Thoughts on a Zeb Hack

This is about a project that I'll call The Zeb Hack. It contains thoughts on adding player customization without adding a ton of new rules and subsystems. Why the Zeb Hack? Because the customization changes may appear to be similar to 2e kits.

Don't throw rotten vegetables. I don't like kits, either.

What Brought You to Do Such a Thing?

It's been a while since the Thursday night group met, but one thing that was requested session after session: more granularity in character classes and races.

Playing The Black Hack for outer space weirdness was great, converted White Star classes worked well enough. Everyone had fun running around the universe.

Still, the characters wanted one alien to be different from the other within the Brute or Mystic classes. Having creative license to just describe them differently was fun, but one player in particular enjoyed tweaking things about their character.

Now, I am definitely of the old school, simple rules mentality. I enjoy The Black Hack so much because it is streamlined while feeling like what I ran back in the day.

I think, though, that I can find a happy medium. Specifically, I want to provide mechanical variations between characters without turning it into a min/max game or adding too many fiddly bits.

You're Really Serious About This

Yes. Here are the ground rules.

First, I'm going to add skills. The list will be a pared down list of SRD5 skills. Ten skills maximum, but I hope for six or seven.

Then, I need to define possible bonuses. I decided that in The Black Hack, bonuses should be +1, +2, roll with Advantage. The maximum for any attribute is 20, so eliminating a +3 bonus prevents the rare rolling of a 21 for an attribute. You can't have advantage for an attribute, but that would come into play for class/race abilities. These would be similar to any of the Thieves' abilities in TBH. (Roll DEX with advantage when performing a delicate task like open a lock or disarming a trap.)

How Will This Work?

I want to define race by declaring minimum and maximum attributes. I guess I still could, but it feels more streamlined to add bonuses to attributes. Specifically, I want to define an alien in brief terms like this:

Uplifted Dolphin, WIS +1, Roll DEX with Advantage on all Piloting rolls. Add +1 to CHA on Persuasion rolls.

On the Fantasy side of things, it looks like:

Elf, INT +1, Roll WIS with Advantage when looking for secret doors. Add +1 to STR on Athletic rolls.

Dwarf, CON +1, Roll with Advantage on saving throws against Poison, Add +1 to INT on Stonecunning rolls.

Not everything needs to follow the Roll with Advantage and Roll +1 formula:

Gnome, INT +1 Tinker ability, Add +1 to WIS for saving throws against mind-influencing effects.

Alternate Elf, INT +1 Cast spells in metal armor, Add +1 to STR for saving throws against paralysis.

Humans from Sword's Peak, Add +2 to DEX when attempting to keep balance, Add +1 to INT for Nature rolls, Add +1 to STR for Athletic rolls, Add +1 to WIS for any attempt to control horses or bears.

This Looks Like a Lot to Track

It increases the number of things a character can do to six things. The key is to avoid a race that stacks bonuses on an attribute.

The most complicated race are the Humans from Sword's Peak. Four bonuses to various skill rolls may seem like a lot, but they do provide a picture of what these humans are. They seem to be outdoorsmen with a knack for controlling bears and being light on their feet.

Most races can be generated with an Attribute bonus, Advantage roll, and a +1 roll to greatly simplify things. Since that can feel a bit formulaic, I wanted to offer other ways to build a race, specifically including a complicated build.

Design Goals

I want to create pre-defined lists of Knacks (+1 to a roll), Traits (+2 to a roll), and Talents (Roll with Advanatage) that can be used to generate various races and/or classes. I am working on those lists to make the entire system modular.

I hope the next post can provide more details with class combinations. Any and all feedback welcomed.

Classifier Magic

Tanah Con-Rahn is an idea for a campaign idea with Southeastern Asia flavor. It is centered around a couple ideas, mainly a tweaked magic system that redefines schools of magic. If you want to skip the explanation of how this idea formed, skip down to the section on Classifier Magic.

As previously mentioned, I enjoy making up my own languages. The vast majority of them are naming languages. This means that no real grammar is ever invented, just a list of words that allows the user to name things. This works well for Latin-sounding town names or Sanskrit-like character names.

Sometimes, though, slogging through a constructed languages provides an opportunity to tweak major rule systems. Today's exercise was starting with the fundamental wordlist from lojban (they call it gismu) to create a funadmental wordlist using Indonesian,Hindi,Vietnamese,Filipino and Bengali sources. Since I have a couple Indonesian study books that teach grammar, I also decided to give the language an Indonesian grammar.

Indonesian grammar has a lot of interesting features, not the least of which is a classifier system. English only has a few, but the most common one is the word head. In English we say two bowls of rice and four head of lettuce, as opposed to saying two rices and four lettuces. The words head and bowl function as a classifier. Indonesian has several and are required. The list I have is:

orang - humans (which I extend out to sentient races)
ékor - animals
buah - large things (e.g. houses, ships, mountains) and fruit and abstract nouns
batang - long cylindrical objects like cigars, trees, spears and sticks
tangkai - flowers
helai - flat,thin objects like cloth or paper
bidang - used for grounds, fields and gardens
butir - grains, seeds and anything that resembles small round objects (e.g. pearls,gems,eggs)
bilah - bladed objects (e.g. knives, axes, swords)
pucuk - used for sharp, pointed things like nails as well as rifles. Scrolls are included here because they are rolled up and resemble rifle barrels.
utas - long and soft things like threads and cords
kerat - things that can be easily broken, torn or cut like meat and bread.

Looking at this list, it occurred to me that these classifiers could be used to determine or modify the magical effect of a spell. This led to the framework for Classifier Magic.

Classifier Magic

Classifier magic does away with the traditional school groupings of spells. It also removes the opposition school rules. In its place are a list of spells assigned at least one classifier and possibly up to eight. With training, a Wizard gains access to a new classifier at every odd level, up to a maximum of ten classifiers at level 19.

For each spell with more than one classifier, each classifier modifies the effect of the spell. Scroll up to see a short list of classifiers and their explanations. For example, let's say that magic missle belongs to two classifiers, batang (cylindrical object) and tangkai (flower).

Magic Missile (Batang)

Range: 60 yds. + 10 yds./level
Components: V, S
Duration: Instantaneous
Casting Time: 1
Area of Effect: 1-5 targets
Saving Throw: None

A missile of magical energy will appear from the wizard's fingertip and unerringly strike their target. The missile strikes unerringly, even if the target is in melee combat or has less than total concealment. Specific parts of a creature can’t be singled out. Inanimate objects are not damaged by the spell. Likewise, the caster must be able to identify the target. He cannot direct a magic missile to "Strike the commander of the legion," unless he can single out the commander from the rest of the soldiers. Specific parts of a creature cannot be singled out.  Against creatures, each missile inflicts 1d4+1 points of damage.

For every two extra levels of experience, the wizard gains an additional missile--he has two at 3rd level, three at 5th level, four at 7th level, etc., up to a total of five missiles at 9th level. If the wizard has multiple missile capability, he can have them strike a single target creature or several creatures, as desired.

Magic Missile (Tangkai)

Range: 15'
Components: V, S
Duration: Instantaneous
Casting Time: 1
Area of Effect: One 10'-radius circle
Saving Throw: Negates

When this spell is cast upon a nonmagical fire (such as a campfire, lantern, or candle), it causes the fire to flash and shoot arrows of flame. All creatures within 10 feet of the fire source suffer 1 point of damage per level of the caster (up to 6  points). Victims who roll a saving throw successfully suffer no damage.

A 1st level Mage chooses the batang classifier to determine the effect of the spells learned. Upon learning magic missle, he/she is able to cast the magic missile batang spell only. At 3rd level, let's say that the Mage takes the tangkai classifier. Without having to learn a new spell, the Mage can now also cast the magic missle tangkai spell.

As far as magical research, Mages researching a spell they currently have using a different classifier have the costs or time cut in half. In this case, "different classifier" means a spell and classifier combination that doesn't currently exist. For example, let's say that a Mage with the Magic Missile spell and the helai classifier wishes to research a version of Magic Missile using the helai classifier. The would be a new spell *not* automatically granted because there is no definition for the Magic Missile spell with this modifier. Such as spell would need to have the effects of a first level spell, but research costs would otherwise require half the time or half the money, but not both. An acceptable spell could be:

Magic Missile (Helai)

Range: 0
Components: V, S
Duration: 1 round/level
Casting Time: 1
Area of Effect: One whip
Saving Throw: None

When this spell is cast upon a non-magical whip, it causes the whip to do 1d6 points of damage. Creatures that take increased damage from fire will also take increased damage from the whip. When the spell ends, the whip will become a normal whip suffering no ill effects from the spell.

Useful as a DM Tool

Maybe the classifier system feels like too much work. I can understand that, it would require the entire spell list to be reworked as base spell + classifier. To save time, I will eventually post all the LL spells reworked in such a manner.

Still, it can also be useful as a way of creating new spells for players and NPCs. Taking the Wall of Fog spell, you could add the tangkai classifier to make a spell that is similar to a smoke bomb or add the kerat classifier to make a small object composed of super-dense fog. It won't work for all spells (like Feather Fall), but it opens up some new possibilities.