Thursday, 31 May 2012

One Page Dungeon Results Out!


And my Old Bastard's Barrens is a winner, in the most perfectly appropriate category: Best New Presentation.

It's great when a long-brewing idea makes it. The "hexcrawl with lair ranges" was something I first thought up in high school, but it took the Internet and the Blogosphere to make things happen with it. Nothing like an appreciative audience.

So I'd like to thank Crom, the academy, and everyone out there who thought it was a cool idea, helped refine it, and egged me on to the finish line. Paolo, for tipping me off on google chat. And congrats to all the other winners! Really amazing ideas and art this year. Maybe I'll round up some of my favorites soon.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

D&D Next: Two Worlds of Gaming

Slowly through conversations with players I'm getting a feeling for what happened in gaming around 1980 and around 1995, and how the legacies of those watersheds affect people's reactions to game innovations now.

Neither of these dates is exact, but they each represent a middle point of a process of change. There are plenty of intentional throwbacks after, some unintentional look-forwards before. But in general, games have evolved (devolved?) toward:

I have to roll a 6 to get out? What?
Low death, low frustration. Before 1980 or thereabouts frustration was an acceptable part of a game's modeling of life. This was just as true for computer games, as board games, as role-playing. OD&D's 1 hit point characters = Nethack's play-until-character-death = Dungeonquest's brutal, random death at every corner. "Stay in jail" mechanics were OK in board games back then, too (Source of the Nile, Mystic Wood...).

The AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide removed much of death's sting through a "death's door" rule covering survival from zero and negative hit points (not at all evident in the earlier Player's Handbook). Save-or-die poison took longer to go, being finally purged for good in 3rd Edition. Computer games have shown a similar exorcism of frustration, moving from no saving of game state, to save points, to continual saving. State-of-the art design today for many casual games even gives progress for failed attempts, so that eventually the game will be defeated. Time is the commodity here, as always, but the message is "you didn't succeed" not "you failed."

"Activate Mrs. White's Rolling Pin Flurry!"
Character powers for all. This broadly refers to things a character can do distinct from other characters, but more specifically combat moves that can be customized. The move toward this feature in 3rd and 4th editions usually gets blamed on computer gaming, but plenty of computer games in the 1980's and 90's used the standard D&D paradigm, where classes without spells only get to bash, shoot and hack using the standard combat procedure.

The origin of feats and the like in tabletop gaming can probably be traced to the prevalence of special character moves in fighting console games, and to increasing modularity and customization in the gaming world under the influence of collectible card games.

On to the present day.

D&D Next, as much as it draws from the old school, also has strong representation from these two concerns in the system. It's obvious that hit points are numerous, the margin of safety for low-level characters is great, and healing remains as available as in 4th edition. It's also obvious that classes, races, and "paths" each come with an addition to a suite of powers that can leave a 3rd level character looking at 3-5 different combat traits and moves.

And now my confession: My campaign players expect these features to some extent, steeped as they are in MMOs. And so on both counts I have gone about half the way that D&D Next appears to have done. I used a "death & dismemberment" system at 0 hit points or below that is scary, but in practice merciful. Save or die poison is a bridge we haven't had to cross, but I'm inclined to offer multiple saves on poison (one to be seriously incapacitated and one to die.) Meanwhile, class powers and fighting feats in my game are running about half the count of D&D Next, but still give enough of a sense of things to do.

To put it shortly: In order to compete with my homebrew, D&D 5th Edition is going to have to give me the option to cut down on the bones it throws to millennium-era gaming, and let me run a game at my desired level of "old world charm and new world convenience."

Monday, 28 May 2012

D&D Next: (Dis)advantage

I thought I would share my ambivalent slaloming reactions to the D&D Next playtest documents now inexorably crawling across the net. Here's the first; it's a positive zig.

Plus or minus 3.325. On average.

That's the statistical impact of D&D Next's all-purpose mechanic to replace circumstance bonuses on d20 rolls: advantage (roll 2d20 and take the higher) and disadvantage (take the lower). But the impact across all possible chances is where this mechanic really shines.

The chart below plots out the effective bonus given by "advantage" across all possible chances to succeed against a given DC with a given bonus, from 1 in 20 to 19 in 20. I compare it against the flatter bonus given by the impossible but statistically equal +3.325.

Check out that stegosaurus spine - that's a fat effective +5 bonus when you're at even odds (your 50% chance becomes 75%), and an average of +4 in the midrange.

At the same time, the advantage system doesn't favor long odds like the bonus system does, over on the left. And it makes it nearly impossible to fail when high skill and advantage coincide, with a final chance approaching 20 once added up, on the right.

It's styling, but most importantly, it's simple. One bonus fits all, is some good Old School mentality.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Flattering Waters and Wriggling Worms: An Annotated Player Report

My wife is one of the players in my ongoing campaign and wanted to write this play report, to which I have added my GM-ly notes. This example also leads in to something I want to discuss next couple of posts, about how improvisation often leans toward the mediocre and what to do about it. I'll get there, strangely enough, by way of the advantages of flying and burrowing creatures in combat.


The second session in the new overland campaign found the Band of Iron trundling east from Wonderbridge.  The dwarven road continued along the rim of a deep river canyon stuffed with exotic flora and fauna. 
Courtesy of Jim Pacek's Wilderness Alphabet. I stocked the 5 mile hexes two deep on either side of the road with a 1/12 chance of each one having an unusual feature. This misty canyon will be very interesting to descend into, if adventurers will it ... already a strange lizard-bird has been spotted and mighty bellowing heard from within.
No exploring, though - the Band had already signed on as guards for Orm's trade caravan out of Kaserolle, duty called, the wagons rolled on.

The caravan has been camping overnight, usually at handy farm villages. Next stop after Wonderbridge was Castle Gneissburg, home to a certain Lord Hugo and the ex-bandit men at arms gathered about him.  Former Kaserolle city guard and part-time dungeon chaperone Urbach decided to try his ever-unpredictable luck there, signing on as a member of Hugo's company.. but why did Urbach pay them money?...

A fairly logical ending place for this NPC's character arc. And who knows, there is always the crazy coincidence die to bring him back ...

Heavy rains swelled the River of Flattery along the caravan route, notorious for its magical reflective properties.  After unloading the caravan to cross a rickety bridge, the party investigated a basin at nearby Bonny Facholie village that collected the magical water.

At this point the party had already received fair warning via a legend of a maiden already beautiful who looked at the waters of flattery and pined away Narcissus-fashion. The River of Flattery was a random Wilderness Alphabet feature - a  reflective river - but everything else was my own improvisation, If the river gave a flattering reflection, which was dangerous if the gazer was already good-looking, then ugly people would settle by choice near it, and handsome ones far away. The road went through the handsome people's village, and so they've set up a basin with water from the river as a tourist trap, charging admission to look within.

Shakira looked at his reflection  - and saw a handsome dwarf who could have been his brother.  However the reflection's expressions and movements did not match his own.

In fact, they were disgusted and contemptuous ... the reflection gazes also ...

The often self-effacing Sivir looked - miraculously, she didn't taste the water - and gained new and lasting confidence in her appearance.  (Permanent +1 Charisma, from 7 to 8)  Shea, quite handsome for a fellow who used to live on a mountainside with goats, looked as well - and had quite a different experience.  The compelling face he saw in the basin's water was bewitching, mesmerizing.. he was loath to admit it was not himself!  Slim drew forth a small mirror from her pack, showing it to the prophet in an attempt to strengthen his grasp on reality.  Alas, this aid backfired - Shea was horrified at the mirror's truth and could not shake the disturbed feeling.  (mirror granted 2nd saving throw which was a critical failure, permanent -1 Wisdom, fortunately no effects on his bonuses)

I don't feel too bad about this because there was fair warning about the effects of the gazing. All in all this was a new experience for the party, an outdoor implementation of a "dungeon trick" style encounter.

After passing a second castle flying the colors of Goran's Anvil, the party encountered panicked refugees from the nearby sheepfarming hamlet of Rosemary.   Horrified rambling about hypnosis, unnatural bleeding, sheep savaged by unseen forces from beneath the earth, a mad piper's eerie music luring the villagers on to their doom ensued - the Band had heard enough and charged to the rescue, promising to meet Orm's caravan at a village passed earlier. 

A Wilderness Alphabet ruin, a village, and yes the table rolled "worms" as a form of corruption. This led me to prepare a whole mini-adventure, reinforcing the theme of artifacts made from purple worm teeth - the party is on the trail of a treasure map found in a scroll case made from one, the piper's flute is similarly made, and more clues may be forthcoming ...

The Band encountered a dazed, hypnotized villager, then crested the nearby hill to find the Piper and his music charming not only the villagers but a collection of unnaturally large worms, several burrowing through the fields, one massive specimen sloshing through a nearby bog.  The madman and his worms battled the party, who took him down in relatively short order, loosening his sorcerous grip on the beasts and rendering them nonhostile.

A combination of good tactics, circling around to get bowshots at the piper; the piper's own madness, sitting in the doorway of his hut when he should have taken cover; and a few other issues which I will discuss in the next post.

Then Sivir decided to "experiment" with the piper's exotic flute... Her far from melodious playing drew the immediate attention of all four worms, who renewed their attack.  The party felled the three smaller worms and tried unsuccessfully to lure the huge mottled swamp worm onto dry land.  The worm instead grasped the fallen body of the Piper (and its prized leather armor) and dragged it back into the bog.

Actually, a bloodworm, from the Fiend Folio. I used giant leech stats for the lesser worms.

From Zak Smith's FF series.
Slim then tried to skulk into the bog in pursuit of the armor, provoking the mottled worm AGAIN.  The party was lucky (or blessed by Invictus?) as the worm was out of commission for two rounds in the resulting fight, one from a shrewd stunning blow dealt by the dwarf, another from its own confusion.  Courting disaster the Band was victorious once again, acquiring some worthy loot and leaving unanswered questions.  How could they shake the sorcerous hypnosis gripping the village of Rosemary?  What was the import of the Piper's strange items?  Could they make off with key bits of the mottled worm's remains?  What were those bits worth?  When would they meet up with Orm's caravan?  And most importantly, did Shea's dog Grigio still love him after the magic basin incident?

Of course he does, dogs are not that shallow. As an aside, we found email a good venue to do mopping-up and investigation interactions in between sessions.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Silhouettes From Arcadia

Another silhouette post, now getting into the fourth page of the outdoor encounter table - "legendary" monsters - along with a few Weird leftovers like the mussels. This table isn't really meant to be the most frequent option, unless you are running some crazy sylvan-Olympian kind of region.

I notice also that myths have a lot of flying monsters, and they appear on this chart a lot more than the others. "Give it wings" is a natural, if trite, way to make a heraldic beast. Dragons also appear here; kind of rare, but the evil ones also appear on the Evil chart, number 5.

More thoughts about flying monsters, after a play report from one of my players.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Thief As Aquaman

Poor Aquaman. Butt of a thousand comic-book meta-jokes because his powers depend on an aquatic setting. If he wants to join in the fun with the Justice League the writer had better provide a port, beach or boat.

You know who's like that in D&D? Yeah, the druid. But less obviously - the thief.

As written in the Basic and Advanced games, the thief is saddled with inferior combat everything, and gets in return some very unreliable skills (more on that next post). However, while combat is a feature of almost every environment, things like traps, locks, climbs, and sneaking opportunities have to be written into an adventure. Putting a trapped, locked chest on a high ledge is like putting a villain's lair in a undersea volcano for the Superfriends. If these opportunities don't make sense in the adventure, tough. Maybe this is one reason for the knee-jerk secret doors, traps, locks impulse I've noted in so much module writing.

In my 52 Pages system, and to some extent in 3rd edition, rogues work better because they have a clearer combat role as missile troops and sometimes scouts. The skills are useful, but secondary. I think any designer has to come to grips with this. "Can't do much but gains levels quickly" is not really a recipe for a viable character class.

There's a strange parallel here with the cleric. In Old School circles, as I've noted before, both these classes are marginal and often questioned. The cleric also presents a skill that is very useful in circumscribed situations - turning undead. This is the most direct tie to the class' origin as a vampire hunter, Van Helsing with the crucifix. Faith healing is less in line with the fiction, but in function, it's become the most important reason for the cleric to exist, to the point where 3rd Edition just laid down and admitted it, with free substitution of cure spells. The Aquaman power here, turning undead, is supplanted by a more generally useful combat power, healing.

By the way, that task I mentioned where the thief has to climb a ledge, pick a lock find a trap, and disarm it? In AD&D a 5th level human thief with 17 DEX has a roughly 7.5% chance of completing that skill sequence successfully. More on this next time.

Monday, 7 May 2012

"Parameters" and Minimal Mechanics

Amusing? Entertaining? Infuriating? These are some possible reactions to the "one page computer RPG" Parameters, by Nekogames. This little Flash panel contains boxes representing your character's stats, shops, quests, monsters and special power-ups. There is no description of a game world; just numbers and very minimal icons. Everything is done by clicking on the boxes, from fighting to gold-farming to leveling up. The goal is to beat the final boss in as little real-time as possible.

It's not quite a satire of the mindlessness of such games, as Progress Quest was; there is gameplay and strategy, of a kind. And it does inspire some thoughts:

1. What a difference just a little description would make ... add words like "Orc" and "Mine Gold" and "Giant Ant" to the boxes, and the people who are cursing its minimalism would instead be praising its concision. Extra amusement at those who are implying (comments) that somehow, doing so would make it a real-io trul-io ROLE-playing game.

2. I'm also imagining what a little artistic flash would do ... treat the grid like the gilded architectural framing of a late medieval altarpiece, or like an Advent calendar.

Or add some silhouettes ... yeah.

3. But really, these thought experiments also go to show that there needs to be very little beef in the gilded burger. The story and monsters and cities and setting can cover up for game play that is really simplistic; in fact, increasing immersion by pulling you away from the bean-counting, min-maxing game layer. It's detailed, not abstract, combat systems that risk getting some trivium of chain-mail ablation wrong.

4. Honestly, what this probably represents is a programmer who wanted to save time and money on writing, sound and graphics. A lot of time and money.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Arneson Auction

Been busy. Back with gaming thoughts shortly.

In the meanwhile, check this out.

Some of it is merely reliquary (his Risk set, really?) but there's a lot of potential in his campaign notes.

And what's inside the briefcase?

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

When to Role, When to Rule and When to Roll

One point, left dangling from my recent series, I'd like to address: When should a DM use an analog mode of task resolution based on player descriptions of actions in role and your rulings on them, and when should he or she use a digital mode, rolling dice against set skills and difficulties?

There's a great benefit to seeing the physical environment of an adventure for what it is, rather than an abstract map dotted with "trap" and "secret" symbols. A lot of task resolutions then become simple. Is there a naked, unworked stone corridor? Then any tripwires or pressure plates or door seams will be evident to anyone with two good eyes, even in flickering torchlight, when proceeding forward at the glacial pace of dungeon exploration. I mean, try not noticing everything there is to notice while taking a minute or more to examine a 12' stretch of corridor, 1st Edition AD&D style.

What if the task is more difficult? Say there's a gossamer-thin tripwire spun by dark elves, or a seam of uncanny dwarven construction. Say there's a complicated bas-relief that could be hiding any number of buttons or holes, or a cracked floor with any number of outlines possible. For these, I would say that a long and close inspection would reveal the hidden feature. In player terms, they would have to give me a detailed description of what they are doing, and repeat that each time they are doing it.

Player attention, in other words, is a resource, drained by repetition and boredom. But forget what I said about trying to model this with limits on character attention. It's a player thing, not character. And player things, too, are analog.

If you want to reach the heights of immersion and intellectual challenge that come from an analog game, you have to trust your players to respect their time and enjoyment. You have to trust them not to abuse your system by giving long descriptions of detailed searches  at all times. If you're playing with dopey kids or grown-up asshats or hyper-task-focused fun-murderers, use a more rules- and dice-bound system - please!

You also have to resolve not to let them cheat their way into this resource, using crappy min-maxer crutches like the standing-order instruction sheet (see under "excel spreadsheet" anecdote there).This is just one of those times where you have to know what your group is like. Don't assume the worst right away. But don't think that the right system can substitute for mutual consent to have fun. Good players will fret about the possibility that an asshat could ruin the game, or even the possibility that they could be that asshat. But they won't actually do it.

Eventually, the environment will channel their attention. They'll zoom along a blank corridor or room in real time, because they know that any danger there will be spotted by their cautious in-game progress. They'll stop and check out mosaic floors, complex sculptures or patterns ... if they're wise. Your naturalistic, analog signaling of opportunities for complication will guide their attention. "Dwarven craftsmanship" or "illusionist's castle", of course, should spur them to new and temporary heights of paranoia.

Now, when do you roll? Yes, my game has a "notice detail" skill. And I use it for the same purpose as saving throws in James M's classic analysis. It gives players a digital chance when their analog skills don't quite meet the challenge. Even if you're running down a corridor, you might notice the tripwire that your slow advance would make obvious. Even if you're just standing next to a bookcase casting idle eyes on it, you might notice the odd jointwork that sends you looking for an opening device.

There's one caution, though: I haven't yet had players get up to the point where their skill in notice detail becomes near-automatic. In my system a rogue could get there by level 4, though at the cost of everything else roguely. With more even development they're likely to max out the Notice skill around level 8.

I'm not sure whether the greater chance of success at those heights is a just reward for sticking it through, or a blow to the fun in analog gaming. Perhaps the balancing factor is this: At higher levels, you're more likely to face complex, brain-challenging mechanisms and effects, so that the challenge is not whether you see them, but what you do once you see them.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Ultimate Wilderness Encounter Table 3

This is the "weird" table. Not malevolent for the most part ... just strange and dangerous, giant invertebrates, critterfolk, and the beings that fall outside the canon of the Monster Manual. Of these, by the way, everyone has their favorites and most hated. These are the ones I see as appropriate, but when I release the full thing I'll include a version with all the non-MM monsters blank and ready to be filled in with your own favorites or inventions.

Yeah, the bleh sea monsters from the MM should probably go in here ... the morkoth, the masher ... but I do love my undead mussels so.