Thursday, May 18, 2017

Madelyn Kidd's Academy for Inquisitive Children: Saturday Morning Investigations in the Deadlands

My recent enjoyment of Saving Throw's recently added Wildcards streaming role playing game show, and the announcement of a Scooby Doo/Supernatural crossover episode on the CW, I was inspired with a small campaign kernel. So join me as I introduce you to...

Madelyn Kidd's Academy for Inquisitive Children

On "real" Independence Day (July 3rd) 1863 the United States and the world experienced "The Reckoning." The border between Earth and the Happy Hunting Grounds was sundered, if only for a moment, and all kinds of terrors leaked into our world. On that day, the field of Gettysburg was littered with corpses...and some of those corpses rose from the grave to spread horror. In the years that followed, the sinister Reckoners selected four champions who would transform the world into a literal Hell on Earth. All of this is well documented in the Deadlands Role Playing Game. What is less well known is that on that day, the forces of Good selected some champions of their own. Four children who were born on the day of The Reckoning who might just have a chance at stopping the world's transformation, but only if they could meet up and gain sufficient knowledge and power to thwart the Servitors who served the Reckoners.

These young children would never have met if it hadn't been for Madelyn Kidd. A simple school teacher from Serendipity, Pennsylvania, Madelyn had been on a picnic with her beau Aleister McKenzie overlooking the Battle of Gettysburg when the events of the Reckoning took place. Her beau was killed by a stray bullet and as Madelyn reached over to comfort her dying lover, she experienced a vision of a terrible future. She saw the world as it would be if the Reckoners had their way. She also saw a vision of hope where she was the founder of a new kind of school, a school dedicated to teaching children the skills necessary to fight back evil and to bring joy to lands that are dominated by fear.

While her vision was grand, the results so far have been very meager. Madelyn Kidd's Academy for Inquisitive Children was successfully established in 1865 in the town of Serendipity, Pennsylvania. The first graduating class of two students matriculated in 1869 and both of these students have gone on to jobs with the Union Government. Since that time, Madelyn has trained a number of gifted young students and currently has 45 students enrolled in her school. For all that success, not one of her students has gone on to achieve any great success against the evils the world is facing. All of her students are struggling against the darkness, but no great hero has emerged. Madelyn is on the verge of giving up hope as her four oldest currently enrolled students seem more concerned with solving local mysteries than they are with confronting greater threats.

Madelyn had high hopes for these four students. All four were born on the same day, July 3rd 1863, and all four exhibited high levels of potential. They were quick learners too, but they lack focus. They constantly take day trips in their Stagecoach, which they have named the Ratiocination Roller, to neighboring cities to unravel mysteries that the locals think are supernatural. Initially, Madelyn encouraged the behavior because she knew how important it was to fight real supernatural dangers, but as it became clear that every "supernatural" foe the students fought was revealed to be a fraud she began to lose hope. How would these students fare against the real horrors of the Weird West, let alone the Servitors, if they never had to face down supernatural horrors? It's a worry that has begun to affect her sleep. She recently sent them on a trip to disputed territory to do a field study of flora and fauna in the hopes that the students would begin their training in earnest. Time is so short and 17 year old kids have to grow up quickly in the Weird West.

What Madelyn doesn't know is that her students really are fighting supernatural foes, they only make it appear that the creatures they defeat are humans in disguise of swamp gas. This is because "Em" Vilnius noticed that when she made towns think that the evil that haunted them was a mere trick being performed by greedy individuals, those towns became happier and more successful places. It didn't take "Em" long to catch on to the fact that the best way to undermine the Reckoners was to take away the power that fueled them...fear. The kids, who call themselves Ratiocination Incorporation, are looking forward to their trip into the Weird West with the knowledge that if they get into too much trouble, they might be able to call on Madelyn Kidd and her other students to help them fight the good fight.

What every the case, Madelyn hopes to create a world where the Reckoners might have succeeded if not for those Madelyn Kidds kids.

Madelyn Kidd 

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d10, Spirit d6, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d6, Gambling d6, Guts d6, Intimidation d6, Investigation d8, Persuasion d6, Riding d6, Spellcasting d10, Stealth d4, Streetwise d8
Charisma: 2; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 5; Grit: 3
Hindrances: Enemy (Major), Heavy Sleeper, Loyal
Edges: Arcane Background (Magic), Attractive, Brave, Connections, Investigator, Linguist, New Power, Power Points
Powers: Armor, bolt (burning cards), hunch, mind rider; Power Points: 15
Gear: Hatchet, Knife (Str+d4) x3, Playing cards x8, Shirt/blouse, dress, Spectacles, $247 

Jedediah Heiter

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d6, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d4, Guts d6, Investigation d6, Notice d4, Persuasion d4, Repair d8, Shooting d6, Weird Science d8
Charisma: 0; Pace: 6; Parry: 4; Toughness: 5; Grit: 1
Hindrances: Big Mouth, Doubting Thomas, Overconfident
Edges: Arcane Background (Weird Science), Knack (Bastard), New Power
Powers: Deflection (Jedediah's Ocular Disruptor), stun (Jedidiah's Auditory Imbalancer); Power Points: 20
Gear: Backpack, Bed roll, Boots, Canteen, Derby, Drill, Duster, File, Gun belt, Hammer, Lantern, Lantern oil (per gallon) x2, Lockpicks, Mule, Rifle (.38-.52) x5, Shirt/blouse, work, Trousers/skirt, Watch, gold, Winchester ‘76 (.45) (Range 24/48/96, 2d8, Shots 15, AP 2), $62.65

Petra Quartz

Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d4, Spirit d6, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d6, Guts d6, Intimidation d6, Notice d4, Riding d6, Shooting d8, Streetwise d4, Throwing d6
Charisma: 0; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 5; Grit: 1
Hindrances: Arrogant, Stubborn, Vengeful (Minor)
Edges: Quick Draw, Two-Fisted
Gear: Backpack, Bed roll, Boots, Chaps, Colt Peacemaker (.45, Double-Action) (Range 12/24/48, 2d6+1, Shots 6, AP 1) x2, Duster, Gun belt, Knife (Str+d4), Pistol (.40-.50) x10, Quick-draw holster, Rifle (.38-.52) x5, Shirt/blouse, work, Trousers/skirt, Winchester ‘76 (.45) (Range 24/48/96, 2d8, Shots 15, AP 2), $133 

Eliza "Em" Vilnius (Hellstromme)

Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d8, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Faith d8, Fighting d6, Guts d6, Investigation d4, Persuasion d8, Riding d6, Shooting d6
Charisma: 2; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 5; Grit: 1
Hindrances: Bad Dreams, Heavy Sleeper, Loyal
Edges: Arcane Background (Miracles), Brave, Charismatic
Powers: Aim, armor, barrier, beast friend, blind, boost/lower trait, confusion, deflection, dispel, elemental manipulation, environmental protection, exorcism, gambler, greater healing, healing, inspiration, light/obscure, protection, pummel, quickness, sanctify, smite, speak language, stun, succor, warrior’s gift, windstorm
Gear: Boots, Horse, Knife, Bowie (Str+d4+1, AP 1), Saddle, Saddlebags, Shirt/blouse, dress, Shoes, Shotgun shells x2, Suit/fancy dress, Trousers/skirt, Winchester LeverAction (Range 12/24/48, 1–3d6, Shots 4, +2 Shooting rolls), 80¢


Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d4, Spirit d8, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Fighting d8, Guts d6, Intimidation d6, Riding d6, Throwing d6, Tracking d4, Tribal Medicine d6
Charisma: 0; Pace: 6; Parry: 7; Toughness: 6; Grit: 1
Hindrances: All Thumbs, Curious, Loyal
Edges: Arcane Background (Shamanism), Beast Master, Brawny
Powers: Beast Friend, healing; Power Points: 10
Gear: Arrow x5, Bolas (Range 4/8/16, Str+1, Shots 1, see notes), Boots, Bow (Range 12/24/48, 2d6, Shots 1), Horse, Knife, Bowie (Str+d4+1, AP 1) x2, Shirt/blouse, work, Spear (Str+d6, Parry +1; Reach 1; requires 2 hands), Tomahawk (Str+d6), Trousers/skirt, $68.50

Friday, May 12, 2017

Daleks Battle Cybermen in Doctor Who: Exterminate Miniatures Game Starter Set

In 2015, Warlord Games announced that they had acquired a license to produce games and game related material for the Doctor Who television show. Warlord Games is one of the premiere miniature gaming companies in the market today with a catalog that features some of the best games on the market including: Bolt Action!, Beyond the Gates of Antares, Konflict '47, and a long list of rules sets for various historical and fictional settings.

Warlord Games was founded in 2007 when company founders, John Stallard and Paul Sawyer who had experience working for Games Workshop, decided to create a new miniatures company that offered high quality plastic miniatures for overlooked genres. Their first product was a set of 28mm plastic Roman Legionnaires, which was successful enough for the company to continue and grow. And grow they have. In the decade since their founding, Warlord Games has expanded into creating rules for almost every historical era and two fictional settings. They produce high quality rules and high quality miniatures for gaming and have a focus on creating affordable games.  This focus has inspired them to create a line of print and play paper wargames as well as their miniatures games.

Doctor Who: Exterminate is Warlord Games first major game license release, though Warlord Games will be releasing products for 2000AD properties in the near future. The Doctor Who: Exterminate starter set retails for £35.00 and includes two factions (Daleks and Cybermen) as well as rules for using the Doctor and Companions in play. Miniatures sets for the 10th and 12th Doctor, as well as a number of other factions, can be purchased separately. It should be noted that the rules needed to play the Doctor or alternate factions are included in the base boxed set and only the miniatures need to be purchased separately.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this game plays, but I doubt that it will be displacing 7TV as my "go to" game for 60s, 70s, and 80s BBC/ITV science fiction and espionage game play. That's the great thing about products like this though, you buy them for the parts you want (either miniatures or rules) and use other systems for the parts you don't. 

It's a nice looking set, and I'll likely be pre-ordering it when it comes available in the US store or I decide I'm willing to pay exorbitant international shipping.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Judge Dredd: Mega-City One in Development from Rebellion and IM Global Television

Fans of Judge Dredd received some potentially good news today with the announcement that Rebellion and IM Global Television will be producing a television show that takes place in the Dredd-verse called Judge Dredd: Mega-City One. From early press materials, including the interview with Producer Brian Jenkins and Rebellion CEO Jason Kingsley embedded below, it appears that the main character of the show will be Mega-City One and not Dredd. From a creative standpoint, this is will allow showrunners and writers to explore a wider array of stories, and delve deeper into Dredd-lore, than might be possible if the creative team focused on Judge Dredd. Not that there aren't many great tales featuring the Judge, but the comic's biting commentary on American culture will be stronger if the city is a strong character.

Jenkins and Kingsley show a lot of enthusiasm for the project in their interview, but they admit their own novice status as film and television producers and highlight their partnership with IM Global Television. Founded in 2007 by Stuart Ford, IM Global Televsion has recently announced a number of major television projects in development including Judge Dredd: Mega-City One and series based on Glen Cook's The Black Company and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s science fiction novel Cat's Cradle. It's a relatively ambitious line-up for the relatively young company, but IM Global's President Mark Stern has a solid resume of work on genre properties from his time at the Syfy network where he was President of Original Content.

It's still very early in the development process, but as someone who owns many Judge Dredd collections, board games, and rpgs, I'll be looking forward to seeing what Rebellion and IM Global Television put together.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Star Eagles Highlights Flexibility of Ganesha Games "Song of" Miniatures Rules

Ganesha Games recently launched a Kickstarter project for their upcoming space fighter miniatures combat game Star Eagles, and it looks like a winner. The game is designed by Damon Richardson and aims to be a quick to play and deep simulation of desperate starship dogfights in the deeps of space between the forces of ConStar and the S'Sekai. Watching the how to play video Damon put out to promote the project, one thing stand out very quickly. Like many Ganesha produced miniatures games, Star Eagles uses the very flexible Song of Blades and Heroes fantasy skirmish rules as its foundation.  Song designer Andrea Sfiligoi has already demonstrated the flexibility of the Song system in a variety of genres in his work for Osprey Publishing, but this is the first time that framework has been used for spacecraft battle simulation.

One of the key innovations of the Song system is how it simulates who has the "initiative" in combat situations. Damon's video highlights this innovation in the how to video, but it deserves highlighting that the system forces players to choose between being aggressive which may cause them to lose the initiative before they desire or to play more cautiously which may result in them not achieving as much as they'd like during their turns. It's a great way to reflect how certain strategic choices can affect later tactical decisions. This isn't to say that Damon's game is a reprint of Song, like most games that use that system as a foundation there are significant differences, rather this is mentioned to praise Damon for selecting a system that better emulates the chaos of a dogfight than a standard igo-ugo system would.

There are a couple of additional things worth mentioning with regard to Star Eagles. The first is that this is a project that demonstrates how exciting the times we live in with regard to gaming really are. While Kickstarter is used by bigger companies to mitigate risk by combining market research and capital for projects, and in my opinion this happens to often, this is a case where it is being used as it should be. This is a small company creating a product that could not otherwise be produced at the high level of quality they are planning, and by small I mean REALLY small since most game companies are small in any comparison with the corporate world. Addition to being  a small company, this is an international endeavor where the designer and the publisher are on different continents working together to create a product to be sold around the world. Damon Richardson, who was a fine Forgotten Realms DM in his youth, lives in Reno, NV while Andrea Sfiligoi of Ganesha Games is located in Italy. This is something I would not have imagined possible as a child, but is something that happens with relative frequency in the modern gaming market. Exciting times indeed.

Check out the Kickstarter and back it if the theme interests you.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Planescape: Torment Returns on April 11th

When Bioware released Planescape: Torment in December of 1999, they did so just as 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons was gasping its last breath. Planescape was an odd choice to base a large scale computer rpg upon. The setting was unique, creative, exciting, and critically acclaimed, but it wasn't a particularly high volume selling setting for TSR. Add to this that Wizards of the Coast had just purchased TSR in 1997 and the Planescape setting, like many other D&D/AD&D settings, had been partially released to the wilds to be curated by fans. The game and the IP were languishing in limbo, even as the D&D brand would be resurrected shortly by the release of 3rd edition.

It may have been an odd choice, but it ended up creating a brilliant result. Planescape: Torment leveraged Bioware's Infinity Engine to create an rpg experience unlike any that had been produced to date. Most of that experience was rooted in the surreal qualities of the Planescape setting which may not have been a bestseller, but it was a magnificent creation. David "Zeb" Cook and his team of creative talent that included James Ward, Dana Knutson, and Tony DiTerlizzi combined their talents to produce an innovative and interesting sandbox. A sandbox that Chris Avellone and team explored with inspired creativity. Planescape: Torment is the Infinity Engine game I've played through most frequently, and given the strength of those titles that is saying something.

On April 11th, 2017 game developer Beamdog will be releasing a visually updated version of the game for both the PC and Tablet. Do yourself a favor and pick it up when it comes out.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Mystrael Shawk -- An Effect Based Lightning Wizard for D&D

Last week, I discussed how useful it can be to approach D&D magic from an effects based or special effect design philosophy as both a player and a DM. Using this approach allows for gamers to add a little of narrative magic without the need to have a deep understanding of the mechanical balance underlying the game system required to make new spells from whole cloth. This is an approach used by the Champions role playing game and by Pinnacle Entertainment Group's Savage Worlds rpg. The Savage Worlds rule book describes this approach in the following way:

"But just because these powers work the same from setting to setting doesn’t mean they have to look the same, have the same names (to the characters in that world), or even have the exact same effects—that’s where Trappings come in. 

For the most part, Trappings should be merely cosmetic. But sometimes it makes sense for there to be additional effects. A heat ray should have a chance of catching combustible objects on fire, for example, and an electric blast should do slightly more damage to targets in full metal armor."
Coming at magic from a special effects approach can be intimidating and you might not trust me that it can be done without creating a lot of work for players and DMs, but I'm going to attempt to show you how it does just the opposite. It allows for the creation of a lot of imaginative and narrative effects without the need for creating new mechanics. To aid in this process, I will be posting a series of D&D 5e Wizards based on Power Themes and who use effects based spells.

Image Source Anna Steinbauer
Mystrael Shawk 
Human Lightning Wizard (Soldier) 
Level 5

Str 8 (-1)   Dex 14 (+2)  Con 14 (+2)  
Int 16 (+3)  Wis 10 (+0)  Cha 12 (+1)

HP (5d6+10) 32           AC 12 or 15 (dex; Crackling Aura + dex)
Init +2      Speed 30      Proficiency Bonus +3

Attacks: Dagger +5 (1d4 piercing), Dagger (ranged) +5 1d4 piercing, Spells +6 
Senses: Investigation 16, Perception 10
Saves: Intelligence +6, Wisdom +3
Skills: Arcana +6, Athletics +2, Intimidation +4, Investigation +6, Sleight of Hand +5 
Feats: Keen Mind
Human Traits: Bonus Skill (Sleight of Hand), Bonus Feat (War Caster)
Wizard Traits: Spellcasting, Arcane Recovery, Arcane Tradition (Abjuration), Lighting Ward (13 HP)
Spell Casting Ability (Known: 3, 6, 6, 4; Slots: 4, 4, 3, 2; DC 14)

Cantrips:Lightning Ball (Acid Splash), Crackling Illumination (Light), Shocking Grasp


1 -  Arc of Lightning (Burning Hands), Crackling Aura  (Mage Armor), Electric Shield (Shield), Synaptic Shock (Sleep), Static Tickle (Tasha's Hideous Laughter), Plasma Arc (Magic Missile)
2 - Lightning Cloud (Cloud of Daggers), Immobilizing Shock (Hold Person), Electrify Weapon (Magic Weapon), Mystral's Lightning Arrow (Melf's Acid Arrow), Clinging Field (Spider Climb), Electrical Flash (Blindness/Darkness)
3 - Electrical Animation (Animate Dead), Sphere of Lightning (Fireball), Ride the Lightning (Fly), Lightning Bolt

As you can see, merely by renaming some of the spells the descriptive effect in play of certain spells is altered without changing their effects. Take Crackling Illumination as an example here. When it comes to game effects, it doesn't matter whether light is produced by illusory fire, real fire, crackling electricity, or radiant illumination. All that matters is that the spell produces the effect of light. Similarly for Mage Armor, since we aren't categorizing any kind of damage, the appearance of Mage Armor doesn't affect game play.

It isn't until we get to spells like Lightning Ball (Acid Splash) that one's "but that's a typed damage and it matters" alarm should flash a warning that there might be some mechanical differences of consequence. One could merely hand wave such concerns and point out, as Michael Shea at Sly Flourish often does that Dungeons and Dragons isn't designed to be a balanced game and that imbalance is a part of what we like. I won't do such hand waving here, though that is a perfectly "D&D" thing to do. Instead, let's take a look under the hood of Acid Splash.

Range: 60 feet
Damage: Save or Take 1d6 Acid Damage
# Creatures affected: 1 or 2 within 5 feet.

The reskinned Lightning Ball only changes one aspect of the spell, the damage type. In fact, since the spell already can damage up to 2 creatures in close proximity the spell's mechanics fit nicely with the reskin. The question here becomes, "Does the spell significantly improve if it becomes lightning based?" There are after all different creatures who are resistant/immune to different damage types and affecting a disproportionate number might affect game balance. This criticism only holds so much weight since the Elemental Adept feat allows casters to ignore type resistance (though not immunity). So...what are the differences between Acid and Lightning regarding number of creatures affected?

Creatures Resistant to Acid in Monster Manual: 17
Creatures Immune to Acid in Monster Manual: 15
Number of Creatures Vulnerable to Acid: 0

Creatures Resistant to Lightning in Monster Manual: 34
Creatures Immune to Lightning in Monster Manual: 19
Number of Creatures Vulnerable to Lightning: 0

Here we can see that by choosing a Lightning damage type, the spell has become more limited with regard to the number of creatures it can damage. Given the negligent effects of changing the damage type, we can quickly see that this won't change game balance.

Similarly, describing Sleep as an effect that results from a quick electrical burst or Spider Climb as a static field that surrounds the hands and feet of the caster does nothing other than add a narrative touch to play. The same is true for describing Animate Dead as electrical impulses arching through corpses to control their movements.

There are some damage types that are clearly better or worse than average when it comes to this kind of analysis. Very few creatures are resistant to Radiant damage and 98 monsters are immune to poison, for example, and you would have to decide whether or not to do the "it doesn't really matter" hand wave or ban those as reskinnable trappings in your games. One thing to consider for spells like Sleep is that you might have the creature's resistance apply to the hit points rolled against the spell. That significantly reduces the power of that particular spell against certain foes, but it adds the illusion of unpredictability to your magic and makes magic more magical.

My next character will be a cold themed Wizard.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Using a Special Effects Approach to Spell Casting in D&D Games

There are too many spells in Dungeons & Dragons and it reduces the sense of wonder in the game. Magic systems are one of the most difficult design challenges that face prospective game designers, players, and game masters. Magic in fiction, and in our imagination, often defies quantification. In fact, one might argue that what makes magic magical is that it is mysterious and that by quantifying it, you diminish its impact. I am sympathetic to this view, but I actually think that having the rules present purely mechanical effects and letting players add special effects is the best way to handle this problem.

The solution that D&D often uses is what Jeff Grubb calls the "Very Large Spellbook" approach in the Kobold Guide to Magic. This works by flooding the zone with so many spells that no one really knows what every spell does and thus leaves a sense of wonder as new things are discovered. The problem with this approach is that you can end up with five different spells that turn a target's bones into liquid. This isn't bad when the mechanical effects of each spell is different, but can be a problem when many of them have pretty much the same effects with minor changes in the amount of damage done. If the spells have different mechanical effects, it allows for themed mages. If it only fiddles around the edges of damage, it isn't very interesting. Jeff Grubb's discussion of how standardizing bones into liquid spells reduced the wonder of the game, while reducing the number of times spells need to be looked up in the rules because no one knows how a specific spell works.

One solution often under utilized in D&D circles is the approach used by Champions.

Whether or not you play the game, the Champions role playing game by Hero Games is one of the best role playing games ever designed and is one that every Game Master should read for advice on how to best run a game in any system. My first experience with the game was the Revised Edition, also known as the 2nd Edition, of the game, and I spent hours upon hours making characters for the system. Okay, I spent hours and hours making my version of the X-Men for the system only to have friends who were more experienced with the system tell me how I had done everything wrong, but that's beside the point.

The thing that most struck me about the game, and that still amazes me, is how the game took what is often called an effects based approach to gaming. What is typically meant by this description is that the rules don't worry about what powers and abilities look like, rather we are only concerned with their in game effects. While this is a central concept to how the character creation system works in Champions, it was an idea that took a few editions to fully articulate. The first edition of the game, published in 1981, only mentions the concept in passing in the Energy Blast power and on page 29 where it describes how to model a character who can change shape using Multipower with three slots that each represent a different special effect. The second edition expands on this idea more clearly and states on page 47, "Powers in Champions have been explained thoroughly in game terms, but the special effects have been left may be lightning, fire, cold, sonics, radiation...The special effects of your Power can contain minor advantages and disadvantages..." By the 3rd edition of the game, the designers have moved discussion of special effects to a position at the beginning of the Powers chapter, rather than following it. On page 20 it states, "When choosing powers in Champions always start with the effect and work back to the cause." The stress here is that the mechanics are important for the adjudication of success or failure in the game, but that what something looks like in the minds of the players during the game doesn't need to be categorized in the rules.

This special effects, or effects based, approach was relatively freeform in the first three editions of Champions and is what enabled players to simulate an infinite number of effects with only limited mechanics. For this reason, I prefer to call this earlier approach to effects based design the special effects approach. This distinguishes it from the more granular effect based approach of later editions of Champions and give primacy to only quantifying what absolutely must be represented mechanically and leaving the rest to improvisation. Later editions of Champions, beginning with 4th edition which is my favorite edition, began a process of quantifying too many effects for my tastes. Given my preference for improvisation, I prefer to avoid over quantification of phenomenon. Your mileage may vary on that account, but that will have little bearing on this discussion as it continues.

So when might a special effects approach help a D&D game?

Let me look to one of my favorite online shows to explain.

An example of a situation that could have benefited from a special effects approach occurs in Episode 8 Part 1 of Saving Throw Show's series "The Lost Brigade" when Havana Mahoney attempts to have her Druid Theronna Wolfmancer cast the spell Summon Swarm upon some creatures she and her allies were combating. This event happens at around minute 41:37 in the episode (also embedded above). The Dungeon Master, Mason McDaniel, initially encourages a special effects approach when Havana asks what the spell looks like and Mason gives a few possibilities while leaving the final depiction up to her as to whether the rats she wants to summon burrow out of the earth or are vomited from her mouth. Either one of these options is narratively interesting and visually exciting. It's a good moment of game play, but this quickly gets sidetracked as the group attempts to find the spell in the rules. This leads to a few minutes of discussion which pull both the players and the audience out of the game. Eventually, it is discovered that the spell Havana wanted to cast is a Pathfinder spell. She asks if she can use it anyway, but after some discussion this is rejected and Havana sighs and casts Call Lightning. It's the first time in my life that I think I've ever seen a Druid essentially say, "yawn...I guess I'll just use the old standby Call Lightning. YAWN again. KABLAM! DRUID TAC-NUKE! Wish I could have done something interesting."

And you know what? I agree with that assessment. I really wish that Havana had been allowed to cast her 2nd level Summon Swarm spell, but how do you do that?

The first thing that you can do is to let the player use the Pathfinder spell. For a second level spell, which was the case in the episode, this wouldn't particularly damage the game as OP-finder doesn't spiral out of D&D maths until higher levels. In this case, the player would have summoned a swarm of rats that attacked the monsters as listed in the Rat Swarm entry. This isn't a bad solution, and it would have rewarded the player for an inspired narrative choice, but it isn't a special effects based approach and the search of various wiki/books delayed game play. Notice, I am not discussing that Havana's presentation of how big the swarm would be and how much damage it does wasn't accurate to the Pathfinder rules. That was merely a product of the websearch and getting her phone trapped by wiki-spam.

The second approach, the special effects approach, is to ask what special effect the player wants and what mechanics fit the expressed mechanical limits. Havana wanted to use a 2nd Level Druid spell that summoned a swarm of rats that bites foes. So the mechanical emulation is area effect damage appropriate for second level. The first spell that jumped into my head was Spike Growth.

"But," you say, "Spike Growth is a spell that transforms the ground into spiky thorn covered terrain."

Does it? Not from a special effects/effect based approach.

From this approach, the spell covers a 20 foot radius of terrain with ___________ which makes the ground difficult to walk on and which cases a creature to take 2d4 piercing damage for every 5 feet they travel. This transformation is camouflaged as to not be obvious until the victims move into it and take damage.

So here are the effects:
20 foot radius
Difficult Terrain
Moving within or into causes 2d4 piercing for every 5 ft moved.

Havana wanted a swarm of rats to attack the foes. This pretty much does that. All you have to do is say that Theronna Wolfmancer has summoned the rats and that the creatures will soon feel those effects. Imagine the shocked looks on the creature's faces as rats rose from the earth to devour them.

That's not all this spell could represent. It could represent an area of earth where magma has been brought close to the surface, ice spikes, the thorns in the book, a miasma in the air that chokes those who move through it. None of those effects change the mechanics of the spell, which are what define the level of the spell, but each of those feels different in play due to the role playing aspect of the game. It is key to note that the damage is piercing for creatures who have those kinds of resistances.

Personally, I like the idea of Spike Growth being a near invisible miasma of toxic spores which pierce the lungs. The again, whose to say that Call Lightning couldn't just be Lightning Rats rising up from the earth to bite opponents with their Lightning powers or even just the summoning of a Pikachu?

What are some other spells that you would/could reskin for different effects?