Monday, 13 February 2017

Midkemia's Matrix: Rationality Unbound

The Black Tower (Guinasso & Abrams, 1981) is not to be confused with Dark Tower or any other low-albedo third-party edifice from the early days of D&D. It was a product of Midkemia Press, material from a campaign that inspired Raymond Feist's Magician series of novels, one of many gaming-fiction backcrossings to come. You can get a pdf of it here, although I'm pretty sure the typesetting is not the original.

We have here 100+ rooms of evil wizard's castle, with a number of fairly interesting tricks and characters, and a large cast of unique Midkemian monsters living in close tenancy -- screamers, hard luck "snagers" (indistinguishable from doors!), fuzzy pests, goldmoths (indistinguishable from gold pieces!), etc. All are statted out in conformity with THE TOME OF MIDKEMIA fantasy roleplaying game. This game, never published, works with "hits to kill", levels, d20 to hit rolls, damage done with various dice sizes, and spells of familiar stamp with flavor words tacked on like dishes from a gastropub menu (MATCHLESS SLEEP, UNALTERABLE QUEST, THROW LIGHTNING).

But the most interesting thing about TTOM is its attack matrix, reproduced in the module.
This matrix actually earns its pay - unlike the frankly boring matrices from (A)D&D, based on monotonic effects of attacker's level and defender's AC, with a few quirks that were not memorable or justifiable enough to survive being simplified into THAC0 and eventually done away with. Here, though, armor counts for markedly less the larger the attacker is, and is even a liability against huge creatures and undead. Why? Read on!

This simplifies the effects sought by a system like Runequest/BRP or GURPS, in which defensive skill reduces chances to hit while armor reduces damage directly. A similar effect might be had by having large creatures deal massive damage that armor does little to reduce, while the chances to hit are based on relative size, with smaller and more mobile creatures being stymied by strong armor but having the upper hand on both attack and defense.

Now, an advantage of Midkemia's matrix presentation, compared to those other rules possibilities, is that it makes choices transparent. Instead of fiddling with spreadsheets to try and figure out the optimal damage dealing and evasion per round, Midkemia's matrix shouts loud and clear that there is a role for your Frazetta-style fighter just as there is a role for your buttoned-up plate tank -- and the scarier the monster, the nakeder the hero!

Heartbreaker rules are the Burgess Shale of roleplaying -- collectively, a lode of stillborn ideas that might have been. The Midkemia matrix points a way, not taken, for the core mechanic of the game to escape the tedious bonus-and-target escalation spiral already visible in AD&D and reaching a peak in 3rd edition. Instead of high-level play just being a bigger-numbers version of low-level, fighting huge monsters is essentially different, shifting to a table that reverses the logic of armor and requires no further bonus pumping to make for interesting play.

The same impulse underlies more recent rules ideas that recognize, for example, that you can't kill a tyrannosaurus by whaling on its shins with a dagger, and that going toe-to-toe with a giant shark-elephant centaur is not just a matter of hit and miss. Instead of 5th edition's "bounded rationality" approach, which deals with the treadmill by cutting it short at the end, we can call these qualitative shifts in power level "unbounded rationality." They deal with the treadmill by making it a conveyor belt to somewhere new and strange.

Monday, 12 September 2016

My Precious Dungeon Walls!

Dungeons preventing teleport, passwall, and other magical ways around or through walls have been a design cliche since Undermountain. It's been so endemic that Bryce Lynch gives special kudos to designers who don't fall for it. But what, exactly, are they afraid of?

The hypothetical cheater who uses spells to get to the last room of the dungeon must first find the last room of the dungeon. In a sprawling underground maze this is nearly impossible. If you're just using it to get through a locked door, that's the equivalent of a knock spell, and nobody legislates against those.

But let's say you've found the last room of the dungeon, either because it's bloody obvious (top of a tower, sealed chamber in the middle of the maze with the Gallstone of Four Parts) or because you have scried it out with clairvoyance, wizard eye or the like -- another tool type often suppressed by cautious adventure designers.

Let's even forget about the mechanical possibility, in a teleport spell, of having a fatal or disfiguring targeting error happen.

What do you think is going to happen when that teleporting or flying or dimension-dooring wizard gets there? A wizard, alone? Passwall and mass teleport are more of a problem (I don't allow them in my game). But without intelligence on the dungeon, again, they're just shots in the dark.

A better explanation of the obsession with fettering knowledge and movement spells lies in a clash of game design principles.

For incremental game design, everything is a matter of quantity, hit points and resources are worn down bit by bit, and a fair fight can be gauged.

Catastrophic design, though, allows for sudden winning moves, daylight frying the all-powerful vampire, a poisoned shirt killing Hercules. Balance here is non-linear, hard to judge. Discernment, avoidance, and preparation are more important than the toe-to-toe slog. Death is sudden, not gradual. Characters with a spell can kill a maze just like characters with a mirror can kill a basilisk.

The struggle between these two views, one "fair" and one "real," determines any given gaming experience. Another front in the war: turning undead vs. anti-turning medallions.

But even if you commit to the incremental way, "can't" is still the uglest word. Recently I made a try at fixing"you can't move." The obvious fix for "you can't teleport" is for the wizard's lair or whatever to be guarded by a chaotic teleportation zone that dumps you in a random location in the dungeon or even another plane of existence.

You can turn the undead? Fine, but the undead can also turn you. "Can," not "can't" if you please.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Not Just Ruins, But Strongholds

Joseph Manola is onto something in this well argued, erudite essay on the importance of the ruin to classic and old-school-influenced D&D. Ruins, of course, are part of the post-apocalyptic milieu. And yes, part of that genre is allowing characters to have freedom to loot and wreck without getting in trouble.

"Uh, I think they saw us coming."
But another part of the genre are the strongholds. Auntie Entity's fortified town, Immortan Joe's mesa complex. The zombie plague survivors holed up in the mall. The fall of Rome left not only ruins, but also feudal castles, and some places that were both.

An impressive number of classic adventures are actually stronghold raids. The first full adventure from the supplements, Blackmoor's Temple of the Frog. The Giants and most of the Drow series. The Slaver cycle. Even Castle Ravenloft, although its mood is very different.

Quick break for a definition. The difference between a stronghold and a ruin is that the walls of the stronghold enclose a nominally unified fighting group. Sneaking through, avoiding raising the alarm, isolating the different groups, thus becomes part of the adventure. A ruin may have sub-areas held by organized groups, but either they are working against each other, don't care about each other, or they are but a nugget within a larger disorganization. So, adventures like the Village of Hommlet's moathouse or the Keep on the Borderland's Caves of Chaos don't really count as strongholds, even though they have stronghold-like areas.

True strongholds are challenging, and you'll notice they were all written for medium-to high-level characters. They are crafted to overwhelm players who come without subterfuge or tactics. In fact, if the importance of strongholds in gaming has faded, this may be because the hobby has drifted apart from its wargame roots. Early D&D grew, via Chainmail, from miniatures wargaming scenarios involving sieges or spying against organized opposition, like Bodenburg and Braunstein.

The ultimate proof of the importance of strongholds comes from the "win" condition of the game, right through AD&D: get together enough men, moolah and mojo to build your own. The victorious player ascends to the Dungeon Master's throne, using the iconic graph paper not just to snail-creep a copy of someone else's dungeon, but to plan and build a stronghold and delvings of their own. Some old-school revival games, most notably Adventurer Conqueror King, hold on to this goal. And it's surely no coincidence that ACK's meta-plot of rising through the ranks of an organization by doing their dirty work can lead in turn to more stronghold busting than you might usually see in a modern-day campaign.

As a final example of the yin and yang of strongholds and ruins in gaming, consider the vast and uncompromising amateur PC game, Dwarf Fortress. You can play in two modes. First, dig and maintain a dwarven town complex underground, mining and crafting treasures and defending it from enemies. Then, after it is overrun (near-inevitably) by demons of the magma layer or invading zombie hordes or simply collapses in civil war, play in Adventurer mode within the same world, as a wandering figure bent on exploring its ruined fortresses, defeating their occupiers and looting their wealth. For sooner or later, every stronghold becomes a ruin...

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Sorcery World

Five more to go in a highly irregular series of 36 d20-based encounter tables. Roll d20, read straight across, or roll 2 d20's and connect the two columns as best you can using the verbs for inspiration.The bold, italic entries are things that can be left behind in a site with currently other inhabitants. This one's about wizards and their doings. For more of these look under the GENRES tag.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables: A Review For RPG.Net

Les Misérables
Author: Victor Hugo, 1862 (tr. Norman Denny)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
System: System-neutral/free-form
Setting: French social realism/pre-steampunk

Let me just start with the elephant in the room: If you like GM-PC characters; if for you the whole point of Forgotten Realms is to rub elbows with Elminster, and you would willingly mount a campaign in the world of Conan even though it means the characters are either going to be Conan or someone who isn't Conan, then "Les Mis" is your bag.

The pachyderm in question is Gary ValStu -- sorry, I meant Jean Valjean. He strides through this sourcebook, soaking up attention in every scene he's in. And make no mistake, in spite of the system-neutral descriptions, he's clearly 18 Strength:

"In physical strength Jean Valjean far surpassed any other inmate of the prison. On fatigue duties, or hauling an anchor-chain or turning a capstan, he was worth four men. He could lift and carry enormous weights ..." (p. 99)

But the stat carnival continues:

"His dexterity was even greater than his strength" (p. 100)

So, 19? Book learning-as-dump stat aside,  he's a super-high level rogue who climbs walls like a staircase, bowls people over with force of personality, and survives death plunges. His disad's are many but they're of the kind that only add to his cachet: some kind of helpless dependent or other, false identity, wanted, hunted, and above all a nitpicking adherence to Chaotic Good alignment.

But is alignment really a disadvantage when the book lays out ways and means to weaponize it? Yes, if you stick to your Good behavior even when it would do you great harm - even when your beneficiary is a scoundrel - even when they are actively trying to rob you - even when doing the right thing would ruin thousands of people - Hugo describes benefits ranging from forced alignment change in the target, to confusing and paralyzing adversaries, even to the point of suicide.

Valjean, then, works best as a benefactor for hard times, striding in, doling handouts and plot coupons - but you can't escape the temptation to put him in the hands of a player, if only for the fun of seeing them play him "sensibly" and never attain the full potential that's sitting under their noses.

Then we have the arch-villain NPC, Inspector Javert, Lawful Neutral over into Evil. Say one thing about this guy, he's the absolute right way for the GM to handle a persistent adversary. As much as he's unbelievably skilled and lucky at hunting down his prey - he finds Valjean twice from a cold trail in completely different cities of France - he also will make that little fudgey mistake that lets the players get away, assuming they haven't made any serious mistakes themselves and don't actually (like Valjean) want to get caught.

There actually aren't that many other NPCs for a 1200 page book. This is due to Hugo's habit of having coincidental meetings pop up routinely, so this new person is "none other than" someone we met 200 pages before. Paris and indeed all of France thus behave in Hugo's hands like a village of a couple hundred. Corny as it may seem, at the table this is actually a great way for both GM and players to stay emotionally invested in the developments. Frankly, too, it's easier to remember a plot with six or so recurring names than with thirty-six of them. Those that are described, in more or less detail, are very good - the Patron-Minette gang, with its varied characters and capabilities, almost begs to come to life as a player character party.

Fortunately, the characters, their doings, and other things "storyline" take up only about half of Les Misérables. The rest is great sourcebook material: minute descriptions of buildings, neighborhoods, and historical adventure sites like the Battle of Waterloo, the 1830 barricades, and of course the sewers of Paris; long essays about politics, necessary if you're going to understand 19th century France with its parade of monarchies, empires and republics; and quirky sidebar material like the analysis of convents in France, or the description of Parisian thieves' cant.

Pretty much all the locations are gameable, whether as sites to loot, PC hideaways, or places of intrigue (the scenario where PCs have to help a convent carry out an illicit burial and at the same time help Valjean escape is a tense masterpiece.) Infuriating, though, to see a complete lack of maps and illustrations - the GM will have to dig up historical ones or rely on the "theater of the mind's eye" to fill in. Fan material online can't quite compensate for this crucial flaw.

More of this, please.
Overall, while Les Misérables is a worthy sourcebook, it also takes a lot of work on the GM's part. I understand the limitations of system-neutral, but at times it seems the author feels the need to narrate rather than describe happenings in a systematic way the GM can use.  Less plot railroading, less of the author's own political rantings (fortunately, these are contradictory, half pro-Republic and half pro-Napoleon, so it's not as annoying as it could be), multiple system stats, and above all maps and encounter tables, these would take this product to five-star territory.

Style: 2
Substance: 4

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Waiting Out Sleep (etc.) Non-Boringly

A good game-runner, tester, designer, stays alert to the signs of boredom around the table. Like the rules that everyone forgets, the experiences that don't lead to fun or meaning need to be identified, diagnosed and dropped.

One non-fun experience in D&D and its ilk is the use of enemy powers that take a player's character effectively out of the game. Who has not succumbed to the touch of a ghoul, the tentacles of a carrion crawler, or the icy grip of a hold person spell?

All these paralytic effects, however, last longer than the typical combat does. (Actually, AD&D never gave durations for monster paralysis, but 2nd edition has ghoul touch lasting 3-8 rounds and carrion crawler paralysis lasting at least 2 turns.) This mean the affected character is warming the bench until the combat ends. Visible boredom results.

Taking paralyzation effects out of the game is not an option for me. They're an important part of the monster arsenal, much more forgiving than save-or-die, but still scary and threatening. One of my players who was concerned that his combat-machine character might be unbalanced received a healthy reminder to the contrary, when in the midst of pitched battle a hold person spell overcame his puny save against mind magic. A relentless press turned into a chaotic retreat, with the other characters having to manhandle the stiff body of the hapless warrior. The stuff of legends!

Why wait ten, twenty, thirty game minutes for the stiff to wake up can be turned into a procedure, a very simple game.

During combat, the player rolls a new saving throw against paralyzation each combat round, keeping track of successes, and also keeping track of rolls of a natural 5 or less.

  • A natural 20 means they roll again, keeping only success. 
  • A natural 1 means they roll again, keeping only failure.
  • After three successes, the paralyzation ends.
  • After three 5-or-less rolls, the paralyzation sets in and lasts for 10 minutes.

Taking the character out of danger (by ending or successfully fleeing the combat) means the character is no longer *trying* to wake up, and takes the full 10 minutes. Also, you can rule that each roll to wake up costs the character 1 hit point. This is not terribly unfair; usually attacks that paralyze don't do a lot of damage.

This rule give s a character the potential - if very lucky - to get back into the fight almost immediately. More importantly, it gives hope and something to do in what is otherwise a deadly boring situation.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Flying Monsters

In a recent session in the Castle of the Mad Archmage, the Muleteers went to retrieve the bodies, dead or alive, of a couple of rival party members who had gone missing, sent running by a fear gas trap in the middle of a series of rooms full of bats. This meant fighting giant bats, lots of bats. It was actually my first time dealing with lots of flying attackers and I improvised, inconsistently, a number of rules solutions to represent their menace.

After thinking things through I created this one-page rules sheet for the 52 Pages system. It covers where and how flyers can move, and what happens when they attack. Their ability to charge and overfly, surround and disorient, add to the tactical challenge.

One other things: a critical hit that wounds a flying creature in "arm"or "leg" brings it down for good, showing up the greater vulnerability of wings.

Release the bats!