Sunday 27 February 2011

Endless Bag of Tricks (Download)

"So if I push this here..."
Having recently shown you my generator for problems in adventures - open-ended tasks amenable to creative solutions - I'm also distributing my more complicated generator for tricks - objects with a number of pre-planned consequences for interacting with them. It's called the Endless Bag of Tricks and you can get it from the Google Docs link on the right.

The Bag applies some of the ideas from interactive fiction, or "text adventure" games, to go beyond just laying out what a thing does and what it is. Just as important is how you interact with it. In classic interactive games like Adventure or Zork, it's important to get the right verb. "ROTATE HANDLE" won't work, where "TURN HANDLE" will. "BREAK HANDLE" might not work, but if it's a carefully coded game, you might get some message for that, even if only to tell you it's impossible.

This action layer - Table D in my system - allows for some of the most plausible actions on a special object to have meaningful consequences.

Cut the curtain, and a ghost might be released. Throw water on it, and a treasure map might appear. Text adventure veterans know to throw every verb in the book at a situation, but tabletop roleplayers don't have all the time in the world. So, it's important to put some clues in. A shifting face might be visible on close inspection in the curtain's patterns - clue to the ghost. A diary you found elsewhere might say that the map is found in the room where the curtain is, and the knowledge is open to minds that are  "not too dry."

There's an art to making all the pieces of a trick come together in a satisfying whole, which for me anyway is a lot of fun. Here are the first three tricks I test-generated with the Endless Bag:

1. This stairway down is “guarded” by a pair of high leather boots standing on the top step, toes toward the stairs. If one or both of the boots are moved, a transparent skeletal figure will rise up out of them, gesturing wildly and pointing to its many broken bones, then vanish. If the boots are not put back to exactly where they were, anyone stepping on the stairs must save or fall down the staircase, receiving blows and kicks as they go, and taking 4d6 damage. If the boots are not disturbed, nothing happens.

2. This is an ancient and dilapidated pipe organ set in the wall. The keys and pedals don’t work. The seat opens up and 200 gp worth of old sheet music is found in there. One of the blocks next to the wall is loose; there is a small crowbar next to it with the tag “Don’t get this wrong!” “Getting it wrong” in this case means taking an unknown person’s advice in the dungeon … If the block is slid deeper inside the wall, a fragile, ornamented egg will fall gently to the ground inside the wall, worth 100 gp. If the block is pried out, a poison dart will shoot out from deep within the wall, smashing the egg, attacking anyone in front of it as a 5th level thief and doing 1d3 + 2d10 poison damage. Pushing the block in stops the dart, and the egg will fall without harm.

3. This is a cozy fireplace set in the wall, with no chimney, a smokeless fire blazing, an a bucket of water nearby. If the fire is extinguished, it will collapse into ash and a choking cloud of thick smoke 20 by 20 feet, and a sooty imp will jump out and attack. Anyone in the smoke except the imp is at -2 to hit. The fireplace will be found to be choked with thick ash, but if this is cleaned – obviously assuming the fire has been put out – a shining white brick among the blackened bricks of the fireplace will be found. Just touching the brick with bare fingers will give a vision of how to deal with the white brick wall in area X. Pushing the brick, however, will collapse the fireplace on the character, giving 4d6 damage with no save.

Hope you enjoy the Endless Bag of Tricks and can use it in your own game!

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Choose Your Own Adventure / Intrinsic Rewards

B. F. Skinner
Grady Hendrix has a great article on Slate, linking together three early forms of interactive media - choose-your-own adventure books, text adventures, and role-playing games. The CYOA genre has a surprising pedigree. Apparently, the idea came before role-playing games, and was foreshadowed by B. F. Skinner's self-paced teaching books that are themselves based on psychological reinforcement principles. Get the right answer, and advance; get the wrong answer, and go back to study some more.

The "reinforcement" in Skinner's books, as well as the CYOA books, is completely internal. The point of Warlock of Firetop Mountain was not to score points, but to open the damn treasure; likewise, even though most text-adventure games kept score, the points never really got taken seriously. This is an insight basic to all kinds of games: finding new stuff is its own reward.

It's because of this I don't see experience points for exploring as necessary. For fighting the monsters you don't really want to fight because they can kill you? Sure. But adding to the map, hearing the DM's description of a natural wonder, those are intrinsic player rewards that have nothing to do with extrinsic rewards: experience or gold being accumulated in the name of characters.

It is this division between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards that, I think, characterizes the divide between the power gamer and the rest. Simply put, a power gamer is focused on the extrinsic system of rewards. In roleplaying games, it's leveling up. In competitive games, it's winning. The intrinsic pleasures of simulation, role-playing, discovery, or socializing carry no weight by themselves to the power gamer. If winning comes by a boring technique; by assembling an implausible but min-maxed deck, character or army; or by being rude to other players - so be it.

Image by CosmoDNA,
The other side of the coin is the extrinsic punishment system of the game. Character death, in roleplaying games, is the ultimate punishment. An intrinsically driven player will appreciate a good death; not so an extrinsically driven one.

This is also why every attempt to regulate player behavior by manipulating experience points, gold, levels and other such things plays into the hands of the power gamer, becoming in the end just another tool to victory. In the end, going up one level into the real world to apply social pressure, or down one level into the fantasy world to work out the consequences of the undesirable behavior, works out better than playing around with the twilight world of the game mechanics.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Nonviolence II: Nonviolent Problems

Nonviolence in an adventure can also flow naturally from the challenges it puts forth. Traps, tricks, and problems are all challenges that don't require hurting or killing to get past, but can be just as deadly and exciting as combat.

To expand on a very early post from this blog:

Traps (and related things like locks or bars) are challenges that admit one solution. The first part of the challenge is detecting the trap. After that, there is usually only one way to deal with the trap, which can be abstracted to a dice roll, or turned into more of a puzzle with a description of the trap's mechanics.

Tricks are usually more obvious to spot than traps, but less obvious to solve. Often the players must figure out what should be done to solve the trick. Often there are numerous different things that can be done, with beneficial, harmful or informative outcomes.

Puzzles are tricks with one solution and one outcome, usually beneficial.

Problems are the most open-ended situations. These are situations where a goal can be reached by a number of different means, including some that may not have occurred to the adventure designer. Examples are fording a flooded river, crossing a constantly geysering cavern on chain-swinging wooden disks, finding a way to attend the Countess' exclusive masked ball.

In this post I'm going to present a simple system to get creativity working on problems. This will be followed soon by the #2 request in my poll - the system to generate tricks and creative traps.

The system for problems - "Bag of Problems" - gives a random listing of non-combat challenges that might be faced in an adventure and some of the complications that might make dealing with these challenges more interesting. It's a one page pdf up on Google Docs. I give one example with it, and more will be forthcoming in future posts - specifically, I'm going to use it to create a nonviolent adventure, "Egg of the Gazolba." As always, let me know if you have any problems downloading it and what you think.

Here's the example on the sheet, as a taste of a creative departure from the kind of simple sketch the table gives. These remind me a little of the folklore motifs from Stith Thompson's book - itself a great source for fantasy game ideas. In both cases I like how a full story can be created from a simple phrase.

Statue - change appearance of: A massive statue lies toppled athwart a passage further on. Although the original paints have faded, its eyes seem to have a vivid shade of green, its nose is broken off, and its gaze is directed at the statue guarding the other side of the passage, identical in all respects except its eyes are normal and its nose is intact. The green eyes are a clue that the statue is jealous of its twin. If the two are brought equal – either by disfiguring the standing statue, or by embellishing the fallen one – the fallen statue will roll aside, opening the passageway. Brute force is also a possibility, though the fallen statue will take the strength of 20 men to move.

Saturday 19 February 2011

Nonviolence I: Nonviolent Players

Now I'm back from traveling, it's time to sum up a few answers to my nonviolent adventure challenge.

Cleric, level 12, NG
As combat-heavy as some roleplaying systems can be, there are ways to take even a standard adventure and make it a challenge that has to be solved through nonviolent means (no fighting), or the less challenging but more plausible restriction of non-lethal means (no killing). Some of you had ideas in comments in the previous post, and after some thought I've put down a short and not exhaustive list of ways a normal adventure can be increased in challenge by requiring a more peaceful solution.

1. The adventure area is watched by a powerful force, which will smite anyone who practices unauthorized violence within.
2. The players are aided by a powerful NPC, who will turn against them for philosophical reasons if they take life.
3. Due to complicated intrigue, the party is running an operation against people from their own side, whom scruples forbid them to kill. Perhaps the opposition is guarding someone you know to be an enemy agent; perhaps it's a false-flag mission calculated to shift blame.
4. Captured once, the group has sworn a powerful and binding oath to show their foes the same mercy their captors showed them.
5. The point of the adventure is to bring them back, alive and unharmed ... people wanted for questioning or imprisonment, creatures wanted for a menagerie or research or breeding.
6. Innocent people and animals have been possessed or deluded by some hostile force. You need to incapacitate them without killing, on the way to destroying the force and releasing its hold on them.

How can a normal adventure scenario packed with hostile beings yield to a non-violent strategy?

First, let's look at the tools at hand. Most obviously, spells such as sleep and hold person don't need to be followed up by the usual slitting of throats.

Some systems, too, have rules for non-lethal combat. My own house-rule is simple: weapons optimized for non-lethal blows (fists, staffs) do full nonlethal damage, while other weapons, striking with haft, pommel or flat of blade, do half, rounded up. This only works against beings with a normal, animal anatomy. When a nonlethal blow takes a foe to zero or lower hits, it is incapacitated, semiconscious but unable to move, cast or strike for 1d6 combat rounds. For the aftermath, ropes or manacles are a must.

But depending on the terms of the nonviolence, you may still be able to get in a fight to the, well, destruction. Many of the scenarios above would allow players to remove non-sentient creatures from the equation; green slimes, golems, maybe even guard dogs are fair game, if your only concern is for the welfare of humans and other intelligent beings.

For intelligent and semi-intelligent creatures, there's also a wide range of psychological tricks: intimidation, fright, appeasement, negotiation, confusion, deception. All but the most intelligent and aware foes should be susceptible to at least one of these. If there are no skills for social interaction in the game, a combination of Reaction rolls, Morale rolls, spot checks for Charisma, Intelligence or Wisdom, and common sense should help judge any kind of trickery.

While nonviolent strictures on the players can increase the challenge of an adventure or even a single encounter, there are also ways to set up an adventure so that the thought of violence never even enters into the scene. More on that in the next post.

Friday 11 February 2011

Defenses and 4E

As part of our complicated stateside travels, the spouse and I stopped into a friendly local gamestore last night (Fun-n-Games in Blacksburg, VA) and took up an invitation to help make up the four-player quorum in a D&D Encounters session.

I don't think it's a particularly new observation that the Fourth Edition is not The Devil. Indeed, the DM worked a few social skill checks into the lead-up to the combat (defending innocent caravaneers against a flock of stirges) and the system, I think, could be adapted to roleplaying in the classic style with no need for artificial skill challenges. The game does put things out front and center and gives even starting players a wealth of obvious, individual, heroic strategic options, as opposed to having to figure out that in order to survive you must soak a mule in lantern oil, tie a charmed torchbearer to it, and lure the hobgoblin squad back into your ambush point where you roll spiked barrels full of rocks on them. So, it's a beginner-friendly game that more than anything resembles GURPS.

We skulked away clutching our participation prizes, which will be useful as apotropaic repellents should we ever be ambushed by zombified grognards. The Fortune Cards, though, were not as fun to add "in bed" to as fortune cookies.

The 4E system puts the fortitude, reflex and will saving throws on the same mechanical footing as Armor Class (all four are "defenses" against different types of attacks). This does bring up something I have wondered about. In classic D&D, dodging a lightning bolt is a "saving throw" that goes up by level, while dodging a sword swing depends on "armor class" that doesn't go up by level.

This doesn't seem quite right. If anything, the distinction should be between the defensive nature of armor (protects regardless of the wearer's awareness, might not work against beam-type spell effects) and agility (needs awareness and freedom to dodge, but more able to escape spell beams and other metaphysical ills). You can see this ambiguity in how attack-type traps are handled in pre-3rd edition D&D; sometimes a peril like a swinging blade or arrow trap is handled as "survive a hit roll as from a 5th level fighter" while other times it is "save vs. petrification or take 2d8 damage."

The next revision of my own game system will most likely do away with saving throws against physical contact - though things like poison and charm, testing resistance of body or soul itself, will still use them. Instead, effects that depend on physical contact may "ignore armor" (lightning bolts, for example), going against only the dexterity bonus and any magical protections. Or they may include armor (fireballs, for example) and so require some form of hit roll to do full vs. half damage. Dexterity bonuses, of course, will be ignored for unaware, unconscious, or incapacitated victims. This goes hand in hand with my plan to give small dodge-based AC bonuses to rogues (and possibly fighters too) as they go up levels.

I guess the question is, does it matter who rolls the d20 - the bolt caster, or the thief jumping away?

Oh yes, the nonviolence comments inspired me to start work on a whole damn nonviolent adventure generation system, in place of the single nonviolent adventure. That, I swear, will be the next post.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Non-Violent D&D Scenario?

The paradox boggles! Smoke pours forth, tape reels jam and spew brown ribbon, lights flash in crazy patterms and a monotone voice croaks "DOES NOT COMPUTE ... DOES NOT COMPUTE..."

Yet this weekend I may have an opportunity/challenge to run a small D&D scenario with someone who (for personal and spiritual reasons) abhors the practice of violence.

What kind of scenario would you run that would be fun for a Buddhist pacifist? Assume about 3 pre-gen characters and a short, evening long scenario with some sort of resolution. No kung fu monks please ;)

I'll post my solution whether or not the run actually takes place.