Saturday, February 28, 2015

Featured Creature: Elephant

NOTE: These stats have been edited to conform to the rules revisions posted on 9/8/15.
Said to have the longest memories of any land animal, elephants are the archetypal repositories  of ancient wisdom; some of their Seers can tap a well of racial memories that stretches back to a time before longpaws walked on two feet.  Though feared and respected for their great strength, elephants have a gentle disposition and a great capacity for empathy.  Many of them, however, look with scorn upon the longpaws, who often hunt them for the ivory in their tusks.  And despite the gentle natures, an enraged or rogue elephant is one of the most powerful and nearly-unstoppable forces in the animal kingdom.

     AC: 5
     AT (Dam.): Stomp x2 (1d7+1 [1d8])
     Beginning HP: 10
     Habitat: Temperate or Tropical (jungle, plains, woodlands)
     MV: 8
     SZ: Medium 

Species Traits:
  • Growth Spurt: Elephants become Large at 5th Total Level, and Huge at 10th.
  • Natural Insight: Elephants get a +1 bonus on all Seer lore checks
  • Prehensile Trunk: Elephants' long noses can be used almost like a hand.  They can grasp objects, manipulate tools, and even swing weapons.  Elephants can use their trunks to perform Scout lore and Trickster lore checks related to these activities, but suffer a -4 penalty to any attempt to wield weapons with their trunks.
  • Special Maneuvers: Charge, Gore, Trample
  • Elephants automatically fail lore checks that involve jumping.
  • +4 bonus on Warrior lore checks to push, pull, drag, break, or otherwise use their raw muscle power on heavy objects.
  • Suitable Niches: Healer, Runner, Scout, Seer, Storyteller, Warrior

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Word continues to spread...

Great & Small is now listed on Taxidermic Owlbear's database of D&D retroclones.  Lots of good material there, and it's an honor to be included.

Sneak peek: New Herbalism rules

The initial Quick Start rules for Herbalism were a more or less straight conversion from the original Bunnies & Burrows game, including keeping the names of the herbs intact.  This created potential copyright infringement issues, and it was an amateur mistake on my part to put them out there.  But in my defense, I am an amateur...

That said, I removed the document from circulation as soon as someone pointed this problem out to me.  And since then, I've been working on some newer rules that keep the spirit of the concept intact while making their execution more OGL-compliant.

Here's a sneak peek at what I've been working on.  I hope to have a full version of these rules back in Quick Start circulation in about a month.  Keep in mind that these are all preliminary, and subject to substantial change before the final Quick Start version gets released.
Herbalism is divided into five broad schools: astringents, boosters, enchantments, poisons, and psychoactives.

Astringents are herbs that treat wounds and otherwise aid in alleviating pain and suffering.  They will mostly mimic minor clerical healing effects, but never be as good as the Healer's abilities.

Boosters provide recipients with bonuses to lore checks, or grant them temporary abilities that mimic Species Traits from other animal types.

Enchantments are "love weeds," that make targets more susceptible to suggestion, or alter their default Attitude rating in some way, or otherwise affect their state of mind (as opposed to their perceptions).  They will generally mimic the effects of spells like sleep, charm person, etc., but with fixed durations, limited targets, and so on.

Poisons are self-explanatory; they are herbal concoctions that inflict damage, or even death, on recipients.
If only there was a way to weaponize this technology...

Pscyhoactives mess with the recipients' perceptions of reality.  They will mimic the effects of illusion magic, but only be perceptible to the subjects receiving them.

Herbal concoctions have a Difficulty Rating, like most other tasks in the game.  Concoctions are rated from Average to Formidable, based on the Threat Level of saving throws against them. Any character with levels in Herbalist lore can learn and concoct Average herbs (though not necessarily automatically knowing any), but only niche Herbalists can make more difficult ones.

Niche Herbalists begin the game with access to two "schools" of Herbalism, and know the recipes for all of the Average herbs in those schools.  Alternately, they can choose to specialize in one of the schools, which grants them access the Tough-rated recipes from that school, as well, at the cost of starting without knowledge from any other school.

In addition to recipes known, niche Herbalists begin play with 2d5 prepared doses of Average difficulty concoctions of their choice, gifted to them by their mentor, whether they know the recipes for those concoctions or not.

As they gain levels, niche Herbalists improve their skill at their chosen schools.  At 3rd level, niche Herbalists can learn and concoct Tough recipes from their chosen schools; at 6th level, they can learn and concoct Challenging recipes; and at 9th level, they can learn and concoct Formidable recipes.

Specialists improve faster than generalists in their specialized school, gaining access to Challenging recipes at 5th level, and Formidable recipes at 8th level.  However, their progression in and access to other schools is limited, as noted below.

Niche Herbalists gain access to new schools as they go up in level.  At 3rd, 6th, and 9th levels, they gain access to one new school each, at Average level.  Each time they gain access to a new school, their knowledge in the previous schools goes up one rating.

For instance, if a niche Herbalist begins play with access to Poisons and Psychoactives, she knows the Average recipes for those schools at 0-level.  When she reaches 3rd Herbalist level, her knowledge of these schools improves to Tough, and she gains access to one new school... say, Astringents ... at Average rating.  Then, at 6th Herbalist level, her knowledge of Poisons and Pscyhoactives improves to Challenging, her knowledge of Astringents improves to Tough, and she gains access to a fourth school... in this case, Boosters ... at an Average rating of knowledge.  This pattern repeats in a similar way at 9th Herbalist level, by which time she should have access to all five schools of Herbalism.

Specialists gain access to new schools at the same rate, but can only access four total schools before 10th level.

Most of the rest of the rules I wrote -- about delivery types (Contact, Ingested, or Inhaled), dosage-to-Size ratio, etc -- will be largely the same, but all of the herbs listed will be new, either invented by me or derived from some OGL source.

The concept of poisonweed, originally adapted from B&B, is gone.

Here are some sample herbs.

Brown Mold Spore (Formidable Poison)
Delvery Method: Inhalation
One dose of this herb contains enough brown mold spore to affect all targets within a 5 ft. radius once it is burst open, including the Herbalist herself if she  has not thrown the dose beyond that range. All creatures within the area of effect must succeed at a save vs. blast effects or suffer 2d7 hp of cold damage as their body heat is drained away.  The following round, a save vs. death effects must be made, or the affected creatures continue losing 1d7 hp per round until they "freeze" to death.  A successful second save ends the effect.

Dazzleberry (Challenging Psychoactive)
Delivery Method: Ingestion
Mimics the 4th level magic-user spell confusion, but only affects one Medium Size target per dose.  The effects last for 2 hours (120 turns).

Hawkeye (Average Booster)
Delivery Method: Ingestion
This herb grants the imbiber the Ultravision species trait for one hour.

Snoozeweed (Average Enchantment)
Delivery Method: Ingestion
This herb mimics the 1st-level magic-user spell sleep, except that it only affects one Medium Size target per dose.  The target sleeps for one hour (60 turns).

Yellow Mold Spore (Challenging Poison)
Delivery Method: Inhalation
A single dose of yellow mold spore contains enough of the herb to affect all targets within a 10 ft. radius, once it is burst open (this includes the Herbalist herself, if she has not thrown the dose beyond that  range).  Anyone caught within the yellow mold spore cloud must make a save vs. death effects, or choke to death within 2d3 rounds.

Monday, February 23, 2015

More Ultravision!

Turns out, birds and fish aren't alone.  Cats, dogs, and several other mammals can also see UV light:
Douglas, a professor of biology at City University London specializing in the visual system, and co-author Glen Jeffery, a professor of neuroscience at University College London, determined that cats, dogs, rodents, hedgehogs, bats, ferrets and okapis all detect substantial levels of UV.
So, I've added the Ultravision Species Trait to the Featured Creature entries for small cats, dogs, and squirrels.

When I get around to them, it'll also belong to the rest of the rodents, to reindeer, bats, etc., as well as most of the birds and fish.

If you're one of the handful of people who've downloaded the Quick Start Rules, make sure you include this awesome old-school ability for your cat, dog, and squirrel characters.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

On Beyond Purple: Taking Back Ultravision

Infravision and ultravision were two of the coolest concepts in old-school D&D. Never mind that their descriptions were scientifically embarrassing.  The prospect of playing a character with special sight powers was always appealing.

During the switch-over from 2nd edition to 3rd and later editions of the game, infra- and ultra-vision got subsumed into the character/monster traits of Low-Light Vision and Darkvision, since those were their actual functions in old-school game terms.
SQUAWK! I see you in a whole different light.

Their disappearance provoked a lot of nostalgia in me, and I could never quite let them go.  I always thought they could give excellent perks to PCs that were separate from just being able to see in the dark.

In the old rules, for instance, infravision could be optionally defined as the ability to detect creatures and objects by their natural heat emissions.  This could grant bonuses on checks to detect invisible creatures, provided they had a warm-blooded metabolism.

But the original game didn't have many good ideas what to do with ultravision, the ability to perceive colors in the ultraviolet spectrum.  The descriptions of the ability provided in older editions were, as noted, scientifically embarrassing.  But they needn't have been.

Unlike infravision, something like ultravision actually exists in nature; more than half of all bird species can see ultraviolet light.  And when you do a little perfunctory reading on its possible evolutionary advantages, some game effects are immediately suggested.

The prevailing hypotheses are that bird UV vision evolved because it provided advantages to foraging and hunting (some fruits are more visible in the UV spectrum, as are many prey animals' excretions), signalling and camouflage (making them more visible to each other, but less visible to predators who can only see into the violet range), and sexual selection (flashier birds get more mates).

Thus, an old-school fantasy RPG about animal characters can revive Ultravision, and make it better!  Here's  my preliminary write-up for the Ultravision Species Trait, which will ultimately be found in the descriptions for several bird and fish species:
  • Ultravision: In addition to normal vision, you can perceive colors in the ultraviolet spectrum.  This grants you a +2 bonus on all Herbalist and Scout lore checks to gather nutritious fruits and berries (Herbalist lore), to spot hidden predators, or to track other animals by their excrement trails (Scout lore).  When tracking, this species trait stacks with any bonus you receive from the Scent ability.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Sandbox Hex-Crawl.... With Rabbits

Or, Using A Classic Animal Fantasy Novel As A Guide For Animal Fantasy Gaming

This is where it all began, not just for me, but for millions of other people all over the world.  Out of all the works of animal fantasy, Watership  Down is arguably the single novel of the genre with the biggest crossover appeal and success.  The book has enchanted readers for over 40 years, and spawned two animated film adaptations (one for theaters and  one for television).

It wasn't the first, of course.  As I've noted, the narrative convention of using non-human animals as protagonists or major supporting characters is as old as storytelling itself.  But Watership Down had a singular impact on English-language literature, a monster best-seller across decades that became a foundational work for the hidden genre* of animal fantasy.  It is likely that without its success, the world would never have had the proliferation of animal-driven novels and films for children or adults that it has since witnessed.  Without Watership Down, there likely would never have been a Redwall, a Lion King, or a Guardians Of Ga'Hoole.

*I call animal fantasy a "hidden genre" because its body of work is found nested within several other recognized genres, like children's literature, young adult, dramatic fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, and even horror, yet has distinct characteristics of its own that transcend these categories.  Whatever their other narrative techniques, most of these works try not so much to anthropomorphize animal characters as to "animalize" the human reader's perceptions and empathy, making them identify with animal characters on their own, rather than on human, terms. Richard Adams does a masterful  job at establishing this convention of animal fantasy in Watership Down, basing his characters' mannerisms and social interactions on the behavior of actual rabbits, yet convincing us human readers that we are one of them.

Others have reviewed Watership Down far more ably than me (here, here,  and here are three particularly decent ones, for instance). What I want to do is show how this classic animal fantasy novel can be used to model a campaign for animal player characters.

Watership Down is essentially a sandbox hex-crawl through a stretch of the English countryside.  Our Beast Master, Richard Adams, drew up a rough player's map, peopled it with interesting set and wandering encounters, then spurred his party of rabbit PCs to adventure by giving their Seer a disturbing vision that compels them to seek out a new home.  It's virtually a textbook example of how to craft a sandbox setting and make it come alive, even though he had rabbits rather than humans in mind.

And it's the rabbit point of view that really counts here.  Adams describes every location through the filter of a rabbit's senses of smell and hearing, often more vividly than he does using their sense of sight.  This is important, because it highlights the fact that most mammals rely heavily on their sense of smell, with sight taking something of a back seat.  In fact, primates -- including (demi-)humans -- are distinguished from other mammals by our diminished sense of smell, in favor of improved sight.

Adams accounts for this fact in very subtle ways, but it adds up to a distinctly "rabbitish" POV for the novel.  And so it should be in a game of Great & Small, too.  It is easy to fall back on human perceptions and describe every encounter to the players mainly by how it looks. But this would be anthropomorphizing their animal characters a tad too much.  Sight is important for non-human animals, of course, but it's often secondary to their other senses.  BMs wishing to foster a properly animal-centric feel to a G&S session should therefore try to "animalize" their players' conceptions by appealing first to senses other than sight.

Remember that most mammals have red-green color blindness.  Birds and many fish can see into the ultraviolet range (remember "ultravision" from the 2nd Ed. DM's Guide?).  Bats navigate by sonar (that is, hearing).  Snakes "smell" and track by sense of taste.

Taking account of these senses in the descriptions you provide to players before telling them what they see -- as Adams often does with his presentation to the reader of a rabbit's world -- will go a long way to making their characters more than just crawling humanoids with the serial numbers filed off.

Another trick Adams pulls off subtly is showing how differently animals think from humans, while still keeping them relatable.  He never gives the exact dimensions of any object or space that Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and the others encounter.  He refers to any number larger than four as "lots" or "Thousands" (the name of the character Fiver  is translated from a rabbit word meaning "Little Thousand," or "one more than four"; he was the fifth kitten born in his litter).  Animals, or at least rabbits in Adams' story, aren't as  precisely mathematical as humans can be.

This can be taken as a license to be vague or imprecise in mapping areas, depending on the species.  Places or things will be "really big," "vast," "smaller than a cat but bigger than a squirrel," etc.  Of course, it's probably still a good idea for the BM to keep as precise a picture of encounters as she wants, but there's no reason she has to share every single detail with the players' characters the way she might if they were (demi-)human. 

Finally, Adams shows rabbits struggling to do things that humans take for granted, like manipulate objects or deduce the function of simple mechanisms.  BMs confronting their players with otherwise "mundane" tasks like turning a door knob, rolling over a rock, or flipping a switch, should call for lore checks.  The Scout niche is designed to excel at these sorts of things, of course, but any animal should be given an opportunity to try.

On the other hand, animals should excel at things that (demi-)humans find difficult, such as three-dimensional navigation (for birds and fish and possibly arboreal species), acrobatics, or plant and animal lore for the local ecology.  Animals have disadvantages compared to (demi-)humans in the OSR rules, but don't forget that even the simplest animal can do things from the start that (demi-)humans have to call on magic or technology to accomplish (how many other OSR games allow you to fly at 1st level?).

All that said, Watership Down also helps answer the most common question I've gotten when pitching this game to others: what do animal characters do?

Turns out, they do mostly what two-legged, sword-swinging characters do: go on quests, fight for honor and status, fall in love.  There's no reason that a "standard" adventure or campaign idea can't be run with animal player characters.  You just have to focus on the different ways they're likely to perceive your encounters.

There is one major difference, though, and that's stuff.  Animals, in general, aren't interested in treasure or possessions for their own sake, the way (demi-)humans are.  This removes a major adventuring motivation from the heart of the OSR experience, but I'll deal with how to manage that change in a future post.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Featured Creature: Tortoise (Gopher)

NOTE: These stats have been edited to conform to the rules revisions posted on 9/8/15.
Tortoises and turtles are among the slowest animals on land, but also among the toughest. Blessed with the best natural armor, their approach to danger is normally to wait it out by withdrawing into their powerful shells. Known for long lifespans and gentle wisdom, aged gopher tortoises in particular are often sought out for advice by other Tiny and Small animals in their habitat, and even enjoy the respect of larger animals and predators. In classic fantasy worlds, they sometimes take up the practice of magic. 

     AC: 3

     AT (Dam.): bite (1d3)
     Beginning HP: 4
     Habitat: Temperate (plains, savannah, woodland) 
     MV: 1
     SZ: Tiny 

Species Traits: 
  • Improving Armor: A gopher tortoise’s shell becomes thicker and sturdier as she ages. Her natural AC improves by 1 point each at 2, 5, and 8 Total Levels. Thus, at 2nd level, she has AC 2; at 5th level, she has AC 1; and at 8th level, she has AC 0 
  • Low Light Vision
  • Protective Shell: When a 0-level gopher tortoise retreats into her shell, her AC becomes –1 . At 2nd Total Level, her pulled-in AC is –2; at 5th level, her pulled-in AC is –3; and at 8th level, her pulled-in AC is –4. 
  • Niche Restriction: Gopher tortoises lack the speed to be effective Runners. 
  • Tunnel Sense: Gopher tortoises do not have a substantial burrowing speed, but are still familiar with underground environments. They get a +1 bonus on all lore checks to notice unusual earthenworks, such as traps, recent burrowing, unsafe tunnels, and so forth. 
  • +2 bonus on all Herbalist lore checks to identify edible plants and fresh water 
  • –5 on all Runner lore checks; this becomes –3 at 5 Total Levels 
  • –3 on all Trickster lore checks; this becomes –1 at 5 Total Levels 
  • Suitable Niches: Healer, Herbalist, Scout, Seer, Storyteller, Warrior

Featured Creature: Squirrel

NOTE: These stats have been edited to conform to the rules revisions posted on 9/8/15.
Squirrels are frivolous, alert, and seemingly perpetually happy. They delight in all manner of dances, jokes, and riddles, and are among the craftiest of animals when it comes to living among longpaws. In classic fantasy worlds, squirrels may revel in the company of fairies like brownies or pixies, joyfully taking part in their schemes and tricks. 

     AC: 6
     AT (Dam.): bite (1d3)
     Beginning HP: 2 [3]
     Habitat: Temperate (forest, plains, urban, woodland) 
     MV: 4; climbing
     SZ: Diminutive  

Species Traits :
  • Brachiation
  • Low Light Vision
  • Glide (Flying Squirrels only):  Flying squirrels can use their “wings” to glide a distance of 2 feet vertically for every 1 foot horizontally. 
  • Scent
  • Scamper: Squirrels can move at their full run speed while climbing, provided they are moving in a straight line.
  • Primitive Hands
  • -3 penalty on all Warrior lore checks involving feats of strength.
  • +2 bonus on Trickster lore checks to hide and move silently
  • +4 bonus on lore checks involving climbing or balancing; squirrels use their Trickster lore instead of their Warrior lore for climb checks.
  • Suitable Niches: Healer, Herbalist, Runner, Seer, Storyteller, Trickster 

Featured Creature: Snake (Constrictor)

NOTE: These stats have been edited to conform to the rules revisions posted on 9/8/15.
Constrictor snakes are often deliberative and slow to act, and thus considered wise by many animals, even those who fear them as mighty hunters.  They are consummate planners who rarely act rashly, and pride themselves on being great strategists.  Of course, as predators, they are generally feared by many other animals, and with good reason.  A constrictor’s wrath is swift and terrible when it finally befalls her target.

     AC: 6
     AT (Dam.): bite (1d3) 
     Beginning HP: 7 [8]
     Habitat: Temperate to Tropical (any) 
     MV: 4; crawling, climbing, swimming  
     SZ: Small  

Species Traits:
  • Constriction Attack: (1d2 + Warrior niche die result, if any).  The damage caused by this attack bumps up if the snake increases in SZ.  At SZ Medium, this attack does 1d3 (+ Warrior niche die result, if any) damage; at Large Size, it does 1d5 [1d6] (+ Warrior niche die result, if any).
  • Diminished Profile: Snakes can fit through openings and tunnels that are two SZ categories smaller than their actual SZ.
  • Great Strength:  At 1st Total Level, snakes gain a +1 bonus on Warrior lore checks involving feats of strength.  This increases to +2 at 3rd Total Levels, and up to +3 at 6th Total Levels.
  • Growth Spurts: Constrictors have the option of increasing their SZ by one category at 3 Total Levels, and then once more at 6 Total Levels. 
  • Low Light Vision
  • Natural Armor: Improve AC by 1 point at 1st, 3rd, and 5th Total Levels.
  • Niche Restriction:  Because they lack limbs, snakes cannot choose Herbalist as their niche.
  • Special Maneuvers:  Wrestle
  • Stealthy:  +1 bonus on Trickster lore checks to hide in shadows and move silently.
  • Suitable Niches: Healer, Runner, Scout, Seer, Trickster, Warrior