Thursday 24 August 2023

Half-Levels Revisited: An Example

I was asked to provide an example of how this system works. As I am nothing if not obliging, here you are:

Steve gets through the funnel, and his only surviving 0-level PC is an elven barrister. He really wants to play a thief, so he decides to take a half-level in thief. His PC is considered to be 1st level, retains the 0-level elven qualities (good and bad), and gains the bonuses for a half-level thief: a d2 Luck Die, 1d5 on Table II for critical hits, a +1 bonus to Reflex saves, and thief skills at half their listed bonus (rounded down). Although the character is considered to be 1st level, and gains a full 1d6 hp as a thief, they are not yet a 1st level thief, and do not learn Thief’s Cant. The PC can cast spells from scrolls using 1d10.

At 50 XP, Steve chooses to make the PC a full Elf as well. Because an elf never has to take a half-level in Elf, Steve’s PC is a 2 nd level character with ½ level in Thief and 1 level in Elf. As an Elf, the PC gains 1d6 additional hit points, now rolls 1d6 on Table II for crits, can cast spells, and gains a +1 bonus to Fort and Will saves. The +1 bonus for Reflex saves is the same for both classes at this point, so doesn’t change.

At 110 XP, Steve decides to finish off the Thief level. The character is now 3rd level, and a 1st level Thief and a 1 st level Elf. They gain 1d6 hp, their Luck Die increases to 1d3, their Crit Die increases to 1d10 on Table II, and their thief skills gain the full Level 1 bonus. The character also now understands Thief’s Cant.

At 190 XP, Steve is entitled to select (a) a full level as an Elf, (b) a full level as a Thief, or (c) a half-level in another class (such as Warrior). A warrior half-level would grant 1d12 hit points, a 1d2 Deed Die, and better criticals (1d8 on Table III). At 290 XP, Steve could then choose another Elf level, another Thief level, to become a 1st level Warrior (with full Deed Die, extended crit range, and better critical hits), or choose a half-level in yet another class. If he were to choose the Warrior class, the PC would be 5th level overall, and 1st level as an Elf, Thief, and Warrior.

At this point, the character has the following hit dice: 1d4 (0-level), 3d6 (twice as a Thief and once as an elf) and 2d12 (as a Warrior). The character has not gained more than a +1 bonus to each saving throw because they are taking the best option from each class. They don’t have the skills of a 5 th level Elf, Thief, or Warrior, but they have a broad range of abilities to draw from.

Note that the same PC could have become a 5th level Elf, 4th level Thief, or 4th level Warrior at this point had different choices been made.


This differs from the Big Damn Heroes method of multi-classing because each system is designed to offer something different.

Half-levels are designed to offer an interesting choice: versatility versus the depth that comes from specialization. Because there is a cost involved, no choice is clearly "the best", but you can end up with interesting ideas for PCs.

Big Damn Heroes is intended as an initial power boost to make PCs work better in a game with fewer players.

There is no reason you cannot use both in the same game: Your Big Damn Heroes dwarven wizard could, for example, pick up a half-level of Thief.


I was asked specifically about action dice. so here goes.

A 5th level Elf has 1d20 + 1d14 action dice, but Steve's character is not a 5th level Elf. A 1st level Thief, Warrior, and Elf all have 1d20 action dice, so Steve's PC also has 1d20 for their action dice. They can use that action die to cast spells, attack, or make a skill check (the benefits of each class carry to all action dice).

By the time Steve has amassed 890 XP, he has used all of the additional XP to increase his Warrior level to 5. The PC is now a 9th level character, a 1st level Thief, a 1st level Elf, and a 5th level Warrior. As a 5th level Warrior, they gain 1d20 + 1d14 action dice. This is better than 1d20, so that's what they get. They most emphatically do not get a 1d20 for being a Thief, a 1d20 as an Elf, and 1d20 + 1d14 as a Warrior. These are not cumulative. Multi-classing does not turn you into the Flash.

Tuesday 22 August 2023

Stat This Up! Un-dead Euryale

Un-dead Euryale: Init +4; Atk bite +4 melee (1d4 plus serpent bites) or serpent bites +2 melee (2d4 plus venom) or claw +7 melee (1d3); AC 14; HD 5d12; MV 30’; Act 2d20; SP un-dead traits, serpent bites, venom (1d3 Agility damage plus Fort DC 15 or additional 1d3 Agility damage), infravision 120’; SV Fort +6, Ref +4, Will +8; AL C; Crit U/1d10.

The animated remains of a gorgon-like creature, the un-dead Euryale is a free-willed un-dead creature of horrible aspect. It hates men, and attacks them by preference. Only when all male opponents have been defeated does it turn toward female opponents. In each case, it attacks the highest Personality target of the specified gender first, if at all possible.

When an un-dead Euryale succeeds in making a bite attack, it gains an automatic free attack with its serpent bites. The skeletal serpents which form the un-dead Euryale’s “hair” are envenomed with a magical toxin causing 1d3 Agility damage, and requiring a DC 15 Fort save to avoid an additional 1d3 Agility damage. If a character’s Agility reaches 0 as a result, they are petrified. Otherwise, Agility damage heals as normal.


Tuesday 15 August 2023

Conversion Crawl Classes 15: D&D 4th Edition: Keep on the Shadowfell (3): Skill Challenges

“But…wait,” you say. “There is no skill challenge in Keep on the Shadowfell!”

True, but I don’t feel like examining multiple 4th Edition adventure, and, if I am going to offer some guidance about converting 4e to DCC, skill challenges have to be addressed. At their most basic, skill challenges are an attempt to codify complex skill uses with consequences for failure. To take it away from fantasy games for a moment, in The End of the World, the second episode of the Doctor Who revival, the Doctor attempts to open a door, and the computer controlling the door “fights back”.

This is a perfect example of how a skill challenge should be built: There is an advantage gained from the initial success, the initial success is not sufficient for clear reasons, and the challenge itself can be solved through bypassing the challenge and trying something else. If you know the episode, the method the Doctor uses to solve the problem could also be written as a skill challenge.

The point I am trying to make is that codifying a challenge is not in itself a bad thing. In a way, that is exactly what a monster statblock does. Nor is it entirely antithetical to the fictional narrative that is being woven, as one could easily argue that some of the events in various Sword & Sorcery stories could be modeled as skill challenges. In DCC, a similar structure is used in The Imperishable Sorceress (where three successes must be made on a Will save, with each failure reducing Personality, before Personality is reduced to 0 and disaster befalls the PC in question).

Okay, So How Does This Skill Challenge Thing Work?

Remembering that our goal here is not to have to reference the actual book, we want to glean what we can from the skill challenge statblock itself. The most important thing is the flavor text, because that tells us what the skill challenge is trying to simulate and what we, in turn, must simulate in our conversion. The basic idea is that you must gain X successful skill checks before 3 failures. There are some skills that work better than others. Both success and failure result in their own consequences.

In some ways, a skill challenge is analogous to combat, but in combat each roll has the potential of changing the nature of the remaining challenge, and that is unfortunately not true with poorly written skill challenges. That it takes three missed checks to fail is also a problem with the system, although I suppose it makes things easier to systematize. Setting up more dynamic fail conditions is more interesting. For instance, in The Imperishable Sorceress, the first adventure I wrote for Goodman Games, there is a situation where a PC has to make three Will saves to succeed, and each failure temporarily reduces their Personality score, making future saves more likely to fail. The similarity to a skill challenge is obvious. Equally obvious is the difference: each roll has a potential consequence on the next, and the number of failures before all is lost remains unknown. There is, in my opinion, more meaning to the rolls, and more tension this way.

In our example from Doctor Who, the Doctor is trying to keep a sun shield from rising, which would result in his companion, Rose, being cooked to death. It is easy to see that, in the 4e model, three failures means the sun shield has risen, and Rose is cooked. How much more interesting, more tense, and more true to what is seen in the program if three successes lock the fully lowered sun shield in place while each success or failure moves the sun shield either down one step or up. One could then include potential consequence for each step the sun shield rises to ramp up tension.

The chase sequence in The Fence’s Fortuitous Folly is, again, resolved by a series of rolls, but each roll has potential consequences and the rolls are broken up by encounter points in which one or more players have the opportunity to make interesting choices. This is ultimately the key toward any successful mini-game within the game: Each roll should be potentially meaningful, and if the mini-game lasts more than a minute or two there has to be an opportunity for interesting choices with consequences that matter.

Choosing an Example for Conversion

I am going to use a skill challenge from Kingdom of the Ghouls as my example. This adventure was designed for 24th to 26th level characters. I will assume that I am converting the adventure for 3rd level DCC characters.


You sit in the stone chair and see a smoky form begin to coalesce before you. After a few moments, the shape takes the guise of a spectral reaper clutching a scythe. Its eyes burn with a red, unholy light, and its skeletal body is mostly concealed by a tattered, hooded robe. In a dusty voice, the reaper whispers, “Show your worth to death’s true master, and pass.”

Level: 23 (XP 5,100).

Complexity: 1 (requires 4 successes before 3 failures).

Primary Skills: Bluff. Diplomacy, Religion.

Bluff (DC 24, standard action): The character tells a tall tale of the adventurers’ exploits that is untrue but nonetheless impresses the reaper. This skill can be used to gain 1 successes in this challenge.

Diplomacy (DC 24, standard action): The character explains that, despite their many exploits, the adventurers are humbled to be in the presence of a servant of “death’s true master.” This skill can be used to gain 2 successes in this challenge.

Religion (DC 29, standard action): The character describes how the party's actions have been worthy of death’s true master by citing religious texts and obscure prophecies. This skill can be used to gain 1 success in this challenge.

Secondary Skill: Insight.

Insight (DC 29, minor action): The reference to “death’s true master” is a clue that the reaper serves Orcus. If the character realizes this connection, it is easier to prove the adventurers’ worthiness to the reaper. A success on this check provides a +2 bonus to all subsequent skill checks during this challenge.

Success: The reaper disables all four pillar traps and unlocks the curtains.

Failure: The reaper takes a toll in life force for the time it has spent in negotiation. All characters who have taken part in the skill challenge lose a healing surge. The reaper then unlocks the curtains but does not disable the pillar traps.

You can see, I hope, that this would lead to game play were the player says “I roll diplomacy!” and the DM then tells the player what their character does. In my opinion, humble or not, this is the opposite of how game play should proceed. Of course, the DM could have the players in question say what they wish to do, and then determine what skill this is closest to; there is nothing in the system preventing that. While 4e is far from my favorite edition, and the one I have the least play time with, it has been my experience that the skill challenge system encourages deciding what skill to use over deciding what your character actually does.

(Arguably, the same is true for combat, which is one of the reasons that the Mighty Deed system in DCC is so wonderful…it encourages you to think about what your PC is actually doing! DCC also encourages judges to include monsters which require engaging in the fiction to defeat, rather than simply relying on rolls, as in The Emerald Enchanter.)

On the other hand, earlier editions of D&D tend to focus on combat and traps, because that is where the quantifiable interesting choices lie in those systems. You wouldn’t tend to see something like Negotiating With the Reaper in earlier D&D, because those games weren’t built for that kind of challenge. It isn’t that people weren’t interested – see the interaction with the guards of at the gate of The Keep on the Borderlands – but that the game wasn’t designed to quantify those interactions.

A DCC Conversion

The goal of this conversion is to focus on player choices within the game milieu, rather than what skills might be most likely to succeed on a character sheet. DCC players don’t tend to roll for what their characters think; that is determined by the player. Because there is no Insight skill, the players need some way to reason out that “death’s true master” refers to Orcus, through a past encounter, inscription, legend, etc. The clue need not be found in the current adventure – one of the greatest rewards in old school play is that past adventures allow the players a better understanding of the world their characters inhabit. That Orcus is “death’s true master” could be a clue from a funnel adventure, with a payoff now which rewards players who paid attention to, and retained, that information.

My version would look like this:

Negotiating With the Reaper

As you sit in the stone chair, a smoky form coalesces before you. After a few moments, the shape becomes clear – it is a wraith-like reaper clutching a scythe. Its eyes burn with an unholy red light, and its skeletal body is mostly concealed by a tattered, hooded robe made of charnel ash and grey cobwebs. In a dusty voice, the reaper whispers, “Show your worth to death’s true master, and pass.”

Characters may attempt anything they wish, but the spectral reaper is immune to all mundane attacks and most magic. Effects that would charm or otherwise delude it into thinking the PCs are friendly to the worship of Ahriman may work, but the spell check for these magics must be made at a -1d shift and the reaper saves with a +8 bonus. Clerics or patrons of Ahriman who swear their devotion to the god of death and disease likewise sway the reaper. Otherwise, depending upon the PC’s tactics, a Personality check is in order.

Attempts to tell some tale of the adventurers’ exploits, whether true or otherwise, may impress the reaper, especially if they highlight the death and destruction the party has caused (DC 15).  Citing religious texts and obscure prophecies to show that the party is chosen to walk this path may also work (DC 20). Characters with appropriate occupations or classes roll using 1d20; others must use 1d10. Two things may modify what die the PC rolls on: (1) demonstrating humility before a servant of “death’s true master” allows a +1d bonus on the roll, and (2) recognizing that Ahriman is “death’s true master” allows a +1d bonus on the roll.

Players may come up with other tactics, which the judge must set a DC for, but unless particularly brilliant, such tactics should have DCs of 30 or higher. Note that it is not necessary to impress the reaper for the PCs to move forward; doing so just makes moving forward easier.

PCs may attempt to diverse tactics so long as one remains seated on the stone chair. However, each failed roll (whether a spell check that fails to affect the reaper through failure or a successful save, or a failed Personality check) causes the PC 1d3 Stamina damage, with death resulting at 0 Stamina (recovering the body is still possible).

If the reaper is impressed, it magically disables all four pillar traps and unlocks the curtains. If the reaper remains unimpressed (including if the PC simply rises from the seat without engaging it), it unlocks the curtains but does not disable the pillar traps. In either case, as it fades away, it intones “Go forward then, to the doom which awaits you.”

That really is about all there is to it. If you want further examples, I converted both Dragora’s Dungeon and Curse of the Kingspire from 4e to DCC for Goodman Games. And note that, while I snipped the explanatory image of a skill challenge from an online 4e SRD, conversion didn’t require opening a single 4e rulebook. A simple, intuitive conversion is often the best conversion!

Next: D&D 4th Edition: Keep on the Shadowfell (4): The Keep Itself