Tuesday, March 23, 2010

RPG Ability/Item: Swap-Doll

The Thief crept silently along the dusty corridor. The sounds of pursuit had died away; the mummies must have lost his trail. He got to an otherwise unremarkable part of the corridor that, thanks to his direction sense, he knew was just next to the huge chamber he had glimpsed earlier. He got down on his hands and knees and went carefully along the wall until he found what he was looking for: a crack in the wall just large enough for him to fit his arm through.

He rummaged about in his pack and produced a small, ragged doll. It was poorly patched together to the point that it seemed to consist entirely of patches and string. Its form was barely humanoid. The Thief shoved the thing deep into the wall until he felt it go through the other side.

A moment later he was on the other side of the wall, and the doll was where he had been. The Thief rubbed his hands together gleefully, looking over the treasures in the room. This was going to be a good day.

Image by Ron Spencer

Swap-doll is a doll that allows the owner to swap places with it at any time. I know that it is really an item, not an ability, but I think it's cool so I'm going to share it with you all anyway.

This ability allows you to instantly swap places with a small doll. The doll appears where you were, and you appear where the doll was. There is no limit to the amount of space between you when you swap, though there may be some other consequences.

The doll itself can be as nice or as ragged as necessary. So long as it is still mostly in one piece and vaguely human-shaped, it can be mangled, chewed, burned, and smashed and still be ready for swapping when you need it. The doll itself has low AC and not many hit points, but any character with the manual dexterity and intelligence required to operate a needle and thread should be able to get it back in working order, provided he or she finds most of the pieces and enough stuffing and patches.

To become the owner of a swap-doll, the owner must place a small piece of his or her body into the doll. This doesn't have to be anything ghastly, and can be hair, fingernail clippings, etc. It is possible to make someone an unwilling (and unknowing) owner of a swap-doll by swiping some of that person's hair and stuffing it into the swap-doll, but somehow getting that person to trigger the swap-doll's ability would be more difficult. Trying to include more than one person's hair/nails/etc in a swap-doll causes its ability to fail when those people try to swap with it*.

The owner of a swap doll can swap places at any time with the swap doll simply by thinking about it. The change is instantaneous, though it can be disorienting and the character who just swapped should take appropriate penalties. If the character could see exactly where the doll was before swapping, the penalty should be minor, but swapping to find oneself in a very unexpected location may impose a penalty of missing your next few turns as you try to figure out where you are (and maybe which way is up!). The owner can only swap places with the swap-doll every five minutes, or roughly once per encounter.

If the owner loses track of the doll, the doll does not give much indication about where it is. The owner should therefore be careful about attempting to swap places with the doll when he or she does not know its location. If the doll is currently in a space where there is not enough room for the owner, the results of trying to swap places with it may be... squishy. Worse yet, the doll may have been found by a hulking ogre, who is currently snuggled up with it in bed, sleeping pleasant ogre dreams that it would not like to be woken from!

It the swap-doll is ever destroyed, or if the owner's hair, fingernail clippings, etc are removed from the doll, the owner might not know about it until trying to swap places with it. Nothing will happen in this case, which may not seem like much of a problem, unless the unfortunate owner was counting on the swap-doll to escape from a difficult situation.

Swap-dolls can be purchased from your run-of-the-mill mysterious magic shop that was never there before and will not be there the next time you try to find it. They may also be found in the possession of tricky rogues or paranoid wizards, in which case the player characters can either swap out the previous owner's hair/nails/etc for one of theirs, or they may sneak off with the doll without the owner realizing it and then plan an ambush for the next time the owner tries to swap places with it.

*Tricky DMs may want to tweak this ability to allow for more than one owner. Perhaps one of the PCs thinks he or she is the only owner, but the swap-doll is actually being used by an NPC simultaneously. At first, neither one knows of the other, and they only know that sometimes the swap-doll wasn't where it should have been when they swap for it. This probably works best when both of the owners and the swap-doll itself are in completely different locations, and the player character never knows which of the two other possible locations he or she will appear...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

RPG Ability: Musical Attunement

The wind howled through the skeletal trees as the party picked their way through the moonlit forest. The Thief, Fighter, Wizard, and Cleric clutched their weapons and peered into the gloom. The tavern rumors they had heard had been vague, but it was clear that the forest was a bad place to be after dark.

The Fighter stopped in his tracks and the others took a few more steps before noticing. They turned and saw him standing with his head tilted, as if he were listening for something. The Thief stretched out his highly attuned senses, but he could not make anything out. He was about to ask the Fighter what he was listening to when the latter spun, his great blade flashing silver in the moonlight as he struck something behind him.

The rest of the party hurried over to him, gasping to see the decapitated body of a twisted, dog-like creature. The Thief looked at the Fighter with undisguised admiration and a touch of jealousy. "How did you...?"

The Fighter shrugged. "Just had a feeling," he said.

He did not mention that he had known that the creature was coming because the string section he had been listening to for the past few minutes had risen to a shrieking crescendo before suddenly going silent a few tense seconds before the monster had struck...

Image by hiddenmoves. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Musical Attunement is a sixth sense that manifests itself as music heard only by the player with the ability. The music the character hears corresponds to the situation he is in, and can let that character know when he is in danger, when he is talking to someone who is not to be trusted, or when the final confrontation with the main enemy is beginning...

If the campaign were a movie, the character with musical attunement would be able to hear the soundtrack. This can be helpful, but also somewhat distracting, and can lead to the character receiving some strange looks from people who wonder what he is grooving to. It can even be frustrating, as nobody wants to hear a goofy "wa wa waaaaa" when he flubs an important Diplomacy roll.

In game terms, the character is never caught flat-footed and he gets a bonus to skills relating to sensing motives and making arguments. The character may receive a bonus to the rousing speech he is giving when he hears the heroic music give a great crescendo. When searching for a hidden door, the music may give a playful trill when he comes to the false wall, increasing his Search check. Other benefits are not related to rolls but come in the form of additional context to certain situations. Most of the travelers entering the tavern may not change the lively, rustic music, until an otherwise ordinary-looking traveler comes through the doors and the music suddenly switches to something tense and mysterious.

Ideally, the DM would have a CD or playlist of songs on tap that he or she could use as the situation demanded. The CD player, mp3 player, or computer may even be hooked up to the player's headphones so that only the character with musical attunement benefits from it. More realistically, the DM should describe what the character is hearing at important moments, and allow the player to ask about the music at any time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

RPG Ability: Scuttle-Eye

The party crept along the cold stone passage and paused outside the warped oak door. They listened for a few moments and could hear the sound of something moving about behind the door.

"Okay, here's what we're going to do," whispered the Paladin, and the group automatically got in a huddle around him. "Everyone else, back up a bit, but be ready to move." He nodded at the Thief. "Take a look inside and see what's in there."

The Thief crept padded silently up to the door and crouched down. Eight black nubs poked themselves out around the perimeter of her right eye. The nubs poked further outward until they became thin, hairy legs, which braced themselves against her face. Then her eye lifted itself off her face and scuttled down her neck, leaving a blank flesh-colored spot where it had been. It disappeared in her collar and reappeared at her jacket's cuff. She moved her hand down to the floor by the crack under the door and the eye scampered off her hand and crawled under the door.

"There's a group of hobgoblins lounging about," the Thief said, closing her left eye. "They've got their weapons piled up against the right-hand wall." She smiled. "They don't know we're coming!"

Scuttle-eye allows one of the character's eyes to literally walk off her face on eight spindly spider legs. When it does so, it leaves either a smooth spot on the character's face or a gaping eye socket, according to DM preference. The character controls where the eye walks and can see through the eye as though it were still attached to her face. The eye moves like a spider, able to crawl up walls and even move across ceilings.

It's small (naturally), so it takes a difficult Perception check to spot it. It makes a very soft skittering sound as it moves, so creatures with extra-sharp hearing may be able to detect it.

The eye functions normally out to about a hundred feet from its owner. When it starts to move beyond that, though, the image starts to fade, and the eye starts to take on more and more of a life of its own. Left to its own devices, the eye is cowardly but inquisitive, preferring to hide in shadows and under furniture and peep up at things. When the eye is 1,000 feet from its owner, the owner loses control entirely and can only watch what the eye is showing, though the image is hazy and dreamlike. At a mile (5,280 feet), the user loses contact with the eye entirely.

If contact is lost, moving back within range of the eye will not re-establish the contact. Instead, the eye must be found and somehow coaxed to once again resume its place on the owner's face. Gentle voices and no sudden movements are critical. Note that the eye is also prone to being lonely, and can feel rejected if the owner breaks the contact (whether it was voluntary or not). Making the eye feel wanted again will make it more likely to resume its role. Offering it a gentlemanly monocle is almost guaranteed to win back the eye's favor.

The eye is about as intelligent as a mouse, but it may never communicate and any attempts to read its thoughts will result in a confusing impression of shifting color and space, like looking into a kaleidoscope while dizzy.

The eye only has 1 hp, and though it has a high AC for its high Dex and small size, if it is hit, it is immediately destroyed. If the player receives a healing spell that would allow the re-growth of damaged body parts, or if the player has a natural regenerative ability, the eye may be re-grown and it once again has the ability to scuttle forth.

Mischievous DMs may want to experiment with the eye starting to gain more of a personality over time. Maybe it gets tired of always being sent into dangerous situations, so its owner has to coax it, threaten it, or fool it into spying on monsters. Another possibility would be that the eye starts to enjoy the adrenaline rush, and the owner has to constantly keep it from rushing off into danger!

Depending on how gruesome the DM wants to be, the eye could either be granted through a spell or potion (Vecna and Gruumsh make good candidates for patrons), or it may require the catching of the rare and elusive eye-spider, then scooping out the recipient's original eye and replacing it with the eye-spider in a ritual. Yeesh!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

RPG Ability: Wuxia Hero

The ogre chief stood over the beaten and bloody Wizard. "Is that all?" he laughed. "I expected more from one so promising." He hefted the idol. "After I stole this from your village and killed your teacher, I was afraid I had gone too far." He turned to his ogre goons. "Bring out the cages! We feast in triumph tonight!"

The Wizard rolled onto his hands and knees, then slowly, painfully lifted himself to his feet. "You killed my teacher," he said, and the ogres' laughter died when they heard the edge in his voice. "I will not let you defeat me! Instead it is I who will defeat you with my righteous fireball of burning power!"

Their eyes met and time seemed to freeze between them. Then the Wizard tore off his shirt and flexed, giving a high-pitched yell of challenge. A nearby goon stared, slack-jawed, and dropped the cage of doves he had been carrying. The cage door burst open as the Wizard held his arms to his side, his muscles standing out like steel cables as a fireball formed between his hands....

Wuxia hero gives a player character the abilities of a protagonist in a kung fu movie or Hong Kong action flick. Perhaps an honorable, martial god has taken the character as a champion. Perhaps the character is the host to the spirit of a master monk. Maybe he's simple learned to channel the power of pure awesome. Whatever the case may be, he finds himself able to turn cinematic courage, grit, and skill into combat bonuses.

  • Tearing off the character's shirt, flexing, and yelling immediately grants a healing surge.

  • Every time the character receives a badass wound (becomes bloodied), all opponents with line of sight to him must immediately save versus fear or take a penalty to their next attack.

  • Enemies are inclined to come at the hero one at a time. Each consecutive opponent to attack the character in a single turn earns a cumulative penalty.

  • If the character makes a badass declaration before attacking, he receives a bonus to his attack.

  • The character never takes penalties for improvised weaponry.

  • A character with Wuxia Hero who has a weapon feat also has that weapon feat with that weapon's "-chuck" version. So a character with Weapon Proficiency: Greatsword also has Weapon Proficiency: Greatsword-chucks, or someone with Weapon Focus: Battle-axe also has Weapon Focus: Battle-axe-chucks.

  • The character never takes penalties for leaping or falling when shooting, and may actually receive a bonus. Extra bonus points for leaping while shooting more than one weapon at a time.

  • Finally, every time the character scores a critical hit, something awesome happens. Doves fly by in the background, something explodes, glass shatters, etc. All nearby opponents must make a save or be stunned for a round.

While some people might try to make this into a prestige class (or paragon path etc), I really love the idea of giving these powers to a character that would not otherwise be eligible for this sort of thing. If a DM and the player can discuss the power outside of their gaming session without the other players knowing, imagine the looks on their faces when the halfling rogue suddenly steps forward to confront the lich king in his necro-volcano lair, declaring that the necromancer will pay for his evil, before leaping through the air and firing two hand-crossbows as gouts of green fire rise up around him.

(I'll try to make the next ability a bit more serious. No promises, though.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

RPG Ability: Wuffle

"I don't trust the duke," the Fighter growled. "He's clearly in league with the vampires."

The Wizard pushed his spectacles up his nose. "I find it hard to believe that a man with as distinguished a lineage as our benefactor the Duke would be in league with common cadavers."

"There's only one way to know for sure," pointed out the Thief. They all looked expectantly at the Cleric. The Cleric sagged. "I'll just go sniff his butt, then, shall I?"

Image from Mark Watson's Flickr page.

Wuffle is the ability to get information from scents the same way dogs do. Adventurers with this ability who come across a spot "marked" by a monster can tell the monster's age, gender, and health. Further inspection may reveal how long ago the monster passed or even what mood it was in at the time. The adventurer can't just sniff the spot from a distance, though. They have to get right in there and get a good noseful.

Even better, when confronting a monster or NPC, the character can smell that creature's bottom to learn even more about it. This could reveal special abilities or weaknesses to the player. Depending on how cheeky the GM wants the campaign to be, the character could also become uncomfortably aware of whether NPCs in the area are 'in heat.'

This ability fits in well with wilderness types like druids and rangers, but I like the idea of an impish satyr or puca giving it to the most straight-laced, dramatic character in the party. If a player insists on playing a brooding exiled prince or a misunderstood dark wizard, give that character an ability that only becomes really useful when smelling an NPC's bottom.

The ability should be tied to a Perception-type skill, and can give bonuses to skills like Diplomacy and Persuade. A high enough roll can reveal information about a monster in a similar way to the Lore skill.

Friday, March 5, 2010

RPG Ability: Disposition of Skulls

As you follow the skeleton through the cemetery, he gambols over the headstones and says conversationally, "I don't see how you living can have conversations without seeing each others' skulls. How can you tell what someone's thinking with all that flesh in the way?" You tell the skeleton that, for the living, facial expressions depend on the flesh of the face. He shakes his head and replies, "No no no, that's all wrong! The flesh can deceive you, but the expression on someone's skull is always true. Here, I'll show you..."

Disposition of Skulls allows characters to see through a person's face and glimpse the expression on that person's skull. When viewed with this ability, skulls are not always grinning, and are in fact better indicators of what a person is truly feeling than the face is.

This ability will always show a single expression to represent the target's overall mood and attitude. In order for a character to use this ability, the character must be able to see through the target's face to its skull. Therefore, it only works on creatures that have skulls, but not on creatures that only have skulls and not faces. Thus, it would not work on a thri-kreen (which has an exoskeleton, not a skull) or a lich whose face is only a skull.

Players have to announce that their character is going to attempt to read the Disposition of an NPC's skull. The DM then reveals the look on the NPC's skull and grants the PC a relevant bonus on the next Bluff, Diplomacy, or Intimidate check.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Thinking Way Too Hard About: Interesting RPG Abilities

Everyone who plays fantasy RPGs, whether on the computer, console, or as pen-and-paper games, knows the standard RPG abilities: fighter stabs, crushes, and takes damage; wizard blows things up; thief sneaks, backstabs, and disarms traps; and cleric heals, buffs, and drives off unholy things.

Playing the PC game Planescape: Torment made me realize that there's more to RPG abilities than that. In Planescape, the player character always rises from the dead, regardless of what killed him, so long as he can be more or less put back together in the same shape (one of the items you get in the game is your own intestines). The player character can pick up other abilities, too. One of them is to resurrect your party members. My favorite is the ability to have conversations with bodies you come across.

The party members all have interesting abilities, too. Morte is a foul-mouthed flying skull who can use profanity to incite enemies to concentrate their attacks on him. Whenever you get an NPC to swear at you in interesting new ways, Morte adds the new profanities to his repertoire and improves his ability. Dak'kon has a sword that is tied to his mental state. When Dak'kon is focused, his sword is razor-sharp, but when he's distracted or emotional, his sword becomes blunt. Fall-from-Grace is a succubus who, in addition to her clerical spells, can kiss enemies to drain health from enemies and give them to Grace.

When I first got into Dungeons and Dragons, I didn't care a bit about game balance. I wanted characters who could shoot fire from their hands and stab dragons with big, pointy swords. In some ways, the original D&D rules supported this approach: there was a character class (Paladin) with requirements so high that the chances of a player rolling well enough to even get to play as one were laughably small, whose abilities were correspondingly overpowered. Even in later editions, fighters were much more powerful than other classes at low levels, and wizards became unstoppable at high levels.

Now, thanks in part to video games and their focus on balanced classes, character classes are painstakingly mapped out in the rulebooks. Players can--and do--plot out exactly how they want their characters to advance, choosing which powers they will have at later levels right from the start. In some ways, the rules require it. If I want to have a character with a certain ability at Level 8, I don't want to get there only to find that I can't take the ability because it requires another ability I was supposed to take at Level 4, or worse, I don't have enough points in a certain stat.

In some ways, I understand where the need for this comes from. RPG designers want every player to feel like he or she is contributing to the party, so the characters each have their roles to fill, with abilities that allow them to do so. These roles are designed to complement each other and be equally useful, so a party cannot get far without at least one person who can take damage, disarm traps, deal damage, and heal damage.

Though I understand what makes game designers balance their games and limit the characters' roles like this, I think it's an unfortunate trend. Having characters with unique, unusual abilities is one of the best things about roleplaying games. The abilities are often best when they're not solely tied to combat bonuses, or when they say something about the character.

One of the things a pen-and-paper game can do that a video game can't is have things that are entirely unique. Game Masters can come up with monsters, locations, items, and characters that appear only in their campaign. They can also come up with unique abilities that are suited to the characters their players have designed.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind. If you give one player's character a unique ability, the other players are going to want one for their characters, too. The abilities should then be as balanced as possible. Finally, the abilities shouldn't give the characters so much power that it breaks the game and makes every challenge a cakewalk. I think these three considerations are enough to deter most Game Masters from trying to come up with their own abilities, and that's a terrible shame.

I've been working on some ideas for abilities like this. If that sounds interesting to you, let me know and I might post a couple on this blog. Also, if you've ever been in a campaign where the GM gave the players unusual abilities, I'd love to hear what they were and how well they ended up working in the story!