The World of Tel-Avi

Campaign Knowledge: Snakes
With thanks to Zak S.

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It is known to some scholars that the skins of all snakes can be read like books. Those who speak the serpent language know that these creatures continuously hiss their titles. As they grow, the animals revise and expand themselves, shedding old knowledge for new. The most common and convenient method of reading a snake (among human ophidobibliologists) is to have it slither through an ivory serpent-reader, a sphere with ornately carved orifices and channels. Common snakes are usually fairly uninteresting works, garter snakes tend to be cookbooks, corn snakes are generally works of adventure fiction with cliche characters or too-convenient endings. Rarer breeds, 100’ anacondas, albino cobras, often contain long-forgotten secrets or comprise unique works of poetry or philosophy.

Since snakes are natural phenomena, and all books are, in one way or another, discussions of natural phenomena or its effects, snakes could be considered a continuous monologue that the world produces about itself. Thus the symbol: a serpent eating its own tail.

Giant snakes are typically encyclopedias or great multi-volume sagas representing the myths and theogonies of entire cultures. Nagas are linguistic texts, translating from the languages of snakes to the languages of humans. The snakes growing from the heads of medusae are generally reference works and the medusae themselves are often cataloguers, tending private libraries containing nothing but caged snakes, selectively breeding exotic and daring new works. The Librarians, also known as yuan-ti, also catalogue and breed books, though in a far less dilettantish and casual fashion, they believe that careful control of crossspecies breeding can and will one day unveil a Great Glistening Book containing all the secrets of creation.

It is said that beneath every great library in human civilization a cabal of wizard-scholars tends to a chained Lernean Hydra. These scholars carefully transcribe and translate the information gleaned from the beast’s skin before pruning off each head in turn and reading what grows in its place, thereby nurturing a constantly updated stream of knowledge.

Dragons are books of magic spells. Owing to the difficulty of reading them while alive, complete dragon hides will almost always fetch a higher price from the right sorcerer or alchemist than from any armorer. Minidragons are helpful but incomplete summaries of the contents of their larger brethren. Scholars disagree: the amphisbaena is either a palindrome or a work which reveals an entirely different (yet equally coherent) narrative when read backwards. The skins of snake-demons contain horrible secrets and blasphemies…

Campaign Theory: Economics
Some ideas about how cash should work in the world

D&D Basic Economy Bug #1 — D&D set its price list in units of “gold pieces” (OD&D Vol-1 p. 14, etc.). Historically this is incorrect; basic items would really be bought with silver coins. So, broadly speaking, the indicated prices are about x10 too high.

D&D Basic Economy Bug #2 — OD&D set the encumbrance for its “gold piece” at 1/10 of a pound weight (OD&D Vol-1, p. 15, etc.). Historically, this is also incorrect; actual coins have always been much smaller. So, broadly speaking, the coins here are about x10 too large/heavy.

Putting these together, the value of carryable treasure (in terms of purchasing power) is only about 1/100th what it “ought” to be. If you carry from the dungeon a back-breaking, seam-splitting sack full of silver (say 100 pounds) then in D&D you can buy, say, 25 gallons of wine with that; while in reality it should be more like 30,000 gallons. If the sack is full of gold, then you can buy 30 draft horses in D&D; in reality, it should be more like 2,000 such horses. Stuff like that. (See here for documentation on real medieval pricing.)

One major unfixable mistake is in using the gold standard for the D&D economy. It’s bad history and it’s bad game design. Historically, medieval money supplies were almost uniformly in silver coins, and the value was fundamentally based in how much raw silver metal was at hand. But more importantly for our purposes, in D&D PCs start out with the most valuable coinage, and will only experience currency going down from there. Clearly, it would be better to start with the cheapest metal, and then advance through more exotic categories. (In accordance with the central design conceit of D&D itself.) Even if some portion of us run games with a silver standard (for example, see Dragon #74, June 1983), the gold-piece premise has been reiterated in so many hundreds of RPG’s and computer games that it’s inseparable from fantasy in general in the public’s mind.

Leaving that aside, let’s consider the value of our ideal coins. The historical issue is enormously complex because every principality used different mints, sizes, metal purities, units of weight, etc. But there are two principal issues that we’re warned to keep in mind. One is the difference in units between actual coins versus moneys-of-account (i.e., units used in paper accounting only). For example, in the famous Carolingian money system (1 pound/louvre = 20 shillings/sou = 240 pence/deniers) only pennies/deniers were actually minted — no shillings/sous or pound coins were created, and those units were used for record-keeping and ledgers only.

The second principal cautionary issue is that of debasement: Over the years, the princes and their mints would continually reduce the amount of silver content in their coins (by either mixing in more copper, etc., or reducing the overall coin size). For us, this makes it hard to compare the value of actual coins over the whole medieval period, because the values were constantly in a downward slide, in some cases causing inflation and the need to establish new, larger coins or non-debased currency. (In fact, this was one of the reasons to use “moneys-of-account” — sometimes measuring raw silver bullion weight — to keep a fair evaluation of one’s worth, even when the coins were getting less valuable over the years.) One notable exception: England, which kept the pound sterling mostly fixed over the years — and therefore we might use that as the most dependable example of medieval coinage.

So, consider this particular historical example. View a list of English coinage in the 13th-15th centuries here. As our chief examples we’ll take the “groat” (silver coin, worth 4 pence, i.e., 1/3 shilling) and “noble” (gold coin, worth 20 groats, i.e., 1/3 pound). There are smaller coins than these (half-nobles, quarter-nobles, etc.), but none significantly larger. So the noble:groat:penny coin ratio is 1:20:80.

I think this would be excellent from a game-design perspective, assuming that we used the silver standard as a basis. Two notable advantages: (1) The copper/silver pennies, at a 1:4 ratio, are not so cheap as to be entirely worthless and left in the dungeon by our adventurers. (2) The gold nobles, at a 1:20 ratio provide a nice geometric increase in the value that can be carried at higher levels, without having to resort to omnipresent bags of holding. Once again, the historical solution could serve as our game-design solution: copper coins for peasants, silver coins for the daily trade of freemen, and gold coins for transactions between kings.

Note also how close this historical coinage is to the OD&D system in Vol-2, p. 39, which stipulates a gold:silver:copper piece ratio of 1:10:50. It’s basically a quasi-decimalization of the 1:20:80 ratio that we’re finding in our research. In addition, it fairly represents the medieval valuation of gold bullion (about 1:10 to 1:14 of silver), assuming that all of our coins are the same size. The OD&D numbers are both reasonably good history and game design.

So, coming back to our game’s history, why change those numbers in the AD&D Player’s Handbook? In that work, Gygax establishes a 1:20:240 valuation for our game coins, while maintaining a gold standard. That turns all of our advantages into disadvantages: (1) Players start at the top value with nowhere to work up, (2) PCs are unable to carry much value in coinage at higher levels, (3) Copper pieces are effectively worthless. While using the classic Carolingian value ratios for the pound:shilling:pence, it overlooks the historical fact that those were not coins, but rather moneys-of-account only. A highly questionable change to the game, when the Original D&D system was so eminently reasonable in both historical and game-design terms.

To address many of these issues, we will be implementing a fairly complicated, but slightly more historically accurate monetary system for this campaign. See Currency Standards and Coinage for details.

Mechanics: Piecemeal Armor
Musings on Piecemeal Armor: What Ultimate Combat got right and/or wrong

So I’ve always been a fan of piecemeal armor rules in D&D. With the amount of punishment that gets dished out in combat it only makes sense that armor gets damaged, and hence, needs to be replaced. Most historical mercenaries and sellswords (which are the best real-world correlary to PCs) wore whatever mish-mash of armor they could glean from their fallen foes (“To the victor go the spoils”), so it makes sense that PCs in an historical fantasy game would do the same, rather than always wearing fancy matched suits of plate and chain.

The latest iteration of an attempt to implement this in D&D comes from Ultimate Combat for the Pathfinder RPG. While all such systems bear certain similarities and work reasonably well as written, this particular system has certain limitations which need to be addressed, particularly in terms of enchantment and special materials.

First, the system assumes that you only gain benefits from special materials if an entire suit is made of that material. This makes very little sense, especially for materials such as Mithril which reduces weight, and therefore should be useful for each individual piece. In addition, this does not fit my aesthetic of PCs wearing whatever pieces of armor they can grab. The statistics of each individual piece should be subject to the modifiers for the material (i.e. Mithril Banded Vambraces would have a Max Dex of +3, Armor Check of -1, and 25% spell failure). As usual, the worst of these effects for each armor piece apply to the suit (plus an additional 5% spell failure for wearing a mixed suit). Thus, a character who acquires 1 piece of mithril armor may find it advantageous to use lighter armor for his other pieces, so as to not counter-act the benefits of the mithril.

Most materials, when used as armor, have benefits that would apply as well for individual pieces as for the whole suit. Dragonhide’s energy immunity would be particularly amusing as piecemeal armor, as the player can despair as their leather breastplate burns in a fire, but their pauldrons are left unscathed.

Adamantine bears special mention. Per the rules for “Armor as Damage Reduction” (also from Ultimate Combat), Adamantine armor grants a better category of DR, rather than granting additional DR or other qualities. Likewise, using the rules for “Called Shots” (also from Ultimate Combat) a character wearing piecemeal armor with adamantine components might have their non-adamantine garbed limbs attacked specifically. A character wearing piecemeal adamantine armor gains the benefit of the better Damage Reduction category for any called shots to the covered areas. If the character wears a full suit of adamantine armor, then this benefit applies to all attacks against the character, otherwise it only protects against called shots to the adamantine-clad area. Likewise, when using normal rules for armor class, the damage reduction granted by adamantine armor only applies to attacks made against the covered area. In this case, the DR applies to all non-called shot attacks when the character wears torso armor of adamantine.

The second major issue is that magical enhancements to specific pieces apply only from the most protective part (thus if a character is wearing magical vambraces with a non-magical breastplate, he does not gain the benefits of the magical enhancement bonus). Rather than making such piecemeal magic less effective (and encouraging the enchantment and use of full suits of armor), I instead prefer the approach that enchantments never apply to full suits.

Any magical armor found will be enchanted by piece, and all enhancement bonuses from magical armor worn by the character stack (to the normal maximum of +5). Enhancement bonuses for magical suits found will be evenly divided between the parts, following the order of preference presented in Ultimate Magic (torso, then legs, then arms). Thus, a suit of +2 armor found will consist of a +1 breastplate and +1 legs with normal arm protection, and a suit of +5 armor would have a +2 breastplate, +2 legs, and +1 arms. Any special powers associated with the armor (such as energy resistance or ghost-touch) will apply to all pieces of an enchanted suit. The costs of enchanting armor this way should be considered carefully, for example, enchanted arm protection always comes from a suit of at least +3 enhancement bonus, and thus costs to enchant the arm protection should start at a base of +3 before adding special benefits.

Masterwork piecemeal armor works just as described above for special materials, with the reduction in armor check penalty applying the the given piece and then the worst armor check penalty for the various pieces being applied to the suit.

As mentioned above, Ultimate Combat also introduces rules for “Armor as Damage Reduction” and “Called Shots”. When combining these rules with Piecemeal Armor, for all normal attacks, the total armor bonus from all pieces are combined for determining the wearer’s damage reduction. However, for called shots, the targeted limb should be considered to have the armor bonus of a suit of the type of armor worn on that body area. Thus, a character wearing studded leather arm protection, a banded breastplate, and no leggings would have DR 3 against called shots against his arms, DR 7 against shots to the chest, and DR 0 against attacks to his legs.

Another consideration of these combined rules is the greater chance for armor to be damaged. With armor seen as absorbing the hit (DR), rather than deflecting it (AC), any attack against a body-part covered with armor that would bypass the armor’s damage reduction (i.e. an attack with an adamantine weapon against magical armor) should damage the armor in addition to the other effects. On any called shot, the armor piece should take damage equal to the amount of damage it prevents (see above). On a normal (non-called shot) attack, all pieces should take damage equal to the bonus they provide (note, the extra +1 for wearing a complete suit of armor is bonus and does not translate to damage to any armor piece). Using this rule, most armor pieces should be able to withstand only 5 direct hits (that bypass DR) before being rendered useless, thus increasing the need for characters to cobble-together piecemeal armor components. If the character has stacking DR (such as from having natural armor), only the armor type is considered for determining what attacks will damage the armor.

Clearly, characters who intend to be in long, drawn-out fights will want to acquire pieces of adamantine armor (DR/—) as quickly as possible to reduce the chances that their armor will fall apart mid-combat.


Mechanics: Character Burning
Using Burning Wheel character generation for d20 games

Several members of my regular gaming group (myself included) have expressed that they really like the character creation system from the Burning Wheel RPG (the so called “Character Burner”). This system allows the player to lay out his character’s history in stages, tracking his life in terms of where he was born, what jobs he has held, and how his station has changed over time. The end results of this “Character Burning” informs the character’s age, stats, and skills.

After looking over these rules multiple times, I have realized that the Character Burner could be used to generate characters for a standard D&D or Pathfinder RPG game with very little conversion. Below are my ideas for this conversion, with the intent of being able to use the Character Burner with as little change as possible.

1. Lifepaths and Age
When using the Character Burner, each part of the character’s former life is represented by a “Lifepath”. Certain races (Elves, Dwarves, Orcs) have unique lifepaths available to them, representing the traditional roles of these races in the fantasy genre. When converting to most D&D, the player and DM should consult on what group of lifepaths (Human, Elf, Dwarf, or Orc) are appropriate to the character’s race (i.e. Halfling society is very similar to Humans, Goblins are similar to Orcs, while half-orcs may be allowed to freely choose between both Human and Orc lifepaths).

Each Lifepath takes a certain amount of time (anywhere from 1 to 15 years for human lifepaths). In a D&D game, this determines the character’s starting age (rather than the random roll typically used). All normal modifiers for advanced age should be applied to the character (in addition to the possible change in the number of ability dice they are rolling).

2. Mental and Physical Stats
In the Burning Wheel RPG, there are 6 base statistics (the same number as in D&D). These abilities are represented by a number of six-sided dice (typically from 3 to 6). The Character Burner gives the player a “pool” of dice that can be assigned to these stats based on his age and past profession(s). These stats are broken down into two categories: Mental, which contains 2 stats, and Physical, which has the other four.

When converting to D&D rules the number of dice assigned to a stat is the number the character rolls to determine the corresponding ability score. The Mental stat pool is used to assign dice to the character’s Intelligence and Wisdom scores, and the Physical pool is used to assign dice to the character’s Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. The player can assign a minimum of 2 dice to a given physical Stat and a minimum of 3 dice to a given Mental Stat. If more than 3 dice are assigned to a stat, he rolls all the dice and takes the 3 highest dice for that ability. Note that taking only 2 dice in a stat results in a range of 2-12, meaning that the character is at best average in that area, and likely very weak.

For example, a 24-year old character with the lifepaths of Born Peasant, Sailor, Purser, and Ship’s Steward would have 8 mental points and 17 physical points. The player wants to build a “ship’s mage” type character, and so assigns the dice as 5d6 for Intelligence, 3d6 for Wisdom, 5d6 for Dexterity, 5d6 for Charisma, 4d6 for Constitution, and 3d6 for Strength.

3. Skills
In the Burning Wheel game, each lifepath provides the character with a number of points that can be assigned to skills (typically from 1 to 12). This area may require the most change from traditional D&D character generation.

In D&D, starting characters gain a static number of skill points based on the Class and Intelligence. Using the character burner, the character starts with a number of skill points based on his Lifepaths (for example our Sailor from #2 would start with 14 skill points). The number of skill points gained by this method can tend to get very high and thus are only appropriate when using the 3.5-edition skill rules, as under the Pathfinder even a rogue with maximum intelligence would only start with 12 skill points.

In D&D the skills available to a starting character are based on his Class. Using the Character Burner, the class skills for the starting character are determined by his Lifepath(s). The DM and player should choose the D&D skills most closely matching those listed for the Lifepath(s) in the Character Burner (see Skill Conversion). Skill points listed as “General” may be spent on any skill (treating the skills for the character’s class plus those for his Lifepath(s) as class skills). Skill points not listed as General must be spent on the skills identified for his Lifepath(s).
For example, our Sailor is listed as being able to assign skills points to Accounting, Ship Management, Tabulation, Rigging, Knots, Brawl, Sing, Sea-wise, and Gambling. The DM may decide that these equate to Profession (Accountant), Climbing, Rope Use, Perform (singing), Knowledge (nature), Acrobatics, and Gaming. He gains 3 General skill points, which he spends on Spellcraft (to better serve as a ship’s mage) and must spend the other 11 on the skills listed above.

If using the Pathfinder rules for skills, the number of non-General skill points granted by a Lifepath should be divided by 4 (round fractions up). Per the example above, the Sailor would gain 3 General skill points, and 3 skill points which must be spent on the specified skills (1 each from Sailor, Purser, and Steward).

4. Traits:
In the Burning Wheel game, each lifepath provides the character with a number of traits that he can select (anywhere from 0 to 2 per lifepath). As a general rule starting characters will have no more than 2 or 3 such traits (unless they are of exceptional age).

In Pathfinder, all characters start with 2 traits, so this conversion is quite simple. Using the Character Burner, Pathfinder characters start with a number of traits appropriate to their Lifepath(s). As usual, the character may not select more than one trait from each category.

In addition, the Burning Wheel lifepaths often give a number of bonus traits (i.e. Farmers gain the “hoarding” trait and Fishermen gain the “superstitious” trait). Any bonus traits of this sort represent personality traits which the player may wish to emphasize. They have no mechanical benefit (in either game system).
As an optional rule, the DM may allow the character a +1 bonus on die rolls in situations where the particular personality trait would be emphasized, such as the superstitious fisherman rolling a saving throw against an obviously supernatural attack. It is encouraged that this bonus only be granted in cases where the player role-plays out the trait in question, such as the fisherman rubbing a lucky charm or reciting a saying to avert the evil eye in the above example.

5. Resources
Characters in Burning Wheel gain a number of “Resource Points”, based on their chosen lifepaths, with which to purchase their starting equipment, lands, and/or contacts. A given lifepath can grant anywhere from 0 to 50 resource points (with 10-12 being average). Given that most characters have 3-5 lifepaths, the character’s resources average about 40 resource points.

When using this system with D&D characters, the character gains an amount of starting gold equal to 5 times their resource points. In the case of our sample Sailor, he would gain 0 resource points from the Born Peasant path, 4 from Sailor, 5 from Purser, and 15 from Steward, giving him a total of 24 resource points, which equates to 120 gold pieces with which to buy starting equipment.

Note that this system can result in characters with Noble backgrounds easily having 500gp or more to buy starting equipment. For characters of exceptional age or high station, it is encouraged that the DM use the standard rules from Burning Wheel for purchasing lands, contacts, and servants using resource points, with any additional resource points left over being converted to cash, as above.

The d30 Rule

Once per session, each player may, for any reason, ask to use the DM’s 30-sided-die in place of any one other die when rolling. This can replace any die roll: attack roll, saving throw, skill check, damage roll, etc. All modifiers for the die roll apply normally.

Example: Regdar the Fighter has a Strength of 14 and is wielding a scythe (normal damage 2d4+3) against a creature with high damage reduction, but few hit points. Hoping to take the beast out quickly, Regdar invokes the d30 Rule, allowing him to roll 1d30+1d4+3 for damage against the creature.

Note that in the above example, the d30 replaces only one of the two dice used for damage. If Regdar had been wielding a shortsword, longsword, or any other weapon that dealt only a single die of damage, he would roll 1d30 + modifiers.

Campaign Knowledge: Medusae
The beginnings of a creation myth...

Pale medusa

Once, demons ruled every universe, unchecked. Then came 12 sisters, medusae, they looked upon the demon kings and changed them to stone, and drove the rest away. The grey bones of Tel-Avi were hewn from the petrified bodies of these demon kings. Or at least that’s what the 12 sisters will tell you.

At any rate, though masked and monstrous, the twelve sisters are respected in all nations. One of the sisters dwell on each of the twelve continents, often blending in to the local human cultures. One of the most civilized of the sisters, Eshrigel, has long lived in Vornheim.

If one of the twelve sisters is slain, all the statues she made will come to life. If the myths are true, about 1/12 of the stone on the planet (and 1/12th of the planet itself) should revert to flesh upon her death.

Mechanics: Initiative Tracking
Some thoughts on speeding up combat
  • Each monster gets its own place in the initiative, rather than each group. DM should roll up monster initiatives before the game.
  • At the beginning of the session have each player roll six initiatives & make a list. When battle breaks use a d6 to pick one.
  • If using minis and if possible Have duplicate or near-duplicate minis for each character in the fray. We keep them lined up in initiative order, so that everyone can see whose turn is coming up next / have a visual cue that your turn is coming can spur you to think about your action before it comes to you. As each player’s turn passes, we move her mini to the end of the line.
Mechanics: Carousing Mishaps
Am I Getting Drunk Yet?!

Eventually PCs arrive in a town with too much money. Not surprisingly, the first thing most PCs do with such cash is go looking for a bar. Below are rules for when PCs would rather drink themselves into a stupor than save up for a new sword. Since many of the results can be good adventure hooks, we’ll reward the PCs with some free XP for their efforts.

First, these rules will normally be for the end of a session, not the beginning. This’ll generally be a session where the PCs have finished by finally reaching a city or have just pulled off a big score somewhere in a city. Carousing at the end gives the DM time to write up the necessary info (if any) for the carousing result before the next session starts. If the chart is used at the beginning or in the middle of a session, the DM should be ready to improvise.

Normally, PCs will only get XP for monsters. However, once they get to a Big City, they may trade cash for XP by blowing it on various forms of strong drink. The exchange rate is 1 solid to 1 XP and must be exchanged in chunks of at least 100s per PC. Resulting XP is divided evenly among the party.

However, for every (total # of PCs) x 100 XP exchanged, one member of the party (the party may choose who) must carouse excessively. The excessive carouser must then roll d20 on the Carousing Mishaps Table. Complex results are resolved at the beginning of the next session:

Watch Out for Animals
They are not as simple as you think...

Of the books that have survived from medieval times, none are more amusing than the Bestiaries. These texts describe the creatures of the world, both common and mythical, in very interesting terms. even the most common creatures had supernatural powers attributed to them, from antelopes that cut down trees with the saw-bladed horns, to goats that kill trees with a bite.

And then D&D came along with its various bestiaries and monster manuals and completely dropped the ball. I mean come-on, this goat can’t even see great distances, let alone dissolve diamonds with its blood.

Clearly the various creatures in D&D need an upgrade…we’ll work on that.

Campaign Knowledge: Regarding Dragons
Every little piece...

Dragon anatomy   advanced by shinju the dragon
Dragon liver can cure a cold
Dragon powder grows hair
With dragon blood you’ll never grow old
Every item is covered with gold
Every item is covered with gold

Dragon cartilage keeps you thin
Dragon fat is for burns
A dragon tear will clear up your skin
Watch the profits come rolling in
Watch the profits come rolling in

Every little piece, every little crease
All lead me to the dragon
I’ll buy him up and tie him up
Drag him from the cave
Show him that I’m brave

I’ll bind him up, grind him up
Lop him up, chop him up
Can’t you hear that jingle, jangle sound?
It’s money, money, money by the pound!

The song above has been taught to every inquisitor, alchemist, and apprentice mage (basically everyone with at least 1 rank in Knowledge [arcana]) for centuries, and reflects the general attitude towards dragons. While dragons might be large and dangerous, they are also extremely valuable and useful…at least, they are valuable and useful dead. Such that most scholars agree that the tales of dragons sleeping on great mounds of gold refers to their hides rather than any actual coinage.

Over the thousand of years since humans and their ilk discovered the secrets of alchemy and iron-working, Dragons have been hunted to near extinction. Those dragons that still live are silent, elusive creatures, constantly on the move, hiding from men who would hunt them with their magic and steel. The most successful breeds of dragons have evolved numerous features to aid their evasiveness, from natural invisibility to claws that can burrow through stone.

On the plus side, because of their value, dragons often receive much more humane and conscientiousness treatment than other game, as the slayers know that every part of the dragon, from scales and claws to blood and vital organs, has a use. On those rare occasions when a dragon sighting does happen, hordes of would-be dragon hunters gather, each determined to slay the creature and claim the body as their prize. The best dragon hunters spend years mastering the art of slaying the dragon with a single stroke or mastering spells that can slay the creature without damaging the carcass.


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