The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

Fluff, Crunch and The Dashing Swordsman

In the very popular web comic Order of the Stick, the character of Elan has levels in a prestige class called “The Dashing Swordsman“. Because of the great popularity of the strip, there have been a lot of fan who have tried to put the class to paper (though never the creator of the strip; he has been very clear he won’t ever release in-game information about the goings on in the strip).

The interesting thing I have seen, or rather not seen, in many attempts at interpreting The Dashing Swordsman, is that the most obvious characteristic of the class is always ignored; that he can use his charisma bonus in melee if (and only if) he says a pun right before he attacks. Now everyone is all over the swapping in the charisma bonus, but for some reason the puns get left by the way side.

D&D Keeps Fluff and Crunch Separate, So We Do The Same

Its not surprising that many a fan would ignore the fluff side of the class; as D&D players we are conditioned to think that rules go in one box and role playing in another, and there shouldn’t be much mixing between the two. Oh there are a few exceptions, like role playing xp or role playing skill uses, but the idea of a class that demands an action from the player – that goes against the grain of D&D. And the idea that a character could get a significant combat bonus from role playing would be consider hearsay in some quarters.

That we are so adverse to mixing fluff and crunch I think was born of the success of games that do it so well. In the 90s there were a lot of popular games which had no qualms about demanding role playing in return for statistical bonuses. I can’t help but wonder if the success of those games both drew players of that ilk away from D&D (thus limiting their influence on the game), and furthermore created a kind of backlash against heavy handed role playing (3E hugely scaled back role playing elements of the game).

I can’t help but think that part of the reason that 3E and 4E feel kind of different than what came before them is because the fluff and crunch parts of the game are further apart than ever. But what can be done?

I Can’t Mix Them Because I’ve Been Conditioned Too

To be honest, I would never have guessed just how deep this bias against mixing fluff and crunch runs in myself before I started writing this post. I wanted to finish it up with some examples of rules that might mix fluff and crunch and bring some fun to the table, but I can’t. Every time I start to make up a feat, or a class or whatever I find myself saying one of two things:

  • “You can’t let players do that; it would be unbalancing.”
  • “You can’t force players to do that; what if they don’t want to?”

Yet, I shouldn’t be thinking these things. My whole point should be that fluff can bring a lot of fun to the table, and so worries about balance or the like should be pushed to the side. But, alas, I am part of the machine of which I have been complaining.

How Much Would You Mix Fluff and Crunch?

So how about you? Would you be willing to bring a rule to your table that directly traded fluff for crunch? What is the biggest bonus that you think fluff could give? What would you think if such a thing found its way into the official rules? Let me know.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.


December 14, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, 4E, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , , | 5 Comments

Not So Random Abilities

There is a feeling in some quarters that buying abilities has somehow robbed D&D of diversity; this is wrong on two accounts. First of all, despite the wholly random nature of Old School generating methods, meaningful diversity was far from omnipresent. Second, that the point buy method as it exists now is set up to encourage you to make every stat 12 is a function of the math behind the system, and not point buys themselves. It is completely possible (as seen in many other games) to create a point buy system that encourages more diversity than dice do.

There Was No Diversity in Old School

Everyone has countless fond memories a table of players with every character having very different abilities. No one had 16, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8 (and if they did it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow). But what gets constantly forgotten in such reminiscing is that most of these stats were effectively the same, even if the recorded number was different.

Right off the bat almost every class had either two or three abilities that had no impact on them. Charisma, Intelligence, and Wisdom only mattered if you were playing a class who had that stat as its prime requisite. There were no skills nor saving throws that crapped on you if you had a 6 in one of those three.

Then of the abilities that did matter, you had a huge range of scores that gave no bonus or penalties, and an even larger one that gave a mere +/- 1. Though this varied slightly based on the edition and the ability you were looking at, it was typical to have about a 50% chance on 3d6 of landing no bonus/penalty and about a 90% chance of being between minus 1 and plus 1.

(for comparison, in 3.x you would have a 25% chance of rolling an even score and a 67% of rolling between -1 and +1)

New School Rules Could Bring Diversity

The way that D&D is set up now, with the ability bonus changing every 2 points, is far more conducive to diversity than anything that was done old school. But that doesn’t make random rolling the right way to go; actually a properly setup point buy system will encourage more diversity than dice because multiple dice are weighted to the center, while players will gladly pay for high abilities with low ones.

But there is the crux of what is wrong with the D&D point buy system; you cannot buy a stat lower than 8. In fact, with 4E you are limited to just one stat that is 8, the rest must be 10.

Attributes make the man.

Now I know what Wizards was thinking when they made the lower limit for stats as 8; they were thinking that if they made the lower limit for stats 3, then every character would have three 18s and three 3s.

But here is the thing – its none of Wizard’s dam business if players want to do that. The game is balanced now to the point that willingly taking a 3 will really hurt you, and taking multiple 3s could be fatal in most games. Its not Wizards job to protect players from themselves; that is the providence of the DM.

So here are some suggested alternate point buy systems if you want to see some more diversity in your games:

  1. Use the current system, but give the characters 44 points, and make them start buying from 6.
  2. Use the current system, but after completing the purchase allow them to choose to lower a stat which is 8 to 6 in return for raising one other stat by 2.
  3. Make a flat point buy from 0. Give every character 72 points to spend, and every point raises a stat by 1; apply maximums and minimums as you see fit.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.

December 13, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, 4E, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , , | 1 Comment

Sell Me On It

While playing 3E I started giving players what I called Hero Points as an additional reward system. The idea was they could spend Hero Points to give them a better chance at completing especially heroic moves. The problem was that it was a balanced mechanical system, and it never felt particularly heroic when they were used (and that players tended to hoard them because they could be used defensively as well).

After playing 4E for a short time I found that action points were the same way; they ought to (in my mind) allow PCs to have a moment to shine, but all to often they seemed to be spent on re-rolls when the character missed an attack (and more often than not the re-roll missed too).

So I implemented a system with action points that I had briefly tried with Hero Points that I like to call “Sell me on it”. Basically, when a player says they want to use an action point, they can either use them the way they are intended or they can use them as an opportunity to bend the rules.

In spending the action point the player can propose to have his character do anything; there is no limit on what they can propose as a use for an action point, but whether I agree or not will depend on how in line it is with the character (I really like proposals that are extensions of existing powers), how dramatically appropriate it is, and who benefits from the action.

My favourite example of a player using “Sell me on it” was a way of extending Fey Step far beyond its rule use, yet was something no one would have blinked at if read in a story. Basically the party’s sorceress was trapped and in grave danger, so the Eladrin rogue used Fey Step to teleport in, grab her and teleport out (ala Nightcrawler).

To be honest some of my favourite memories of 4E involve this house rule, so I will have to be sure we bring it back when we start our new 4E game. I will say that’s its one downfall is that it tends to favour players who are playing more for the story; but seeing as they frequently get the short end of the stick, I don’t think that’s a problem.

October 28, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, 4E, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , , | Leave a comment

Leveled Magic Items – Axiom

Level Requirements Powers
1 None +1 Long Sword
2 Lawful +1 Long Sword, +2 vs Chaotic Outsiders; if user is a Paladin (or equivilent) he may use his detect evil and smite evil powers vs. Chaotic creatures
3 Concentrate skill 3 ranks;
500 XP invested
Protection From Chaos once per day
4 Concentrate skill 6 ranks;
1000XP invested
Order’s Wrath once per day
5 Concentrate skill 9 ranks;
1500XP invested
Dispel Chaos once per day
6 Concentrate skill 12 ranks;
2000XP invested
+2 Long Sword, +4 vs Chaotic Outsiders

*All spells like powers are cast at either the minimum level for the spell, or the owner’s Paladin level – whichever is higher

When Til-Gamir began to prepare for his epic quest to rid the underdark of evil, he turned to his father, legendary craftsman Talith to make him a weapon worthy of the quest. Talith spent three long years fashioning the perfect weapon for his paladin son – Axiom.

Little else is known of the history of the sword for neither Til-Gamir, not any of his followers ever returned from their quest in to darkness. Somehow, in the years after Til-Gamir left Axiom fell in to the hands of the evil Audurach…

October 24, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, Magic Items, RPGs | , , , , | 1 Comment

Leveled Magic Item – Green Thumb

Level Requirements Powers
1 none +1 Scimitar
2 Knowledge(nature) 4 ranks
500XP invested
Detect Plants whenever sword is held
3 Knowledge(nature) 8 ranks
1000XP invested
+2 Scimitar
4 Knowledge(nature) 12 ranks
1500XP invested
Speak with Plants whenever sword is held
5 Knowledge(nature) 16 ranks
2000XP invested
+3 Scimitar

Farenyth, a druid of some reknown, was a key player in saving Vesve forrest from ruin at the hands of an evil dragon. Though he asked for no reward, the elves who lives he saved insisted of giving him the most valuable reward they had – magic. The elves enchanted his scimitar (a rather unassuming weapon he had owned for many years) with powers they thought a druid could make use of.

Though Farenyth had dismissed the elves offer to begin with, in the years that followed he was grateful time and time again for Greenthumb. Though the hilt looked quite plain, except for a piece of green crystal set in its base, the blade was a wonder to look at. The blade took on different appearances depending on the light. In the light of the sun or the moon elven runes (actually poetry about nature) appeared along the length of the blade. In moderate to low unnatural light the blade gave the appearance of being wood. In near or totally darkness the blade began to glow a gentle green.

In time Farenyth discovered that when holding Greenthumb he needed only to think of a type of plant, and he would immediately know if there were any of that species near by. Then, one day, when he thought the sword could not be any more useful, Farenyth learned that when holding Greenthumb he could speak with any sort plants.

Farenyth kept Greenthumb by his side till his death, when the sword passed on to his grandson, Mykath. Though Mykath treasured the sword, he never learnt all its powers – he lost both the sword and his life before that could happen. When Belak first began trying to introduce his “reforms” to the druidic order Mykath was one of his closest followers. However, like most others, Mykath deserted Belak when the Grand Druid denounced him. Belak killed Mykath in cold blood, and took the sword his grandfather had loved.

(Belak is main villian in the module the Sunless Citadel. I gave him this item in place of the masterwork sickle he is suppose to have. He had level 2 of the item unlocked.)

October 17, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, Dungeons and Dragons, Magic Items, RPGs | , , | 1 Comment

All About Leveled Magic Items

Over the years I became very frustrated with the magic item cycle;

  1. character finds magic item
  2. character loves magic item
  3. character doesn’t love magic item quite so much
  4. magic item is kind of bland
  5. character find new uber magic item
  6. old magic item is tossed

So when I read about the concept of leveled magic items, I jumped on it immediately. Basically the idea is that as characters progress their uber item can grow with them. I love this because this (along with sharing the item’s history) makes players/characters more attatched to items, and as such the items have a much longer shelf life.

In addition to having various skill requirements, I often created item that required characters to invest some of their XP in the item to unlock certain powers. This slowed down the unlocking of the items more than I intended, but regardless, I am going to present some of the items I created as is.

Feel free to do with them as you please.

October 10, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, Dungeons and Dragons, Magic Items, RPGs | , , | 2 Comments

Rules Quirks – Intelligence vs Wisdom

in·tel·li·gence [in-tel-i-juhns] –noun
1.capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.

wis·dom [wiz-duhm]–noun
1.the quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight.
2.scholarly knowledge or learning:

In the older editions of D&D there was a degree of ambiguity in what constituted intelligence and wisdom. I had countless players ask me over the years specifically what each was, and I generally gave the same canned answer:

Wisdom is knowledge; Intelligence is problem solving ability.

This made sense to me because that is how those two words are used in common language. Further there was nothing of importance to contradict me because the uses for those two stats in early editions were limited.

However, with the advent of 3E the definitions of Intelligence and Wisdom were revised, clarified, and ingrained in the rules as never before. In 3E (and 4E) Wisdom is common sense while Intelligence is “book learning”.

I don’t like the newer distinction because its not very clear where the line between the two falls. Why do any illiterate creature have any “book learning”? Why does Healing fall under “common sense”? (other than that they want clerics to have that skill)

Now, having said that I don’t like the newer definition, I have never felt motivated enough about it to impose my definitions on the new editions – to do so would require a huge reorganization of the skills section. And I am not sure the end result would be balanced.

Just off the top of my head the skills for 3E might look like:

  • Appraise – INT
  • Craft – WIS
  • Decipher Script – INT
  • Disable Device -INT
  • Forgery – INT
  • Heal – WIS
  • Knowledge – WIS
  • Listen – INT
  • Profession – WIS
  • Search – INT
  • Spellcraft – WIS
  • Spot – INT
  • Survival – WIS

Actually, that’s much more balanced than I expected, though its still probably more work than its worth; sometimes game terms just don’t make sense and you just have to roll with it.

October 8, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs, Rules Quirks | , , | Leave a comment

Good Riddance to the OGL

There was a huge outcry when Wizards announced the changes to its D&D license that would be coming with 4th Edition. Gamers who loved the third party products wanted nothing more than for the status quo to continue. The Open Gaming License was a good thing for D&D fans and a good thing for many small publishers, but it was bad for Wizards and it was really bad for gaming.

Oh I can already hear guys like this screaming at their monitors. But before I explain why the OGL was bad for gaming, I am going to start with the low hanging fruit, and explain why it was bad for Wizards.

TSR went under in large part because they made an absolutely insane number of products for 2nd Edition. They made something like 13 campaign settings, countless splat books, and enough modules to drown in. Worse, the production qualities seen in most of these were fantastic, dwarfing anything they had done before.

Now you don’t buy out a bankrupt company without a plan, and clearly Wizards had a plan. Their plan was to sell a limited number of rule books and a few high quality modules. The OGL was brought in because Wizards recognized that D&D fans were used to having broader selection of products than they were willing to produce. They wanted to be cautious, and needed a few holes plugged.

I would venture to guess that Wizards misjudged the amount of content that would get made under the OGL by a factor of 100. What they were hoping for was a handful of small game companies to come along and collectively produce a few dozen modules, a couple campaign settings, and some niche rule books. What they got instead was a tsunami.

Almost every game company of every size started producing d20 material. Countless companies were founded for the sole purpose of creating d20 material. Instead of complimenting Wizards’ core game, the best of these companies were competing with it.

While fans of Pathfinder consider its success to be a blemish on 4E, you can be sure that is not how executives at Wizards see it; to them Pathfinder’s success shows the absolute insanity of making your game OGL. While every new edition of D&D has had players that didn’t want to upgrade, never before have the hold outs had the option of continuing to buy new releases for the old edition.

If you couldn’t believe the restrictions that Wizards was throwing at publishers for 4E, this is why. They only ever wanted a small amount of help, and this time out that’s what they are getting.

But what about for the industry? I did say this was bad for all of gaming. To understand what I mean you really have to look to the last time D&D was more popular than it was under 3.x – the 80s. In the 80s the success of D&D inspired a lot of small publishers to put out role playing games. Yeah, a lot of them sucked and a lot of them have been completely forgotten, but their presence was very important.

You see, when you have scores of little companies putting out hundreds of rpgs, new ideas are being generated. And the best of those ideas launched successful games and companies. By having many successful games and even more importantly, successful new games, gaming in general is made much richer.

How many people said upon first playing 3E, “This feels a lot like Role Master.”? If AD&D had been produced under an OGL then ICE would have been too busy making AD&D products to make their own games.

If you have ever wondered why 4E borrows from MMOs while 3E and 2E borrowed from other rpgs, look no further than the OGL; the OGL killed the game industry, so there was nothing there worth borrowing.

And finally, as a preemptive answer to potential critics trying to throw games at me that are not new (aka existed pre-2000), not successful enough, not plentiful enough or are just OGL releases, come up with a list from the past decade of new games that matches this list of games 1981 – 1991

  • Star Wars
  • Palladium
  • Paranoia
  • Shadow Run
  • Champions
  • Role Master
  • Call of Cthulu
  • Twilight 2000
  • Toon
  • Marvel Super Heroes
  • Amber
  • Vampire

September 30, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, 4E, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , , | Leave a comment

Email: We Are Not Twisted

One of my players forwarded this to me (I have no idea where it originated from) with the added comment “Aren’t you glad we are not THIS twisted?”

Ok, let me set this up. I have a half elf sorceror that decided to use Mage Hand during melee. His idea, ingenious, was to use the spell to squeeze the testicles of an opponent (goblin adept) to get him to break concentration.
He tried it later against a hobgoblin fighter and I allowed that it would work, but the hob would get a -4 penalty because it occurred after combat commenced (owing for adrenalin, etc).
My question is, should there be a save against this, or some defense, like armor, to protect against this move (which according to the spell is telekinetic). Should the appropriate ability (charisma for a sorceror) play into it at all?


Well, for starters, by the letter of the rules, this isn’t remotely possible.

Mage Hand


Level: Brd 0, Sor/Wiz 0
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Target: One nonmagical, unattended object weighing up to 5 lb.
Duration: Concentration
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No

You point your finger at an object and can lift it and move it at will from a distance. As a move action, you can propel the object as far as 15 feet in any direction, though the spell ends if the distance between you and the object ever exceeds the spell’s range.

The spell is clearly written; it can only impact non-living objects, and what it does is move them, not squeeze them. The fact that it has the word “hand” in the name does not allow it to do anything a hand can do.

However, I am really big on players looking for new ways to use things, especially spells. To me the magic system in D&D is way too rigid to properly emulate fantasy, and so I like to give players a lot of leeway.

That being said, this is also a balance issue. Mage hand is a 0 level spell. Spells at that level are generally only able to do one thing, and they don’t do that very well. Giving Mage Hand the ability to lift/throw objects, and break caster concentration, and give melee characters a -4 penalty is way too much for a 0 level spell.

So if one of my players suggested this, the answer would be “Nice, but no.”

September 26, 2010 Posted by | 3.x, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , | 2 Comments