they do (I guess they come clearly labelled).
- The hard limit of two Cyphers (or three if you’re a Nano with Expert Cypher use), while clearly a good idea to prevent characters from accumulating a huge pile of them and spending too much time staring at their character sheets looking for the right device to solve a problem, seems pretty contrived. I’d prefer some kind of sliding scale of increased chance of mishap and wilder catastrophic failure.
- Multiplying by 3 all the time is kind of a nuisance. Not sure why it’s better to have everything ranked in difficulty 1-10 with bonuses and penalties applied to that number, but have to multiply by 3 to derive the d20 target.
- Having the player roll both attack and defense vs. target numbers is fun, though our GM made a minor goof and had us rolling low for defense as if we were rolling the opponent’s to-hit against us.
- The GM Intrusion mechanic is immersion breaking. Personally I’d get rid of the choice to accept or spend an XP to reject _and_ the compelled give XP to another player; both those decisions can’t be made from an In Character POV, and the latter can’t even usually be attached to the fiction.
- The game is an odd mix of broad strokes and fiddly details. I’d prefer to stick to the broad strokes.
- I think it would be nice to encourage more colorful character descriptions and abilities; the characters depicted in the game art seem much more exotic than what the character generation process turns out, though that might just be a failure of imagination on my part.
- I’m not sure what I think of spending your stats (which are also your hp) for extra effort or to power your abilities; I am sure I don’t like spending XP for temporary bonuses.
I’m planning on playing in Jonathan Henry’s Numenera campaign once he gets that up and running, but what playing this did for me was make me want to work on a far-future science fantasy setting for Zap! more than run a game of Numenera myself.
The idea of a low-magic fantasy setting seems a bit odd to me, in that the idea that the world we live in is low-magic strikes me as a very modern one. As far as I can tell at most times and places in our world, which has no magic at all, people nonetheless believed that the world was chock full of magic. It might have been hard to make use of reliably, though most superstitions seem to me to be every bit as formulaic as D&D wizard spells, but it lurked everywhere and you needed lots of protection against it.
I can kind of see wanting a setting where objective proof of the existence of magic is hard or impossible to come by if you want something that feels like our world. And I certainly get not wanting the solution to every problem to be just magic it away. But many (most?) low-magic settings I’ve seen in games take it much farther than that, to where hardly anybody even claims to do magic or have never encountered anything they regarded as supernatural, and that doesn’t quite feel right to me. To the modern mind the difference between natural and supernatural is obvious and complete: your cattle catching a disease vs. somebody levitating in front of your eyes are completely distinct kinds of phenomena. In a setting based on the pre-modern world I’m pretty sure that shouldn’t be true.