Sunday, 31 March 2013

Dungeon Poetics

When I used to write poetry (that other, extinct hobby of mine that hewed closer to my twentysomething New York idea of adulthood) I ended up setting two rules for myself: Write concisely; avoid cliches. In hindsight I would have done well to add a third: The damn thing must still mean something.

These laws work equally well for adventure writing. This genre, too, requires striking imagery to succeed; rewards going behind the scenes to find new connections and insights. And yes, the damn thing must still mean something - how you get there is your own concern, but imaginative fiction does not simply mean pulling six-legged animals named smeerps out of a hat and making them whistle Dixie. There has to be some evocative link to a consistent and rooted world, no matter how strange or oblique, to make it work.

I realized this connection after Zak S recently dicussed the legendary megadungeon disappointments, 3rd edition Castle Greyhawk and 2nd edition Undermountain. The former was shown up to be full of cliches and meaningless misses, the latter full of padding.

But besides mining the "gem" ideas from those clunkers, what would it take to make them more meaningful? Let's take a closer look at Old-School whipping boy Undermountain - specifically, the first room of the first level - then Old School Revival whipping boy Dwimmermount - three rooms from a page chosen at random. I can't get the image to size just right, so you're probably going to have to click to read it.

Even leaving out the boxed text, Ed Greenwood's Undermountain room 1 presents a no-fun-house of random features that lead nowhere and contribute nothing to the sense of gradual discovery through exploration. When the off-message and filler material is removed, we're left with a sly,mocking marker that this is the starting room of the weakest level: 1 rat, 1 gold piece, enjoy. The hidden compartment is actually a much better anticlimax if it's empty. A smart party will find ways to use it as a cache. Using this logic the DM can do a better job of figuring out what might actually, reasonably be cached there.

Speaking of rats and small change, let's give James Maliszewski's Dwimmermount more of a chance by looking at its deeper levels. For purpose of criticism, here are three rooms from the top of a randomly chosen page of the backer draft, which happens to be on level 5. Comments on the right.

With Dwimmermount, there's better style but similar problems in substance: the prose is lots more economical, but meaning and unique twists still prove elusive, although they are there.

I think the main problem of both these and similar efforts is, well, that they're megadungeons. The amount of time required to put poetic craft into each and every one of a thousand or more rooms is practically impossible. Some corners inevitably have to be cut.

Greenwood did it by actually presenting only about 30 super-prolix rooms per level, filling the rest of the map with "do it yourself" maze wallpaper. Joe Bloch's Castle of the Mad Archmage is honest about having lots of super-short room descriptions but thrives on the set-pieces and the grand plan; it helps that he's intentionally recreating the gonzo-ish Greyhawk legend, which sets low expectations for coherence and dungeon cliche avoidance to begin with. Somehow we expect more of Dwimmermount, with its much-trumpeted world, story and secrets. I haven't gotten Barrowmaze yet, but have a thumbs up for Patrick Wetmore's Anomalous Subsurface Environment, which achieves its goals by using smaller (yet still expansive) megadungeon levels and a number of creative back-stories to sow meaning. Even that one, though, isn't complete yet.

Stonehell by Michael Curtis is another interesting case. I think that deserves a post all of its own.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Four Visual Riddles


At one location is this page; at three other locations, dice of lead with gold pips; at a third, a lead door with (unremovable) gold nails. The first time two or three dice are rolled each day, speaking that password will open the door. If only two dice are rolled, the trap behind the door remains active; it takes a three-dice password to disarm the trap as well.

(Can someone who can read old German decipher the rhyme at top?)


This page is the key to a tapestry found elsewhere, having groups of birds and beasts arranged on either side of a pictured magical gauntlet, which is hidden at a third location.  The left side animals spell out "FORTINBRAS" - a command word that gives the gauntlet ogre strength once per day - and the right side ones spell out "LEGHERDEMAIN" - a command word that allows the gauntlet to float and animate as a third hand once per day - both effects lasting three minutes.


This page illustrates a brass head found at another location. If a character touches the spot on the head corresponding to his or her zodiac sign, it speaks a horoscope that portends, at equal chances, either weal (+2 on all d20 rolls), woe (-2), or average luck for the next 24 hours. Only one horoscope per day per character.


A knowledge of the order of events in the legend of Saint Eulena, the Pullets, and the Snakes is required to touch the bronze panels of this puzzle door in the correct order so that the pull ring will open the door, rather than uttering a malediction.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Dual Wielding

The munchkin's delight, fighting with a weapon in each hand needs to be balanced against using a shield or a two-handed weapon.
Go go spell checker!
Here's my usual solution.

 It got some attention when I posted the 52 Pages, and commenter Picador noted a few emergent properties of the rule ... namely that attacks with a shield getting a maximum +2 strength bonus to hit can complement using a normal sword, which only gets +1 ... and the potential for awesome comboing with my "feats" for fighters and rogues that let you roll an extra damage die on a max or min roll.

The slight update clarifies that the higher damage roll is checked after adding bonuses like Strength and extra dice. This privileges the rogue's extra damage die feat, which activates on a high roll, over the fighter's, which has more chance of being irrelevant because it boosts the lower roll.

This scheme isn't perfect. It requires a fiddly choice each round whether to bash with the shield, forgoing AC bonus, or not- and when does that get decided? Also, it may not matter that much. I worked out numbers (ignoring the bonus dice for the moment) for damage ...

A d8 weapon does average of 4.5 damage/hit
Fighter with d8 and d6 weapon: average of 5.23 damage
Anyone with d8 and d4 weapon: average of 4.81 damage
Anyone with d8 weapon and shield (d4-1): average of 4.63 damage

So, stacked up to the benefit of using a shield defensively (+2 AC), the off-hand dagger isn't looking so hot, although the d6 weapon gives the fighter a respectable half-point plus of bonus damage, not quite reaching the +1 average damage from using a two-handed weapon (more if you're super-strong) but without the drawbacks of a wide swing. The shield bash is going to be beneficial only rarely, but that factor further argues for the shield, which especially against weak opponents can cut your chance to be hit by a half to a third.

Some ideas to make the dagger more attractive off-hand, especially for the iconic rogue ...

* It gives +1 AC in the off-hand.
* When ambushing/backstabbing with dual weapons (except shield), roll the bonus d6 twice as well and take the higher.
* Rogues can use a dagger for d6 damage.

Anything else?

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Homework for Players Bogged Down In A City

It turns out cities are not just the most dangerous adventure, but also the most bewildering, and least rewarding.
Where they are now, more or less.

Least rewarding in the traditional schemes of things because killing and stealing has nasty consequences and feels wrong most of the time.

Most bewildering especially when the party, like my own Band of Iron, is in between adventures ... and trying to buy stuff and work out contacts ... and living in the world I created, where there are visible signposts to the next adventure, but there is more than one signpost and they're merely visible or sometimes actually tucked away rather than neon-lit and blinking.

For any such players in a big and sprawling campaign, and especially my own, think about using "city time" in the following way:

1. Write down a list of "locks" - mysteries that remain mysterious, opportunities you don't quite know how to crack, things you would like to see happen.

2. Write down a list of "keys" - things that remain to be investigated, potential clues or leads, all the other social and magical ways you have of getting information.

3. When next you meet, prioritize the "keys" that seem to correspond to the most appealing "locks" but investigate as much as you have time for.

Or just ignore this advice and spend time wandering around in this wonderful huge city. Despite all your expenses, you've still got a chance to carouse, a chariot race to see ... Rule Number One is fun!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Stacking Up XP Systems

Juggling more thoughts about experience systems, I realized I see problems with pretty much every single-source solution. Yes, I'm intentionally leaving out "xp for just showing up" because just showing up is not what I want to reward, at least among adults.

XP for treasure found and retrieved, only
Rewards: Treasure seeking by any means; avoiding combat; the players as adventurers, not plot monkeys.
DM judgment calls: Defining what is treasure; should bounties and rewards count? The loot from a plundered town?
Hidden sticky points: Sticking with standard, classic 1000-2500 xp to reach first level, that's a lot of treasure running through your hands - enough to max out a fighter's standard equipment. Hard to make players stay hungry.

XP for treasure spent on "useless" goods and activity, only (carousing, etc.)
Rewards: Demand-side rather than supply-side behavior; your party can get rich running a caravan or looting a town and level up, because the experience comes from money spent.
DM judgment calls: Minimal; you do have to decide when something is useless, but this can be strictly defined in a list of allowed activities.
Hidden sticky points: As above regarding amount of treasure. You may have to choose between spending on useful equipment and getting levels, which is a temptation to overcalculate things.

XP for monsters slain
Rewards: Facing monsters; heroic combat; unless adjusted for imbalance, pointless hunting expeditions.
DM judgment calls: When NPC's count; when the players are farming instead of adventuring.
Hidden sticky points: Adjusting XP for balance ratios can be fiddly and mechanical.

XP for exploration and defined missions
Rewards: Other forms of adventuring than treasure hunting, and other forms of overcoming than monster slaying
DM judgment calls: What a particular exploration goal or mission is worth. No real good guidelines I can see out there. Also, how to deal with somewhat subverted missions.
Hidden sticky points: Lots of DM subjectivity as to where to seed your Easter egg baskets of goodies.

Perhaps I currently run a mix of all four - monsters and treasure, plus carousing, plus occasional set rewards for challenges and adventures with neither monsters nor treasure - because I see drawbacks in each of them. If I had to drop one, it would be monster XP - replacing it with goal awards. Rewarding the process of treasure finding is important, but treasure spending, carousing and the like, also adds great color to a game. Training should be an option for leveling up; but so should drunken revelry, ostentatious charity, or arcane scholarship.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Holy World

You know what this is? Number eighteen in the series of thirty-six of these pocket genre worlds. Halfway there! Hallelujah!

Saturday, 23 March 2013

One Page Skills

One thing that's becoming clear about this project is that I don't just want to jam as much 18 point font onto a page as possible. I want there to be breathing room on the page.

When it became clear from feedback that I needed to have weapon and armor restrictions in about the same place as saving throws and hit points for the classes, something had to go off that page. That something was skills, and since I was planning an additional page with skill examples, it became clear that I could also move the hard-to-find skill use section from the background and language page to an all-in-one skills page. As a bonus, this better meets my goal to have systems be modular wherever possible.

The main new thing is non-prophets getting a Wisdom bonus for noticing and hearing things. Think of Wisdom as awareness. Prophets' awareness is otherworldly, so they don't get the bonus, but others with high Wisdom who are more in the here and now do. This also means that every stat except Charisma now bears on skills - and effectively, the benefits of Charisma on reactions and followers are their own powerful thing.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Experience for Ends, not Means

The other day noisms expressed some nostalgia for the 2nd Edition D&D experience rules, where characters got experience for doing things related to their class - fighters for killing monsters, thieves for getting treasure, magic-users for casting spells relevant to the adventure and so on. There were also some awards for playing well, in terms of role-playing, being a good party citizen, achieving story goals, and becoming a better tactician, although these were quite vaguely defined.

I remember greeting these changes with satisfaction back in the day - finally, an experience system that was more "realistic"! Plus, it rewarded playing in-class, and isn't that what 1st Edition aimed at doing but in a more clunky, ornery and punitive way, punishing magic-users who got into combat or fighters who shrank from it?

Nowadays, though, I have a different evaluation. I've realized that the 2nd Edition approach mostly rewards player skill directly, rather than allowing players to use their skill as they wish and rewarding the outcome of that.

In other words, it rewards the means rather than the end. I don't think this is a good thing. Let's look at each application of this.

* Rewarding class-consistent behavior. I have never really understood this. If your fighter is collecting magic wands and your magic-user is wading into combat, and that's not a good thing, surely a) this is the fault of the system for not emphasizing each class' strengths and weaknesses and b) this is a point of individuality of the character, rather than an affront against the divine order. If the party followed their bliss individually, surely the only time they would ever agree on a joint venture would be to kill a monster (fighter) guarding treasure (thief) whom the gods have decreed unholy (cleric) and can be hurt by spells (magic-user). The whole point of D&D is that diverse means are combined toward the same end, but if the means are rewarded, this splits the party's desires.

* Rewarding role-playing and good behavior at table. I already am on record that role-playing is and should be its own reward, end of story. And I recently wrote about good behavior at table, to which I'll add that in-game penalties and rewards for that are a wrongheaded, frame-breaking, and socially impotent approach.

* Rewarding "good play." Again, shouldn't good play lead to success, and success be its own reward? I suspect that what's lurking behind this is a disavowal of certain means that lead to in-game success. "Wait no you can't take a barrel of creosote and 1000 nails and ... Argh no you must slay in man-ennobling combat! No points for you!" Forget plot railroading - this is play railroading. Or maybe you like the barrel trick. The point is that the DM gets to approve of the means, not the end, and this takes something away from the players.

* Story goals. Rewarding the achievement of some goal derived from the story, finally, is the only end-reward in this whole scheme. It's a decent enough end to reward, as long as you keep an open mind about what counts as a satisfying end of the story. Players should feel like they can change allegiances and priorities without any penalty other than those in the setting. Anything else is puppeteering.

Treating the party as a bunch of venal mercenaries who only get involved in intrigue if there's a reward - that's another "end," one more in line with the traditional approach. Rewarding progress in the social structure of the campaign, so treasure is mostly useful to buy yourself rank and friends, which you can also get by going on quests and missions ... that's a third "end" for a system. I'm still torn about which kind of ends to reward with the final version of my experience system. But more on that, later.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

New 52 Pages Draft Download

So I'm missing six pages of substance, four pages of examples, probably each page needs layout tweaking, and there are lots of overhauls I'd like to make, and redundancies I'd like to eliminate.

But seeing as there seems to be a popular demand for it, let me make available the latest update for my 52 Pages graphic system. The link on the right will give it to you as a pdf dowload through Google Drive.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Antisocial Nice Player

Here is one thing I have learned since turning my hand to active DMing as an adult:

Rule number one is: fun ...

and this applies to antisocial behavior, too. Many, many bytes have flown across the internet concerning the scourge of the player who backstabs and steals from the party, or the lout with poor social skills. Many suggestions have been made about how to deal with these people. But I say rule number one is fun.

We almost never see the following situation brought up. I'm not sure how common it is, but consider it as a thought experiment.

Five people and a GM get together to play a game. Four of the five players have fun playing a freewheeling, treasure-filching, underhanded bastard. The fifth wants to play cooperatively and do great and heroic things.  This causes friction at the table.

Yes, this is a conflict of fun, too. As much so as when the numbers are the other way around. The way to resolve this is the same - alert the out-of-step player that they are out of step and give them the choice to either play differently or leave the group. Or, maybe you as GM don't think you have the skills to referee a four-way intrigue hurlyburly, so the right thing to do is confess: "I can't produce fun for you guys." And not put it on the players.

But why is this situation never recognized? Even if it never happens, even as a thought experiment, it has the value of focusing you on what is really right and wrong about the situation. Thinking about it makes you realize that a lot of this "behavior advice" is actually moralization of one kind of fun over another. A lot of this advice, consciously or not, is taking the kind of behavioral modeling you might apply to a classroom of schoolchildren and trying to apply it to adults who choose to play a game together.

To give my personal odyssey: Running my first old-school campaign, I was exaggeratedly afraid of the hazards of backstabbing, even though its players were three of the nicest and most cooperative people I've seen. I required them to swear an oath of mutual support to the folk-saint of adventurers on the skull of a dragon, which was completely unnecessary. The current campaign group flies very well without such artifice. Even more so, DMing pickup sessions for the university game club has given me a renewed appreciation for the sneaky player, how to handle them and let them contribute to the fun. It may be that I put them on best behavior (I did get addressed as "sir" a few times when I first started showing up), but at the same time I've managed to have good times DMing the high-flown as well as venal, the socially skilled and the more unfortunate.

Yes, there are hard cases and horror stories. And those, as in all things, tend to circulate because they make good campfire tales. But those situations should be judged and handled the same way you would handle any other social situations. Letting go of the need to implement some kind of maturity lesson into your rules and play, I think, is the sign of true maturity.

Monday, 18 March 2013

The 52 Pages Master Plan

Why 52 Pages?

I don't know. It's a magic number (cards in a pack, weeks in the year, 4 x 13) that sounded about right for a set of game rules. Like the 18 point font, it's a discipline to keep the rules simple and presentable.

Why not a real RPG name, like "Alliteration & Aardvarks" or "Sword Wands of the Blood Vagrants"?

I don't know. Maybe it's to draw attention to the presentation, rather than the rules themselves, which are a hodgepodge of D&D editions, retroclone innovations, and a few originals. My main point is that nobody needs another complete fantasy heartbreaker, but by presenting it as looseleaf pages, people may feel free to pick and use the parts they like.

Anyway, here is the "index page" that shows, in red, the completed parts of the work. As you can see, I'm about 11 pages out from finishing, with some wiggle room if I make the character sheet one page with everything on the front - which I am currently using in most of my games.

The bad news is that an updated download will have to wait till later this week, as I continue to attempt to recover things from a crashed hard drive.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

One Page Exploration

And without further ado ... the exploration rules.

"Search" is the action, "Notice Detail" is one of the skills.

Bashing doors, climbing, lock picking and the like get a separate page called "Obstacles."

Friday, 15 March 2013

Surprise Revised

Frankly, I've never been that satisfied with this presentation of my 52 Pages surprise system. 

Just as a recap, this replaces the traditional "surprise roll" with a random determination of both parties' state of alertness, and then proceeds to play out the consequences logically. It assumes that monsters who surprise the party will have set up an ambush or approached them by stealth, giving the chance to detect such an approach; while if the party surprises the monsters, this means they have caught them out at a distracted moment, and the monsters have likewise failed to detect their approach.

The improvements below:

1. The party is now assumed to be alert or aware at all times when it matters during an adventure, eliminating one of the dice rolls and giving them a little more assumed agency over their actions. Keep in mind this is a rule set made for levels 1-3 and primarily dungeon adventures. The wilderness (Expert 52) rules will have more possibilities for the party to be distracted during a journey. Elsewhere in the rules I'll detail penalties for party members who don't rest. Of course, sleep is a need, too. Can we assume that a DM will figure out that a party member who is searching or otherwise engaged is "distracted"? Maybe not...

2. The graphic presentation is a little more clear, lining up the different levels of awareness and disturbance more closely together.
3. Going from an 8 sider to a 6 sider scale, the system is simpler with little loss of precision, and as a bonus you can roll up alertness more easily for large groups given the typical dice collection.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Papal Heraldry Highlights

For obvious reasons I've been looking at the Wikipedia List of Popes recently. One Papal feature that few people are aware of, and that features heavily on said list, is their heraldry.

Of course, the Vatican flag is on the short list of expressly allowed violations of the rules of heraldic display by abutting the two metals argent (silver/white) and or (gold/yellow).

Even John Paul II, who had broken this convention in his own heraldry as a bishop (this time joining dark tinctures, with a black Marian cross on blue background), was persuaded to change to a gold cross on blue for his personal Papal arms.

(By the way, if all Powerpoint slides followed the nine hundred year old rules of heraldic display the world would be a much better place.)

It is not allowed.

Naturally, the personal arms of Popes abound in crosses, hills of Rome, "fishers of men" allusions, and the insignia of the Guelphs, Bourbons, or Venice.  But many Popes simply have imported the arms of the noble family or ecclesiastical domain from whence they came - leading to somewhat stranger achievements.

Little mugs
Half ... a ... griffon ...
A dude ... blowing ... on lilies ...

We haven't seen Francis' arms yet, but it'll be hard to top the outgoing Benedict XVI's shield. Everything can be explained ... the decapitated effeminate Nubian prince ... the cockle shell ... the pack bear ...

The somewhat unfortunate Moor is the heraldic emblem of the Bavarian district he served as bishop; the cockle shell, a traditional symbol of pilgrimage; the pack bear, well, came into service after he killed Saint Corbinian's horse thanks to a charm animal spell, or something. Apparently, what caused the most controversy in the heraldry world (I am thinking very, very old men in tights, sitting at tall desks and scratching with quills) was not any of this gonzo but the use of the plain bishop's mitre rather than the triple-decked papal tiara.

Anyway, if your world is lacking in bizarre heraldry here are d-twelve ideas.

1. Two snakes, black and red, twined in a figure-eight knot and biting the others' tails.
2. A monkey, cautioning silence, and pointing to the crocodile's head he is squatting on.
3. Three ships with roses for sails.
4. A broken sword. Smoke is rising from one end of the break and water falling from the other.
5. Five bones make a pentagram, an eye in the center.
6. A pyramid of barrels, chained, surmounted by three dancing flames.
7. Two geese fighting over a glove. A fox's mask hangs over all.
8. A castle gate with eyes in it and mailed fists for towers.
9. Three pairs of dice, representing all ways to make seven, in a hexagonal arrangement.
10. Two crossed pikes, impaling two scaly pikes.
11. A lemon cut in half, from which issue three bees.
12. A lamb with a lion's mane.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

High Numbers Should Mean Something

From the halcyon days of 2008, and the workshop of 4th Edition, comes this testimonial to the Ever-Rising Statistical Treadmill as design principle:
For example, we strongly disliked the inability of 3rd Edition D&D’s negative-hit-point model to deal with combat at higher levels—once the monsters are reliably dealing 15 or 20 points of damage with each attack, the chance of a character going straight from “alive and kicking” to “time to go through his pockets for loose change” was exceedingly high; effectively, the -1 to -9 “dying” range was meaningless. 
Okay. You've already survived two or three blows that would have pasted a lesser character. You are still on your feet and alive. And you are irked that the next blow certainly would kill you dead. You feel entitled to more, somehow, as a hero.

Think of it this way instead:

  • When, as a low level fighter, you are one wimpy blow away from permanent death - you are at -5 hit points or something, unable to move or do anything else.
  • When, as a high level fighter, you are one mighty blow away from permanent death - you are on your feet, able to flee, distract, negotiate.
This is known as a qualitative difference between low and high level play. It's what makes a giant's tree-limb club truly scary, rather than being just a force-multiplied kobold shillelagh.  Or to be (urk) simulationist about it - if negative hit points represent the wracking of your body instead of the wearing away of your heroism, how the hell does your twelfth-level body attain the durability of titanium, as in 4th Edition with its negative hit point threshold based on half the positive total?

Let's take another failure of imagination:
Ask any high-level fighter whether he’d prefer the second-to-last attack from a monster to leave him at 1 hp or -1 hp; I’d put odds on unconsciousness, and how lame is that?
Hold on. This preference has to be based on monsters who you know will rationally leave alone the fallen heroes to go after the living. In the world of Wizards D&D, are no creatures sadistic, hungry, bent on kidnapping, or mindlessly corrosive? Shouldn't you be just as worried about ending up on the floor in a dungeon fight as in a bar fight?  Don't some monsters save their second-to-last attack to see what your head looks like when it pops like a coconut?

What's more, we are also imagining heroes who at 1 hp, or even 10 hp when fighting an average 20 damage dealer, irrationally fight on, instead of realizing they are near death and they need to go home NOW. If being unconscious is so great? Then fall down and fake it after the blow that turns you into a 1 hp fighter. The monster will go on to the next guy automatically and you probably won't even have to make a Bluff check.
Whatever system you're in, as I've mentioned before, approaching combat like a Rock'em Sock'em Robots toe-to-toe battle game is to blame for these absurdities. Fighting should be deadly, cruel, guileful - and it should not feel the same when you're battling orcs at level 1 as when you're battling giants at level 8.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

52 Pages Awesomeness Triage: Rogue (vs. Fighter)

Here's the current version of the rogue class in 52 Pages.

A rogue can shoot OK and fight using Dexterity. Speed save is the specialty, also boosted by high DEX. In skills, which depend on a d6 roll, the rogue starts with +1 in all except Knowledge, gains two instead of one skill points per level, and with a likely high Dexterity will get a further +1 on stealth and acrobatics.

As for the rogue's powers, what sort of combat role are they supposed to encourage? I suppose I would answer that the rogue is supposed to attack from back or side, rather than head on ... to use attacks from distance or from ambush as protection, rather than layers of metal armor ... to excel against a single opponent, rather than hewing through a horde like the fighter ... to be spontaneous and unpredictable instead of solid and reliable.

Looking back at how the rogue has played out (chiefly at the hands of my wife, who runs one in the main campaign), one of the abilities flatly fails at the above goals ... one is rarely used ... and the third works, but tends to lead to rules wrangling, so needs clarification.

Distraction is the one that's rarely used. It's a neat idea but has just too many uses, and is unreliable.

Active Defense is the one that effectively gives the rogue plate mail at mid-levels. Very little is stopping such a character from becoming a front-line bruiser. The rogue should be afraid to get hit, not confident in fancy footwork toe-to-toe.

Ambush is strong, and in character for almost all the desired points - it rewards striking from hiding as well as circling around behind, is no good against an army, and adds an extra unpredictable die of random damage. The only problem is, I haven't been enforcing "from behind" consistently, instead leaving the impression that it works only if the opponent is totally oblivious of the rogue's existence. Another bit of uneasiness came from one incident where the rogue played whack-a-mole, ducking down and scooting around behind a single piece of cover in order to get the bonus repeatedly.

I guess my sense is that these features make the class too strong, in concert with the really high AC bonus. So let's look at the proposed improvement.

Now, you get two powers at each level to the fighter's one to compensate for a lower hit die, lighter weaponry, and slightly worse attack. One is a mobility power and the other a combat power. Steal Away's hit and run is crucial for early-level survival, while Ambush is the basic incentive to sneak and Steal Past. You can't really whack-a-mole any more - but you do get the honest backstab bonus as a reward for maneuvering.

The Opportunity Strike and Exploitation Attack are just versions of the new fighter's bonuses. They key off high numbers rather than low in keeping with the rogue's erratic nature, versus the fighter's reliable nature. They are slightly less useful in that they possibly can lead to overkill or a useless attack.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Braggart: Munchausen meets Munchkin had a piece recently that may as well be called "Don't Play That, Play This" in which the author argued for the superiority of post-1990 boardgames like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride to traditional family boardgames like Monopoly and Risk.

I am pretty sure nobody reading this blog needs convincing on that point, but it occurred to me that similar value judgments could be made within the category of games considered "geeky." As one example, there's a class of games that I think of as "LINO": Legends in Name Only. These date, also, from before 1990, when weekends were long and unrelieved by the Internet, and game designers put quickness of play and elegance pretty low on the list.

Revisiting these games as an adult with few opportunities to sacrifice more than four hours at a time to the gaming gods, they don't have as much appeal. The long playing time, rather than creating an epic realm beyond time and space as you remember them doing, instead just aggravates their design and rules flaws. Titan, I'm looking at you; Kingmaker, Talisman, the list goes on. I would even venture to say that almost every game in the plastic-figure chokefest genre (for example, Shogun/Samurai Swords) has been decisively made obsolete by FFG's Chaos in the Old World, which delivers the same kind of strategic sweep at half the price point and less than half the playing time.

The present age's Legend in Name Only has got to be SJG's Munchkin. A rampant best seller by hobby game standards, Munchkin's fun value is about 75% exhausted once you have read the jokes in any given deck. The game grinds on randomly, punctuated only by outbursts of violence against anyone so much as threatening to be the winner.

Yesterday, though, I got introduced to a game that kicks Munchkin out the door. It may be hard to find outside the UK, but Braggart plays in a half hour or so and delivers solid laughs. You are taking the part of Generick Fantasye adventurers sitting around in Ye Old Fantasye Inne and boasting of their exploits, which you put together from a required Deed ("I heroically slew...") and Foe ("...the foulest of all dragons.") and can embellish with a Scene and Result. All these cards have a point value, with the less impressive ones being lower. There are also Ploy cards that let you steal and draw cards, and "Liar" cards which let you switch out better for worse cards in another player's story. The humor comes mainly from bathos ("I forged elemental weapons to destroy ... an angry looking chicken") and slightly suggestive exploits ("I covered myself in oil to wrestle ...")

Strangely enough, Braggart's flaws are also Munchkin's flaws: the laughs follow the law of diminishing returns, and the gameplay is random with a hobble-the-leader tendency. Honestly, the best feature is that Braggart proceeds to a definite conclusion: the winner is determined when the deck runs out. What Braggart lacks that Munchkin doesn't, of course, is over a decade of expansions.

All the same, what makes it work for me is that it's a sendup rather than a simulation of adventure, kind of like the Baron Munchausen game on rails.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Tiny Competences

It started when the Band of Iron tried to snap the bard's ghost off the path of regret by singing one of his songs to him.

So the question came up for each of the characters - can they sing?

From twistedtwee
Singing, dancing, playing an instrument, riding, swimming, whistling ... Let's call these kinds of abilities competences. I find them tricky to handle because ...
  • They don't easily fit into a given ability score or skill. Someone who's a great athlete could still have never learned how to swim. Someone who's a great singer may not know how to whistle.
  • They don't work as skills that the characters can invest in, because many if not most people in the setting can do these things at some basic level; some people are hopeless at it, or never learned; and some people are naturally great at it. The distribution is two-tailed with a fat middle; it's not something like lockpicking where most people are bad and only a few are trained.
A comprehensive game system would have a list of several dozen skills already on each character sheet, with each of these competences represented. It's not likely any of these characters would put "points" into singing, so they would all be treated as fairly inept at the task. But this is not really satisfactory, even if we were playing that kind of complicated game. Some people are just naturally good at singing, others are not.

Another kind of solution, more compatible with the rules-light old-school ethos, is to key singing ability to the closest available stat, in this case Charisma, and roll an off-the-cuff check. But something about this solution also doesn't satisfy. It assumes that someone who is a great singer will also be a great leader and vice versa, but these things don't always go together.

In play, when the party's singing ability was called for, I just had them each roll d6 and note the result on their sheet:

1 = hopeless at it
2 = not good
3-4 = average
5 = good at it
6 = great at it

This system then got used in actual play to determine further uses of competences such as whistling (don't ask) and riding.

More recently, I've produced a character sheet with a list of short words, using an even simpler system. For each competence, you roll the die, circle the word if you got a "6" - meaning you're especially good - and X it out if you got a "1" - meaning you're especially bad.

So far, the list is: Ride, Swim, Sing, Dance, Play (instrument), Gamble. In practice, some of the competences do relate to ability scores if people are trying to do something exceptional or contested, but mostly it's a case of whether or not people can do the activity at a basic level.

Any more ideas for the list?

Friday, 8 March 2013

One Page Damage

The rules for damage and healing. I'm particularly happy with "1 HP/level fatigue damage" because it covers so many situations - some to be expanded on in the wilderness rules in "52 Pages Expert Set". Walking through a rainstorm won't kill you, but it will make you less durable in your fight against those ogres.

"Injury" refers to my death and dismemberment table. I'll be refurbishing that a little, too.

Yes, I allow two saves for poison, just like getting knocked down to 0 HP won't usually kill you. I'm a softie like that.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Final Four Sins

Continuing the account of diabolic temptation ...

4. Gluttony.
The concept: Six imp chefs, cooks and butlers throw dangerous and tasty food at the party and the penitent, trying to get everyone to succumb to gluttony, using their powers of suggestion (once per day).
The execution: Three "courses" were served.

  • The first was stew, siphoned through a hose from the imp's cauldron to the party's convenient defensive ditch. If you gave in and ate the stew, you were incapacitated for a round, then make a Body save in order to vomit or be further incapacitated while the stew was in you. 
  • This was followed by the imps hurling animated cuts of meat - serpentine sausages, geese and fowl, legs and hams, racks and roasts and livers and a nasty haggis. The meat tried to get in your mouth and choke you, or make its way past you to tempt the by now two-days-fasting penitent. 
  • The dessert was brought over the party on a huge tray by invisible imps. Breaking the fourth wall, I described just about every sweet and piece of junk food the Band of Iron's players had consumed over the past year. There was nothing sinister about the dish; the imps were just trying to upend it over the penitent for more gluttony temptation.

The verdict: This was a funny episode but I didn't feel that the party was that threatened by it. In hindsight this should have been mostly about throwing suggestions on the hungry penitent and trying to get the food past the wall of bodyguards. The imps went down quickly in combat.

5. Lust. 
The concept: This was a lone succubus. Hell didn't throw their all into this one because the penitent had pretty much had it with women.
We got gonzo here.
The execution: I worked the epicene incubus/ succubus for camp, having it deliver cruel Freudian analyses of the player characters - who had mostly been lustless in the campaign, turning down opportunities for romance - before settling on the henchwoman Lintilla, who, shall we say, had not been without lust in the campaign. The party quickly shielded her from the succubus' charm ability and engaged it with missiles and melee before it could use its suggestion spell. A mighty lightning bolt from the cleric's magic amulet sent it reeling, and swords and silver arrows did the rest. On being sent hellwards, the creature briefly showed its true form: rather than a fabulous Aubrey Beardsley androgynous fashion model, the succubus was just an ordinary, plump, bright red Coop hot rod devil girl.
The verdict: Probably, getting hit shouldn't forestall monsters' spell-like abilities. Could have been tougher.

6. Sloth.
The concept: Three wraiths attack. Instead of draining levels, they drain movement points equal to the damage caused (d6). At less than 3 move, you cannot attack and at 0 move, you fall asleep.
The execution: Pretty straightforward, slug-em-out.
The verdict: This one created some tension, with party members dropping out in rough proportion to the wraiths dispatched. I put it last - a move the players anticipated - following the setting logic that people would be more tired at the end of the last night, rather than doing what was strategically right, and putting them in the lineup at a position where they could take out party members in preparation for other sins.

7. Pride.
As drawn by Crumb.
The concept: The temptation is not over with the cock's crow. The morning comes and the Son of the Morning sends his last best hope from another dimension - a certain blues musician who sold his soul to the Devil, at the crossroads, at midnight, so he could play guitar and sing like nobody else.
The execution: A strangely dressed, dark-skinned man with an odd musical instrument comes down the road from the west, singing this song (which I actually put on in the session). He is not unholy, or magical, or a devil; just a mortal trying to pay off the mortgage on his soul, and there will surely be trouble if he is struck or killed. The musician humbly approaches and congratulates the party on their victory, asking them what kinds of rewards they expect. He is really aiming at the NPC penitent, suggesting that some kind of acclaim and sainthood are in the offing for having resisted the three nights. This is entirely a psychological challenge, and the party must show humility and encourage the penitent to do the same, or all is lost at the last moment.
The verdict: One of my players fell for it, mainly out of wanting the blues singer to be the good guy. Another nailed the challenge, and all it took was one. This wise fellow denied all credit, offering praise instead to the saints and Creator. Everyone else followed suit, and Mr. Johnson graciously took his leave, marking the true end of the ordeal.

Anyway ... wait until May and you'll hopefully see if I can pack all of this into one page.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The First Three Sins

Continuing the account of how I tried to tempt players, characters, and NPCs on the last two Nights of the Devil ... the tale of Night the First.

1. Wrath.
The concept: Three erinyes, each armed with seven magic arrows of Wrath (Mind save or charge out to attack them), circle and shoot at the party. They at first used their illusion to masquerade as tempting ex-lovers of the penitent Diarmuid, but this was not done to excite his Lust, but his Wrath - right now he was feeling nothing but rage at the evil fay who had charmed him for year on year and drained over half his hit points.
The execution: As it turned out, the magic of the arrows did not exactly overwhelm the characters; only a couple of party members got hit once they got behind cover, and these were easily enough restrained. But the players! One of them got really, really mad at the whole situation - just taking incoming fire, not going to do a thing about it, not knowing if the DM had just set up a certain slow death situation! After cooler heads decided to stick it out some more, the erinyes ran out of arrows, fired a final salvo of the party's own shot arrows, and departed.
The verdict: Worked great as a player temptation. Magic arrows almost not necessary.

2. Avarice.
The concept: Seven bearded devils with magic sacks throw treasure at the party trying to get them to pick it up. For each one who succumbs to avarice, a devil may enter the magic circle and attack.
The execution: In practice this temptation was pretty obvious, so I had to step it up with numerous waves of treasure. Soon enough, the devils were throwing crowns that tried to land on people's heads, and snaky gold chains that dragged away pieces of equipment if they hit you. The last trick was for the bags to call out a large portion of coins from each character's purse. Now that hit them where they live! The self-same player who had succumbed to wrath now made to stomp on a fleeing gold piece, and thereby admitted one devil into the circle. The party defeated it in more or less short order, and the "temptation" paid off as that devil's sack, containing his stolen gold, got left behind ...
The verdict: Another great way to get under the skin of the players ... they're used to steering clear of treasure that looks to good to be true, but their materialism really shows when you start to take their stuff. I made all the treasure fake, but in hindsight it should have been real.

3. Envy.
The concept: Sixteen threads of ghostly, whispering letters, two for each person in the circle, come snaking in. If they get in your ear and you fail a save, they whisper envious words and make you attack another party member you have cause to envy.
The execution: Magic and silver weapons could fray and disperse the threads, but soon enough a large number of them were in threat range. A henchman and the dwarf succumbed. Cold holy water in the face allowed a repeat save, and the henchman rallied, but the dwarf did not, and he rushed and pummeled the lower-level fighter PC to whom the holy knights had given the devil-slaying sword, that cheesy noob! The brawling rules got a workout as the two ended up in the defensive ditch they'd dug.
The verdict: The actual challenge was not the toughest, but not knowing what the threads were and seeing them come from all sides made for a frightening experience, as did the possibility of turning the party against itself. I only later thought that maybe the players could be induced to feel envy if the threads redistributed experience points from one character to the other ... but how this feeling would lead to the characters committing the sin, exactly, remains to be seen.

I was also prepared for player skill to help break the threads - anyone who tried to think of ways their character was great, all right and really okay would resist them without a save. Maybe because the encounter played out as a combat rather than psychological challenge, this didn't occur to anyone.

Next: the final night and its four sins.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Devil's Acre: Temptation

How do you represent spiritual temptation in an adventure game?

Well, you could play Pendragon RPG, a system that explicitly rates each character's vulnerability to different character flaws and passions. A Pendragon knight beset by an unearthly vision of lust would roll a 20-sided die, check his character sheet, and either succeed or succumb. In service of a more picaresque story, a Dying Earth RPG character might be overcome by a persuasive flourish and be compelled sit down at the gambling table with a known master swindler.

Temptation is part of those games' moral mechanics. It's not part of most other games, though. You may have alignment, or resistance to mental influence, but nothing stops the characters from making choices like perfect Puritanical optimizers, every day of the week. Except maybe under "carousing for experience" rules, which kind of proves the point.

As I threw wave after wave of diabolical tempters at the party on the last two nights of their ordeal, defending the praying penitent in the Devil's Acre, a number of options arose:

1. Have the tempters target the NPC penitent; the PCs have to stop them from getting into range and distracting the penitent, and the tempters will fight to get close. If the blockade fails, then being an NPC, the penitent has to make some kind of save or check against the temptation.

Um, yeah, just like that.
2. Have the tempters target the PCs, trying to pull them away from the penitent or claim them as prizes in their own right. "You succumb to lust unless you save" doesn't seem quite right, but magical temptation does lie with in the rules of the traditional adventure game, as a spell-like effect. And, what do you know, quite a few devils as written come with charm and suggestion effects.

3. Note the past behavior of the PCs and their allies, and use this to direct the efforts and outcome of strategy #2. It's not a matter of rolling a die, but of having raided a merchant ship for its treasure four sessions ago, so Avarice already has its claws in you. This makes the most sense if sin pays in your campaign, at least temporarily; for example, if spending gold on carousing nets you more experience points than donating it safely to a church does.

4. Target the players. I need to explain this some.

In the past here, I've argued for drawing on the concerns and tendencies of the players themselves to stand in for such traits in their characters as alignment and morale. Obviously, this won't always work. Some of these theological sins refer to the satiation of bodily needs: lust and gluttony in particular. All right, there were some pretty delicious chocolate and banana cakes on the table at our session, and I could have worked them in somehow ... but yeah, and then lust, no, yeah, forget it.

Other of the theological sins, however, serve the needs of the ego, the little character we all build for ourselves. I don't care if you don't play D&D. You are still walking around with a "character sheet" in your head, with some idea of your skills and abilities, where you fit in the hierarchy of things (level) and what road you walk in life is (class). It's part of the undying psychological appeal of role-playing - to create a character on paper more free, more disciplined, more interesting, more dramatic, than the one in your skin. But when you role-play, the two egos become one, as you defend the interests and dignity of your character.

With these other sins, to attack the character is to attack the player, whose ego is the character's ego. Wrath? Touch upon the player's need to avenge harm done. Avarice? Throw loot at the player - or better yet, threaten to take it away. Envy? Make the player feel unfairly disadvantaged; take away some experience points and give it to the next guy. Pride? It's what makes them go "Let me tell you about my character..." Work with it.

All right. In the actual Devil's Acre session, some of these ploys worked better than other. Next post: a play-by-play of the seven-round knockout the Band of Iron dealt the Prince of Darkness.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Devil's Acre: Defense

This afternoon I finished up a three-session adventure that did a lot of things my players and I were not used to. I think it was a success, but it may be useful to review some of the oddities about this set-up.

They had just rescued the bard Diarmuid from his evil faerie lover, in line with the prophecy that he would sing at the religious Synod and strengthen the cause of peace in the brewing war between humanity and the Otherworld. But in order to be accepted at the Synod, Diarmuid would have to undergo a swift and efficacious, if dangerous, penance. Three nights of vigil at the Devil's Acre were prescribed.

This huge hoofprint-shaped field is the site of pacts and contracts between Heaven and Hell, under which a soul claimed by Hell can be redeemed if the person endures three nights praying in the Acre. Unfortunately, devils and other damned beings proportional to the person's importance will climb out of the caves and fissures in the Acre and try to devour the penitent's body and corrupt his or her soul. Fortunately, the rules allow you to take some bodyguards along.

Perhaps for a more jaded party I would have served up the more grotesque of Bosch's devils. But because the Band's players are largely unfamiliar with the Monster Manual, the adventure was stocked with the standard Gygaxian "products of the imagination": lemures and nupperabos herded by a pair of spined devils, hell hounds, a sarcastic barbed devil, erinyes and so forth.

For a group used to going forth and exploring, the point defense scenario was a novel challenge.  Assailed from all sides by waves of foes, and needing to stay between them and a vulnerable bard playing the rebec and singing hymns, the mood was tense even when they ended up winning with some margin of ease. On the first night, a beloved henchman was slain, and on the last night, movement-point-draining wraiths of sloth managed to sleep one PC and nearly kill another henchman. Things would have been even more hairy if the keepers of a nearby holy citadel, charged with watching over the Acre, hadn't been convinced to sell two barrels of holy water to our heroes and loan them a two-handed sword, +3 against devils.

The defense scenario, in short, was an excellent change of tone and had me thinking about the ways it could get even crazier. The terrain they were defending was minimalist - a hill, a stone cross, a bonfire, a magic circle that only let so many devils in at a time.

But what if there was more pick and choose about where to defend?  A ruined town, a mound with megaliths that could be reinforced with stakes and traps, a besieged castle with crypts to explore and rumors of tunnels leading out - safety measure or security breach? A temple where you have to decide what's scarier - breaking the sealed crypt in hope of some advantage, or getting overwhelmed by the hordes drawn to your presence there? I'll have to think about that.

At any rate, I have made up my mind. A version of the Devil's Acre will be my entry in the One Page Dungeon contest this year. Which means I'll also have to grapple with the far knottier problem I faced in designing the adventure: how to represent temptation as a challenge to the players and their characters. More on that, next post.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

52 Pages Awesomeness Triage: Fighter

It's been 17 months of playing with various forms of my 52 Pages rules, including a continuous campaign and over a dozen pick-up sessions, working with character levels from 1 to 5.

In this infrequent series of posts I'm going to share my thoughts about what works and what doesn't in various aspects of the game. I'll also try and fit the classes into a crude kind of balance structure that can perhaps be exploited later on to create modular prestige and NPC classes, trying to resolve the prestige class conundrum I posed earlier in the week. We'll start out with Mr. Meat and Potatoes, the fighter.

As it should be - he has top-notch hit points (+2 on each die), starting attack, and is unrestricted in the armor he can wear and weapons he can use. Wizards gain special powers as they advance, and a little bit of extra fighting capacity; fighters gain fighting capacity as they advance, with a little bit of special powers. The saves are fairly weak, with an advantage over the zero-level +3/+5/+7 only in Body.

What about the powers I've been giving to fighters?

In actual play, the Follow Through rule has been a huge hit. Fighter players love getting another attack (really, the Arneson "chop 'n' drop" version of the AD&D rule that gave multiple attacks against low-level critters). It makes the players cheer. And all this despite the fact that if you hit half the time, and kill half the time, and hit again half the time for an average of 5 damage, the feat is only worth 5/8 extra damage per round.

Not so much the "force/finesse" thing. It's easy to forget, and sometimes the results are underwhelming. The scaling to die size is awkward. It's not really missed.

The fate of my feats, gained at odd levels, is also uneven. The players only seem to choose, appreciate, or even remember the feats that give them extra attacks. The feats occupy two whole pages, and it's hard to decide what a standard high-level NPC fighter should have on that basis. From which we can derive this awesomeness rule:

Getting Extra Stuff (not bonuses) is Awesome. Extra dice, extra attacks.

So for 52 Pages Basic 2.0 I'm removing feats, and giving fighters standard, more awesome-feeling bonuses at odd levels. It will be possible to customize classes by swapping out powers, which is part of the reason I want these kind of effects to be comparable in power.

At level 3, you get something that's in line with a Fighter: dependability, reliability, guaranteed damage based on extra dice. This is balanced more or less with follow-through: it gives about a half of a point extra damage per round.

At level 5, you get what turns out to be one extra attack every 5 rounds. In keeping with the reliable nature of the Fighter, this second chance attaches to low rolls rather than high.

It's the easiest thing, now, to switch out these bonuses and have them trigger off high rolls rather than low, for a swashbuckler rather than ol' dependable flavor. But at least there's now a basic-feeling standard to riff from, for this basic version of my game.