Friday, September 13, 2019

Languages in OSR games

Languages are something I've rarely seen used in OSR games, either ran by me or others... More often than not, these rules were ignored. Either because the game was played with humans only and then game location was not too relevant (and so the common tongue) - or more often, because it was more interesting to allow comunication than block it because of the languages.
I believe this is not typical - probably some of you or many of you actually use the rules for languages, and consider them an integral part of the game... but this was not my experience.

When I've read LotFP the first time, I immediately noticed how the game changed the approach to languages.

Most Characters are assumed to begin play being fully fluent in their native tongue, and are literate as well if they have an Intelligence of 7 or greater. Elves and Dwarfs will know the local human tongue in addition to the tongue of their particular clan (Halflings use the local human language).
When a character comes into contact with another language, his chances of knowing the language is 1 in 6, with the character’s Intelligence modifier applying. If a character has a Languages skill at a greater level than 1 in 6, use that as the base chance instead.

What is quite elegant here, is that you need to make no list in advance. No need for the GM to make a list of languages, no choices to make at character creation.
You know I am a big fan of such flexible and fast approaches, and this is good enough for me. It is not perfect, of course: sometimes it may block an interesting conversation just because no character succeeds in the roll, and still leaves room for frustration for players... How many times did you improve Languages on your character sheet, as a player, giving it skill points or whatever your system used, only to have the campaign and the GM never make this relevent in play?
Still, I feel this is better than the standard lists used in most OSR games.

If instead you want to add more details to language rules, here are some suggestions.
The first is by Rocinante, and presents different levels in languages: it makes sense, if you want to simulate something more realistic.
Indeed knowing a language for basic comunication is one thing, while being fluent or able to read ancient, academic or highly specialist texts are definitely more challenging.
I personally don't like too much the idea to add this level of complexity, but I see how it could be useful if it made most characters able to speak many languages at the basic level (thus reducing or eliminating language barriers). But while I see the potential benefits of this, I still do not like too much having to track different levels for each language - and I guess it would create a discrepancy with other skills in the game... If we introduce 3 levels for languages, why not have for example: Novice/Skilled/Expert for all other skills?

Making Languages Make Sense
[...] Basic: You can discuss the weather and order a drink or ask for directions in this language. Anything else is beyond you, and Charisma checks are made with disadvantage if using this language. (1 point)
Fluent: You can make alliances, chat someone up and get by in almost all day-to-day situations. (2 points)
Scholarly: You can read ancient, academic or highly specialist texts in this language and understand them. Think reading Foucault in the original French. Only ‘scholarly’ classes (Wizard, Cleric, Warlock, Bard) or those with a relevant background (Scholar, Sage etc) may choose this option. (3 points)

I guess there might be a way to use this concept, somehow keeping the game still simple, if it would be paired with something easier like the default LotFP Languages skill.
An idea could be to allow characters to comunicate with other humans and humanoids in most cases (thus leaving room for role playing and negotiations and interactions...) and test the LotFP Languages skill for reading/writing/other advanced uses of languages.

The next link is instead an analysis of alignment languages - although the post starts with a few considerations about languages for the various game's species (elves, dwarves, etc...) and the "common" tongue which may be used to avoid language barriers.
The alignment language is another interesting topic because it could be used to make possible to sustain many more interactions than the regular language list would... but on the other hand, if used between NPCs and/or monsters, would make it possible for characters to guess someone's alignment very quickly.
The article suggests several alternatives, which are a mix of alignment and other languages - and they have a certain flavor to them, but again I fell like they push too far in terms of world-building and GM-prep and details for the players to remember... especially if they are presented before the start of a campaign, rather than as details that come up later on in play, little by little.

[...] B13 has a list of languages that is not specially interesting - you've got languages for elves, dwarves, lizard men, etc. It makes sense that every creature would have their own language [...]
This is not particularly useful when running a game. so we get a "common" language that 20% of people speak, thus avoiding to deal with language barriers all the time (still too often, probably) [...]
Modern D&D does something like that, while reducing the number of languages and alphabets to more manageable levels - maybe goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears all speak the same language, for example. Again, works well, but feels a bit artificial and it's not something I feel particularly interested in.
Now, alignment language. It certainly has its fans, but it has plenty of haters and has been mostly abandoned in modern D&D, as it makes little sense unless you see alignment as factions. The main inspiration for the concept is probably Black Speech.
Another problem with alignment languages is that, in theory, it could be used to identify anyone's alignment in seconds, making some interesting interactions impossible.
Darkspeak: the spoken/written language of demons and the mightiest inhabitants of the Abyss. Only chaotic characters can learn it without a significant risk of going mad, and even them will avoid using it unless they are also demons.
Bastard tongue: the gutural, often unpleasant spoken language of goblins, orcs, minor demons and beings that associate with chaos.
Devani: the spoken/written language of Elysium. Learning this language for any character that isn't lawful is like looking directly into the sun, and many will not survive the experience. Every mortal uses this language with reverence and awe and avoid speaking it out loud - even if they can understand it when it comes form the mouth of an angel.
Prisca: the spoken/written language of the fallen Empire, specially common in religious (lawful) texts and legal documents.
Fae: the spoken (sung) language of fairies and the spirits of the wild. Anyone can learn it, but characters that are not Neutral are suffer greater risk of being charmed by sylvan spirits if they understand their words.

Another interesting take on alignment languages is to consider them specific dead languages in the campaign world. This means that they can be learned and therefore someone's alignment is not necessarily indicated by the alignment language that they speak, and that having a mix of alignments in the party is useful if you need to be able to read or write or speak a specific dead language.
This feels again like an additional layer of complication, to me, but it's interesting (and probably more reasonable than the secret code languages as the original alignment languages were).

Alignment languages?  Yeah.  Let's talk about them. [...]
Alignment languages will be specific dead languages in the campaign world.  They're not secret.  They're not exclusive.  They're not even really designed to be used as a secret code language or shibboleth.  But whatever alignment you choose determines which of the three (luckily for me, I run Classic D&D with Law-Neutrality-Chaos only) your PC knows, in addition to Common and any demi-human languages. 
This means you can't necessarily trust someone just because they happen to speak Ancient Gardelish and so do you (not that you should implicitly trust someone of your own alignment anyway, even if you're both Lawful).  It also gives a reason why adventuring parties might actually WANT a range of alignments in the party. [...]

If this sounds interesting to you, you may read more in the second part of the blog post.

[...] Anyway, my point tonight is to restate my idea in simpler terms.
"Alignment languages" in my game will CEASE to be alignment languages as commonly understood.  They will be dead languages within the campaign world: the cultures that spawned the languages have disappeared, and the successor cultures may speak a language based on them, but they are still different languages.  People use them for various purposes (religious, mercantile, academic, etc.).  Most educated people (and all adventurers) know one or more of them, but rarely use them in everyday life. 
For example, let's say I've set up Latin as the language Lawfuls start with, Ancient Greek as the language Neutrals start with, and Ancient Egyptian as the language Chaotics start with.  Bob rolls up Gargamel, a Neutral Magic-User with a 17 Int, entitling him to two bonus languages.  He gets French (Common, everyone has it) and Ancient Greek (for being Neutral).  He wants to speak to dragons, so he takes Dragon as a bonus.  He then decides that communicating with any humanoids he charms would be useful, so he decides that for his second bonus language he will learn Ancient Egyptian. [...]

After reading all these, I am inclined to keep the simple approach of Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
If you want your players to avoid wasting points on the Language skill if you don't really know if it will ever come into play, you could simply grant all classes (not just the Specialist) some sort of automatic progression (i.e. a point in this Language skill every 3 levels or something).

Thinking about it...
I guess Languages are not something that the characters will necessarily get better at, with adventuring - or instead, if you want to look at it from a different point of view, all characters, regardless of their class, will improve with Languages with travel, adventuring, contact with other populations and perhaps with contact with monsters and creatures (if they speak at all).

So my proposal would be to use the LotFP rule and to set the Language skill to 1, but at character creation also add to it the INT or CHA modifier (whichever is higher, and only if positive). Then do not change it anymore (smarter characters or those more inclined to social contact, will have better language skills).

As an alternative, use the LotFP rule and set the Language skill to 1, then every time a character gains a level, roll a d6. If they roll higher than their Language skill, add 1 point to it. As they get better, it becomes less likely that they will add another dot.
There you go; all classes get their fair chance of improving with languages and players do not need to waste points in this skill that maybe you as the GM will never bring into play...
You know what it looks like to me? Saving Throws: Save vs. Dragon Breath increases also if you don't have dragons in your campaign. And if you decide one day to bring one into the game, your characters have a score to save against it.

Design notes:
- Languages are for me a sore topic: they require attention at character creation, and they usually present a difficult choice for players, because selecting languages is often a blind bet
- To help players to make this decision in an informed manner, the GM should prepare in advance a list of available languages and somehow explain to the players which could be more relevant
- Also, selecting languages when afterwards the GM (or the style of the adventures/campaign) does not bring them into play becomes a waste of time at char-gen or even worse, a waste of skill points
- LotFP has a single skill which is tested once for every new language, eliminating the initial choice (but still the skill requires players to invest points in it, so it is still potentially a waste if languages then do not come up)
- If you want to keep it simple, just make this Language skill to progress automatically for example every 3 levels, for all classes (not just Specialists)
- Languages, in real life, have "levels": you can be able to sustain basic conversations or complex ones, you may or not have an accent, be able or not to read and write; this level of complexity seems like an overkill unless languages play a really important role in your campaign
- An idea could be to use a skill like in LotFP but only for advanced uses: i.e. when reading/writing or sustaining a complex conversation
- If you use alignment languages, be careful because it makes it possible for the characters to determine someone's alignment very quickly
- Languages, and also alignment languages (or alternatives to them) help to generate a credible, detailed setting for your campaign, but they might become an additional burden for the players if they are presented just as an info-dump at the start of the game
- If you use alignment languages, you could consider them to be specific dead languages in the campaign world
- My personal preference is to use the LotFP simple approach, but with some sort of automatic progression (i.e. every X levels, or with a d6 chance to improve the skill at level-up)

Friday, August 23, 2019

Some minor classes

This post provides a few examples of alternative classes, based on alternative concepts which are less "hero-like" and that can provide a fresh, new approach to the game.
They are especially good if you like to play a low-fantasy, gritty game.

I guess they can all serve also as a great starting point for some special characters to emerge, if they survive, through various adventures.

In the first example, the key concept is to play a group of low-skilled, nameless characters, forming a mob. The instructions about the class provided by Joseph Manola include options to see a few of them emerge as regular characters.
The thing I like a lot about this class is how the various "extras" most of the times act as a mob of nameless characters, without any special advantage for their number. But sometimes one of them will emerge, get a name, a few additional actions... and with that and through the death of the others, they might become a real character.

B/X Class: The Extras
by Joseph Manola
I was reading through issue three of Brave the Labyrinth (get it! It's free!) when I came across the Grimp character class. The idea behind the class is that, rather than playing one character, you play a whole group of tiny imps [...] Now, I really liked this idea, but it made me think: could the idea of one player playing a group of characters, all of whom collectively act as one character, be taken further? And then my eye fell upon my Pirates of the Carribean DVDs, and I came up with this:
B/X Class: The Extras
You aren't one person at all: instead, you are playing an indeterminate mob of nameless minor characters who follow the other PCs around. You might be a pirate crew, a band of Merry Men, a bunch of faceless stormtroopers, or anything else, but two facts remain constant: there are a lot of you (although exactly how many seems to vary from scene to scene) and, despite your numbers, collectively you only manage to achieve about as much as each of the main characters does individually. At best. 
Safety In Numbers: Apart from named characters (see below), The Extras always go around in a single big mob. If you use a battle grid or similar, assume that this mob of extras takes up an area 20' square whenever possible. (In a 5' wide tunnel, they'd form a single line 5' wide and 80' long.) They always move as a single mass, and can attack or be attacked by anything within 5' of the mob.
Inverse Ninja Rule: Even though there are so many of them, The Extras only get a single action per round: so a whole mob of Extras attacking a monster is resolved with a single attack roll, and so on. (The exception is Named Characters - see below.)
Many Hands Make Light Work: Whenever they're performing some kind of unskilled labour - e.g. standing watches, digging ditches, carrying treasure, rowing oars, etc - The Extras can accomplish the work of ten men. Even though there are more of them than that. Probably. Most of the time. 
Die All, Die Merrily: If The Extras are ever reduced to 0 HP, describe them all dying in some suitably tragi-comic fashion. The only survivors of this massacre will be the Named Characters. The person playing The Extras can immediately continue play as Sarge, who can be assumed to be a Fighter of one level lower than The Extras; the other Named Characters will be fighters of half the level of The Extras, rounded down, who will instantly become Sarge's henchmen (or someone else's, if this would take Sarge above their limit.) Each of these characters emerges from the general massacre with only (1d6x10)% of their maximum HP.

The Urchin by Goblin's Henchman, instead, is a young adventurer, a street kid that has learnt to survive. As such, it has different stats and skills than regular characters (some at their advantage, other less so...).
Again, by surviving long enough the Urchin becomes a real, adult character - in quite an elegant way, by changing the stats, little by little, from child to adult.
Again, the best feature of this class is that it brings to life a real character, but already with some history, with some background.

Class – Urchin
[...] This character class is a street kid that has learnt to survive. This class is blessed with intuition, insight and pluck.
You can’t be a kid forever, so at some stage the PC must dual class to their true calling (but hopefully picking up some grifter-like urchin skills on the way). 
Ability scores are linked to growing up
Urchins grow up. The mechanism for growing up is linked to their ability scores (i.e. stats). In Step (1) determine the stats the urchin will have when they grow up, and in Step (2), the stats they have now as the urchin.

Step (1) Roll up the adult ability scores in the normal manner e.g. 3D6 or 4D6 and drop the lowest etc.
Step (2) With the above rolls in hand, now work out the (child) urchin’s stats:
(a) STR, CON and WIZ – select and add the the highest two dice rolls. The Urchin is not fully developed physically and emotionally yet.
(b) DEX, INT and CHA add +D4 to each of the adult stats (but not exceeding 18). The urchin is small, limber and willing; their imagination/thoughts are flexible and free, they have great empathy.

Keep a note of both the adult and child stats.
Stats on levelling & growing up & dual classing
Each time the urchin gains a level, the child stats move one unit nearer the adult stats (more adult like).
When ALL the urchin’s stats are the same as the adult stats [...], the child has fully matured as much as they ever will, and this class essentially ends. Thereafter the character must dual class to grow further.

Design notes:
- "The Extras" is a nice class to play every now and then for variety: it presents a mob of nameless characters strong in number but weak in skills and initiative
- Some of them emerge in play and gain a name and somehow build up to a real character
- It plays well with low-magic, gritty settings
- "The Urchin" is a different alternative: it could be played by a single player or even by all players as a build-up to the real characters
- It features a nice system where you level-up and gain some points in some stats while you lose points in other stats, until you reach the point where you become a "regular" character

Friday, August 9, 2019

Improve low level magic

In a previous post, Better spells at level one, I tried to present a few options to make Level 1 Magic Users slightly more powerful or versatile, to make them more usable at the start of the game.

The articles here provide a list of additional alternatives to improve versatility and effects which are especially useful to low level Magic Users.

The first article features a nice, interesting idea which makes the Magic User capable of investigating dungeon features by having at their disposal a spell of the appropriate king. Fire spells can be used to investigate fire or ice spells can be used for divination about the winter weather, and so on.
This would work very well as an addition to cantrips - reasonably as an additional cantrip in itself, called Spell Consultation.

Spell Consultation
by Buildings Are People
A fire spell might be consulted to learn whether a strange material is flammable. An ice spell might be consulted to learn how much longer winter will last. A bewitch spell might give advice about improving social status with the local elite. A knock spell might explain something about the workings of a door rather than merely opening it.
This consultation is not a simple siphoning of information from an ancient text the spellcaster has memorized. The spell manifests as an incorporeal, transparent personality visible only to the caster, who appears to be speaking to himself, in his own voice and in another, strange voice that he thinks fits the personality of the spell. He is not doing this for comfort, fun, or drama; it's a necessary result of the consultation. To avoid appearing even more insane and eccentric than casters usually appear, many prefer to find somewhere private when consulting a spell. Time constraints often prevent this, of course. [...]

The next article fits again very well within the list of other cantrips.
It takes a simple approach to various subjects (fixing things, finding, blessing, healing, etc.) and proposes a low-level yet very useful list of spells that your Magic User (or Cleric) can use at will.

I mentioned in my last post that even magic would be mundane in the "Real" world. I want players to have the option of delving into the mystic arts but would rather not just hand them really powerful or even incredibly interesting spells. It might seem strange to water down magic but these are really tricks. [...]
The trade wizard will do a quick fix for your boat but it will really require a true craftsman to truly repair your vessel. A village wisdom will give you healing herbs but bedrest will still be required. However, mundane magic is still useful and thus it is still practiced. Here are some spells that fit the bill. All spells will have a range of 30ft, require line of sight, and be cast as many times as desired unless stated otherwise. 
1d12 Mundane Magics:
1. Mend: Cause an object to repair itself. There is a level in 6 chance that this spell will work. On a failure, this spell cannot be cast on the same object again until the sun has risen again. Such repairs typically don't last because the spell only repairs as well as the caster could repair such an object and it fades with time. This fix will last for 1d4 days of use for this object if the caster is unknowledgeable about the kind of craft the object was constructed with. If the caster is knowledgeable, the fix will last 1d6 days of use.
2. Find: So long as you have a piece of something or someone, you can find them. To do this, you must spend an hour binding the piece to a compass, necklace, or other makeshift directional devices. After which point, the device will gently point in the approximate direction of the target.
3. Animate: Cause a small object no bigger than a peasant's chair to come to life for a Turn (10 minutes). There is a level in 8 chance that the object will naturally obey your spoken commands. If not this object will require convincing. Objects keep their tendency towards pliancy or rebellion even after this spell has worn off. They retain their personality if animated again. Thus, casters of this spell are known to carry around loyal objects that they can rely on.
1d12 Divine Mundanities:
1. Bless: You can create a vial of holy water with an hour's prayer, or give a level in 20 chance of the harvest being bountiful by walking around their fields with a censer or thurible or aspergillum until you have circled the fields three times (usable only once every harvest), or bless a weapon by anointing it with holy water, giving its user Advantage on a single attack of their choice within 24 hours.
2. Heal: You cause a creature you can touch to regain 1 HP and give them Advantage on their next save against a physical malady. This spell requires use of herbs that you have prepared. Each dose takes an hour to prepare and 1 sp in reagents. A target of this spell can only be effected once every 24 hours.
3. Ease: Remove a level of exhaustion from a creature and add it to yourself.

In this third post, Brendan (one of my favourite authors, and your too, I bet!) provides a couple of alternatives to the standard Vancian rules. Note that they allow the Magic User to retain the spell after casting (variant 1 - not always forgetting) or to be able to cast a spell that was not prepared (variant 2 - it actually overlaps a bit with variant 1, because you could cast, forget, but then try again).
Both systems (and also rule 3 which for some reason is included under variant 2, but I would count it as a third different house-rule) improve a caster's usefulness for the party by allowing either to cast more than usual, or more spells even if not prepared.

Two Vancian Magic Variants
by Brendan 
[...] Variant 1: Spell Retention
Prepare spells as normal, standard charts. However, when a spell is cast it is not automatically wiped from the magic-user’s mind. The magic-user gets a save vs. spells (penalized by spell level) to retain it. [...]
What’s the downside? If the magic-user rolls a 1 on the saving throw, that is considered a spell fumble and they lose the spell and must roll on a magical mishaps table (or suffer some other campaign-specific penalty). Fumbles can only occur when casting spells of the highest two or three levels that can be prepared. 
Variant 2: Improv Casting
Prepare spells reliably as per the traditional rules. Any unprepared spell that the magic-user is familiar with (i.e., has in their spell book) may be cast but requires an action and a successful save vs. spells (penalty equal to spell level as above). Failure and the action is wasted, fumble and bad stuff happens. Further, a fumble occurs on any die roll equal to or less than the spell level. Thus, casting an unprepared third level spell would fumble on a roll of 1, 2, or 3.
“I saw this one thing this one time and it kinda went like this…”
Any spell that the magic-user has witnessed may also be attempted (for example, if the magic-user has seen another magic-user cast fireball). This uses the same rules as casting unprepared spells, but the save penalty and fumble threat range are doubled.

Both of these variants increase the magic-user’s power or versatility, but also expose them to fumbles. 
This does probably make magic-users more powerful, so if that is a problem you should control spell acquisition carefully (for example, no free new spells on level up). If one was so inclined, one could use both variants together, as they cover different aspects of casting, but that would result in a larger divergence from the traditional game.

The question, about this third (and last link for this post) is: how can these rules be tuned to be equally effective for low level casters?
Because keeping them as they are, they grant more advantages to higher level casters, while the purpose of this is to grant more power to low level casters without breaking the game...

Design notes:
- Spells may provide information or divination related to their own nature (i.e. fire spells about flames, ice spells about cold weather or ice itself, knock spells can be used to investigate doors, lock spells to investigate locks or traps, etc.)
- The "Spell Consultation" option fits well with other cantrips, to improve low level Magic Users versatility
- Make mundane magic and simple divine blessings (aka cantrips) for various topics (fixing things, finding, blessing, healing, etc.)
- The key is to keep them simple, usable and versatile, without giving them too much power; they should be simple spells that provide some help to the characters rather than powerful ones that will solve the situation
- To grant more power to low level casters, another possible option is to allow a Saving Throw (or use another mechanic) to allow the caster to retain the spell after using it (not forgetting it every time)
- Another option is to allow to cast a spell which was not prepared (again with a Saving Throw or similar mechanic)
- The issue with Saving Throws is that they improve with the character's level, so this change is more beneficial to high level casters

Friday, July 26, 2019

Alternatives to the Vancian magic system

In a previous post, Better spells at level one, I tried to present a few options to make Level 1 Magic Users slightly more powerful or versatile, to make them more usable at the start of the game.

Here, though, I want to review a few alternatives to the traditional Vancian system (prepare spells by slots, followed by cast and forget). It's a common topic among OSR house-rules, but it should be treated with care.
How magic works, in fact, has a profound impact both on the setting (a powerful magic system implies, usually, a society heavily influenced by wizards), and on the game-play (why play a Fighter if the Magic User is tremendously more powerful, even at the first levels?).

The first post is by Diogo Nogueira, and presents a different way to handle the Vancian system, but still remains Vancian... or actually, tries to make the system less DnD-like, and more Vancian-like, in the spirit of the books.
The system is simple enough and requires just a table of incidents that trigger whenever the character tries to memorize too many spells.
I guess I would try to improve the system, if I'd use it, to include a rule on how to cast a spell that the Magic User knows, but has not prepared.

Alternate Vancian Magic System for OSR Games
by Diogo Nogueira
[...] I’ve come up with an alternate Vancian Magic System that makes spellcasting more flexible, leveless (even though you can still use the standard spell list in your game of choice) and insert some risk in the sorcery art (which I think is essential, as we are dealing with unnatural forces).
In the stories I’ve read, magicians, when they were imparting the spell energies in their minds to cast them later, would make increasingly greater effort to put as many spells as they could in their memory. There was not definite limit. Some could impart more, some less, and this could vary. They could risk filling their minds with spells, but if they pushed too hard, they could lose and release all that energy uncontrollably. Of course some of you might see this differently, but that’s what my imagination has captured out of those stories.
Magic-Users can safely prepare a number of spell levels equal to their own character level plus their Intelligence modifier.
A character may attempt to prepare additional spells beyond his level limit, but that is risky. Each additional spell prepare triggers a Saving Throw with a penalty equal to the additional levels of spells prepared beyond the safety level.
Success means the spell is prepared normally and can be cast as if safely prepared. Failure however prevents the spell from being prepared and triggers a backlash. The character than rolls 1d6 and adds the total amount of spells levels prepared beyond his safe limit and consults the table below.
The penalty to the Saving Throws to prepare additional spells beyond the safe limit can be offset by sacrifices as the referee deems fair. A character may burn points of abilities scores to offset these penalties as 1 per 1. 
The Saving Throw penalty resets after a full day of rest. However, if there are still levels of spells prepared beyond the safe limit, that number of levels is immediately applied as penalty to prepare any new spells.

1d6+ Spell Levels --- Backlash
2 --- Forces a Saving Throw to keep the lowest prepared spell still memorized.
3 --- The character suffers a number of points of damage equal to the number of additional spells levels he has attempted to prepare this day.
4 --- The character must make a Saving Throw not to release a offensive spell on himself he has prepared right away.
15 --- The Void drains the life energy of the caster and their allies within 30 ft range to power their spells. Everyone affected suffers a points of damage distributed between their Strength, Dexterity and Constitution for each additional spell level the character tried to prepare.
16+ --- The character accidentally summons an entity from the planes, possessing a number of HD equal to the total number of additional levels of spells he tried to prepare. The entity is determined to devour them and their allies.

The next post is by d4 Caltrops, and really goes further away from the traditional rules.
First of all, in this post the author gets rid of spell lists, which should speed up play (less time spent studying the spells, the effects, the best cominations for using slots to memorize them, etc.).
Spells are replaced by words, by powerful keywords, and effects are negotiated at the table.

Putting the User back in Magic-User
[...] I’ve always been intrigued by eliminating/reducing spell lists (less to look up/remember or record).
The central conceit is that instead of learning spells from a list, Magic-Users learn “words” that are used to create new spells. I believe the old GURPS Magic had a Rune-Based system for noun/verb pairs for on-the-fly casting, and it always looked relatively tricky to judge without a ton of negotiation.
I do enjoy the idea of using the Magic-User’s initial spell outlay to determine the initial words known. The post postulates that new Spell Creation could be handled on a one-per-session basis, I’m inclined to agree, as adjudicating this kind of system on the fly may introduce inconsistent rulings. But spell creation by word combination “on-the-fly” is still somewhat interesting to me. I like the idea of making magic somewhat unpredictable and mysterious.

How would I use them? Well, I’d go ahead and follow the general advice outlined in the inspiring post and grant an initial outlay of two, standard, Vancian spells from the 1st Level Spell List for initial tinkering and combination. Maybe an extra word per point of Intelligence bonus to keep things interesting and encourage system-use from the start. Articles like “of” and “the” and targets like an implied “(self)” should probably be free.

Following the spirit of the magic by keywords, this third article by Martin O presents another interesting alternative, as long as your players enjoy the challenge.
As the previous system, it requires coming up with effects and details on the fly, negotiating between players and GM.
This system is particular in the sense that a spell can be cast only once, but then slowly changed into something else by replacing its letters.
At the same time, the challenge of coming up with something original each time, is definitely going to bring at the table the sense of challenge of magic, and of its infinite possibilities.

The Practitioners of Paronym
This is an insane subclass. Only a masochistic person would play it.
Or maybe someone who's very good at Scrabble and crossword puzzles.
The idea is that you take a magic class: Magic-User, Wizard, Bard, whatever.
You give them access to every single spell of a spell level they could cast.
You only allow them to cast any particular spell only exactly once. For the entire campaign.
You give them to ability to change the effect of a spell by changing the name of the spell...
There are a couple of ways to do this. I think I prefer a point system. Give them a certain number of points per long rest/day. Maybe caster level x 2 or something. For each point they spend they may perform one alteration on a spell.
Each point spent will either add a letter, subtract a letter, or substitute a letter for another. Spaces and removing spaces are free.
For example: Paromancer Bob wants to cast Shocking Grasp, but oh! That's boring. Instead he's going to spend 1 point and cast Shocking Grass. Or perhaps the less-effective sounding Shocking Gasp. Maybe he wants to spend 2 points and cast Shocking Grate, or Shocking Ass.
Yes, this means coming up with effects and damage on the fly. I warned you earlier. 
I think a good way to go about it is this rule of thumb: the more useless the spell sounds like it would be except in this specific scenario, the more powerful the effect is. The more effective the spell sounds like it would be for most scenarios, the less powerful it is.

If I'd ever use this system, I would also like to understand how to deal with changing a letter then NOT using the spell... Can I change another letter another day, and slowly replace them and change the spell into what I need? Or do I NEED to cast a changed spell before I can change it again? (this would make for some silly moments for sure)

In the last post for today, we're looking at a short article by Patrick Mallah, with a simple and effective system. It uses magic points, which is the easiest alternative to introduce some limits to the ability to cast, if you don't use cast and forget.

Escape from Vancian magic
by Patrick Mallah
What do I dislike about Vancian magic?
What do my players dislike about Vancian magic?
The idea I have now is to give wizards Magic Points that they use to cast spells. 
Earning Magic Points by leveling up (this is a rough draft):
Level 1 = +1mp
Level 2 = +1mp
Level 3 = +1mp
Level 4 = +2mp
Wizards add their best bonus between Intelligence and Constitution to their Magic Point total at each level. [...]
Spells also cost an equal amount to cast so a Level 1 spell costs 1 Magic Point to cast. There is no roll and no memorization, if the Magic-User knows the spell then they cast it. Magic Points recover completely after resting/sleeping for 8 hours. [...]
Spellburn: if a wizard "burns" their Constitution they can create an uber-effect with a spell. Burned Con points recover at 1 per week, magical healing doesn't increase the amount healed or reduce the time needed to heal. Maybe a purple lotus flower could recover burnt Con. [...]

Design notes:
- Alternatives to the traditional Vancian system: treat this with care as it impacts both the setting and the game-play (a system too powerful changes the setting into one shaped forcefully by magic, and makes Magic User the only viable, reasonable class to choose)
- Possible tuning includes the option to prepare spell beyond the traditional limit
- This might be handled with a Saving Throw: a fail results in not having the spell prepared, plus some penalties (i.e. from a table of incidents)
- In this case, keep track of what's prepared beyond the limit, so that multiple penalties would stack together
- An alternative system may use for example combinations of keywords: they require a negotiation on the effects, but could lead to interesting, original combinations and effects
- Using keywords and coming up with effects on the fly could be challenging, but there is also the possibility to mutate spells by changing, removing or replacing a single letter at the time 
- Easiest solution to replace cast and forget, is to use magic points
- If you do, use a simple method: start with the cost per spell (usually 1 point per spell level) and then grant points to wizards according to their level (i.e. use a table, or they add their level to the total plus some bonus)

Friday, July 12, 2019

Hirelings: generators and lists

First of all, let's get to the useful tool.
Who wants to generate hirelings "wasting" precious time at the table?

So let's take advantage of this simple, fast and useful hireling generator: it allows you to select even basic options such as 3d6 vs 4d6-drop-lowest for stats, Auto-Equip versus rolling for starting money, minimum HP, and level.
Clicking on the name gives you a printable character sheet.
The only drawbacks:
- A single saving throw (so OK for S&W, less for other OSR games with multiple saves, but these are disposable hirelings... so I guess even with other rulesets a single Save is ok)
- No list of spells for magic users or clerics

Complete Hireling generator.
A hireling generator designed with Swords & Wizardry Complete in mind, but also suitable for other Old School RPGs

Same problem - no spells lists, at this other link. Here there is no Save at all, but I guess for random OSR you can just refer to the default level one table for fighters.
This generator, though, includes a few traits/backstories and an alignment (I didn't test if they make sense when generating a lot of them or if perhaps they're too much over the edge, gonzo, or meaningless).

Fifty Random Hirelings for Your OSR-Style Campaign World

Last generator, from barrowmaze, includes a variable selection for recruiting in a village or in a larger city, and additionl recruits in case you're willing to pay more for a town crier.
It gives a handy list which includes everything (Name, Type, Race, HP, Sex, Weapon, Armor, Alignment, Background, Possessions & Knowledge, Notable Features) except... again, spells.
But you may get a war dog.

This generator is intended for introductory level play using the OE, Basic, or 1E gamesystems and their retroclones.

In any case, with all randomly generated hirelings in need for a spell, we can easily work with this:

Having said that, remember to give a little life to your hirelings... Don't push it too far, but a trait or two, or a line of a backstory, a quirk, a funny habit, a strange fear or weakness, something odd, will make any meaningless set of stats into a person.
If you want, you can start with what I already listed for characters:

If you want a simple table with additional traits, you can use also the simple and handy pdf linked below, on, which uses a roll of all your dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20) to generate a few meaningful traits for a hireling:

If you feel like pushing it a bit further, consider the next two lists, with a list of random followers, adding color to your party.

Who/what has followed the party?
by V. A.
As the party travels, they may pick up a hanger-on or two - perhaps they have gained some notoriety, or some opportunistic individual(s) hope to join for fortune or easy pickings, or just something following you for reasons of its own... Some may be almost helpful. Regardless, they're at least one more mouth to feed... [...]
1. Farm boy/girl with adventuresome aspirations.  50% chance to be carrying a random weapon in disrepair, 20% chance to be wearing poorly fitted and mis-matched armor.
2. Dog(s) 1d4.  25% of some useful training (herding, guard, hunting), 2% chance blink dog, 5% chance Really Good Dog, otherwise just begging cur.
3. Cat.  Of no use whatsoever.  Gloms onto the party member most likely to dislike cats and/or be allergic.
4. Half-wit:  Strong, at least.  Can lift/carry heavy things.  Doesn't complain.  Obsessively happy.  No matter what you tell them your name is, they call you Seymour.
5. A goblin.  Cloyingly sycophantic. 25% chance to have useful info on next subterranean dungeon entered.  33% chance that they'll betray you.

OSR: Table of Camp Followers
Most OSR, D&D-type games have rules for hirelings and mercenaries. This table is for all the people one step lower on the adventuring ladder. Camp followers won't go into the dungeon for  you. They won't fight for you. In fact, they barely work for you at all. They tend to follow soldiers to and from wars. Most armies were outnumbered by their followers. You can recruit them at the edge of wars or in disorderly cities and villages. Sometimes they turn up unannounced.
Each camp follower costs 5cp per day (35 cp per week, 15 sp per month). If you can't or won't pay them, some might leave, some might starve, and some might steal your purse and run into the forest. 
Roll (1d100) Camp Follower
1- Infant - noisy. If this is your only camp follower, you may roll again.
2- Urchin - follows you around and assists with minor tasks. 
3- Brawler Urchin - will fight and bite anyone and anything, including horses, dogs, and other party members.
4- Wild Urchin - doesn't speak, runs around, finds animals and sticks and puts them in your tent.
5- Cunning Urchin - watches and waits. Has a hoard of 1d10sp, a dagger, and a plan.
6- Militant Urchin - plays at being a solider. Marches around, guards things, challenges passersby.
7- Your Child - resembles you. 1d10 years old. Might vary by race. Unless you have a Spouse, the child is illegitimate.
8- Orphan - you knew at least one of the parents. 1d10  years old, thinks of you as an important figure.
9- Blind Man - navigates with a reed, can see ghosts and spells clearly, refuses to admit this. Twitchy.
10- Blind Man - navigates with a stick, swears like a sailor, can hear changes in the weather.

Note that while most hirelings are assumed to be low-level, sometimes you want something more, someone more powerful, who can bring more to the party (and, I guess, more headaches to the players!).
This is a handy list of mid-level hirelings, with different classes.

Strange Mid-Level Hirelings Table
by Cacklecharm
If you want a hireling of a specific class, roll 1d6 for that class in its category. [...] If you want a totally random hireling, roll 1d20. All non-specified stats modifiers are randomly generated.
[1] Haggrath the Giant-Handed – Level 4
Stats- +1 Str, -1 Dex, +2 Con
Average looking man with hands that belong on someone much taller and twice his age. Well known for getting exiled from his home city after a young woman was found strangled to death; he swears he didn't do it.
Haggrath can strangle anything that has to breath through a windpipe; deals 1d8+1 damage per round with his massive, clenching hands. Count his strength as +3 for grip strength.

[2] “Ramsy” the Lionheart – Level 5
Stats- -2 Dex, +2 Con, -2 Wis
Large male buck ram sheep. Talks. Walks on all fours and holds his sword in his mouth. Claims his mother was thrown in a lion's pit for food, but they ended up falling in love instead, hence he has the body of a sheep but the warrior's heart of a lion.
Cannot manipulate tools and doesn't have hands, but can use his mouth similar to a hand and counts his Dexterity as +2 for climbing. Has to wear custom armor, but his fleece also grants +2 AC when fully grown out. If he fails a save vs a fiery spell or breath attack, it will burn up and have to grow back next summer. Has -1 to morale and a bad attitude until he has a squire to groom him. Could serve as a mount for a halfling.

[7] Gottsan Arrowcatcher – Level 5
Stats- +1 Str, +2 Dex, -2 Int
Lean, wiry youth whose features seem to hint at a half orc heritage. Worked with a travelling circus as a juggler and with sleight of hand. Well known for his most famous trick; catching arrows. Isn't very talkative, notoriously bad with money.
He can catch up to one arrow fired at him per free hand per round on a successful save. If he fails the save, the arrow does 1 damage to his hand and delivers any poison it may be coated in. He can also roll a save at -2 to try to catch an arrow shot at an ally if he's adjacent.

[8] Minervii – Level 4
Stats- +1 Dex, +1 Con, +2 Int, -2 Cha
Found abandoned in a swamp as an infant. Very sharp, but of an ugly and unkept appearance. Has gray hair that looks green in the sunlight. Worked as a guide in the bog and sometimes lead her customers to their deaths in quicksand if she thought they'd take advantage or wouldn't pay.
Can boil strands of her hair in a pot to create stale, foul tasting water that is poisonous to drink or if a weapon is dipped in it. A dozen strands makes the drinker have an upset stomach, a few large clippings deal 1d6 poison damage, and shaving all of her head into a pot would deal 3d6 damage.

[13] Salvo – Level 5
Stats- -1 Dex, -1 Con, +1 Int
Mysterious, foreign mage with a lisp. His fingers are each decorated with tattooed rings of symbols in both red and black ink. Doesn't remember how he got the tattoos.
Can expend any spell slot to fire that many 1 damage, screaming, glowing red magic missiles from his fingertips. Doing this more then once per day makes his fingers even more numb and clumsy, -1 to Dex modifier for a day for each barrage past the first.

[14] Berinon “Deathwraps” – Level 6
Stats- -2 Strength, +1 Dex, +2 Int, -1 Wis
Once used a mummy's wrappings to bind up his own injuries while he was bleeding to death. He was cursed with a fragility of the dead but somehow survived. Still carries mummy bandages that he washes and cleans to wrap up his diseased sores and wounds.
Every time this character rolls their HD to determine hit points each level, it is always treated as a roll of 1. He only has 6 + Con modifier HP. Every time he casts a Necromancy spell, or spells aligned with the powers of death, he treats it as thought it was 1 caster level lower to prepare.

Next time, though, I would like to discuss alternative rules and other approaches to the standard, when it comes to hirelings.
It makes sense of course to treat them as characters, or as simpler characters... but is there a way to maintain their usefulness, their color, and make them much lighter in terms of rules?
How can we get the most out of hirelings without too many rules, without too much work?

Friday, June 28, 2019

Traps, part two: example traps

We gave a look at traps, here: Traps - a first review and this topic is definitely too big for a single post. So let's see a few additional points about the subject, but this time let's be very practical, let's see a few examples of traps.

Traps in a spellbook are a great way to target the spellcaster in the group... a mysterious spellbook is a serious temptation for any wizard.
Traps in spellbooks might be hidden or could be quite visible and yet remain interesting and challenging (i.e. the spellcaster might easily spot the ink golem traps protecting every spell - do they risk to trigger it every time to learn new spells?), or could also be in the form of twisted spells (i.e. without the correct code, the learned spell is actually harmful instead of useful).
Obviouly, traps in a spellbook are magical ones, and your spellcaster will soon learn to cast Detect Magic or similar before opening a new spellbook... but does the aura of the spellbook disturb Detect Magic? And what about that wizard who smartly predicted that other spellcasters would disarm magical traps and used instead a simple, poisoned needle or poisoned dust?

Spellbook Traps
by Hack & Slash
Here is my list of ways a spell book can be trapped. It's system neutral. I am not the originator of most of these, you may thank Anonymous. Enjoy. I should come up with a list of specific magical books later. . .
1. Alarm
2. Explosive Runes
3. Contingency (To trigger any spell)
4. Symbol
5. Dusty pages (spores, disease)
6. Contact poison
7. Twisted spells (harmful spells unless the caster knows the code or key)
8. Ink Golems
9. Cloud of a million papercuts (Targeting eyes, nose, and mouth.)
10. Something that looks like a linking book, but actually triggers an Imprisoment spell
11. Mimics
12. A book with the same words on every page, with the spells coded into ink, or texture / material of the pages
13. Beartraps
14. Cursed (Polymorph for anyone reading the book who isn't the caster
15. Superglue [...]

This is an example of how to use giant block of stone in some original ways. There are a few interesting ideas, and also a few questions which could be useful as inspiration of how to design your traps.
- Take something simple, and think of all the ways this could be used; what could be an unexpected or original use? with and/or without magic?
- Take inspiration from the real world: toys, tools, hardware, scenarios; think about traps but also about secrets

by Follow Me, And Die
Take something simple, and think of all the ways this could be used, it could all be in the same dungeon, or series of dungeons/tombs. Perhaps all the tomb builders of a certain epoch used them. [...]
Have a giant rock or cube the shape of the corridor fill up the space.
It doesn’t have to kill. Use it to stop entrance or exit and otherwise direct the adventurers along the path most favorable to the kobolds.
Think of all the ways you can use a giant block of stone to impede and frustrate their efforts. Be sure to think in 3 dimensions.

Examples with a 10X10X10 dungeon corridor.

- The block that falls can’t be pushed or pulled as it is a tight fit and there is a slight lip in the floor around its base.
- The block falls just in front to make them turn back or aside at an intersection.
- The block falls after they enter a room and exit on opposite wall has one that will fall before they can leave the room.
- - There can be no exit and the party waits for rescue or attack, or figures a way out.
- - There can appear to be no exit, but there is a secret door or trap door in the flor/ceiling.
- A stone block actually is a secret room but the players have to find it in the portion facing them.
I started with a stone block and added in pits, moving walls, floors, and ceilings, and so forth. In the same way, start with something simple and look at it just a bit differently.
- What can you do with it that you or a player wouldn’t expect?
- What can you do with it with and without magic? (Technology for other genres.)
- Find one of your child’s or grandchild’s toys or other household item.  What can you do with that?
- Pay attention to the things you see at the big box stores or hardware store.
- What overheard conversation from public places sparks an idea?
- Don’t limit yourself to traps. You can do this with secret doors, hidden compartments, etc.[...]

If you're ready for a longer read, you can also refer to this series of posts by Talysman. The previous post about traps already had links to the first two articles, but the list contains also a series of posts about different types of traps... Springs, Levers, Pressure Plates, etc. are all analyzed in details and can provide inspiration for your own new, original traps.

Traps Series
by Talysman
Compression Triggers
Pressure Plates
Equilibrium (Balance) Plates
Wheels/Axles [...]

To conclude this post, let's look at four links by Martin O, on traps, guards, alarms and locks.
Some of these are interesting, others a little bit nasty.

For example I like the idea of reducing the speed to paralysis in a progressive manner or preventing turning left or right because they pose a challenge.
I don't like too much the "accelerate to death" or "radiation" traps, in their simplicity, because they require just a dispell magic or a cure, or they cause a fast/slow death with not too much of challenge or interesting content...
In this sense, I prefer a trap to make damage than to kill because a weakened character becomes a challenge for the player... more than a dead one. As you might have guessed, rather than just killing characters with one blow, I'd rather grind them slowly to death because players don't know when to turn back and return to safety instead of pushing forward with greed.

20 Traps for Wizards and Assholes
by Martin O
1. Xeno Hallway - Person moves half the speed they did last round, every round. If not sprinting at the start they’ll effectively be stuck [...]
3. Turn Rune - Trigger-activated rune prevents all affected from turning left or right on their own accord. Visual or area activation common. Typically last a day [...]
5. Acceleration Rune - Target starts accelerating at rate of 5ft/round(squared). No effective upper speed limit. Distance required to turn 90 degrees also increases at 5ft/round (starting at 0ft). Unless eventually dispelled, your pieces will almost certainly end up ricocheting into space. [...]
13. Radioactive Loot - Hope you enjoy having cancer, thief! Whatever is worth stealing is radioactive. Direct prolonged contact is sure to produce dire health effects. [...]

Guards are basically like a visibile trap. There might be a way to deactivate a trap before it triggers or to circumvent it, and there might be a way to distract or incapacitate a guard instead of fighting it.
They offer interesting options as well as traps.

20 Magical Guards
by Martin O
[...] 8. Beeeeeeeeeeeeees! - A lot of bees. Like, a heck of a lot of bees. Like, an incomprehensible number of bees... Release the bees!
9. Mirror Golem - Two-faceted silver nitrate coated machine. Deflects direct-target spells. Front facet shows a false future - anyone who looks in it gains disadvantage on their next roll. Rear facet shows a true future with opposite effect. [...] 
16. Party Mirror - Alignment-reflected vengeful clones of every party member. Same capabilities, same stats, same equipment. [...]

And if guards are traps, what about alarms? (I guess they're just some sort of traps)
The first is a classic, but have a look at the post linked below for more inspiration. I copied another three: I like the distraction caused by "Flies in Your Eyes" and the options opened by "Open Bounty" (though I fear it might result just in endless combats with bounty-hunters).
But it's number 17, Past Assassin, that is quite interesting...
It should be guarding something important because it seems to me like a powerful spell to use as a protection... How would you play that out? Perhaps digg out the adventure you played a few sessions earlier and try to recreate the events but with the Past Assassin in the game? Would you re-play the events just with a combat in the middle? I am not sure how the players would take it... but if my character was severely wounded (or died) in a fight that occurred a week or a month before the current adventure, I would find it quite cool!

1. Screaming Mouth - Classic Magic Mouth alarm. Screams very very loud in caster’s voice. This version has noted effect of spreading to any surface that touches it (i.e. hands, clothes, the back of Frank’s head). [...]
15. Flies in Your Eyes - Illusory flies start appearing in the visions of intruders. Impossible to swat, impossible to avoid, incredibly distracting. Accompanied by loud buzzing sound.
16. Open Bounty - Alarm triggers instant bounty, five pounds of unicorn flesh per head, on any and all unlawful intruders. Announces this loudy on street and triggers Sending to the fiercest bounty hunters around.
17. Past Assassin - Message sent to past detailing current intruders to an assassin, who will then try and cut them off and change past events so that intrusion does not occur. [...]

Finally, locks; note that these are simply hard to bypass or force, they are not really about causing harm but preventing or slow down or discourage entry, a little like alarms.

Weird Locks
[...] I am deliberately avoiding the "there is a spell on this lock that triggers when it's messed with", or the "assemble the pieces of the Master Key", because those are quite common and kind of dull.
So, what's the purpose of Locks? For the purposes of a Wizard City campaign, a lock is designed to slow down, discourage, or otherwise prevent entry. It is expected that any wizard, given enough time, will be able to crack any lock, so they're not designed to be impenetrable. [...]
3. Crocodile Maw - Shaped as crocodile head. Requires feeding specific kind of meat to open lock [...]
6. My Hole - Lock contains person-sized outline of owner. Only someone of exactly their dimensions may enter. Popular with amputee wizards [...]
15. 1000 Year Lock - Metal lock “blooms” (opens) once only every 1000 years for exactly one day. If you miss your chance that’s it… Or maybe time travel [...]

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Traps - a first review

Almost every OSR ruleset contains a skill related to traps. It might be Find and Remove Traps, or some generic Search + generic Tinkering or similar, dividing the actions of finding and disarming or removing the trap.

In fact, when it comes to traps, there are often these two controversial topics to address:
- Finding a trap: is it a roll? is it restricted to thieves? can it be done "in fiction" by just talking with the GM? does it require just asking for something odd or looking for specific clues?
- Disarming a trap: is it a roll? is it restricted to thieves? can it be done "in fiction" by just talking with the GM? does it require just some generic ideas or a precise understanding of the mechanism?

I think the above could be broken down into:

Finding a trap
1. Is it hidden? (totally hidden or it can be seen but just when paying attention?)
2. Is it partially visible? (perhaps there are more or less obvious clues, or at least something odd about it)
3. Is it plainly visible? (in this case the challenge becomes disarming it, or bypassing it in some way, or even deciding if to give up...)

Disarming a trap
1. Is it impossible to determine how it works? (totally hidden mechanism or too small or concealed for example behind a wall?)
2. Is it partially understandable? (some pieces of the mechanism may be visible, or it might be possible to try to disarm it or at least jam its mechanism?)
3. Is it clear how it works? (in this case the challenge might be that the mechanism requires something special to be disarmed, something huge or something very precise or someone with a very precise set of skills...)

How do you rule all of the above? Do you use a skill? (and is it restricted to a single class?)
Or do you use only the conversation between players and GM?
Or do you use both, with the conversation between players and GM taking precedence over the skill roll? (this seems to be somehow the best practice, nowadays, especially with visible traps)

A lot of the above topics are presented nicely also in the following post, which seems to favor a mixed approach: descriptive (and open to all classes) for visible/simpler traps, while rolling (skill roll and restricted to specialists/thieves) for small, delicate or complicate hidden traps.

[...] I come now to Find and Remove Traps, and find myself in a bit of a quandary.
In the first place, I really, really like the idea of player agency in finding traps. [...] It's much more interesting and provides greater immersion for the players to use the DM's descriptions to find traps. [...] Consider:
DM:  Just ahead, on the left side of the corridor a skeleton is slumped against the wall.
Thief:  I check for traps.
DM:  (rolling)  You don't find anything.
DM:  Just ahead, on the left side of the corridor a skeleton is slumped against the wall. 
Thief:  Without getting too close, I look at the walls and ceiling in that section of the corridor.
DM:  You see a pattern of holes in the right wall, and a set of shallow gouges in the left wall that seem to match.  There's nothing unusual about the ceiling.
Thief:  I examine the floor, looking for a trip wire or pressure plate.
DM:  One of the floor blocks is very slightly elevated above the level of the rest of the floor.

In my opinion, the second scenario is far more fun and interesting.  The "problem," if it can be called such, is that it renders the thief's Find Traps and Remove Traps skills irrelevant (or at least less relevant,) because it relies entirely on player (and DM) skill. 
What good, then, are the Find and Remove Traps abilities?  Should they be dropped entirely, or is there still a unique niche for the thief as trap finder?  I can see a strong argument in favor of keeping and using them in certain circumstances.
Dealing with traps as in the second example above requires that the DM be able to visualize the trap (else how could he describe it?) and have a basic understanding of its component parts and how it works.  It requires also that some aspects of the trap are visible to the player characters and discernible as something potentially hazardous.  Those conditions lend themselves best to area traps - those that affect a room or a stretch of corridor, for example - as opposed to item traps, such as a poison needle in the latch of a chest.  
I, for one, am hard-pressed to describe just what the trigger for a poison needle or a gas trap protecting a treasure chest would look like.  Besides making it difficult to describe such a thing, that also makes me skeptical of the ability of a cautious but untrained person to notice it.[...] 
You can probably assume that the designer of the trap has taken great pains to make the external trigger of the trap both as small and as indistinguishable from the rest of the item as possible.  A specialist, someone who knows what he's looking for, has a chance to see it for what it is, but anyone else won't.  It's probably also a safe bet that most of the trap mechanism is housed within the chest, out of sight and out of reach, thus making disarming it difficult and delicate work. [...] 

If you want a little more about this approach, with a distinction between small traps and the rest, see also this post by Brendan.

Find Traps as Saving Throw
by Brendan
I was reading about traps over at The Dragon’s Flagon, and that got me to thinking about find traps as a saving throw, which is an idea I first came across over at Courtney’s blog (see his set of answers to the 20 quick rules questions). To quote:
Finding traps is a saving throw, and works as such.
Thus, anyone can interact with the fictional world and discover or avoid traps purely by investigation and reason. Note that this doesn’t necessarily require any particular mechanical knowledge on the part of the referee or players (though you can go there if you want), it just requires determining trigger mechanism, effect, and clues. Remember, traps don’t need to be mechanical, or even explainable. Traps can be driven by magic, ancient technology, or incomprehensible clockwork.

In this third post, we see a more mechanical analysis, with some other useful inputs.
For example, when designing (and playing in-game) with traps, there is a clear distinction between trigger and effect.
Note also that sometimes searching for a trap might trigger it (or cause some other effect) and likewise, trying to disarm or avoid the trap might still result in some effect.

There's a thread on Dragonsfoot about using the old school approach to detecting and disabling traps; in other words, having players describe how they search for traps and what they do to disable or avoid triggering the trap. The person who started the thread wasn't sure how to handle this: what possible ways could a player use to search? How do you enable people with no special knowledge of traps in the real world to role-play a knowledgeable character in a fantasy world? What if the player just creates a huge list of actions to search for traps and says "I do all this" every time? [...]
The important things to remember are:
- A trap has two parts: the trigger and the result.
- Each part must be detected separately, and may require different search methods.
- Search order is important; one method may find a trigger, another method may trigger it.
Results can be pretty varied, but they can all be simplified to an action delivered along a particular path, from Origin Point A to Target Point B. A character standing at the target point or along the path between the origin and the target is in danger of being caught in the trap. Examining Point A may locate a trap, but not its trigger; examining Point B may offer clues to what kind of result to expect (scorch marks on a wall are a clue to a flame thrower trap, debris on the floor may be a clue to a deadfall.) 
Some results, like releasing a gas, might not be obvious from any kind of clue.
When constructing a trap, you should consider both obvious actions (walking over a trapped floor, opening a trapped door) and search methods (touching or moving a trapped chest.) Sometimes, a particular search method will trigger the trap, which might not be a good idea based on whether you are standing in the path of the result or not.

From the same author, let's look at some additional input about the first part of the topic: finding/detecting a trap.

[...] I don't like the idea of a simple skill roll to search for traps, but that doesn't mean I like or use the extreme pixel-bitching approach to traps, either. I'm probably just a little more detailed than Brendan describes for his own technique. If someone says "I search the room", I ask "how", but all I'm expecting is general details: Do you enter the room, or stay outside? If you enter the room, do you just blunder on in, walk normally, or creep along slowly? Are you just searching visually, or are you touching things (with or without a 10-foot pole?) And if you're touching things, are you actually tapping or knocking, or are you moving things around?
So, basically, it breaks down to speed and direction, stance, senses and tools used, and any changes to the environment made. I assume, unless told, that you do everything that could be included in the general description of what you tell me, without going too far. You stand in the doorway and do a visual search? Then anything that *could* be seen from where you are standing is seen, no roll necessary, and no weaseling out by saying "you didn't say you were also looking at the ceiling". I figure that these are the basic search procedures:
- Blundering In: You enter the room without searching. This always applies for those fleeing monsters, unless you say otherwise.
- Careful Entrance: You enter, but not necessarily quickly, and look at stuff as you enter. This action stops as soon as you spot anything out of the ordinary (no roll needed, as long as it's visible and not hidden.)
- Stop, Look and Listen: You don't enter the room, so no traps triggered by movement or pressure will go off. Anything visible or audible -- or smellable, or detectable by any other sense that works over distance -- is automatically detected.
- Cautious Test: You use a ten-foot pole or similar technique to test from a distance. Discovers a few things you'd miss by the previous techniques. If you also add tapping with the pole, you discover hollow spaces as well.
- Thorough Test: You touch what you're searching, everywhere. Discovers hidden catches, buttons, and the like.

All of these assume you are standing up, bending and crouching only as needed, and make no changes (nothing is moved or opened.) A careful entrance assumes you look under things, on top of anything you can see the top of, behind anything you can see behind, and around every corner you can look around. The first time you would notice something out of place or out of the ordinary, I describe that, and assume you stop until you tell me what you do next. If you have to move something or open something to continue a search, I ask if that's what you want to do. [...] 

Note that we can desume a method from the list above, which presents 5 different approaches from the characters to an environment/object:
- Careless: enter without searching, run through an area, open a door or chest
- Careful: enter and see the obvious, pass through an area, slowly open a door or chest (anything obvious and out of the ordinary should be revealed and stop the character before anything triggers; I would add also that something carefully hidden or concealed would instead trigger in this case)
- Very Careful: do not enter, do not pass, do not open, but check with your senses (reveal anything out of the ordinary even if not obvious, nothing triggers because nothing is touched; I would add that this takes time)
- Cautious: keep a distance and check with tools or skills (reveal anything even if out of sight but not really "secret"; I would add that this process though involves touching and prodding so something might trigger, although probably there is a certain safety in distance)
- Very Cautious: first keep a distance and if nothing happens, move closer and inspect more carefully so that everything is revealed, even secrets

The important thing, to me, seems to be the time that it takes to perform such actions. For example, if you are running you are always careless, but if you are not saying anything else, you are just careful (reveal anything which is in plain sight).
If the group wants to be very careful, I would say it takes less than a turn for a small area, but a turn for a large room or a long corridor (so, encounter check?).
If instead you go up to cautious it must take a turn (encounter check at the end), and I would say an additional turn for very cautious (it can be a second turn after a cautious approach - like saying "I search more carefully").
In other words, the more careful you are with your exploration (so more likely to detect and avoid traps, and discover secrets), the greater the chances for an encounter.