Saturday, March 26, 2016

Initial Thoughts on LotFP Playtest Document 0.1 (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of my tentative assessment of the new "Playtest Document 0.1" rules. The first part is HERE.

The last two things I need to talk about regarding the Playtest rules are the new saving throw system and the new magic system. These are probably the most radical overhauls in the booklet.

If you need to make a saving throw, first you need to know if it's a save against a magical effect or a non-magical one. If it's the former, look at your Charisma score, and if it's the latter, look at your Wisdom score. Either way, your ability score determines how many d6s you roll:
3-4: 2d6
5-8: 3d6
9-12: 4d6
13-16: 5d6
17-18: 6d6
To make a saving throw, roll those dice and see how many 6s come up. Rolling two or more 6s means that you made a full save, and the effect is completely negated. Rolling one 6 means that you made a "partial save," so the effect only happens at half strength - meaning you take half damage, or the effect lasts half as long, or whatever principle would apply. If you make a partial save vs. death, you lose half your HP instead of dying. Rolling no 6s means you failed, and you take the full brunt of the effect.

The most notable effects of this new system are threefold. One, leveling up does not improve one's saving throws. Two, saving throws are not affected by one's character class, making class slightly less important and ability scores slightly more important. Three, a character with average Charisma and Wisdom using the new system will have less of a chance of (completely) failing a saving throw than a low-level character in the old system, and a greater chance of (completely) failing a saving throw than a high-level character in the old system. For the math regarding that last point, check out the discussion about the saving throws on the LotFP Facebook page (if you're a member) or the comments on this video.

I think the new saving throw system is very interesting and unique, and I like the novelty and simplicity of it. I'm completely okay with disconnecting saving throws from character class. I'd be very glad to get rid of saving throw charts, and I don't mind ditching separate saving throw categories outside of "magic" and "non-magic."

I do have a couple of objections, though.

First, it seems a bit harsh to not allow characters to get better at saving throws ever, outside of magical intervention. I know LotFP is meant to focus on low-level, high-danger play, but if the game is going to have mechanics for making characters more powerful over time than I think those mechanics should be useful and rewarding rather than frustrating. I think it would be frustrating and discouraging to always do poorly at an important aspect of the game because of one or two bad rolls at character creation. Maybe whenever a character levels up, they should get a 1 in 6 chance of gaining a point in the ability score of their choice, or maybe they should gain a point in an ability score every few levels like in D&D 3.5, or maybe there should be a way to spend money to train an ability score higher.

Second, the "partial save" thing might kind of fall apart when you have situations like "Save or you lose a point of Strength" or "Save to avoid having the Time Demon retroactively make you inherit a spinal deformity" or "Save to avoid the effects of this spell that is written to either completely work or not work at all, with no in-between state" or stuff like that. How are you supposed to adjudicate a new half-failure state for every situation that comes up which does not normally have such a state which remaining both consistent and fair? I think the new Saving Throw system could use some clarification on this subject.

Finally, I think that the new saving throw system stacks the odds against the players a bit too much. Sure, there's a fairly high chance of making at least a partial save, but the chance of a complete success is still pretty low. It was pretty low in the old rules, too. I'm wondering if this just indicates that the original saves in LotFP were also too harsh. I mean, I like the idea that it's harder to outright die in the new version, but that's "harder compared to before," not necessarily "harder than is fair."

But what is fair, exactly? I think the idea is that smart players don't HAVE to make a saving throw because they avoid bad situations, so giving them one at all is a big mercy. But considering how some of the magical traps and effects in LotFP (and D&D in general) could be considered rather unpredictable or illogical, it sometimes seems unfair to blame players for EVERY situation that requires a saving throw. You could also just say "Well, that's the nature of being an adventurer. It's an acceptable risk," but that really gets into "The only winning move is not to play" territory, which...well, that works for Call of Cthulhu, so that could be a feature and not a bug, but when the winning conditions for your game are to grab a bunch of treasure and GTFO I think players can reasonably expect a higher chance of survival. Not necessarily "high," but higher than "almost certain maiming or death."

But hey, it's a horror game. Maybe I'm missing the point. I just think I should give my honest opinion, and my opinion is that things could stand to be a tiny bit easier and the game would still retain more than enough intensity and danger. Making money by going into cursed holes in the ground is crazy and stupid, sure, but if it's too crazy and stupid I think it makes the players feel dumb for even playing, which is the opposite of what I want. It's like going to a casino: the situation is so heavily rigged against you that engaging with it is a waste of time and money. Unfortunately, I don't know where the line should be drawn in this case.

Anyway, let's get to the main event: new magic rules.

The biggest change is that spell levels are getting nixed. "All spells are considered Level 1, and will scale in power depending on the caster's level." A Magic-User can cast any memorized spell at any "level of power" up to their experience level. For example, a Level 10 Magic-User could cast Magic Missile and choose to do between 1d4 and 10d4 damage, since Magic Missile does (up to) 1d4 damage per level.

Since all spells are effectively "Level 1" now, the old "Spells per Level" chart is gone. Now, Magic-Users can simply memorize a number of spells per day equal to their experience level. I like this, since it's nice and simple.

I could see this new "no spell levels" rule making it difficult for LotFP to remain compatible with D&D and with other retroclones, but if the DM is willing to rewrite spells to scale appropriately, or if some kind of guide is released with recommendations for scaling common spells from non-LotFP systems, then I think this could be a lot of fun. It would certainly be nice to no longer have a lot of the coolest spells be walled-off from low-level characters, since LotFP usually focuses on low-level play. It sucks to be presented with a rulebook full of toys you're not allowed to play with.

There are plenty of other changes. Magic-Users can no longer prepare the same spell multiple times at once. No more loading up on nothing but Magic Missile, I guess. I'm neutral about this change. It doesn't bother me, but I imagine that some people might have strong feeling about this. I do like the idea of encouraging more variety in spell use. Also, I guess this would make wands more valuable to those who like to cast the same thing over and over.

The Read Magic spell has been ditched. Good riddance. Now, Magic-Users start with one extra language, generally a dead or obscure one, for the purposes of making their spellbook harder for others to read. I love it. Very flavorful.

Magic-Users still start with three randomly-determined spells, but the rules note that they should be able to randomly get any spell from any rulebook. sourcebook, adventure, blog, etc. that will be used in the campaign. Unless your DM knows exactly which material will be incorporated into the campaign from here until the end of time, I don't see how this is feasible.

If a Magic-User obtains someone else's spellbook, even if they can read it they still cannot cast from it. They have to transcribe the spells from it into their own spellbook in order to be able to cast them. I don't know if this really fits with the new idea that spellbooks are not magically encoded, but as a gameplay contrivance I think it's pretty reasonable.

Spell scrolls are basically no longer a thing; the rules say to just treat them like "effectively flimsy 'spellbooks' containing the noted spells and not ready-to-use spell batteries." Boo. Classic D&D spell scrolls are flavorful and interesting, and I don't think they clash with the LotFP aesthetic. I don't see the point of this change.

The last big change worth mentioning here is that Magic-Users can actually cast unsafely now. Think of it like the Magic-User needing to tap into more power than they can safely control during an emergency, overclocking themselves for more performance at the risk of having a meltdown. Awesome.

Assuming I'm reading the rules correctly, it works like this: a spell is cast safely if it has been previously prepared from the Magic-User's own spellbook, the caster has not yet cast more spells that day than they can memorize, the spell is cast with both hands and with the Magic-User able to speak freely, the Magic-User is no more than lightly encumbered, and the Magic-User has not taken damage during the same round that they are casting the spell. A Magic-User must be able to speak and must have at least one free hand, but other than that, if the Magic-User does not meet the above criteria they can still cast any spell from their spellbook (or even from another spellbook in their possession) unsafely. To cast unsafely, the Magic-User must make a magic saving throw, at a Charisma penalty of -1 for every unsafe condition after the first one. If they completely succeed, the spell is cast normally. If they fail, they have to roll on the brand new Spellcasting Error Table, and the intended spell is not cast. If they make a partial success, they still have to roll on the Spellcasting Error Table, but the spell is also cast correctly right afterward.

The Spellcasting Error Table has six pre-written entries, and encourages the DM to come up with six more entries for each individual spell. The idea is that every spell has a 50% chance of failing in a default sort of way and a 50% chance of failing in a way that is unique to that spell. The rules do state that if the DM does not want to come up with individualized entries, they can just have the Magic-User roll a d6 on the table instead of a d12.

The pre-written entries are suitably nasty and weird, so casting unsafely really is a risky proposition. The booklet also includes six examples of individualized entries, using the Cure Wounds spell as a base. These examples are also appropriately creepy and dangerous.

I really dig the Spellcasting Error Table. Again, it could be a lot of work for a DM to come up with six unique errors for every non-LotFP spell brought into a campaign, but it could be rewarding, and if the DM doesn't like it they can just use the six default entries on the table. I would imagine that the eventual new edition of the LotFP rulebook would include unique errors for all of the default spells in the game, although this has not yet been confirmed.

And that's pretty much it for the Playtest Document. I'm sure I left out some details, but this should hopefully give you a good idea of the kinds of rule changes Mr. Raggi is considering. Some of these changes bug me, but for the most part I think they sound quite good. They definitely make LotFP feel different from the other D&D-like games out there, and for the most part, I think they match the game's weird horror vibe very appropriately. I would love to give these rules a try in a one-shot or a separate campaign, although I don't think I'll be introducing them into my Lamentations of the Fallen Lords campaign any time soon, unless my players want me to. Still, there's a lot of promise here, and I'm excited to see what direction the game takes next.


  1. One way to deal with the partial success issue is perhaps to lose the point of strength -- for example -- but make it a temporary effect. I haven't tried the new rules out yet, but that looks like it would work.

    1. That's a good idea. I'm sure a clever DM could come up with "partial success" conditions for all of the examples I listed and many more. I guess I'm mostly just worried about consistency and fairness with these kind of rulings. Some suggestions or guiding principles that players and DMs alike can read in the rulebook ahead of time so that their expectations align.

  2. I'm really liking the "all spells at first level" idea and related magic rules, not necessarily as keen on the rest. Time will tell I suppose.

    1. Yeah, I think I'm going to have to at least see the new rules before I can form any confident opinions, but the magic stuff does seem pretty clever.