D&D game magic doesn’t always have the mystique it deserves

The title to this post is from an article by Dan Joyce in Dragon Magazine #200 entitled “The Colour of Magic”. If you are interested, there is a copy of the article on the Vaults of Pandius.

The Colour of Magic was a great article and is one of the few that I often see references to on Classic-D&D related sites even now, roughly 15 years after it was published. The core concept was that the relatively small spell lists in (RC-era) D&D meant that everyone who had ever read the books would know all the spells and as you know, familiarity breed contempt. Joyce’s solution to this was simple: Still allow the same game effects (mechanically) but allow different magic users to describe their spells differently. For example:

Grimfang is a 3rd-level goblin magic-user, the shaman of a small tribe that uses spiders of varying sizes as guards, mounts, and totem animals. All her spells have an arachnid theme.

First level: Shield (Chitin). Grimfang’s skin turns into tough, articulated chitin for the duration of the spell, giving her a spider-like appearance.

Sleep (Spiderbite). Range: Nil. Duration: Special. Grimfang can inject sleep-inducing poison by biting. This requires a roll to hit in combat. She can put 2d8 hit dice worth of creatures to sleep for 4-16 turns (determine the duration secretly when the spell is cast). Any creature bitten that has over 4 + 1 hit dice, or more hit dice than Grimfang has hit dice worth of poison remaining, is unaffected (the magic-user still loses the relevant hit dice worth of poison, however). … The victim of this spell is affected as per the standard version of this spell: sleep for 4-16 turns, no saving throw.

Second level: Web. Standard spell.

Get the idea? You could take any concept (fire magic, ice magic, animal magic, ghost magic or anything you could think of) and reimagine the descriptions of any spell to match that concept. Imagine this: the party is coming up on a single magic-user. He holds his hands out and balls of flame form in his hands. They panic. They aren’t tough enough to handle fireballs! But is it a fireball, or is he just a bog-standard fire mage preparing to let off a small volley of magic missiles (that just happen to have a very similar appearance to the more deadly fireball)?

There is a secondary part to the article, one which is even more related to the “mystique” of the magic user.

Xeno the Enchanter can conjure a fireball by waving his arms about, but he cannot light his pipe by snapping his fingers.

This is important. A magic user is a breed apart, messing about with the very building blocks of nature. He should be able to do slightly fey things just because. So Joyce suggests that they can. Just little things, like lighting a pipe or a fire or swatting a bug out the air. The article does make it clear that allowing magic users to do these little “extras” shouldn’t allow them to do things that they couldn’t otherwise do without magic. But in the case of the mysterious wizards how they do it is more important than what they do.

Think of Gandalf and his smoke rings, or even his fireworks. Even Raistlin managed this sort of stuff (if I’m remembering rightly, Dragonlance has been long neglected around here).

On a related issue, James Maliszewski (of Grognardia fame) has posted a list of Minor Magical Effects related to currently memorised spells.

This is a slightly more potent version of Joyce’s “bonus effects”, but one that fits in even more closely with the Vancian roots of the D&D magic system. (As an aside, I have only read Jack Vance’s Dying Earth very recently but I can tell you it was a serious “aha!” moment when it came to understanding what Gygax and Arneson did when it came to spells).

I’m not sure where I read it, but someone suggested that Vancian spells have an almost sentient nature to them. Your magic user spends a great deal of time and effort into cramming them into their brains and they are bursting to get out again. Maliszewski’s idea fits in beautifully with this concept. With the spells packed inside his head, the magic-user would just be radiating the very nature of that spell, almost struggling to hold onto it. It seems appropriate that the effect should be almost visible.

Note that the Minor Magical Effects are related specifically to currently-memorised spells, rather than just general-concept bonuses like the Colour of Magic suggested. I’m not sure that both systems would work that well together. Perhaps if you created a concept-mage (a la Colour of Magic) many of the Minor Magical Effects would be similar for all the concept spells. For example, the fire mage would have a fire-Magic Missile, a fireball, a Wall of Fire, a fire Shield and probably a lot more memorised at any one time and so he could probably always light his pipe by snapping his fingers.

Other than sharing two articles I found very interesting, I don’t think I’m really suggesting any particular course of action here. I’m not really even doing much along these lines in my own games (such that they are). Hope they might just get some thoughts flowing (for myself and others).

By the way, issue 200 of Dragon is one of my favourites. Not least because I had a letter published in it, leading to an interesting couple of years of play-by-mail games (but that’s an idea for yet another post).

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Coffee Cat gets what it deserves!

With this post, I would like address what I consider to be one of this generation’s most serious injustices. 🙂

The fact is, Coffee Cat does not get enough love on the net.

Coffee Cat is a part time coffee van that parks itself on the shore end of the tanker jetty in Esperance. You’ll find it there Thursdays to Mondays and only until 2pm. But most days, regardless of how terrible the weather they will be flat out barista-ing for the loving people of Esperance.

They have no net presence of their own, though there is a Coffee Cat Appreciation Society fan page on Facebook. If you google a little bit, you might find some short posts on a travel blog site or something similar. Our local paper, the Esperance Express will (whatever else its faults) occasionally print an article on the Cat, or its staff or its biscuits or even on how hard it is to find someone willing to make you a cuppa when you’re in Esperance. (sorry: all the links to those articles are dead. The Express got rearranged at some point. I’ll leave to URLs in place just in case they reappear)

I remember when they first opened. I’ve lived in Esperance for the best part of 14 years and I’ve lost count of the number of cafes that have opened, closed, changed owners and closed again in that time. While that article linked above might suggest that we live in a coffee wilderness, the fact is that more coffee places go out of business down here than manage to do it right. So when Coffee Cat first parked down by the jetty I thought it was an inspired move. It was just something different. Still just somewhere to get a cuppa, but not just another cafe. And to tell you the truth, the money my wife and I have spent on coffee since they opened compared to before just doesn’t bear thinking on. And why not? Who really wants to take seven children down to the cafe? But the beach, that’s another question!

Anyway, I just wanted to put the word out there that I think Coffee Cat is fantastic. The location, the coffee, the staff, the customers and even the ridiculously shortened trading hours. Shane and Lara… thanks.

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Looking at Saving Throws in BFRPG

In the last year or so, I have read quite a few different ideas about the nature of saving throws in RPGs. A few have just been flamebait (usually related to save-or-die effects) but all have got me thinking.

In his Musing on gaze effects, Philotomy says this about saving throws:

I look on saving throws as a “last chance” or a “disaster avoidance.” That is, your character is in a disastrous situation, but he gets a chance to slip out of circumstances which would spell doom for most men.

I think this is an important way of looking at things. Take a poison save for instance, say a character has been hit with a poison dart. Your average peasant is going to fall over dead, no question. A PC adventurer, even at first level is not your average peasant. He’s a hero. Granted, he’s only got a 10-20% chance of not joining the peasant, but it is a chance. And it gets better as he does up in level, as it should.

Check out these quotes from the 1E DMG (via Grognardia):

The term saving throw is common enough, coming to us from miniatures wargames and D&D. It represents the chance for the figure concerned to avoid (or at least partially avoid) the cruel results of fate. In AD&D it is the same. By means of luck, skill, magical protections, quirks of fate and the aid of supernatural powers, the character making his or her saving throw takes none or only part of the indicated results …

Yet because the player character is all-important, he or she must always — or nearly always — have a chance, no matter how small, a chance of somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction. Many will not be able to do so, but the escapes of those who do are what the fabric of the game are created upon. These adventures become the twice-told tales and legends of the campaign.

A couple of years back when I was playing more Neverwinter Nights than tabletop RPGs and researching all the maths and calculations around 3E, I found this discussion on Uncle Bear’s blog about saving throws. In it, he suggests that:

The very fact that saves increase as a character goes up in level implies that they are learnable and theoretically trainable.

I think that logic works perfectly well for d20-based games with all its skill slots and feats and all the rest. It doesn’t fit quite so well with the earlier games. I see it more now as some sort of “Hero Roll”. My character, as an important hero, has an inherent ability to avoid nasty things happening to him. This ability gets better as he goes up in the level because a higher level character is (for lack of a better way of putting it) a better hero.

Now in BFRPG there is already a one-table mechanism for such a thing, though it isn’t really expressed as such. It is the Ability Checks rule in the optional rules section near the end. With ability checks, you roll d20, add the ability modifier (if any) and try to roll a target number or higher which is functionally identical to a saving throw.

User Nazim on the dragonsfoot forums said:

It’s a sort of universal saving throw chart, and I like it a lot. Thanks.

So my plan is to get rid of saving throws as written and replace them the Ability Checks. Though I’ve referred to them as Hero Rolls here, I think that sounds really stupid and I intend to keep the term Saving Throw.

I had a look at the statistics and how the two systems compared. I took the average saving throw for each class at each level bracket and compared them to the Ability Check they could achieve. They are actually very close (and I guess that may have been what Chris may have been looking at when he wrote the rules). At 1st level, the average saving throws are about 3 points better than the ability rolls. This narrows down to even at 16th level, and even a bit better for the ability rolls above that.

Those three points at first level are significant, but given that they are ability rolls and get to have ability bonuses added to them I fell it should even out a bit. Every saving throw now has an ability adjustment (not just certain spells). I’m also thinking that we can allow each save to perhaps choose the best bonus available from a certain list. This idea is stolen from a 3.5-hack Kim D&D, but I still think it is reasonable.

  • Death Ray or Poison – STR or CON
  • Magic Wands – INT or DEX
  • Paralysis or Petrify – STR, CON or CHR
  • Dragon Breath – WIS, DEX or CHR
  • Spells – INT or WIS

Alternatively, a system like Erin Smale’s approach to saving throws could work. Not the mechanism, but the list of save types. For example, WIS for Charms. If there is nothing specific in a save description that gives a clue as to which ability to use, you could either rule that no adjustment is allowed or that the character may use the adjustment from their Prime Requisite (whatever that happens to be – I think this fits in nicely with the hero roll concept).

If you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’re asking “Why?”. Why replace one system (which has worked perfectly well for 30+ years) with one almost exactly the same? Two reasons. First of all, I like how it streamlines the process. That by itself isn’t reason enough, my second reason is that I can see the other side of Hero Rolls. That is, allowing characters to do amazing things just because they are heroes. But that is for another post.

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The Demolition Man

What does the man do when the whole world collapses?
There was a foundation, now gone
Sure and sturdy it was, unmovable and firm
Now nothing more than vapour

For years it had been built upon
Room by room, brick upon brick
With the slab covered by builder’s guarantee
He took care with every extension

But was it just imagined? Was it ever really there?
His own wishful thinking made flesh?
Or piece by piece, day by day was that flesh eaten away
Until the world was left on dirt

So now he is holding up the walls, fighting the shifting sands
That fight all that is left
“My house still stands”, he screams to any who would hear
“For how long?”, he keeps to himself

Those who could be holding up the walls, inside and out
Are now the demolition contractors
“It is far too late to stop”, they say
And they make plans for the fall

So all alone, he watches the walls come crashing down
The house once loved, now despised
Crocodile tears shed for the demise of that grand old place
And the remains of the one who would not leave

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The Portrait

It was poor art, the drawing of a child
A figure of a man
Feet spread apart, his arms open wide
Tears rolling down his face

Not a stick man but still just flat
No hair to speak of
Thick neck and small empty eyes
A line for a mouth. Pointing down.

Would I be weeping if it were me?
Left flat in the notebook
No way of sharing my distress. All alone.
Forgotten by the one who put me there

And what of that artist, with juvenile skills?
His own work imperfect
Did he leave to be with the Masters?
Surrounding himself with perfection.

Does he know how much he is like his man?
Mute to the world
Like a child with no language to share
It was he who drew the tears.

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Low tech pancreas transplant

I was doing an image search for a diabetes handout at work the other day when I came across this beauty.

The photographer has quite cleverly knitted a pancreas-shaped pouch to carry all of her diabetes paraphernalia around in. Clever because:

  1. Anyone who can knit is clever in my book
  2. The bits and pieces all together perform the function that the pancreas should be doing in the first place.
  3. It also shows a particularly good sense of humour. Like one commenter said: “You just have to use humour in life sometimes, don’t you??”

If you or anyone you know has diabetes you might be interested in visiting Diabetes WA or have a look around for your local diabetes support group.

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Frothy Masala Chai for Thermomix

Here’s a recipe I’ve converted for use in our Thermomix. I hope to make these sorts of posts ongoing, but we’ll see how I go

Original Source: Super Food Ideas May 2009


  • 10 whole black peppercorns
  • 10 whole cloves
  • 10 cardamom pods
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 10 teaspoons black loose-leaf tea
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1250mL water
  • 1/4 cup raw sugar
  • 1 cup skim milk powder
  • ground nutmeg to serve


  1. Place peppercorns, cloves and cardamom pods into thermomix bowl. Grind for a few seconds on speed 10.
  2. Add tea, vanilla, cinnamon and water. Cook at 100C for 10 minutes.
  3. Strain mixture into a separate container. Rinse TM bowl then put tea back in. Add milk powder and sugar.
  4. Cook for 3 minutes at 70C on speed 4 or until frothy.
  5. Pour into mugs or Irish coffee glasses. Sprinkle with nutmeg, serve.

Number 2 son especially liked this. He fancies himself as a bit of a tea drinker. It was a bit too sweet for me, but as I understand it, Masala Chai is supposed to be sickly sweet. But you could easily halve the sugar without any problems.

And just a note: I highly recommend the Super Food Ideas magazine. It’s quite inexpensive and there’s always good looking recipes in it.

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Why did I win last year?

Another post that spent far too much time in my drafts folder. The original title was “Why did I win this year?”. Sorry ’bout that.

I am speaking of course, of my finally winning at NaNoWriMo. It was my third attempt last year and I think it would be quite a stretch to call my efforts in 2006 and 2007 “attempts” at all!

So what did I do differently? What made the difference?

Here’s what I reckon (in no particular order):

  1. I got started straight away. In previous attempts, I fell behind on day 1. I don’t think I need to explain this further 🙂
  2. I got involved in the community. My primary community was the “Elsewhere in Australia” regional forum (we have even continued our association at the new Elsewhere Wrimos forum. The Fantasy Genre Longue was just too busy.
  3. A bit of competition. Had a month-long word war with my writing buddy Kamu. She got to 50K first, but I was never more that just a good day’s work behind. It kept me motivated.
  4. Used my bread maker to keep me up. We eat home-made breadmaker bread at home. I set the bread to cook every night so that it finished at about midnight. Once that is done, I can’t do to bed, otherwise the bread will be soggy in the morning. I have to stay up to get it out. This saved me from quitting early (for the night, not the month) on more than one occasion.
  5. Realised I can write 2000 words in a stretch without too much trouble. Once that clicked, I knew that I could do it. Good days could net me 4K or more, but I knew that on any one day I could the minimum required without any trouble
  6. Made and kept to a writing quota plan. I set up a spreadsheet table. Calculated how many days I had and how many words I had to write. Each day was given a weighting: either 1 for a normal day, 0 for a day I was not going to write at all or 0.5 for an easy day. It turned out a normal day was 2.5K (see above) and 1250 words for a lighter day and I had planned days off (eg Friday nights). I never fell behind in my total plan (I kept track of that too) though I did have a couple of days where I didn’t quite make my required total for that day. But because I knew where I was (and I had a great day 1, see #1 above) I could do that safely.
  7. Almost killed myself in the first week due to lack of sleep (funny how the headaches went away during week 2).
  8. Listened to the podcasts. I even got my voice on one episode! I was always looking forward to the next one coming out.
  9. Plan. I’m a bit ambivalent about this one. It was good knowing where the story was supposed to go, but I think with all the other positive things that went right this time I might have managed without it. For this year I am tempted to start blank with the Mythic Game Master Emulator. Don’t ask me to explain now, I’ve got a Mythic post in my drafts folder too!
  10. Jer’s Novel Writer. To be fair, I used JNW in 2007 and yWriter in 2006 (when I was still a Microsoft slave), so this is not a new thing. But I could not have managed this without the appropriate software.
  11. Mini-goals with cheese. What? I set myself little goals through the night. “You can’t have your first coffee until you hit 500”. “No toilet break until you finish another 100”. “You can listen to the podcast once you’ve done 1000”. That sort of thing. The cheese was Blue Castello cheese. My favourite (actually, red is my favourite but no one sells it!) and I couldn’t have any until I had done 2000 words.

Please don’t take this as a how-to-win guide, you can find plenty of those around the place. This is simply a list of some of the things that gelled for me in 2008 and helped me win! Roll on NaNo ’09.

Since November, I have finally read my novel and on reflection it is a lot less pathetic than I first thought. If there are any masochistic readers of derivative fantasy out there who would like a look, just leave a comment to that effect.

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2008 chart-toppers

OK, this is old news and not terribly interesting, but I’m posting anyway.

2008 was my first whole calendar year using iTunes as my primary music player. I’ve set up a plethora of smart playlists and the like to manage my music (I’ve got plenty of posts to come about that) but at the end of the year I decided to do my own Countdown.

Unfortunately, each of the lists I made ended up being dominated by one or two albums so I’m left with not very much to say. Instead of a top 10 (with 5 being much the same), I’ll just share my most played songs of 2008:

At the end of this year when I do this, I think I’ll make a rule that only the best song from each artist makes it onto the list. It might make for a more interesting post.


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Score 1 for affirmative action

Edit 2009-05-27: I thought I should try to give credit for the above. I found it posted in a recent discussion at dragonsfoot. Now I don’t know who to blame for the “inspirational poster”, but I think that the artist responsible for the Orc Chick herself is Ursula Vernon. I couldn’t find this specific image anywhere, but Ursula has painted the same “model” on Elfwood (warning: NSFW) and I reckon they match. As per the FAQ giving permission to post images to the net, I hereby give credit to the appropriate recipient!

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