I've recently been reviewing The Esoterrorists
by Robin D. Laws with an eye towards how the core design ethos of the
system -- that the PCs always find every clue that can be found (as
discussed in more length as part of my essay on the Three Clue Rule)
-- could be adapted to more generic purposes. (And quickly coming to
the conclusion that is, in fact, so completely antithetical to the
reasons that I play roleplaying games that it won't work for me in any
AND SOFT LIMITS
the game has prompted me to give some fresh thought to hard limits in
system design, and the effect they have on scenario design for and the
utility of a roleplaying game.
For example, let's consider hit
points: Imagine a hypothetical system in which the PCs have 20 hit
points each. If each PC loses an average of 4 hit points each time they
get involved in combat, then after four combat encounters the system is
essentially mandating that the PCs stop fighting things (because the
fifth encounter will kill them).
For simplicity's sake, let's
assume that in this hypothetical system there's no way for a PC to heal
or restore their hit points except to rest for 1 week without stressful
activity. That becomes a hard limit for scenario design: If you design
a scenario that requires the PCs to fight more than four times in a
single week, then your scenario is most likely going to end in failure
(as the injured PCs either retreat or die).
This is, basically,
how D&D 4th Edition is designed. The math is more complicated
to healing and variable encounter difficulty, but when the party's
healing surges run out (or, more accurately, when the healing surges
for a single PC run out), the adventuring for the day is over. It has a
hard system limit on how many combat encounters you can have per day,
and you cannot design encounters with more combat encounters (or more
difficult combat encounters) without house ruling the system.
By contrast, previous editions of
D&D used hit points as a soft
because there's no limit placed on how much magical healing a single
character can receive in a day. Of course, there are practical limits
to the amount of healing any given adventuring party will have
available to it in a single day, so you can't simply ignore the issue
of depleting the party's hit points across multiple encounters. But
it's a soft limit precisely because there are ways (within the rules of
the system itself) for overcoming that limitation.
imagine that you wanted to design a scenario in which the PCs were in
control of a fortress and needed to defend it from an army of the
undead. In 4th Edition the scope of this scenario is dictated by the
system: You can't have more than X encounters of Y strength because the
PCs will run out of healing surges. In 3rd Edition, on the other hand,
you can make the siege last for any number of encounters, as long as
you're willing to provide the PCs with the necessary resources (like wands of cure light wounds,
reason I bring this up is that most traditional roleplaying games there
aren't actually many hard limits to be found. I've found them to be
quite a bit more prevalent in indie games, but in most cases they're
also fairly obvious in such games.
For example, 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars
features a core mechanic for each mission in which the GM is given a
budget of threat tokens equal to 5 x the number of PCs. The GM
constructs encounters by spending threat tokens, and when he runs out
of tokens the mission is over. This limit isn't hidden in any way.
Knowing it is recognized as being an integral part of running and
playing the game. (Which, when you get right down to it, is true for
all hard system limits. It's just that 3:16 acknowledges
LIMITS IN GUMSHOE
The GUMSHOE system used in The Esoterrorists,
on the other hand, looks like a traditional RPG... but iit's design is
riddled with hidden hard limits.
Allow me to explain the two core mechanics
of the game:
For any investigative task, the PC uses the appropriate skill and
automatically succeeds at finding any of the appropriate basic clues in
the scene. In addition, a PC's ranking in an investigate skill gives
them a pool of points which they can spend to buy additional clues
using that investigative skill that are non-essential to the adventure,
but interesting in one way or another.
(2) For any
non-investigative task, a difficulty number from 2 to 8 is secretly
assigned and 1d6 is rolled. If the roll is higher than the difficulty
number, the PC succeeds. A PC's ranking in non-investigative skills
give also give them a pool of points which they can spend on checks
using that skill to give them a +1 bonus to their die roll.
for physical skills are replenished every 24 hours. Pools for
non-physical skills are only replenished when a scenario ends.
there's your hard limit. Or, rather, your many hard limits: Each and
every skill is turned into a 4E-style hard limit. For investigative
skills this is relatively muted by the "mandatory success" mechanisc of
the system, but this same mandatory success results in a very flat
playing experience if its not being periodically spiced by
In practice, these hard limits severely
restrict the length of an Esoterrorist
limits, of course, aren't entirely without their benefits. For example,
once you recognize the hard limit, you'll also realize that the system
is silently mandating a diversity in the design of a scenario (so that
you don't rapidly tap out a single pool) -- which, on the balance, is
likely to be a positive more often than a negative.
the negatives seem quite significant to me.
For example, in designing the investigative
portions of a scenario you have two ways of dealing with the GUMSHOE
You can budget the number of "bonus clues" available in the scenario to
make sure that the PCs will always have the points required to buy
them. This avoids the problem of running out of points early
game and then being forced to only engage the scenario at the most
passive level available, but it raises the question of why the pools
exist at all: It's like sending you to a typical garage sale and then
enforing a strict budget of spending no more than $1,000,000.
Theoretically that's meaningful, but in practice you've got all the
money you need to buy everything on sale so it's not a limitation at
(2) On the other hand, you can include more
over the course of the scenario than the PCs can afford. This means
that the PCs will have to budget their points and only spend them
But here's the problem: The players don't
of these scenarios is true in any given scenario. (Particularly since
most GMs aren't going to read this essay and, therefore, aren't going
to make a deliberate decision in either direction. In practice, it'll
be a crapshoot from one scenario to the next which of these true. And
which is true for which pool of points.)
And, furthermore, the design of the system
is such that you often don't know what you're buying.
either I'm giving you a million bucks and saying "buy everything at the
garage sale"; or I'm giving you $5 and telling you to buy a random grab
bag of stuff. It's a feast or a famine and you don't know which it is
until it's too late.
The problem becomes more severe for
non-investigative tasks. Here the players need to spend the pool points
in an effort to boost a random die roll above a target number that they
don't know. And they have to make that decision without any real
knowledge of how many more die rolls of the same type they might be
called upon to make.
So you're bidding in a (frequently
life-or-death) silent auction in what may (or may not) be a long series
of silent auctions, the exact number of which you have no way of
course, the argument can be made that I'm being relatively harsh on a
game system which was probably designed to provide nothing more than a
semi-useful scaffolding on which to hang some group improv.
But I belong to that school of thought that
believes that system
And I don't come to that belief merely from a background in game
design. It's also derived from my experience as an improv actor: The
improv structures you use have an impact on the creativity that
happens. Being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of an improv
structure is the first step towards (a) choosing the right improv
structure and (b) mastering the improv structure you choose.
any case, hard limits are something to watch out for in a game system.
They're the points beyond which the game either Fails Completely or, at
best, Stops Being Fun. That needs to be taken into account: Generally
to be steered clear of, but sometimes to be taken advantage of.
The first sensation I had while reading the
sequels to the exemplary Gateway
was one of disjointedness.
First, the narrative of Beyond the Blue Event Horizon
jerks around in an uneven fashion. It's one of those books where (a)
there are multiple protagonists; (b) sometimes nothing interesting will
be going on with one of those protagonists; but (c) the author feels
compelled to periodically spend a chapter telling you about all the
non-interesting stuff happening to that protagonist as if some sort of
Equal Time for Equal Narrators (ETEN) lobby existed.
the book is jarringly different from its predecessor. At first it feels
as if it might be the different main characters or the different
narrative focus creating the disparity, but eventually I figured out
what was really going on.
Pohl switched genres.
The gritty, hard science fiction of Gateway
is abruptly replaced with Golden Age Space Opera studded with Heinlein
heroes. The fallible and interesting Robin Broadhead of Gateway
is transmogrified into the Richest Man in the Universe married to the
Beautiful Super Model Who Is Also A Genius. Together they fight crime
and single-handedly solve all of the galaxy's problems. Even
most ultimate and terminal of setbacks only result in giving the main
Even this, by itself, wouldn't necessarily
be catastrophic. Unfortunately, it's badly written space
opera. This is Heinlein fan fiction by way of the brain eater.
The entirety of Heechee
Rendezvous, for example,
consists of absolutely nothing important happening. A bloated cast of
characters go caterwauling around the galaxy, but they never seem to
actually accomplish anything. The entire "plot" of the novel, in fact,
appears to be leading up to nothing more than a "surprise
revelation"... which might make some sense, if it wasn't for the fact
that the "surprise" had already been revealed at the end of the last book.
(It's as if someone made Citizen
Kane 2 as a film entirely focused around
revealing to the audience that Rosebud is... wait for it... a sled.)
aping of Heinlein's brain eater years includes his
beautiful-and-brilliant protagonists having lots and lots of sex. Not
because this has any relevance to the plot or elucidates the characters
in any way, but just because Pohl really likes to tell us about all the
hot, hot sex that his Mary Sues are having. It starts out puzzling,
becomes annoying, and then resolves into boring.
and enigmatic Heechee themselves are transformed into nothing more than
a momentary (and largely irrelevant) speed bump for the Heroes to
cruise over. This is part and parcel of the switch to over-the-top
space opera (conforming to the "Humans Are the Awesomest Awesome That
Ever Awesomed" branch of the genre), but is nonetheless a terrible,
squandering waste of one of the most intriguing and evocative creations
of the genre.
In many ways, Pohl's failure with the Gateway sequels is
very similar to Arthur C. Clarke's failure with the Rendezvous
(except that Pohl doesn't have a hack co-author to shoulder the blame).
The first volume of each series is a beautiful exercise in engima,
creating evocative riddles that provocatively suggest the contours of
their solutions without ever providing concrete answers. They force
every reader to provide their own closure to the questions they raise,
creating an endless panoply of possible truths.
The sequels attempt to provide the
definitive answers to every single question and (perhaps predictably)
it would be impossible to provide any answer as satisfactory as the
non-answers we create for ourselves in reading the first books. But if
they were going to try to answer those questions, I wish they'd come up
with something more than vanilla pablum that could be found in dozens
of other science fiction books before and since. You've got a blank
check: Take some risks.
The only questions Pohl doesn't try to
answer in the Gateway sequels
are those which he has apparently forgotten about. For example, in Gateway
a relatively big deal is made out of a golden spiral device in the
Heechee vessels -- it lights up with sparkling light when the ship
reaches the mid-point of a journey and gets hot at seemingly other
random times. Nobody knows what it does, exactly, but everyone is very
curious about what its true purpose might be.
In the sequels,
however, it becomes nothing more than an indicator light and the
mystery of its "true purpose" is completely forgotten.
types of raggedly hanging loose ends are just a rather specific example
of a wider problem in the books: Huge, gaping continuity errors are to
be found everywhere. Within any given volume these errors are usually
of only a minor sort, but between volumes the Gateway sequels
fail to have any sort of consistency. For example, in the last five
pages of Heechee
you are authoritatively told that characters X and Y have gone to
location A. Within the first five pages of the next book, only
character X has gone to location A and character Y has instead been
killed off-screen in a helicopter accident. Similarly, an entire ship
full of people is miraculously resurrected because Pohl apparently
forgot that he killed them all in the previous book.
These books are, in the final analysis, a
complete and utter failure. By the time The
Annals of the Heecheeblatantly
breaks the fourth wall, thus shredding any credibility the books have
left, the sequels have already firmly established themselves as the
literary equivalent of Highlander 2:
Exercises in mediocrity interrupted only by stretches of atrocious
self-indulgence which you would be well-advised to avoid even on their
own sub-par merits. At the same time, they are the sort of work whose
existence you must scour from your own mental reservoirs in order to
enjoy the excellent work which lamentably gave them birth.
The fact that Gateway is a better
novel than Highlander
is a movie only makes it worse.
And the quality of the Gateway sequels
continues to deteriorate from one volume to the next.
example, I have a pet peeve about authors who feel the need to
summarize the plots of the previous books in a series. First, it is
unlikely that anyone is picking up Book 3 of a seven book series
without having already ready Book 1 and Book 2. Second, the little
snippets of information presented in awkward expository lumps they do
include are insufficient to the task of
bringing new readers "up to speed" -- which means that (a) the extant
readers are bored and (b) the new readers are still lost.
authors in series with less tightly-woven continuity do an excellent
job of incorporating such details through the simple expedient of
writing each book as if it were a stand-alone narrative. One of the
tricks here is that they don't try to summarize the plots of other
books. Instead they simply drop in the necessary details from their
protagonists past lives just as they would with any such detail. The
difference is subtle and requires a certain mastery of your craft. Bujold, for
example, has practically perfected the technique.
Pohl, unfortunately, has not.
begins as a predictable drag on the narrative pace of the books
eventually becomes something ludicrously disastrous: My copy
of The Annals
of the Heechee
is 275 pages. Despite this brief length, 100 of the first 120 pages are
spent finding clumsy ways to reiterate the narrative from the previous
three books. And much of this material is studded with the familiar
errors of continuity.
Combined with the fact that Pohl treats his
readers like idiots (by repeating the same bits of exposition
over-and-over again just in case we missed it the first time) and
structures his narratives around solving "mysteries" by revealing
things that he he already revealed in the previous book the entire
series quickly becomes completely interminable.
In short: Yes, that is an actual F- on The Annals of the Heechee. It deserves it.
Faceless rage is a magical disease of evil and chaos that
affects only humanoids. It transforms its victims by erasing their face
turning them into murderous savages.
Whenever a victim of the faceless rage suffers
ability score damage from the disease, they must succeed at an
Fortitude save (DC 18) or be transformed according to the faceless
save (DC18); Infection contact/injury; Incubation 1 day; 1d6 Int/1d6 Wis,
“Faceless rager” is
a template that can be added to any
humanoid or giant (referred hereafter as the base creature).
The base creature’s type does not change, but the creature gains the
Points and Hit
Dice: Same as the base creature. To calculate total hit
points, apply the
faceless rager’s bonus to Constitution.
faceless rager loses the bite attack of the base creature (if any), but
all other attacks of the base creature and and gains a slam attack (1d6
for Medium-size faceless ragers).
A faceless rager loses the gaze attack of the base creature (if any),
retains all other special attacks of the base creature and also gains
attacks described below.
Any creature struck by the
natural attack of a faceless rager (including its slam attack and steal
abilities) is exposed to faceless rage. The save DC is
(Ex): To use this ability,
the faceless rager must hit a natural attack (including its slam
attack). Steal Visage
(Su): If a faceless rager
succeeds at a grapple check against any humanoid, its victim must make
Fortitude save or have its face removed. The victim is left blinded, deafened,
and mute. As the victim has no mouth, it will risk
starvation if its face is not restored. Restoring a victim’s face
requires a regeneration spell, just
as if it were a
severed limb. The save DC is Constitution-based.
A faceless rager retains all special qualities of the base creature,
gains those described below.
A faceless rager has
blindsight 60 feet.
Disease (Ex): A faceless rager
can no longer recover naturally from the faceless rage disease that
them. Only magical treatment can restore the victim, specifically a remove disease spell followed by a greater restoration. Once cured, the
faceless rager loses this template. A faceless rager’s face can only be
restored after the disease has been magically cured, and requires a regeneration spell, just as if it were a
(Ex): A faceless rager must
seek out and attack the nearest humanoid. If no humanoids are present,
attack the nearest creature. If no creatures are present, it will
randomly until it finds one. In this mindless rage, a faceless rager
gains a +2
morale bonus on Will saves, but suffers a -2 penalty to Armor Class.
cannot use any Charisma-, Dexterity-, or Intelligence-based skills
Balance, Escape Artist, Intimidate, and Ride), the Concentration skill,
abilities that require patience or concentration, nor can they cast
activate magic items that require a command word, a spell trigger (such
wand), or spell completion (such as a scroll) to function. They can use
feat they have except Combat Expertise, item creation feats, and
Faceless ragers gain +4 to Strength and +4 to Constitution.
Same as base creature + 1. However, levels in a spellcasting class
one-quarter towards their challenge rating (since the faceless rager
spells). (For example, a faceless rager based on a 4th-level
would be a CR 2 challenge.)
DISEASED CARPENTER (CR 3)
– Expert 3 –
CE Humanoid (human shapechanger)
blindsight 60 ft., Listen
+3, Spot +3; Init +1
DEFENSES – AC 9 (+1 Dex, -2 mindless
rage), touch 9, flat-footed 8; hp
ACTIONS – Spd 30 ft.; Melee
(1d6+2 and disease); Ranged +3; Space 5 ft.; Reach
5 ft.; Base Atk
+2; Grapple +2; SA
improved grab, steal visage (DC 13)
SQ blindsight 60
disease, mindless rage
STR 14, DEX 12, CON
14, INT 12, WIS
10, CHA 10
FORT +3, REF +2, WILL
FEATS: Skill Focus
Skill Focus (Craft (carving)), Skill Focus (Knowledge (wood))
+1, Craft (carpentry)
+8, Craft (carving) +8, Diplomacy +8, Escape Artist +1, Hide +1,
(architecture/engineering) +6, Knowledge (wood) +8, Move Silently +1,
Search +6, Sense Motive +6, Use Rope +1
DISEASED SOLDIER (CR 5)
– Warrior 5 –
CE Humanoid (human shapechanger)
blindsight 60 ft., Listen
+3, Spot +3; Init +0
DEFENSES – AC 8 (-2 mindless
touch 8, flat-footed 8; hp 33
ACTIONS – Spd 30 ft.; Melee
+8 (1d6+3 and disease); Ranged +5; Base Atk +5; Grapple
+5; SA improved
grab, steal visage (DC 14)
SQ blindsight 60
disease, mindless rage
STR 16, DEX 10, CON
14, INT 12, WIS
10, CHA 10
FORT +6, REF +1, WILL
+1, Bluff +1, Climb
+3, Craft (wittling) +1, Forgery +1, Gather Information +3, Innuendo
Intimidate +8, Jump +3, Listen +3, Search +1, Sense Motive +2, Spot +3,
The roper has a phenomenal reach (50 ft.
with its tendrils), but remains excessively vulnerable to the "back off
and plink it to death with ranged attacks" tactic. This isn't really a
huge problem, but I have had a couple of roper encounters that landed
with dull, wet thuds.
So when I was taking a peek at the artwork
from the 4th
Edition Dungeon Master's Screen and spotted this particular
roper hanging out evocatively perched next to a fiery lava pit, I
suddenly realized what ropers need: Big piles of skulls from their
That they can throw.
In 3rd Edition this easy enough: A +11
ranged attack (1d6+4 points of damage) that can be used interchangeably
with their normal strand attacks. A typical roper has 4d6 pieces of
skeletal ammunition at hand, although particularly successful ropers
may have accumulated larger bone piles while younger ropers or one new
to a hunting location may have far fewer.
It would be interesting to do a page
comparison between editions without taking into account:
The theory being that adding more options within these categories is
not necessarily adding bulk to the actual rules
of the game.
(To that list I would also like to add
"magic items", "sample scenarios", and "indices".)
Basically, my thought was that you could take
AD&D and strip out all the monsters, spells, magic items,
classes, and races that weren't found in the original OD&D and
you would still have a completely playable game. In fact, someone
observing you playing that game would have no way of knowing that you
were doing anything other than playing 100%-by-the-book AD&D.
(Unless, of course, you told them that you had limited the size of the
In other words, having those extra options
doesn't meaningfully increase the complexity of the game's rules.
I intended at the time to eventually put
together such a post, but got distracted by other concerns... until
now. So, without further adieu, and for whatever use it may be, the
total "rules only" page count for various editions of (A)D&D:
(LBBs only): 29 full pages (58 half-sheets)
(LBBs + 4 supplements): 64 full pages (128 half-sheets)
(including Chainmail): 86 full pages (148 half-sheets)
The BECM entry total include only the Basic,
Expert, Companion, and Master Rules. The BECMI entry includes the
Immortals boxed set.
The 2nd Edition entry is based on the
original 1989 rulebooks.
I'm not including either the Unearthed Arcana
variant of 1st Edition, nor the Players' Option variant of 2nd Edition.
First Impression: It's interesting watch the
slow, inexorable expansion of the game.
Second Impression: The relative
pointlessness of the entire exercise is indicated in the comparison
between the BECM and Rules
Cyclopedia page counts (which are the same rules, except
the former is bloated somewhat by the need to repeat and reintroduce
information four times over). It's also indicated in the comparison
between 3.0 and 3.5 (where the expansion was largely due to the WotC's
ever-increasing font sizes).
From "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" by Clark
The basin, I have said, was very
large; indeed, it was no less than six feet in diameter from the floor.
The three legs that bore it were curved and massive and terminated in
feline paws displaying their talons. When we approached and peered over
the brim, we saw that the bowl was filled with a sort of viscous and
semi-liquescent substance, quite opaque and of a sooty color. It was
from this that the odor came -- an odor which, though unsurpassably
foul, was nevertheless not an odor of putrefaction, but resembled
rather the smell of some vile and unclean creature of the marshes. The
odor was almost beyond endurance, and we were about to turn away when
we perceived a slight ebullition of the surface, as if the sooty liquid
were being agitated from within by some submerged animal or other
entity. This ebullition increased rapidly, the center swelled as if
with the action of some powerful yeast, and we watched in utter horror
while an uncouth amorphous head and dull and bulging eyes arose
gradually on an ever-lengthening neck, and stared us in the face with
primordial malignity. Then two arms -- if one could call them arms --
likewise arose inch by inch, and we saw the thing was not, as we had
thought, a creature immersed in the liquid, but that the liquid itself
had put forth this hideous neck and head, and was now forming these
damnable arms, that groped toward us with tentacle-like appendages in
lieu of claws or hands!
I'm going to have to start using more water
If you wanted to get fancy, you could
certainly pimp out the stats of a large water elemental to represent
some of the creature's other abilities from the story (knicking the
stench ability from the troglodyte as we go):
40 ft., swim 90 ft.
Presence (Ex): Characters with less than 8 HD who
perceive the malignant shape-shifting of the elemental water terror
must succeed at a Will save (DC 14) or become either panicked (50%) or
paralyzed with fear (50% chance) for 2d4 rounds. Even characters who
succeed on the saving throw are shaken, but those who succeed on their
saving throw are immune to the creature's frightful presence for the
next 24 hours.
(Ex): The sooty admixture of the elemental water terror's
primordial form exudes an unsurpassably foul odor. All living creatures
within 30 feet of the elemental water terror's must succeed on a
Fortitude save (DC 18) or be sickened for 10 rounds. Creatures that
successfully save cannot be affected by the same elemental water
terror's stench for 24 hours. A delay
poison or neutralize
poison spell removes the effect from the sickened
creature. Creatures with immunity to poison are unaffected, and
creatures resistant to poison receive their normal bonus on their
But even this isn't really necessary: All
you need is a water elemental's stat-block and that beautifully lurid
description and you'll have an encounter far more terrifying than that
provided by any ordinary water elemental..
(Tip for adapting the description: Insisting
that the characters stand stock still for more than 6 seconds watching
the slow, inexorable emergence of their doom is, quite rightfully,
frustrating to the players. You're taking control of their characters
away. But if you simply prelude with "time seems to slow for a long
moment as" then you can achieve the same effect without taking control
of the PCs away from the players.)
I also recommend "The Tale of Satampra
Zeiros" quite highly. It reads like a prototypical D&D
adventure with a couple of thieves for the main characters and is a
little like reading a mash-up of Lord Dunsany's lyricism and Robert E.
Howard's primitive adventurism. It can be found in The End of the Story,
which is Volume 1 of The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith.
Smith deserves a place alongside Lovecraft and Howard, but is oft
forgotten. Although he is not
listed in AD&D's Appendix N of recommened reading,
Smith's influence feels immense.