Friday, January 22, 2021

The Sinister Clown class

I've been thinking about this idea for months now. Clowns are just one of those things that people love, hate, and love to hate all at once. Goofy yet grotesque, sinister yet charming. Since most people have little to no contact with real clowns on a day-to-day basis, the ubiquity they have in culture is pretty remarkable. People are drawn to clown characters in fiction—especially villainous ones. 

Even though evil clowns more or less all have the same schtick, something about them just draws people in. Part of the reason why is because clowns can be cool, and goofy, and threatening, and just generally unpredictable, and it all "works" within the character archetype. Shakespeare knew this; it's why the fools in his plays can be the comic relief but also shed the pivotal insights or left-field perspectives that turns things around for the main characters. This is great for villains, who must be vile while still captivating (if not relatable, sympathetic, etc.). That mystique, the needle clowns thread so nicely, is at least in part of the reason why they work so well. 

Does this make them good D&D characters? Maybe. Here's two reasons why I think they might:

A. Think about the long-time D&D characters you are familiar with. Think about all the different behaviors and mannerisms the player (maybe you?) made the character exhibit over the course of the game. Are they not themselves agents of chaos, playing at the margins of the world's assumed reality? Do they not behave in a way that suggests deeper understanding of the invented reality than those around them? Does their occasional breaking of the fourth wall serve to complicate the underpinnings of the narrative? Clowns, jesters, and fools of all sorts, have many thematic overlaps with PCs. By containing such multitudes, as described above, the clown highlights the contours of a story in a way that PCs do almost compulsively. In turn, the evil clown archetype perverts the fool's metanarrative position through exploring what happens when insight into the absurdity of one's reality leads to crazed malevolence—which, again, is something that some PCs act out almost compulsively. Instead of letting players fly off the tracks by being ultraviolent murderhobos, the formal structures of a PC class allows one to harness such impulses while while still operating within and around the gameplay loop.

B. People like evil clowns. 


To the outside world you are a cheery if slightly off-putting clown with a sharp wit and an easy laugh. But inside you is a maelstrom of indescribable horror; a whirling universe of evil and darkness so twisted it exceeds mortal comprehension. You jape, you laugh, you make a fool of yourself for the enjoyment of others, but behind your smiling face is an terrifying lust to enact your unspeakably violent machinations upon the world. Your sinister intentions are convoluted beyond reason, but for the time being you choose to play the role of an adventurer.   

1d6 HD, saves and armor restrictions as a Thief.

XP progression and attack bonus as a Fighter. 

TOOLS OF THE TRADE. You can only wield knives and clownish improvised weapons, which in your hands deal 1d4 damage. 

CLOWN LOGIC. Your very being is slightly out-of-step with the rest of reality. You abide by your own laws of nature, which occasionally defy standard probability and causality in favor of more humorous outcomes. This has little to no mechanical impact on the game, but the player is free to propose specific outcomes or actions that would be otherwise impossible or highly unlikely. The DM can go along with these outcomes as long as they think it’s funny. All class abilities work because of CLOWN LOGIC except for MAGIC TRICK, which is actually just magic.  

TWISTED MIND. You have no soul—at least not in any recognizable form. Magic and other supernatural effects that target the mind don’t work on you. As a consequence, you are not recognized by the gods and thus cannot benefit from Cleric magic.

HARLEQUINADE. You are remarkably good at manipulating the feelings of others, whether through cheerful humor or harsh, biting insults. You get +1 loyalty and +1 to reaction rolls when attempting to hire retainers and hirelings, and intelligent enemies with equal or fewer HD to you get -1 on morale checks. 

PATRON. You are in the employ of a powerful patron. The patron must be of lawful alignment and must have at least 9 HD. The patron can be a lord, a powerful wizard, or a high-ranking member of the clergy, but they could also be a dragon, a sphinx, genie, or other such creature. The patron is unaware of your true nature. The terms of your patronage are up to you and the DM to decide, but you must spend at least four weeks of downtime out of the year (doesn’t have to be consecutive) doing stuff for your patron. In return, they provide a stipend that is just enough to cover living expenses and upkeep. 

Why are you adventuring? Your patron might want you to act as a spy or seeker of information, or perhaps they want you to track down a specific person or thing. Or maybe they just want you to go on adventures so you can come back and regale them with tales of your exploits and jokes from foreign lands. Or maybe some other reason. Whatever it is, your mission is secondary to the evil machinations you’re working toward. You know that your patron is somehow pivotal to your plans, which is why you got close to them in the first place. You are unable to ascend to 9th level unless you kill your patron.

SHOCKING TWIST. When you reach 0 HP or are put in an otherwise debilitating situation (basically, whenever you would lose your character and roll up a new one), the clown miraculously survives and becomes a villainous NPC under that DMs control, to reappear at a time of their choosing. This happens regardless of how the clown “dies,” and any precautions the PCs take will be futile. If the clown’s body was completely destroyed, it would turn out it was just a double. If the PCs witness the clown’s demise and carry his corpse around in a locked chest, they will find at some point later on that the chest was forced open and the poor sucker they hired to keep an eye on it mysteriously died. 

In addition to all of this, roll 1d10 for an ability every other time you level up.


From the chaotic darkness of your mind, you have gleaned a few tricks for manipulating occult power. Learn three first-level MU spells. You can cast each spell once per day. 


The gag weapons are funny, but it’s time to get down to business. You can now wield axes and giant hammers. Using them makes you go into a frenzy, giving you a +1 bonus to damage but a -1 penalty to attack rolls. When you’re using a hammer or axe you must attack a creature every round or else spend your entire action laughing maniacally. 


You can now remove your clown makeup. Your “natural” face is utterly, completely forgettable. No one can recognize you, and things you say or do leave almost no impression. People mostly forget you as soon as you leave their sight. You can only last one hour per day without your makeup on, after which greasepaint residue begins to form on your skin, returning you to your original form. 


You develop an expertise in the esoteric art of tumbling. You can no longer die from taking fall damage. Instead, you become inert for a number of minutes equal to the amount of fall damage that would have put you past zero. For example, if you had 10 HP, fell 30’ and rolled 15 damage, you would be unconscious for 5 minutes. No healing or other magical effects can circumvent this. Additionally, you can choose to fail any ability test or saving to determine whether you fall, trip, lose your balance, or otherwise move against your will. Whenever you fail any of these rolls, you can move 10’ in a direction of your choosing and do one non-attack action like chug a potion, light a torch, or fish something from your backpack.


The ego facade that keeps the vast, horrifying ocean of bloodlust at bay becomes all the more fragile. When you get hit with an attack, after damage is rolled, you can willingly choose to take double damage to “snap” and become overwhelmed by a terrible lust for violence. This happens automatically if the attack roll was a natural 20. You get a +1 damage bonus for melee attacks, and if you successfully land a hit you can choose to make another attack with an additional cumulative +1 damage bonus. You can continue doing this a maximum of five times or until you miss, at which point you take damage equal to the number of extra attacks you made and are unable to act for that many rounds. You must attack every round if able. The murder rage lasts until all the enemies have either died or fled, or if you are no longer capable of attacking. 


If you spend 10 seconds doing nothing but laugh, everyone who can see and hear you must make a save vs. breath weapon or else stop what they’re doing and laugh along with you. You can choose to prevent your allies from being affected by your laughter. Creatures that have failed their save will laugh either until they take damage or you stop laughing. After you stop laughing, everyone else will continue to laugh for another 10 seconds. Creatures that are laughing can’t move or attack and get a -2 AC penalty because they’re cracking up too hard to defend themselves. Creatures that are mindless or incapable of laughing are unaffected. 


You can twist and bend your body into spaces it shouldn’t be able to fit. You can fit into a space as small as 2.5 cubic feet for a number of turns equal to your Dexterity score plus your level. You can also squeeze through excessively tight spaces that would normally be inaccessible, down to the size of a letterbox. It takes one turn to move one foot while squeezing through such tight spaces. 


You are an expert at psychologically tormenting your adversaries. After interacting with an intelligent creature for at least a turn (in combat or otherwise), you can attempt an Intelligence test with a penalty equal to the creature’s Hit Dice. You gain a +1 bonus to the Intelligence test for every additional turn you spend interacting with the creature after the first one. If you succeed, you learn the creature's deepest fear or insecurity. If you fail the test, you do not gain any insight into the target’s psyche, and they become aware that you are trying to mess with them. You can make one attempt per creature per week, and you can only build up a bonus against one creature at a time. 


You can perfectly mimic the voice, actions, and mannerisms of a target you can see. Additionally, you can perform a pantomime act so convincing that to others it may become real. You can pantomime using a simple tool or interacting with an aspect of the environment (like a wall) that is not actually there. Intelligent creatures that can see you must save vs. magic or else, to them, the thing you are pantomiming is entirely real. For instance, if you pretend to throw a lasso around a creature and they fail their save, they will behave as though an actual, tangible lasso has been thrown around them. Things you pantomime do not truly exist, so projectiles and aspects of the environment are unaffected. The illusion persists for as long as you are performing the pantomime, or until the targets realize what you are doing. You cannot talk while performing a pantomime. 


Up to once per day, you can cast a spell as a Cleric of your level. The spell does not need to be memorized; you can cast it spontaneously from the Cleric spell list. Once you use this ability, you can’t use it again until you do a substantially good deed so that you don't draw too much deific attention to yourself. There is a 50% chance that religious devotees you are not allied with will consider you a blasphemous abomination if you use this power in their presence. They will either attempt to kill you on the spot or flee and warn the nearest religious authority. Whether this ability implies that you can trick the channels of divine power into granting you magic reserved only for the chosen, or that the gods don’t work in the ways we typically think they do, no one can say for certain. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

Simple method for hidden rolls

December kicked my ass well into January. I'm sure I'm not alone there. Anyway, I'd like to start off the new year (18 days in) with a quick tip for making hidden rolls marginally more engaging to players.

This is great for D&D, where even in the lightweight early editions have a lot of dice rolling. But one of the things that chaps me about the rules is the amount of dice rolling the DM has to do behind the screen during the game. Random encounter rolls, listening and searching rolls, some thief skills, and so on. (If you're reading this, you probably are in the vanishingly small subset of the population that knows exactly what I mean so I'll spare further explanation for the sake of preserving in-group identity). 

This is for good reason. If a player wants to search an area for a hidden door but don't find anything, it makes sense that it could either be because they didn't look well enough or because there wasn't one there in the first place. 

According the rulebook you're probably using, the player dictates they want to listen at a door, the DM rolls in secret, then tells them that they can't hear anything other than the ambient sounds of the dungeon. The players shrug, spend a couple seconds looking at each other, and then decide to have their characters move on. This is fine, but TO ME it feels like less of a game. 

The DM just explaining stuff? In this attention economy? Me and my cohort of young tech-addled zillenials have too much going on in our oversaturated brainspaces for that. Give me dice, it's the closest thing to a fidget toy I have in arm's reach. 

The buttons players' have to press, the gameplay mechanisms that allow them to interface with the game world, ought to have dice rolling procedures for the players attached to them. Otherwise the gameplay abstraction blurs the line between actual gameplay, roleplay, and DM fiat. In our simple lizard brains, rolling dice = playing the game. When something has a dice roll attached to it, it becomes "part of the game." Even if it was part of the game to begin with. The dice roll is just a signpost, a way to tell players "Look, the game is here. These are the sorts of things you can and ought to be doing in D&D." 

The only reason why these hidden rolls don't have players rolling dice in the first place is because players should be left in the dark about whether they succeeded or failed when it isn't already obvious. So if you, like me, feel that the game should ever-so-slightly shift to satisfy your niggling desire for consistency in the level of engagement players get from gameplay mechanics, here's what you should do:

Whenever a player gets in a situation where the rules dictate you (the DM) make a hidden x-in-6 roll—like for listening at a door, searching an area, hiding in shadows, etc.—have the player roll at the same time as you. Their dice is out in the open, yours is not. If you get the same number, they succeed. This is functionally identical to rolling a d6 behind the screen with a one counting as a success. If the success chance is higher than 1-in-6, just roll more dice behind the screen. If you get doubles—well shit, just re-roll one of them. 

This method accomplishes almost nothing other than A) players get more opportunities to roll dice, while B) it preserves the mystery of negative outcomes, meaning players could have failed or if there was simply nothing to hear/find/hide from. 

Sometimes, though, that's enough.