Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Orc-Studded Economics of Experience

I'm trying to assess the experience and advancement system for my game.  I'm making the following assumptions:

1. Given that the modern rate of play is weekly or every other week, it really should not take more than 10 sessions to reach 2nd level, and I'm ok with it even being twice as fast as that.

2. I like giving xp both for killing monsters and gaining treasure. Not so much for gaining magic items.

3. I know the arguments for balancing in favor of treasure but find in practice that leads to unwieldy amounts of treasure, quickly overwhelming the options for equipment purchase.

4. I reject many of the classic solutions for cash glut like magical items for sale, PCs creating minor magic items, venal miracle-mongers charging four-figure resurrections, exorbitant training fees.

5. I think about 5th level is when players should think about starting to build a name-level legacy and throw money around for influence and ultimately stronghold privileges.

6. I'm OK with levels taking more sessions to obtain the more the players play.

With these criteria in mind let's build a dungeon rich in exploration and non-combat problems, where the combat is with squads of 5 orcs at a time. And send a party of 5 in. The assumption here is that our heroes are going to run into and beat about the equivalent of two such squads before the session ends (and this has nothing to do with the 15 minute adventuring day - it's usual for parties in my exploration-heavy dungeons to split one expedition over two game sessions). The question then becomes, assuming we want them to level up in about 6 sessions, how much treasure should we have them take away on average each time?

Labyrinth Lord

Orcs are 10 XP and although classes vary, the fighter is a good benchmark and will level at 2,035 xp (I wonder what intensive playtesting led to such a precise figure ...) Thus, 10 x 10 / 5 = 20 xp from monsters will be gained by each member on each expedition. After 6 expeditions our fighter has 120 xp from monsters; fair enough; it's an explicitly treasure-weighted system. But the fighter will have to end up with 1915 gold pieces if and when he makes second level - enough to buy a suit of plate mail for himself and two henchmen!

Other Old School Clones

OSRIC and Swards & Wizardry are a little more generous, clocking in at 15 XP (on average, in the case of OSRIC) per orc, but this doesn't make an appreciable dent in the huge sums to be had. Lamentations' orcs and fighters are much the same as LL's.

My House Rules

In the current incarnation of my house rules I give xp at the rate of:
  • 100 per adjusted hit die (adjusted for special attacks and the like) of monsters that are equal to or higher than the average party level, 
  • half that if one lower, 
  • and 1/10 that if two or more. 
The level-appropriate orcs here would yield 10x as much experience as in Labyrinth Lord, requiring a haul of only 800 coins to make 2000 xp; it's touch and go whether you can get plate mail by 2nd level with all other expenses and payments you may be required to make. The treasure can be even sparser if you make allowances, as I do, for carousing rules which let money be spent on experience. In fact, the ratio of exploration to combat and treasure is such that my players are pleased with (3rd ed. style) a level 2 jump at 1000 xp.

Now, this system is tailored to my preferences, which skip a lot of the familiar tropes of D&D and aim for a lean, hungry kind of game. I've seen a lot of these preferences expressed by bloggers, but not always with an appreciation of how monsters, experience and treasure exist in a delicate balance. I'm just wondering how this balance works in other games with the wealth of house rules out there.

Next I'll consider the question of what there is to spend money on, under a game aesthetics that avoids the computer-game staple of the well-stocked magic equipment store.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Beast World

The series is back!

Roll d20 once (whole row), twice (column 1, column 3, choose the most appropriate column 2 verb from the two rolls), or three times (each column separately) for increasing degrees of craziness.

And check out Jason's The Dungeon Dozen ... in a similar vein, but more focused, and a different d12 table every day.

Some day I'm going to collect a whole bunch of them and make a huge roll-a-thon of 144x12 weird things you can find in the dungeon.

Monday, 27 February 2012

He Speaks!






* or Anglo-Australian

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Three Improvisations

Took the Castle of the Mad Archmage to the mini-convention at the uni Saturday, two new players and one veteran adventurer braving the upper works.

Of course they mostly ignored the thin trail of plot crumbs that would have sent them to keyed areas, and went exploring around the upper works of the castle, treading into decidedly unkeyed territory.

What to do? Push them with the railroad tender's stick back onto the yellow brick road? Hell no!

This is ... OLDSCHOOL!

After this game I realized that my system preparing content for an adventure on the fly takes about as much time during play as does preparing it in downtime, and is almost as quick as looking it up in notes. The downside is that you can't really join things up sensibly ... or can't you? It's kind of amazing what emerges after the fact as you connect the dots.

Spoilers follow!

Friday, 24 February 2012

Back in My Day We Didn't Have These Fancy Megadungeons

The sight of the recently released 300 room Barrowmaze being docked points on Grognardia for not being big enough to be a true megadungeon - I guess that makes it more of a what? Macrodungeon? Kilodungeon? - reminds me that we didn't even know what the hell a megadungeon was in 1982. There were no commercially available examples of the art, and only a few oblique references to Castle Greyhawk in the Dungeon Master's Guide.

To us, megadungeons were boring. In the absence of any guidance from TSR, our DM started us off with three levels of what, in hindsight, was inspired by the only available megadungeon examples at the time: PC dungeon games such as Wizardry or Bard's Tale, which we also played avidly. In other words, a monster motel punctuated by traps.

By the time we reached third level of this dungeon, we were clamoring for a more "mature" experience, more similar to the published modules we were starting to read. Adventures with a plot and a climax and in different parts of the world map. Nobody we knew was running a megadungeon, and even less so through the story-obsessed 80's and 90's. When Undermountain came out, it seemed more of a curio than a model for emulation. Impressive, certainly, but would you actually want to nail your campaign down in one place for years at a time?

Really, what we're doing under the banner of the Old School Renaissance is much cooler than 99% of our actual old school experiences with D&D. Essentially, we are finally appreciating and spreading the practices of the close Gygax/Arneson circle that never made it out to the masses in any published product. Megadungeons are part of that, and the only pity is that the necessary catalyst seemed to be the passing of the founders of the game.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

AGS Con Saturday

For people in southeast England, I will be running a session at the University of Kent at Canterbury's adventure games society con (AGS Game Con) Saturday 10:00-12:30 (NOTE TIME CHANGE), Woolf College at the University, room 1. Location and schedule info are in the link, it's a very informal one-day con with all kinds of gaming and fandom.

System: Homebrew old school (TSR Basic D&D meets 3rd ed*.)
Characters: Pregenerated, or use yours from previous games I ran this year.

Now that the bandits have been ousted from the upper works, the entrance to the Cellars of the Castle of the Mad Archmage lies open. A mysterious collector wants you to bring back a bottle of Cuvee du Sorcier Fou, preferably the tart MY 1321 vintage. Will you succeed in your quest, or just blunder around the Cellars aimlessly, getting into trouble? The choice is yours!

* Blog readers will know this as the 52 Pages System. I'll be using my own version of the Cellar level for castle of the Mad Archmage, but am prepared to go as deep as level 3 if people find the stairs ...

Thursday, 16 February 2012

AD&D Gender Differences: Not Big Enough for Realism

If you defend gender limits on Strength in a game because of "the basic facts of anatomy," are you going far enough?

Most research studies put men on average at about twice the physical upper-body strength of women, whether measured by lifting or throwing (even this meta-analysis challenging the importance of psychological sex differences has to acknowledge the strong physical sex differences on this score.) To put it statistically, effect size differences on things related to the Strength stat in roleplaying games range from 1.5 to 3 standard deviation units (d). The distribution overlap for a d of 2 looks like this:

What this would mean is that 2.5% of women are physically stronger than the average man, and 2.5% of men are less strong than the average woman. If you assume that the male is the norm for the D&D character (and given the premises of this discussion, hey, why not?), this translates to a -6 penalty to female Strength, so that the top 2.5th percentile cutoff of the female distribution (3d6 roll of 17+) matches the top 50th percentile cutoff of the male one (3d6 roll of 11+).

Nothing this size exists for psychological differences, so unless you're positing some very bizarre cultural constraints, balancing out male strength  by giving women characters a +6 to "wisdom" or "charisma" or what have you is just as unrealistic.

And people are arguing about AD&D capping human females at 18/50 strength? It's clear that neither realism nor equality are served by the classic  rule, which can only be defended on the grounds of tradition.

My own game's rationale for not having gender modify strength: Along with the wizard, the dwarf, the elf, the barbarian - each of which rests to some extent on a suspension of disbelief - there is another fantasy archetype, the "warrior maid" or "kick-ass woman." Whether her name is Penthesilia, Bradamante, Wonder Woman, or Xena, both men and women love to watch her, and sometimes to play in her role. Anything the system does to make this character possible, and attractive to play, is allowable.

Long story short: why the hell are people so concerned about female anatomical realism when half the female fighters in D&D art look like this:

And if so, why can't they equally "unrealistically" look like this?

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Why Must Having Initiative Always Be Good?

In skirmish combat rules, where the chance to go first is re-determined every round, it's common to see some additional rules layers to make sure that the winner of initiative is not disadvantaged.

For example, if the rules say you move, then attack, all on your go, this could happen if you win initiative.

That's terrible, right? Ivar the barbarian wins initiative, rushes to attack, and Koko the gorilla steals the de-facto initiative, closing and getting the first attack.

So Ivar should be smart. Ivar shouldn't advance, and if Koko wants to fight, she can come halfway and hope to get lucky on the next attack. But still, that's not the greatest reward for winning initiative.

All right, so that's terrible.What if we fix the rules so that everyone's movement happens in one phase in initiative order, then everyone's attacks in a subsequent phase? We get this:

The guy with initiative runs up to attack, and the guy without plays keep-away. Only if the gorilla paradoxically wins initiative do her slow legs not carry her beyond the reach of the barbarian's axe. This can go indefinitely even if the barbarian is faster than the gorilla, unless you have some rule about locking in combat - let's say, if the barbarian ends up with 3" or more of move left over, the gorilla can't disengage until the next round.

There's also the whole idea that you might want to wait and see what the other figure might do, stand or run, before you commit yourself. To this end, a lot of initiative-based game systems have both a forward and a backward countdown, so that an individual with initiative can go first or last, as he or she prefers. Or, the option to hold one's move until the other side has gone, which works out to much the same thing.

All this is fine for systems where the initiative roll is somehow given a bonus or penalty according to the personal attributes of the fighting figures. You don't want the high Dexterity guy or the ranger to be disadvantaged. But a lot of our games - including my own - advocate a simple roll, either individually or for each side. Straight d6 on straight d6, no bonuses or modifiers. In that case, why even talk about losing or winning initiative? Why not talk instead of high and low initiative, each of which has its own advantages; like yin and yang?

  • High initiative is generally advantageous, especially with two combatants already in range of each other. It also allows seizing the initiative, taking over some point of vantage, grabbing the sword on the ground.
  • Low initiative is a more passive and patient stance. It gives the advantage of being able to act second, seeing what the opponent has done and performing the move to outfox that. Especially where movement and melee attack are rolled into one action, having low initiative can be more of an advantage than having high initiative.
I find that it simplifies combats enormously to have people say and do everything they can when their turn comes around. Multiple phases, pre-calling actions, holding actions, all put obstacles in the way. At the same time, I have worried about gaming this system, so what I actually use in play is a multiple-phase system (missile, spell, move, melee) with held moves possible. But I've just realized I might not need all this, if I let go of the idea of initiative having to always be an advantage.

With all the initiative systems out there, is there one for you that strikes the balance between ease of use, strategic depth, and players gaming the system?

Sunday, 12 February 2012

One Page Surprise

I never have been happy with the d6 surprise roll. I found its interaction with various incarnations of spotting, hearing and stealth skills unclear. So when last I posted on this topic, I stood by my preference to work out these situation in an analog rather than digital way - that is, to take the facts of the situation and determine who becomes aware of whom and when, rather than roll a die for a numeric result.

Well, for the rules I'm currently playing by that has worked fine, but I suspected there would be a fairly easy digital way to treat alertness and disturbance as playing against each other, while at the same time bringing party  and enemy alertness under the same system. The key is to realize that in spite of all their disadvantages in an adventuring environment - light, noise, unfamiliarity - intruders have one definite advantage, which is that they are very aware as they advance into new surroundings.

Picture an ogre's lair in the dungeon. I mean, what does he do all night when he's not hunting? He's used to the setting, he's intimidated or made peace with the surrounding monsters. He's not going to be sitting on a stool staring into the corridor for hours on end.

If the reaction tables and possibility of parley are one rule that serves to soften the blow of easy mortality in old-school settings, having an alertness table adds a further potential advantage for the party. What would you do if you came upon a sleeping giant? Would the surprise round be enough? Would you be smart enough to think up some Lilliputian tricks to press your advantage, as Odysseus did?

Then, the smart adventure designer will think about the giant. Perhaps he's aware of his vulnerability when he sleeps, and has a goblin or a watchdog as protection. The Homeric lesson about the Cyclops is that as solitary sociopaths, they are vulnerable to the efforts of men working together. Perhaps your setting's monsters have a similar flaw?

Anyway, here's the procedure. We can assume that normal monsters have a 1 in 6 chance to hear noise, move stealthily and  notice hidden people, going up for certain types such as bugbears.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

One Page Brawling

Launching into Book 2 of the 52 Pages, may I present the distillation of a simple unarmed combat system. Here as always, the "one page, 18 point type" restriction allows jettisoning a lot of excess material. Two options: do you wish to hurt or detain your opponent? If the latter, effects depend on your relative size. Regardless, the "to hit" roll reigns supreme.

Clicking, as always, enlarges.

If you think some characters deserve super luchador powers you can have them wrestle as one size category higher. (And yes - size categories are a property of monsters but go like this: giant rat -1, dwarf 0, human 1, ogre 2, giant 3, huge giant 4.)

Also: CAC = armor class without worn armor, UAC = armor class without shield and dexterity bonuses.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Silhouette Jackpot

PhyloPic "stores free silhouette images of animals, plants, and other life forms. All images are available for reuse under a Public Domain or Creative Commons license." 

Telecanter, I think we just hit the motherlode.

Some choice picks:

Any old school game that has familiars should think seriously about the criminally neglected archaeopteryx.

Kelenken guillermoi
Prehistoric goblins are riding these guys.

Homo sapiens sapiens

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Wisdom: For the Ultimate Priest or the Ultimate Scout?

D&D's Wisdom stat seems to be the most easily dispensed when people write house rules and variants. If you don't like clerics, you won't like wisdom, for starters. Even with clerics left in, something seems to compel people to re-envision this unwanted stat ... as sanity, luck, piety, will. Check out this D&D tutorial video and the way Wisdom has to be handwaved around. Do "common sense" and "sense of self" really go together with "religious involvement"? Why, in 2nd edition on, does Wisdom give bonuses for skills like perception, outdoor survival and healing?

A wise guy, huh?
The prevailing view of wisdom in psychology is that it's the long-term knowledge of how best to achieve a meaningful life. Fine, but try translating that into a die roll bonus. Robert Sternberg, one of the predominant researchers in intelligence, argues that beyond IQ (reasoning ability, equivalent to D&D's Intelligence stat), success in life is also predicted by creativity, and by a third "street smarts" factor which he sometimes calls "practical intelligence" and sometimes "wisdom." The problem with this third factor as a game stat is that it's about making the right decisions. Feeding players the right decisions or forcing them to make the wrong ones because of their Wisdom would be a recipe for frustration.

This is why Wisdom constantly has to be reinterpreted as a character, not player, attribute. One approach (let's call it "Piety") is to just say it's whatever it takes to be a cleric/priest/paladin and tie it exclusively to divine magic. This is similar to what I do with Intelligence, renaming it Intellect, and treating it as "head for book learning." The problem here is that really no other character class has any reason to have a high Wisdom.

There are two other very different things Wisdom's asked to do, especially in 3rd edition D&D, with its design pressure to make all game elements meaningful. One is "Will" or ability to resist mental influence: 3rd edition has Wisdom modifying Will saves. The other is "Perception" or awareness of one's surroundings: 3rd edition also has Wisdom modifying a variety of skills like Spot, Listen, Sense Motive and Survival.

Well... Will and Piety perhaps go together, if you make the long assumption that contact with divine forces is the only way to resist influences on your mind. But Will and Piety are definitely at odds with Wisdom as Perception. The static, supportive role of cleric in the original game is right opposite the scouting, mobile role of the thief. It doesn't seem right that both classes draw on the same stat, when AD&D explicitly stated that their roles were opposite, and each one's prime requisite was the ability score the other could ignore completely.

How to resolve this mess? I recently had the insight that if Wisdom = Awareness it could mean different things for divine and profane classes. Simply put, have priest-types (or prophets) not get the Wisdom bonuses for earthly things like listening. Their awareness is attuned to a different sphere.

To sum up, in my game going forward, high Wisdom has the following benefits for a prophet:
  • Qualifies for the class
  • Stronger miracles, healing and abjuring evil.
  • Stronger Mind saves (similar to 3rd edition's Will)
And for a non-prophet:
  • 13+ Wisdom gives +1 on d6 perception skills; 8- Wisdom gives -1..
  • Bonuses in Wisdom gives 10/15/20% bonus to experience, but no penalty for low Wisdom - the logic here being similar to awareness, that a prophet's Wisdom is too tied up in higher things to help learn pragmatically from experience.
  • Stronger Mind saves.
Yes, this means that Wisdom is still a melange of Piety, Perception, Will and even the kind of life-learning that shows up in the psychology definition. I'm happy to live with that conflation, just as I'm happy for Dexterity to cover both fine and gross motor skills. The important thing in a character system is to give a variety of choices that make global sense, not create the ultimate human resources instrument.

Another thing to think about - if and when I introduce a Druid class to the game, their nature-bound spirituality would let them get both divine and mundane benefits of Wisdom.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Megadungeon Mini-Module: The Tavern

With all my thoughts on the modular megadungeon, I realized something recently while on the road. The best format to present my Cellars of the Castle Ruins adventure (an Upper Works and Level One compatible with Castle of the Mad Archmage) would be in modular segments.

Here is my first such segment. Players in any of my existing campaigns, of course, should not peek. Can we get a crowdsourced megadungeon going across the blogiverse? Talysman has taken the first step.

The main elements are a one-page format, a three-letter code, a map at 0.5 cm = 10 feet, a key to said map, and a small graphic that presents the shape of the module at 0.5 cm = 50 feet (this one is a 3 x 3 square). The small graphic is meant to be traced or cut out and fit into the larger-scale map of the megadungeon.

It's also helpful to have the exits mapped to the middle square of any given 50' edge, so the segments can fit with each other and the usual style of geomorph. Note also the blank line left to fill in your own megadungeon and campaign connections.
Anyway, let me know if you try your own hand at the megadungeon mini-module!