Minions and Monsters in Icons

No, it’s not a new Icons product (yet) just a couple of random passing thoughts to share because, well, I’ve got a blog.

Minions

The first is that, in addition to the option for taking out minions automatically with a successful attack (on p. 42 of the Assembled Edition), Game Masters may want to consider minion actions against heroes—that is, any action opposed by a hero’s reaction—automatic failures. Amongst other things, this means minions simply cannot successfully attack heroes under normal circumstances, all they can do is get in the heroes’ way and get whittled down until there aren’t any more of them.

That’s not to say such minions are never effective, but a successful attack by them is handled as trouble for the heroes (Assembled Edition, p. 34) rather than a regular action—it’s so rare that it’s both noteworthy and awards the affected heroes with Determination Points. These minions can still succeed normally against other Game Master Characters, probably part of the reason they’re so often threatening the heroes’ friends and supporting characters.

This option is extremely four-color in style, but does suit some stories where minions truly are ineffectual and even heroes with no Damage Resistance or extraordinary defenses don’t need to be all that worried about them.

Monsters

Although it may go without saying, Game Masters may sometimes want to beef up singular “monster” opponents intended to take on a whole team of heroes by just giving them more Stamina than their Strength and Willpower levels would normally provide. While you can simply go with higher Strength and Damage Resistance to toughen up a monster-foe (both common capabilities) that may not be enough, and too much Damage Resistance can stymie some heroes completely, where as additional Stamina is something the heroes can whittle away at, while still allowing the monster to hang in the fight so it’s not over too quickly.

Start with doubling the monster’s Stamina, although you can easily triple or even quadruple it to provide a good fight. Also note that a “monster” opponent doesn’t have to be an actual monster, but could simply be a master villain who needs to take on a whole team, and therefore can benefit from a Stamina boost. The GM characters don’t have to follow the exact same rules as the heroes in terms of determining their abilities, so long as they’re providing a fair and fun challenge.

The Power of Three: Innate Magical Abilities

The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons tends to place less emphasis on magic items as an expected component of characters’ capabilities. Certainly, there are challenges—such as monsters vulnerable only to magical weapons—that call for such things, but even then there are workarounds in terms of class abilities, spells, and the like, reducing the reliance on an arsenal of arcane items in the party’s possession.

One way the edition trims down on magic items is through the concept of attunement: wherein some magic items require a mystical bond with their wielder. This bond takes some time and effort to forge, and characters can attune to a finite number of items, namely three. (As an aside, world creators can have fun exploring all manner of metaphysical trinities to provide an explanation for the question, “Why three?” but that’s a subject for a different article.)

So, it can be said, from a system perspective, that fifth edition D&D characters have essentially three “potential” magical advantages, which are realized by connecting them with items the characters acquire during their adventures—but what if that wasn’t the only option?

Now, the Dungeon Master’s Guide does talk about some other options, including supernatural gifts, marks of prestige, and epic boons, but none of them draw upon the notion that a maximum of three “magic advantages” is built-in to the characters. They’re all extras layered on top.

Perhaps in addition to magic items, D&D characters can “fill” those attunement slots with innate abilities of different sorts, essentially the equivalent of a magic item the character can’t easily lose, but also can’t easily swap out for another item. The attunement mechanic also works as a starting point for things like:

  • Tattoos or markings, like Eberron’s dragonmarks or the spellscars from the Spellplague era of the Forgotten Realms.
  • Birthrights that are inherent magical abilities, from gifts from the gods to strange abilities caused by magical “mutation” or an unusual heritage or bloodline, such as some of those from the Birthright setting.
  • Gifts similar to the supernatural gifts from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but replicating a wider range of magic item abilities. These gifts might be granted by higher powers, magical rituals, or performing great deeds, to name a few.

Equivalence and Level. The magical ability should be about the equivalent of a magic item requiring attunement, with its level determined by the magic item’s rarity (as given on the Magic Item Rarity table in the DMG). So a magical ability equal to a ring of regeneration, for example, would be 11th level (for a very rare item).

Drawback. The ability may have a drawback that’s roughly equivalent to the potential of losing a magic item or having it taken away, since the ability is not so limited. For example, a magical ability equivalent to an amulet of the planes (let’s call it “planewalking,” shall we?) has, as an additional disadvantage, that when the Intelligence check made to activate it fails, the ability is also rendered unless until the character completes a long rest. On the other hand, the DM may decide that some magical abilities don’t need an additional drawback, such as the equivalent of boots of elvenkind, giving the character advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks to move silently at all times.

Acquisition. Acquiring the magical ability is largely at the Dungeon Master’s discretion and can be the result of any number of things, from a god’s blessing to the effects of drinking from an enchanted fountain. The ability may have prerequisites, including a minimum character level (based on item rarity) and class or race requirements similar to magic items. Generally, the character’s player should have the option of refusing the ability, in which case, nothing happens (save, perhaps, for offending a potential patron). If the character accepts, the ability “takes root” and fills one of the character’s attunement slots.

Divestment. Similarly, it’s up to the DM whether or not characters can shed or rid themselves of magical abilities. It should be difficult, since that is one of the primary drawbacks of abilities versus magic items, and might involve conditions similar to acquiring the ability, or the use of spells like remove curse to “uncouple” the ability and clear the attunement slot it occupies. Some abilities, like birthrights, might be things you cannot get rid of. Alternately, perhaps you can “overwrite” the ability by attuning a magic item and “filling” its slot, but the ability is no longer available (and might be lost permanently, even if you lose your attunement to the item that replaced it).

Leveling. It’s possibly for magical abilities to “level,” either along with the character, gaining the powers or properties of more effective items as the character grows in level, or filling additional attunement slots, essentially adding the benefits of additional items as the ability grows. This is particularly good for magic item abilities that have multiple levels of rarity and power.

Sample Magical Abilities

Here are just a few potential magical abilities using this concept.

Arcane Aegis

Surrounded by an unseen arcane aegis of protection, you have resistance to force damage and immunity to damage from the magic missile spell. Prerequisite: None.

Chaos Magic

You can call upon powerful, chaotic, magical forces. Use an action to choose a target within 120 feet of you: a creature, object, or even a point in space. Roll d100 an consult the wand of wonder effect table to see what happens. The effect is otherwise like that of a wand of wonder. You can use this ability 1d6 times per day, but the DM rolls each day at dawn and you only know you have expended all of your daily uses when you attempt to invoke your chaos magic and nothing happens. Prerequisite: spellcaster, 5th level.

Dragon Slayer

Any melee weapon you wield against a creature with the dragon type gains a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls and inflicts an extra 3d6 damage of the weapon’s type to the creature. However, true dragons can tell you have this ability by seeing or smelling you with a successful DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check. Prerequisite: 5th level.

Illusory Guise

You can use an action to cast the disguise self spell at will. Prerequisite: None.

Planeswalker

You can use an action to make a DC 15 Intelligence check. On a successful check, you cast the plane shift spell. On a failure, you and each creature within 15 feet of you travel to a random destination and you are unable to use this ability until you complete a long rest. Roll d100. On a 1–60, you travel to a random location on the plane you named. On a 61–100, you travel to a randomly determined plane of existence. Prerequisite: 11th level.

Spell Resistance

You have advantage on all saving throws against spells. Prerequisite: 5th level.

Swift

You can use a bonus action to activate this ability. When you do, double your walking speed, and any creature that makes an opportunity attack against you has disadvantage on the attack roll. When you have used this ability for a total of 10 minutes, you must complete a long rest in order to use it again. Prerequisite: 5th level.

The Hidden Potential of Wild Shape

The recently released D&D Monsters by Type document from Wizards of the Coast points out some interesting potential wrinkles in the druid’s wild shape ability in the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Let’s take a look.

The description of wild shape says: “…you can use your action to assume the shape of a beast that you have seen before.” Note that “beast” is a specific creature type in D&D 5e. The druid’s level sets limits on the type of beast form assumed: A maximum challenge rating (CR) of 1/4 and no flying or swimming speed at 2nd level, max. CR of 1/2 and no flying speed at 4th level, and a max. CR of 1 and no movement limits at 8th level. The Circle of the Moon druid archetype increases the CR limits to druid level divided by 3 and rounded down (minimum of 1).

Given these guidelines and taking a look at the Beast table of D&D Monsters by Type, what do we note…? Continue reading

Icons Q&A

Additional Icons questions (again slighted edited for clarity and brevity):

Is it possible to “overburden” a quality by adding too much to it, such as “Former Right Hand of the Nephilim King of Deepworld”?

It’s possible, and the creation of qualities is far more art than science. Ultimately, it’s up to the GM and the players to agree as to when a quality is “too much” or becomes unwieldy or might need to be broken up into separate, “smaller” qualities. That said, I personally don’t find “Former Right Hand of the Nephilim King of Deepworld” to be such a quality. It’s a trifle long, yes, but still reasonably focused, in my opinion, at least as much as “Former Favorite Member of the League of Assassins” or “Heir to an Ancient and Honorable Legacy” or the like.

If a Power has Extra Powers, and the “main” power is Nullified or affected in some way, are the extras affected?

Depends on the interaction of the power and the nullifying (or other effect) but often the answer is “yes.” If my ability to fly, surround myself in fire, and shoot flame blasts all come from my Fire Control power, and it’s nullified, I lose the ability to do all of those things. If my flight, super-strength, super-senses, and damage resistance all come from my power armor and it is nullified, then I might reasonably retain some or all of my damage resistance (assuming it’s part of the physical make-up of the armor and not something like a force field), but I’d lose the other powers. Ultimately, it’s up to the GM, but nullifying the power and all of its extras at once is completely “fair” and within the rules.

For Mind Control, how do you use the quality “Controlled”?

The primary use is activating the quality to cause trouble for the target in the form of a compulsion (Icons AE, p. 34), which “can also originate from outside influence,” such as Mind Control. For example, “because you are controlled, you are are compelled to attack your teammates!”

As with other instances of trouble, the target can refuse, awarding the controlling player a Determination Point (or costing a DP and denying the player a DP award for the trouble, in the case of a hero being controlled). As the Mind Control description states, one of the target’s other qualities can also be activated to recover and attempt to shake off the power’s effect.

Wouldn’t it usually then be the case then that on the very next page, the hero would activate a Quality, spend the DP just earned from being compelled, and shake off the Mind Control?

Sure, if the player doesn’t want to roleplay being mind controlled to rack up some additional DP, then that’s the player’s prerogative.

Spending the DP to activate a quality to recover from the Mind Control gives the character an immediate new Willpower vs. Mind Control test. Note, however, this is what is happening anyway at the moderate success degree (a new opposed test every page) or every (Mind Control level) pages with a major success.

Also note that spending the DP to recover just grants an extra test, it doesn’t provide improved effort or any other benefit on that test, so it entirely depends on the level of the character’s Willpower vs. the Mind Control level in terms of chances of success. It’s actually possible for a breakout attempt to worsen the situation, if the hero flubs the test and the mind-controller gets an even higher degree of success!

But, yes, it does mean a hero with a Willpower level close to (or better than) the opponent’s Mind Control level has a good chance of spending a DP and shaking it off in just one page. That’s intentional and some that, say, an Amazing Willpower character should be able to do when faced with a Great level of Mind Control. It also means a low-Willpower hero’s best tactic is to wait and rack up DPs from being mind controlled in order to have an improved chance of shaking it off later and having some extra DP left over to take down the villain when that happens.

We had someone hold a villain at gun point and create a “Covered” quality with a maneuver. If the villain moved, would it be a fair use of advantage to allow the hero to attack?

Sure. It’s roughly equivalent to the target suffering from lost panel trouble.

Is it okay to have a specialty that grants a bonus to tests to learn a quality?

Sure, depending on the specialty and the nature of the qualities involved. Psychology is good for learning about personality traits and psychological quirks, Occult for figuring out supernatural qualities (like the inherent qualities of a supernatural creature), Martial Arts or Military might be good for learning qualities related to a fighting style or particular background (such as “Trained at the Seven Dragon Temple” or the like). Encourage players to creatively apply their specialties and give them the bonus if there’s some reasonable connection.

Is attempting a maneuver an action? How about attempting to learn a quality? If the attempt fail, is the character’s action still used?

Maneuvering is listed in the Actions section of the Taking Action chapter, so attempting a maneuver, either to create or learn about a quality, is an action, whether the attempt succeeds or fails.

One option I’ve applied with good results is to allow players to trade one free activation from the maneuver for the ability to take another immediate action following a successful maneuver.

Example: Hangman makes a Coordination + Athletics test to apply a “Distracted” quality to Hotshot. He gets a major success, good for two free activations. Hangman’s player asks to use one of those activations to take an immediate second action to attempt to use the Noose of Justice to snatch the flame-gun from his foe’s grasp, using the second activation on the Distracted quality for advantage (and Improved Effort) on the attempt.

If a person is bound or trapped and uses a power to escape, do they still get to act on the same page?

If they get a massive success on the escape attempt, yes (see EscapingIcons AE, p. 134). Otherwise, no, the escape attempt uses the character’s action for that panel.

I apply an option that a major success in escaping a partial hold is equivalent to a massive success in escaping a complete hold (allowing the character to either apply a reverse hold or take another action).

Icons Questions

A few Icons related questions from the Yahoo group mailing list, which I’ve edited only for brevity:

1) Has anyone done conversion guidelines for M&M 3e to Icons?

I haven’t, and I’ll tell you why: In my experience, such mechanical or mathematical conversion systems are less effective overall than looking to capture the style or essence of the character in the new system. Especially in a relatively free-form system like Icons, you’re better off, in my opinion to just assign whatever abilities suit the character’s concept from scratch rather than trying to model or simulate specific traits from other game systems.

That said, there are certainly some conversion guidelines out there, including from Champions and Mutants & Masterminds. Continue reading

D&D: Acting on Inspiration

It’s D&D game night, and the characters are trapped by their vile foes, thrown in irons, and imprisoned in the deepest dungeon.

“I want to break my chains!” says the player of the brawny fighter.

Having already made note of the “Manacles” section from chapter 5 of the Player’s Handbook, the DM says, “Roll a Strength check.”

… and the die comes up a 1.

Now what? Does Brawny Fighter get to try again? The section on “Ability Checks” in the Dungeon Master’s Guide—specifically “Multiple Ability Checks”—presents two options:

  1. If the character can try again, taking about ten times the usual time to do something ensures success. However, no amount of trying again allows a character to turn an impossible task into a successful one.
  2. In other cases, failing an ability check makes it impossible to make the same check to do the same thing again.

So, which is this? Neither option is particularly appealing: If the strong character can’t break his chains, he can never succeed? On the other hand, it’s a bit anticlimactic to say that just taking a minute (10 rounds) is enough for him to break the chains automatically. “You can try again later” is a perfectly valid answer from the Dungeon Master—who gets the decide when “later” is—but is there a game-system middle ground for this kind of situation? Turns out there is: inspiration.

Our Hero can’t try to break the chains, or figure out the maze, or overcome the obstacle without a breakthrough, without being inspired. Inspiration draws on your character’s personality traits, the things the character cares about. It represents when your character is truly motivated. It’s also a great benchmark for those times when your character has the gumption to try again, and succeed this time, since the added effect of inspiration is you can now make the roll with advantage!

In fact, you can even extend the idea of “acting on inspiration” to include all forms of advantage. Essentially, it’s the shift from being at a disadvantage, under normal conditions, or having advantage that opens up a new opportunity. So if a character who is at a disadvantage tries something and fails, the character can try again when no longer at a disadvantage. The situation has changed. Likewise, a character who fails under normal conditions, gets to try again upon gaining advantage, with a better chance of success. In this case, inspiration just represents one way of gaining advantage to change the conditions of the test and try again.

The best part of acting on inspiration is it is a matter of motivation. In order to get the needed inspiration, players need to look to their characters’ personality traits and play to them. What is going to motivate our brawny fighter to really try to escape? Is it a threat to a loved one, duty to a sword liege, revenge, or simply proving that nothing and no one can hold him prisoner? Likewise, going with advantage as an opportunity to try again encourages the players to pro-actively change the situation, rather than just waiting the appointed time to make another die-roll.

If at first you don’t succeed in your next D&D game, consider acting on inspiration.

D&D: Narrative Equipment

Here’s a new one you can add to the already substantial “Dungeon Master’s Workshop” in chapter 9 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, further simplifying even the starting class and background equipment packages of the game:

Narrative Equipment

Rather than tracking weapons, armor, and other equipment, adventurers are simply assumed to be adequately equipped, and armed and armored according to their capabilities, as follows:

  • Simple Weapon Proficiency: When armed, you do 1d6 damage. If you choose to make a two-handed attack, you do 1d8 damage. Use your choice of Strength or Dexterity modifier for the attack and damage rolls. You must use the same modifier for both rolls. Choose bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage based on the weapon and type of attack.
  • Martial Weapon Proficiency: When armed, you do 1d8 damage. If you choose to make a two-handed attack, you do 1d10 damage. Use your Strength for the attack and damage rolls of melee attacks and Dexterity for the attack and damage rolls of ranged attacks. Choose bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage based on the weapon and type of attack.
  • Light Armor Proficiency: When armored, your Armor Class is 12 + your Dexterity modifier.
  • Medium Armor Proficiency: When armored, your Armor Class is 14 + your Dexterity modifier (to a maximum of +2). Under this system, druids should be limited to light armor proficiency for simplicity.
  • Heavy Armor Proficiency: When armored, your Armor Class is 15 + your Strength modifier (to a maximum of +3).
  • Shield Proficiency: You gain a +2 bonus to your Armor Class, but have only one free hand and cannot make two-handed attacks.

Characters can choose to use “lower” proficiencies, if they wish. For example, a character proficient in both simple and martial weapons may choose to use simple weapons for the benefit of finesse, while a character proficient in heavy armor may choose to use medium or light armor for the Dexterity bonus, and characters proficient with shields can choose to use or not use one.

Otherwise, characters are assumed to have all of the tools and other items with which they are proficient and necessary personal, survival, and adventuring gear. If it ever becomes a question as to whether or not a character has a particular item, roll a DC 10 Wisdom check, adding the character’s proficiency bonus if the item is appropriate to the character’s class or background. On a success, the character happens to have that item. Players can spend inspiration to have advantage on this check.

The Dungeon Master can create circumstances where characters are unarmed, unarmored, or do not have access to their usual equipment. In these cases, characters regain the benefits of their equipment once they are able to recover it, or take a rest in an area where they can conceivably re-equip themselves, such as a settlement.