We're hoping this column becomes your window into roleplaying design and development -- or at least the way we approach these things here at Wizards of the Coast. We'll handle a wide range of topics in weeks to come, from frank discussions about over- or underpowered material, to the design goals of a certain supplement, to what we think are the next big ideas for the Dungeons & Dragons game. All of this comes bundled with a healthy look at the people and events that are roleplaying R&D.
This week, we take another look into ye old mailbag, and share some of your own Proud Nails.
As explained in Dave Noonan’s article:
“In woodworking parlance, the proud nail is the nail that isn’t quite far enough into the wood. It’s sticking out just a little bit—just enough to tick you off. D&D has some proud nails. They’re rules that are just a little bit off. They’re things that aren’t explained quite right. They won’t mess up your game on a week-by-week basis, but you sure notice them when they rear their ugly heads.”
In other words, these Proud Nails are your pet peeves that could use just a touch more development, not a radical overhaul of the entire rules system. We’ve chosen a few to share, particularly those that you’ve given a whack with your own development hammers to better fit your campaigns.
Please note, the following have been slightly edited from their original emails. Our thanks to everyone writing in to firstname.lastname@example.org—your feedback, as always, is very much appreciated.
Two Two-Handed Swords
Since you asked about Proud Nails, one just came up the other night and I felt compelled to vent. The number of weapons that a character in D&D can carry has always seemed a bit odd to me; players assume they can carry daggers in their boots, 2-3 weapons at their waist, and at least one more on their back. I know all of this is possible, and maybe even practical if you’re talking about small to medium-sized weapons such as simple longswords and daggers… but what about characters who run around with a greatsword, greataxe or staff strapped on their backs, who think these things aren’t going to hinder them? I mean, these weapons are likely to be at least as tall as the character!
In the session we played this weekend, the party was fighting a blackguard. He was making good use of Improved Sunder, and stripping the characters of their weapons. Yet when it was the turn of the group’s paladin of Torm (who favors the greatsword) to face the blackguard and have his weapon shattered, he simply pulled his spare greatsword off his back.
Whack!: After this encounter, I finally decided to make a house rule on the matter. While you can certainly carry a large weapon on your back, I’ve given a -4 penalty to any Dex based skill while doing so. Everyone sitting at the table agreed, which leads me to believe that my players understood how silly the concept was.
Why We Aren’t… oh, never mind
My Proud Nail: Spells like grease and the various Bigby's hands, which serve valuable roles in terms of game mechanics and situational solutions, but are goofy and somewhat anticlimactic. To me, grease might as well be called summon banana peel, and whenever Bigby's hand spells are cast, I can't keep Thing from the Addams Family out of my mental picture of the action.
If you’re running a joke campaign, that's one thing, but can you picture Gandalf squaring off against the Balrog by evoking a giant, meaty man-hand to push it off the bridge? Magic missile as well. I don't even like the name, since the word missile has the obvious connotation with modern military equipment (arcane warhead?).
Whack!: I solve these problems by renaming spells and reconfiguring their visual effects. For instance, grease could be a sheet of ice (and I could give it the cold descriptor without too much of a rules problem) and Bigby's spells could just appear to be happening by the invisible will of the caster, rather than needing a giant hand to visually justify what's going on. And I at least have my players tell me what their magic missiles look like at 1st level (I even think the DMG suggests this, in fact), so that a spellcaster's signature is his magic missile.
Securing Critical Hits
I like the rules for critical hits: You need to roll within the threat range, and then roll a successful confirmation hit. In general, this is equivalent to needing to roll a successful hit, and then rolling a second die within the range. So battle axes score criticals on 1 out of every 20 hits, while longswords score them on 1 out of every 10.
The problem arises in the corner case where your threat range includes numbers that wouldn't be good enough to hit your target. Then the above no longer holds true. For example, if I'm using a longsword against a creature that I can only hit on a natural 20, then I'll only score a critical on 1 out of every 20 hits.
Whack!: There's an easy fix to this, though. Make the confirmation roll need to be either enough to score a successful hit or land within the weapon's threat range. Now the nail's in all the way.
Ah Yes. And Then There Was Trip.
Trip: This is way too good as written. A 2nd level fighter with a 16 Strength, Combat Expertise and Improved Trip using a sickle needs to make a touch attack (ultra simple) and then has a +7 bonus on his opposed trip roll. This character will have most every Large or smaller CR 1-4 opponent on the ground battle after battle.
Even worse, a 10th level NPC fighter with average stats (Str and Dex 14) has no better chance to avoid being tripped than a CR 1 orc. This whole situation becomes absolutely silly when the accursed spiked chain is brought into it.
Whack!: Tripping became such a problem in my games (all my players would ever do was trip) that I changed the rule to make tripping a single roll in which each participant rolls d20 adding Str (or Dex) and Base Attack Bonus. The +4 from Improved Trip still applies—which makes the tactic worthwhile—but no longer overwhelming.
Buffy, the Vampire Player
A PC in a high level game I run wanted to play a vampire. Another character was on the path to lichdom, so I saw no problem—a vampire PC would work just fine in this campaign. Not long into play, the vampire PC had used his slam attack to build up an impressive stack of temporary hit points. So I started searching around to see how long these temporary hit points lasted.
Nothing existed in the vampire entry about the duration of these hit points. Nothing in the core rulebooks did either. I even checked the Savage Progression articles on the Wizards' website to see if they mentioned it there.
One of the players vaguely recalled seeing mention somewhere that temporary hit points for vampires lasted an hour. After more searching, we discovered that the player had been thinking of the vampiric touch spell.
Whack!: Finally my group came to the conclusion that "temporary hit" points as currently written are actually "extra hit points" that are gained instantaneously for vampires and only vanish when damage is taken. I made an ad hoc ruling that the vampire PC could posses no more than his maximum hp of "extra" (aka "temporary") hp, and that he would lose half of those hp every 24 hours even if he took no damage.
Is It Trash or Treasure?
Why is it easier to value common items incorrectly than it is to make a mistake with a rare, exotic item? In fact, if you fail the DC 15 (or higher) check with a rare item, you simply get no information, but if you fail the DC 12 check for a common item, you can get a wildly inaccurate result. So the gem-studded dragon statue from the ancient empire will either be valued accurately and precisely, or not at all… but the plain gold ring from the jeweler two towns over could be worth anything!
Whack!: I find that mis-appraising items is more trouble than its worth in any case, so I ignore that part of the skill.
Decipher Script vs. Comprehend Languages
A character with a +19 Decipher Script modifier (say, a 12th-level wizard with an 18 Intelligence and maxed out ranks) can decipher intricate, exotic, or very old writing (DC 30) about 50% of the time, checked once for each page, with failure meaning you potentially misinterpret the writing.
Conversely, a character with the comprehend languages spell (say, a 1st-level wizard with an 11 Intelligence and no ranks) can decipher the same writing with no chance for failure, no chance of misinterpretation, and the spell lasts long enough to read 10 pages per caster level.
Whack!: Comprehend languages doesn't exist in my game. I am considering allowing it back in, modified to work similar to the jump spell, except that it provides bonuses to Decipher Script for the duration.
The Mystic Theurge
My Proud Nail: Prestige classes that allow spellcasters to gain spell levels in arcane and divine spells each time they go up a level. Since spells are where most of a wizard and a cleric’s power are, a prestige class like the Mystic Theurge (DMG pg. 192) takes arguably the two most powerful character classes most powerful ability and gives it to one character.
Whack!: How about we slow the spell level gain, alternating between arcane and divine, then every third level the class would get a spell level in both. This revised prestige class now has more spell power then a multiclassed cleric/wizard, but a lot less then a pure cleric or wizard, which is as it should be.
The Proper Way to Kiss a Boo-Boo
It bugs our group that a party without a divine spellcaster cannot heal any hit points.
Whack!: This is very easy to solve: Just replace the Heal skill with the Treat Injury skill from d20 Modern, and let most classes have access to it. After all, fighters and rogues should know how to bind wounds and otherwise take care of themselves.
Double Whack!: Similarly, it bothers me that fighters do not get Spot or Listen as class skills. I should be able to make a decent NPC town guard without giving him a level of rogue. In my games, I allow all of my characters to use all skills on the Commoner skill list as class skills, kind of like a d20 Modern occupation.
I realize that vorpal swords are, quite simply, a must for the game. However, instant death on a natural 20 (plus confirmation) is just too much.
Whack!: My group plays that the “vorpal” modifier instead increases a weapon's critical multiplier. This has its own balance issues, but does make for less save-or-die scenarios.
Because This One Made Us Smile
One thing that's always bugged me concerns the Knowledge skill. From the SRD:
"In many cases, you can use this skill to identify monsters and their special powers or vulnerabilities. In general, the DC of such a check equals 10 + the monster's HD. A successful check allows you to remember a bit of useful information about that monster."
Evidently, the tougher a monster, the more difficult it is to identify! I can just see it now, applied to the real world:
—"That? That's a species of butterfly, Anartia amathea. And that's clearly Goliathus scarabaeidae, a type of dung beetle."
—"Hmmm. And what's that large... thing, over there?"
—"I... I don't know, it's just... too big for me to identify. Could be a bear, maybe, or a whale. No way to tell. We'd better summon the head of the faculty, I hear he can identify bears, sometimes, if they're small enough."
Other amusing consequences of this rule:
—No one, no one can identify the Tarrasque. Maybe a sagely demi-god could, but certainly no mere mortal.
—Dragons start off fairly easy to identify when they're born, but they quickly start contorting themselves into weird, non-Euclidian shapes as they age.
Whack?: The reasons for this rule are quite clear, from a game mechanics POV. If the party wizard keeps his Knowledge skill maxed, he can count on being able to identify most of the party's likely foes. This is an easy way of keeping the Knowledge skills useful at all skill levels. Unfortunately, realism takes a heavy beating with this rule.
A Final Nail: Humor at the Table
Meow!: One problem for our group is the housecat. While cats can be mean, most people aren't afraid of being killed by them. Yet our low-level characters never likes going through back alleys because of strays, after a group of 6 cats scratched a wizard to death and sent the rouge to the nearest temple for healing. Those little claws and teeth are just a bit too sharp.
-- Fallen Paladin
About the Authors
Design: David Noonan is a designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast. His credits include co-designing Dungeon Master's Guide II, Heroes of Battle, and numerous products for the Eberron campaign setting. He lives in Washington state with his wife, son, and daughter.
Development: Jesse Decker is the development manager for RPGs at Wizards of the Coast. His credits include a two-year stint as editor-in-chief of Dragon magazine; design work on Complete Adventurer, DMG II, and other RPG titles; and development work on numerous D&D products, most of which he can’t talk about yet.