November 2007

"Once there was a golden age, but since the great Fantasy Heartbreak, they call their land Generica." - Melle, RPGNet (on Ed Greenwood's Castlemourn)

November 5th, 2007


Turn Check

A turning attempt is a burst effect with a radius of 60 feet. The cleric sets the DC of a turning by making a turn check:

d20 + cleric turning level + Charisma modifier

Saving Throw

Undead in the range of a turning must make a Will save against the DC set by the cleric’s turn check. An undead can Take 10 on this saving throw. Turn resistance is added as a bonus to this roll.

Effects of Turning

Even if an undead succeeds at their saving throw, they are still shaken as long as they remain within 60 feet of the cleric (-2 penalty on attack rolls, saving throws, skill checks, and ability checks) for the duration of the turning attempt.

Any undead affected by a turning attempt cannot approach within 60 feet of the cleric, nor can they take any action (direct or indirect) against the cleric or anyone within 60 feet of the cleric. Any undead affected within 60 feet of the cleric must immediately back away to a minimum of 60 feet. If the cleric approaches affected undead, the undead must back away as soon as possible.

If an undead fails their saving throw by 10 or more, they are frightened and must flee for 1 minute (as per the normal turning rules).

If an undead fails their saving throw by 20 or more, they are controlled or destroyed (as per the normal turning rules).


As long as the cleric concentrates, a turning attempt lasts for 1 minute (10 rounds) per turning level of the cleric. Any new undead coming within 60 feet of the cleric during this time are affected by the turning unless they make the Will saving throw.

A cleric can use additional turning attempts to force new saving throws for undead previously unaffected, or to extend the duration of the turning. As long as no lapse in concentration takes place, these additional turning attempts do not allow a new save for any undead already affected by the turning.



In my experience, the by-the-book turning rules are broken. When it works, it either makes an encounter too easy or its completely useless. Worse yet, this tends to shift with level: At low levels, turning generally makes undead encounters too easy and anti-climactic. At high levels, it's useless for anything except cleaning up mooks who are almost incapable of touching the PCs. And there's no meaningful "sweet spot" in the middle because any given turn attempt is binary: Either its completely meaningless or it ends the encounter.

The problem, as I see it, arises from the twice decisions to (a) make turning dependent on the undead's Hit Dice; and (b) have no Constitution score for undead. Without a Constitution score, designers need to pump up an undead's HD in order to give them enough hit points to survive against the increasingly powerful attacks of the fighters and arcanists. But, as a result of these extra HD, the higher-CR undead simply outstrip the cleric's turning ability.

These optional rules try to address these problems in three ways:

First, by having the cleric's check set a Will save DC for the undead. This not only causes the ability to scale better against undead with higher CRs, it also creates a varied reaction: Some undead will make their saves, others will not.

Second, by having a range of possible reactions (depending on the margin of success for the check), it makes turning more dynamic and (again) helps to scale the ability with level: A high-level cleric taking on mook skeletons will unleash a wave of divine force strong enough to turn their undead bones to dust. But when that same cleric faces off against a lich with a CR equal to his level, he'll still be able to have some success (even if may need to struggle for that success).

Third, by designing the default level of success into an ability which allows the cleric to control a battlefield, but not instantly end an encounter. (The goal here was to create something that looked more like the bog-standard Hollywood version of turning: The vampire must avoid the holy symbol, but is not driven into a mindless panic by it.)

The disadvantage of this system is the variability of results: By having both the cleric and the undead roll 1d20 with opposed results, you're introducing a 40-point range of possible results. Even with these results on a bell curve, this wide range causes some problems (particularly because the range of effects only covers a 20-point difference).

This high variability is combated in two ways:

First, the undead is allowed to Take 10 on its Will save. This is a non-standard exception to the normal rules, but it means that a powerful undead will never be forced to tuck its tail between its legs or be turned into a dust by a much-less powerful priest due to the random capriciousness of the dice.

Second, the cleric is allowed to bolster his previous turn attempts by burning another turn attempt. Clerics typically get a lot more turn attempts than they will use in a day anyway, and this gives a practical use for those "wasted" resources.

Obviously one of these reduces the variability of the undead's results and the other reduces the variability of the cleric's results, so overall balance is maintained.

I've been using these rules with great success in my campaigns for more than half a decade now.

INTERESTING VARIATION: Have the turn apply as a 180-degree cone, so that it only affects undead in the direction the cleric is facing. Allow the cleric to switch the direction of this cone as a free action (on their turn) or an immediate action (when it's not their turn).

TURNING FEATS: Many official sourcebooks for the game now have feats that allow a cleric to use their turning attempts to produce other effects besides repelling undead. These are another great way for clerics to use their turn attempts as a valuable resource.

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November 27th, 2007


DEATH THRESHOLD: Your death threshold is a negative number equal to your maximum hit points or your Constitution score (whichever is greater). For example, if you have a maximum of 23 hit points, then your death threshold is -23.

ALIVE: You are alive as long as your current hit points are above your death threshold.

DEAD: You are dead if your current hit points are below your death threshold. Dead characters automatically lose 1 hp per round.



Once you reach 0 hit points you are considered disabled. A disabled character move at half speed and may only take a partial action each round. Disabled characters who perform a standard action (or any other strenuous action, such as casting a quickened spell) take 1 hp of damage after the action.

While you’re disabled, you must make a Fortitude save (DC 10 + the number of hit points below zero) each time you take damage (including the damage which resulted in you becoming disabled).  If you fail this save you fall unconscious.

Unless you have stabilized (see below), you take 1 hp of damage per round while disabled.



TENDED CHARACTERS: A disabled character can be helped with a first aid check (Heal, DC 15). On a success, the character stabilizes and begins healing naturally.

UNTENDED CHARACTERS: A disabled character without assistance who takes no action in a round has a 10% chance of stabilizing. Even after stabilizing they may still take additional damage, however: Each day they must make a 10% roll to start healing naturally. If they fail this check, they instead suffer 1 hp of damage and must check again the next day

WAKING UP: Once an unconscious disabled character has been stabilized, they have a 10% chance of waking up each hour. An untended character (who has not benefited from a first aid check) who fails to wake up also takes 1 hp of damage with each failed check.



NATURAL HEALING: After a full night’s rest (8 hours of sleep or more), you recover 1 hit point per character level. Any significant interruption during your rest prevents you from healing that night. If you undergo complete bed rest for an entire day and night, you recover twice your character level in hit points.

MAGICAL HEALING: Magical healing spells are maximized (they always restore the maximum possible number of hit points). Any magical healing automatically stabilizes a character. A character unconscious as a result of their injuries also wakes up as a result of magical healing.



There are no spells which return the dead to life (raise dead, etc.). However, even dead characters can benefit from magical healing and are returned to life if their hit point total is raised above the death threshold. After 24 hours of death, however, a character is lost forever and cannot be returned to life.

GENTLE REPOSE: A gentle repose spell temporarily stops the loss of hit points a dead character suffers. It also extends the period of time in which a character can be revived.


Characters reduced to 0 Constitution are dead, but still have whatever hit points were left to them. They still lose 1 hit point per round until their Constitution is raised to at least 1. If their hit points drop below their death threshold, it will be necessary to raise both their Constitution and their hit points in order to return them to life.

Note: Clerics may spontaneously cast lesser restoration, restoration, and greater restoration spells as if they were cure spells.


Any special ability or spell that results in death instead causes 4d6 points of Constitution damage. On a successful save, the special ability or spell causes 2 points of Constitution damage (instead of whatever effect a save would normally have).



There is no massive damage threshold.



These are my personal house rules for death and dying in 3rd Edition. They weren't conceived all at once, nor were they designed to overcome any kind of serious mechanical flaw in the system. Rather, they're a slow accretion of various tweaks which I use to change the flavor of death in the game.



The first set of changes I put into place was the removal of raise dead, resurrection, and similar spells. The motivation here was relatively simple: I don't like the revolving door of death. Death is a powerful and dramatic event... unless, of course, it happens at the gaming table. At the gaming table it's usually a joke. Or, at worst, a minor inconvenience.

This problem of flavor goes beyond de-valuing the meaning of death. With even a modicum of logical thought, it completely changes the nature of the game world. At the most obvious level, you will never have a story which begins "when the old king died in the Battle of Batok's Pass". You also have to realize that assassination becomes almost pointless: In such a world, the country doesn't go into mourning when JFK is shot in Dallas... it criticizes him for being a narcissistic slacker when he refuses to respond to the raise dead spell.

It gets more severe (and more bizarre) from there.

These kinds of thought experiments and what-if games can certainly have interesting results. But I'll confess that I'm generally looking for something that looks a bit more like Middle Earth and a lot less like transhumanist fantasy (which sounds like a fascinating, albeit largely untapped, sub-genre).

So I got rid of raise dead.

But this creates a new problem: It's a lethal game. And I like combat to be risky. Combining risky combat with an absolute barrier between life and death will result in a lot of new characters being rolled up. The revolving door may be gone, but death still becomes de-valued because players stop investing themselves in characters they know have the life expectancy of tissue paper in a blast furnace.

More precisely, I didn't want to increase the actual lethality of the game (measured in characters permanently removed from gameplay). Nor did I want to decrease the challenges of the game. I needed to shift the flavor without shifting the gameplay.

The solution was to re-imagine what the -10 hit point barrier meant: It was still a death of the body, but not a departure of the soul. Thus, clerics could use their divine healing to bring back even those whose bodies had been punished beyond the point of natural healing.

The result is a mechanic that looks a bit more like an emergency room resuscitation than Jesus rising from the dead.

This is a subtle change, but one that removes the flavor problems that come from a hero's spirit constantly yo-yoing between this world and the next.



For many years, this was the only change I made to the death and dying rules. Playtesting did reveal a few problem areas that needed to be dealt with, but for the most part these rules worked and worked well.

One early discovery was that Constitution damage had suddenly become much more horrible. In the standard game, the difference between dying from Constitution damage and dying from hit point damage was non-existent: In either case, you needed a raise dead spell to bring you back. But, under the new rules, hit point damage could simply be healed through spontaneous casting whereas Constitution damage would frequently require a prepared restoration spell... at which point the character's moldering corpse would have accrued a huge tally of negative hit points.

This led to the simple expedient of allowing clerics to also spontaneously cast restoration spells.

The other effect of this rule change was to smooth out the differences between low- and mid-level play. Using the standard rules, low-level characters have a practical barrier between life-and-death. While they might theoretically be raised from the dead, in practice the party lacks the resources to afford a raise dead spell. Plus, given the low-levels involved, there's a minimal investment in the existing character and a minimal time commitment required to roll up a new character.

And then, for a few levels, coming back from the dead becomes a possibility, but an expensive one: The cost of getting the spell cast will seriously deplete the party's resources.

And then death becomes a speed bump.

This is one of the things that leads to the perception that low-level play is so much more difficult and lethal than high-level play: Not only do you have a smaller pool of hit points and a smaller margin for error, but the barrier between life-and-death still exists -- so death is death and you're not coming back.

Under these house rules, on the other hand, this continuum is made a little less extreme: Low-level characters can hit -10 and still be brought back. 



Speaking of that -10 barrier, we come to a widely-recognized shortcoming in mid- and high-level play: The tougher you become, the more likely you are to die than you are to fall unconscious.

Why? Because, as the average damage inflicted by any given blow increases, the chance that any given blow will catapult you directly from positive hit points to negative hit points and death increases. For example, if you suffer a blow for 5 hp there is no chance that you'll be immediately killed by it. If you're suffering blows doing an average of 25 hp, on the other hand, the odds drastically increase for such an opportunity.

The solution for this is to increase the number of negative hit points a higher level character can suffer before actually dying. And the simplest solution for this is to give everyone the same number of hit points below 0 as they do above 0.



Finally, I had a desire to decouple unconsciousness and dying. There are a couple of reasons for this:

First, one of the shortcomings of the game has always been its inability to handle a person's "dying words" or "final effort". It's a literary classic: The dying man exerts just enough energy to whisper, "Your mother yet lives!" or "Rosebud!" or "From hell's teeth I spit at you!" Or perhaps the dying heroine manages to hold onto the detonation device until her companions have escaped. But, in the game, a dying character is always unconscious -- and thus unable of uttering dying words, making a final heroic gesture, or anything else. They can't even bandage their own wounds.

Second, I've always liked the mechanics for being disabled: There's something dramatic about a wound so severe that taking any strenuous action is literally making your wounds worse. It forces a desperate, bleeding retreat; or it offers the hero a chance to grit their teeth and achieve something remarkable; or it leaves the villain staggering as the hero surges forward for their triumph.

But, unfortunately, the disabled condition only happens when a character lands precisely at 0 hit points. And then it only lasts for, at most, a single round before they keel over into unconsciousness.

Both of these problems can be solved by decoupling dying and unconsciousness, as shown in the house rules.

And, as ancillary benefit, this mechanic also allows the dying condition to serve as a "warning track" of sorts. Instead of just plugging away at full power until, suddenly, the character is completely out of it, now a PC is more likely to enter the dying state and be able to do something about it: Bind their wounds. Call out for the cleric. Gulp down a healing potion.



One problem I haven't solved yet is the problem of unconsciousness. More specifically, the problem of waking someone up who has been unconscious.

In real life, if someone gets knocked unconscious you can frequently (but not always) wake them up again by slapping them, throwing water in their face, or waving smelling salts under their nose. In the game, however, this doesn't work. If you've hurt someone enough to knock them unconscious, the only thing you can do is either (a) magically heal them or (b) wait a very long time for them to naturally heal some damage.

This is a shortcoming, as my players frequently want to model that narrative conceit of slapping a prisoner awake so that they can question them. (Ironically, this can only drive them deeper into unconsciousness using the rules.) Unfortunately, I haven't figured out any particularly good way (and a simple way) to overcome this shortcoming.

Anyone have thoughts on the matter?

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November 28th, 2007


Recently I've been involved in several discussions regarding skills in D&D.

There's an attitude I've never been able to understand when it comes to roleplaying games (or anything else for that matter): "I have too many options."

For example, lots of people complain that there are "too many supplements" for their game. In fact, a lot of people are looking forward to 4th Edition precisely because it will strip away all of those supplements. Ignoring for the moment that 4th Edition will have supplements released for it several months before the game itself is actually available, these complaints and this glee simply leave me scratching my head.

If you don't want them, don't buy them.

It's not like someone is coming round to your house, holding a gun to your head, and forcing you to buy a supplement. If you don't want them, then don't buy them. Nothing could be easier. Your "problem" can be solved by doing, literally, nothing at all.

On the other hand, if you need them or want them... well, there they are. And the more of them there are, the better it is (because that drastically increases the odds that whatever supplement you need at this particular moment in time will, in fact, exist).

I bring this up because I see the same complaint leveled at 3rd Edition's skill system.

The sentiment is perhaps most eloquently put by Vinicus Zoio on WotC's messageboards: "God, I hope they get rid of skill points!"



I really couldn't disagree more.

The existing skill point system is the best of both worlds.

(1) If you want to quickly generate a character's skills, select a number of class skills equal to # + Int modifier and give them skill ranks equal to 3 + your level, where # is based on your class. (Multiclass Characters: For each class, select a number of class skills equal to # + Int modifier and give them skill ranks equal to their class level. Add +3 skill ranks to the class skills selected for whatever class was taken at 3rd level.)

(2) If you want to customize your character's skills, on the other hand, you have complete flexibility to do that.

The only thing I'd tweak is the rules for handling increases in Intelligence so that they retroactively grant you skill points (the same way that Con increases retroactively boost your hit points). You can argue the "realism" of this (I don't have a problem with it), but it removes the only mechanical hiccup getting in the way of the fast-and-easy creation method of scenario #1.

The Star Wars Saga Edition method of doing things (which appears to also be the way that 4th Edition is going), on the other hand, is remarkably inferior: It gives you scenario #1... and only scenario #1.

And here's the trick: It doesn't make scenario #1 any faster or easier. So by adopting the SWSE method of doing things, you're sacrificing flexibility and customization, and you're gaining... absolutely nothing.



To be fair, there is another argument for adopting the SWSE system for handling skills: It eliminates the disparity between skilled and unskilled characters.

The argument goes something like this: A character who specializes in the Hide skill will eventually become so skilled at hiding that a person who hasn't invested any skill points into Spot will never be able to spot them. (This happens when there is a 20-point difference between the Hide skill bonus and the Spot skill bonus -- the 1d20 roll can no longer span that difference.)

SWSE solves this "problem" by turning every character into a renaissance man: Your trained skills are set to:

1d20 + 5 + character level + attribute modifier + miscellaneous modifiers

Your untrained skills are set to:

1d20 + character level + attribute modifier + miscellaneous modifiers

As you can see, this means that all characters become skilled in all things (with the exception of some trained-only skills). A 10th level characters is as a good at every single skill as a trained 1st level character.

This does eliminate the disparity between the skill bonuses of various characters... but it also means that every single character in SWSE is Doc Savage.



But the real problem with SWSE's "fix" is that this disparity isn't actually a problem.

This type of disparity is a problem when it comes to attack bonuses and saving throws, because those are target numbers which are fundamental to a wide array of common challenges in the game: If you've reached a point where the rogue will automatically succeed (barring a natural 1) on any saving throw the fighter has any chance of making, then it becomes increasingly difficult to design challenges for the group.

But skills, in general, don't suffer from these problems. Any problems created by disparities between skilled and non-skilled characters can be simply addressed by:

(1) Rewriting the skill rules to remove a handful of truly problematic skill uses. (Diplomacy and Tumble, I'm looking at you.) These are areas that need to be addressed any way.

(2) Not worrying about it. If the wizard can cast improved invisibility, why are you fretting about the fact that the uber-specialized Hider finds it trivial to sneak past the unskilled Spotter? If the spellcaster can whip off a dominate person, why is it a problem that the relatively naive guy who has never spent a rank in Sense Motive is consistently getting the wool pulled over his eyes by the legendary Bluff specialist?



But an unnecessary lack of flexibility increasingly seems to be the design methodology for 4th Edition. For example, Andy Collins recently discussed the fact that, in 4th Edition, abilities which were once feats and available to any character will now be class-specific abilities. This is one giant leap backwards for the game.

Similarly, it now appears that monsters and PCs will be built on mutually incompatible frameworks.

All of these things are major strikes against 4th Edition, in my opinion. Combined with decisions like removing saving throws from the game (fundamentally altering something that has been a core component of D&D gameplay for more than three decades), focusing the game exclusively on miniature-based tactical play (both in terms of removing real-world measurements from the rules and in terms of designing monsters so that they have no function outside of combat), and changes to the meta-setting of the game (something roughly akin to changing the property names in Monopoly) the prospects for 4th Edition looker bleaker and bleaker for me.

It seems increasingly likely that the game is heading in the wrong direction. I'm still holding out some hope, but my suspicions are growing that I will not be making the transition from 3rd Edition to 4th Edition.

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November 29th, 2007


As you may have already heard, the D20 Trademark License is being revoked with the release of 4th Edition. WotC considers the D20 mark to have been a failure due to the lack of quality control: In their opinion, the value of the brand had been diluted because consumers associated it with a lot of bad products.

That may or may not be true, but the utility of the D20 Trademark License was never about identifying quality products: It was about identifying compatible products.

This leaves third-party publishers (like myself) in something of a bind: Without the D20 Trademark License, we have nothing that we can use to quickly and easily identify our products as being compatible. (The D20 Trademark License not only covers the use of the trademark itself -- it also covers the "Requires the Use of the yada yada yada" language which is the second-most common way of identifying a compatible product.)

This sudden yanking of the D20 Trademark License only complicates a situation which was already on the verge of being completely muddied by the advent of 4th Edition: To whit, there's no easy way for a publisher to indicate that their new product is compatible with the new edition. (Or, if the market forks, that their product is compatible with 3rd Edition and not with 4th Edition.)

In order to solve both of these problems, Dream Machine Productions has created two trademark logos that can be used to indicate compatibility: The Seal of the 3rd Edition and the Seal of the 4th Edition.

The Seal of the 3rd Edition is being immediately released under a free license so that anyone who wants to use it -- whether a professional company or amateur designer -- can use it freely.

3rd Edition Seal - Color

3rd Edition Seal - Black

3rd Edition Seal - White

3rd Edition Seal - Grayscale

3rd Edition Seal - Full Size

3rd Edition Seal - PSD File


Seal of the 3rd Edition Trademark License - Version 1.0

Seal of the 3rd Edition Trademark Guidelines - Version 1.0

The Seal of the 4th Edition will be released under a similar license as soon as the 4th Edition SRD becomes public. (Until the SRD of the new edition becomes public, we can't finalize the compatibility guidelines.) (EDIT: The GSL actually released for 4th Edition made this project untenable.)

4th Edition Seal - Color

4th Edition Seal - Black

4th Edition Seal - White

4th Edition Seal - Grayscale

4th Edition Seal - Full Size

4th Edition Seal - PSD File

If you have questions, suggestions, or concerns, please feel free to drop me a comment or an e-mail. 

Similarly, if you have a need to use the Seal of the 4th Edition trademark logo before the 4th Edition SRD becomes public, simply contact me for permission.

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