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Friday, March 19, 2010

...At First Level

I have, in my mind, a very specific image of the First Level Character, forged in the ancient days of First Edition Dungeons and Dragons: a rather ordinary sort of guy, not much different from a farmer or tradesman... but one who has placed his feet upon the path of Hero, and has claimed for himself a Different Destiny from those of other men.

But in the meantime, he's first level, has at best fourteen hit points (assuming he's relatively badass for first level), and at worst, ONE hit point, a hokey armor class, and a power level that means he's actually in danger if attacked by a couple of kobolds or even a single insect of unusual size (one of the more common low-level D&D monsters was the Giant Centipede, a two-foot long mildly poisonous critter that could nevertheless lay you out dead if it won initiative).

Wizards, in particular, were so screwed. The system encouraged you to put your best scores in Intelligence (to maximize your potential) and Dexterity (to salvage the pathetic remains of your armor class), meaning that even a tough first level wizard was sitting at four hit points... the exact average of a d8 roll. One hit, and you're gone. And what do you get for the sacrifice of wearing no armor and wielding the weakest of weapons?

ONE first level spell. One. If you were lucky, it was Sleep, or perhaps Magic Missile. If the DM was feeling sadistic, or the dice were rolling badly, it could be Tenser's Floating Disc, or ghod help us, Nystul's Magic Aura, a spell that did absolutely nothing except make an object radiate magic when Detect Magic was cast upon it.

But if you didn't have a wizard, your party was crippled at higher levels. The bad guys had wizards, of course. And so, the party carried the poor schlub with the spells until he reached a level of competency, kind of (fourth level)... and finally, achieved rockstar level (seventh level, and the beginning of third level spells... including the dreaded Fireball).

Once you really knew what you were doing... first level was a drag. NOBODY wanted to start ALL over again. A decent DM would let you begin at third level, at least... let you start up where one good sword swat wouldn't crush you like a bug.

Which is what made me wonder why some lunatic came up with the idea for zero level characters.

Yet the rules are there. In Greyhawk Adventures, one of the last hardbacks published for the ancient first edition, an appendix allows for the creation of zero-level adventurers... people who have to work their way up to first level. Based on the text and pictures, we're literally playing children or teenagers who are still serving their apprenticeships, who have banded together to go and find something... um... really, really weak... and, um, evil... and kill it and take its stuff.

We never used these rules, of course. I never knew anyone who did. But I liked the idea. It made it clear that first level characters don't just spring out of nowhere. There are teenagers toiling away at the Fighter's Guild, hoping some grizzled warrior will teach them some tricks. There are kids at the Thieves' Guild, learning patience and lockpicking from the old masters. And there are children spending long hours in secret libraries by candlelight, trying to make sense out of this so called "magic missile" thing, here in the Master's big old book.
I liked that idea a lot. Magic wasn't meant to be easy; if it was, everyone would be doing it. Wizards should have to sweat and ponder for what they got; if they didn't, why didn't they spend more time outside exercising, maybe learning how to handle a halberd? Magic is rocket science for the fantasy world, man. It's only for the few, the proud, the mageriffic. And it should take time to master. As Larry Niven put it, "A wizard who could not handle one swordsman was a poor wizard indeed."
This brings me to another subject: the first level spell. First level spells should be simple, straightforward, and not very powerful, based on this model. After all, the wizard is tapping into elemental forces, here, and losing control can be catastrophic. A first level spell should be safe enough that even the dumbest wizard could pull it off without much trouble.

Which... upon consideration... led me to the alternate idea: what if not?
Yoda -- an old wizard if ever there was one -- described the Dark Side of the Force as being easier to manage than the Light Side... quicker, more seductive. Surely, some Jedi initiates are tempted by this?
There are schools of magic in literature (and therefore gaming) that are similar. One that springs to mind is magic based on the use of demons (or extradimensional megabeings). Basically, you do something to get a lock on them, and then you can command them to do whatever you want. Examples include the evil shamans from David Eddings' Belgariad series, Jack Vance's Dying Earth series, and Hardy's Master of the Five Magics.

This invariably has a price, though: demons don't much like being ordered around by mortals, and if you make ONE tiny screwup, the lock is gone... and you're at their mercy... and by definition, demons are not merciful.

In short: this school of magic can be quite easy, and a character can wield VAST power... but roll a fumble, and your character is toast.

Plainly, this would not be well suited for gaming. A first level character who can level buildings in two rounds, slaughter a whole barful of barbarians in seconds, but dies horribly the first time he rolls a "1?" Fun, perhaps, but certainly a brief career. Prolly make for some really dramatic dice rolling, though.

So what about a middle ground? It's been done in other settings. By this, I mean that there are two kinds of spells: one being the simple, effective, tried-and-true spells that any apprentice can master and cast... and the other kind of spell: the quick-and-dirty kind, the experimental spell that can get results... but if your control wavers, or you drop a syllable, or make the wrong gesture, or even if the astral plane is in flux or the planets are in the wrong alignment... well, it can go banana-shaped, MIGHTY quick. These are the spells the Masters eschew; plainly, if you want to be an old wizard, you ain't a bold wizard.

But apprentices might try them from time to time. They're quick. They're powerful. They're low level, and they work. Most of the time, anyway.

In the systems I've seen that use this kind of spell, failure is not instant death, but it can be pretty disastrous. In first edition, Teleport was this kind of spell.

If you wanted to avoid the hassle, you waited until the wizard got more levels, and then you used Teleport Without Error. Naturally, no gaming group in the history of the planet ever bothered with that. Hell, no! We had a QUEST to complete, dammit!

And, so, we took our chances. And the results are legendary. Just check Google for "teleport mishap" for some great stories. The Dungeon Master had WAY too much leeway in first edition; the illustration at left offers the 3.5 edition rules, in which you just took some damage and maybe landed off target. Back in the DAY, though... man, I heard stories that made The Fly sound like The Care Bears Movie...

Which brings me to yet another subject: the 3.5 edition first level spell, Benign Transposition. I about lost my mind when I first heard of this first level spell. A first level teleport spell? What the HELL? It violated about every idea I ever had about first level spells and first level wizards. Man, when I think about what I could have done, back in first edition, when I started a wizard at first level... man, I could just swap myself out for the big armored dude whenever some jerk with a sword came at me? Wow!

At the time, I overreacted. The very idea of a first level spell that could part the veils of reality and shift physical objects from one place to another? That's NUTS! Whatever happened to "First level spells are weak spells?" Whatever happened to "glass cannon?" What, we can turn reality sideways at first level, now? And with no chance of error? Man, the actual Teleport spell, at fourth level, can still malfunction, but this idiotic first level abomination CAN'T? Plainly, this was in wild opposition to my mental picture of what first level spells were and should be. Teleportation was a MAJOR thing, a POTENT thing, and the idea of making it a first level spell in ANY form struck me as pure munchkinism. Particularly since its opposite, Baleful Transposition, was SECOND level, for no apparent good reason except that you'd use it to teleport the ogre onto the tightrope or whatever... which frankly STILL made it pretty potent. Especially as written. What, you don't even need line of sight? I can just teleport the fighter into place, even if he's outside watching the horses? As long as he's in range, baby!

...until I began to ponder the concept of "wild magic." The idea that there's more than one magical way to skin a cat. The idea that there are experimental first level spells... that can work under the right circumstances... but can fail unexpectedly in some bizarre ways.

ANY Teleport spell is useful enough that ANY Teleport spell is going to get USED, regardless of how wonky it is; if there's a decent chance of getting something or someone from point A to point B instantly, someone's going to want it.

...and as written, there is considerable DM leeway. A horrifying amount, in fact. Howthehell is the wizard able to teleport a target he can't see? Plainly, line of sight is required to avoid some horrible mistakes. Furthermore, both targets have to be willing. What if one target wasn't expecting it? Does he get a save? Does the spell work at all? How do we define "willing?" What if I just switch out Frank (who is getting the shit beat out of him) with Ted (who is outside guarding the horses, completely unaware of what's going on in the house?) Does this work? What, with no chance of error?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had fumbled the ball. The more I read and reread the spell, the more I realized that this WAS a "wild magic" spell, a wonky little thing some idiot wizard had cooked up and thought was a good idea, and had passed on to the apprentices to see how many of them it would kill.

Its opposite, Baleful Transposition, does the same thing, but for an enemy, and the enemy gets a save. In order to abuse this spell, you actually need to use some imagination, and the caster needs to have some mobility; he's got to climb UP on that tightrope before teleporting the ogre up there. In short, Benign Transposition isn't really a bad spell at all, not broken in the least... provided some additions are made.

The first addition is this: Targets must be willing. This means they have to know what's coming. The caster and targets may have made an arrangement beforehand; as a free action, the caster may shout something like, "FRANK! TED! BEE-TEE IN THREE! The caster has arranged with his homies beforehand that "BEE TEE" means "Benign Transposition" and that he intends to switch Frank and Ted's positions this round. Frank and Ted then may make a Listen check as a free action, with the DC determined by the GM and circumstances; if it's quiet enough, an automatic success is obvious. If either target fails his Listen check, he is not willing because he didn't see it coming; go to the Mishap Rule. A target who could not possibly know what was coming but would have cooperated if he did (say, Father Anderson) COULD count as willing, but ISN'T. This means the caster could still cast the spell, but would automatically have to make a Mishap Check using the Mishap Rule. Note that a target who ISN'T or WOULD NEVER BE willing cannot be affected by this spell; use Baleful Transposition instead.

The second addition is this: the caster must have all targets and destinations in line of sight. If he does not, go to the Mishap Rule.

The MISHAP RULE: Roll a six sided die to obtain a number. Subtract the caster's level from that number. If the result is greater than zero, a mishap has occurred; go to the Teleport Mishap Table. This represents the fluctuating nature of the Warp one has created, and one's ability to control it, based on experience of the caster.
Note also that +1 is added to that die roll number for each of the following circumstances:
+1 for each "unwilling" or "surprised" target after the first (one surprised target is +0; if both targets are surprised, it's +1).
+1 for each target not in line of sight of the caster. The caster ALWAYS counts as being in his own line of sight, unless he is unsure where he is in relation to everyone and everything else (in total darkness or blinded, for example; if this is the case, roll a d20 instead of a d6. Blindly teleporting should NEVER be a good idea!).

With these in place, I think Benign Transposition could be a very interesting and usable first level spell.

Now, I just need to develop a suitable Teleport Mishap Table...

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