Thursday 29 September 2011

The Bloater

Mulling through the possibilities of Nethacking undead powers, I had a quick idea for a kind of corporeal undead. Maybe it was the very filling Italian meal tonight (what kind of salad bar has three kinds of fried fish anyway...)


The bloater is a zombified corpse at the point of corruption when the body swells with foul gas and ichor. It is all too easy to hit (AC 9 descending/10 ascending) and moves extremely slowly (move rate 3). But it is robust (2+4 HD), attacks with both hands to claw and strangle (2d4 damage) and has a special defense. When hit for more than 4 hp damage, foul ichor sprays out, and the monster rolls an extra "to hit" with an extra +2 against the attacker. Success means the ichor burns the attacker for an amount equal to the amount dealt by his or her own attack, minus 4. Also, the victim must save (Fortitude/Poison) or contract a disease that picks a random ability score and drains 1 point/day until cured.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

The Fantastic Through Weirdness

Moving beyond written setting elements to create surprise and wonder for your players, we have already seen the ease and limitations of the random way.

The way of Weirdness is just to pull things out of your imagination. The better and more informed your imagination, the more wondrous things appear. Think of a Renaissance wunderkammer ....
The museum of Olaus Wormius
Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and the pictures that inspired it ...

Lord Dunsany's jewel-like story vignettes ...

Each one perfect in its self-containment, the artistically described miniatures of Weirdness are best described from the surface going inwards... beginning with an impression, a synaesthesia, an emotional feeling, a sensory package that only then takes form by association.

To take an example: the image of rainbow colors on a black background. What does that bring to mind?

Gems against black velvet
Bright eyes, multicolored, curious in the night
Small bright-eyed skittering creatures, hoarders of gems
Halls of black volcanic rock, the creatures barely visible unless they open their brilliant eyes
Smoke thick in the air, black and billowing, multicolored sparks of magic, fireflies
Bright cascade of tones, hurtling in the void
The Rainbow of Midnight, unnatural, a black-skinned queen resplendent in gleaming enamel and polished stones
Darkness and serenity, then sudden bedazzlement, a brittle, tinkling surprise quickly enough gone

We have here the set design and cast for a whole area in an adventure; its appearance, creatures, ruler, hazards, inconveniences and treasures. Self-contained, without deeper meaning, the variety can be sustained for one session or two before boredom sets in and we're off to the next.

The trouble with this method? The same as with random generation, but on a larger scale. Random generation gives you a seeming variety that eventually resolves into a gray mud, like an array of randomly colored single pixels. Whimsical sensory environment generation gives you bigger pixels - about the size of mosaic tiles - but with enough time and distance the variety here, too, resolves into patternless gray.

We need a way to arrange the pixels, to pick meaning out of the random impressions. This is the deeper meaning of Resonance, and the method of the fantastic I'll explore next.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Return of the Consolation Gnome

Taking a break from the fantastic for now. Here's the one-page version of my gnome consolation class. It's meant to be detached from the rest of the rules, so a little more crowded because of the need to include all the basic class-type stuff that got their own table in basic character generation. Click to enlarge.

Oh, and the spell failure mini-table can be used separately if you have wild magic areas or whatever.

Keeping It Fantastic: The Nethack Way

Trawling through the comments and ideas going around about fantasticism, I can identify three approaches, that each might work for different people at different times. Let's call these Nethacking, Weirdness, and Resonance. Each of these is a way to escape the crystallization of the fantasy campaign into a set of rules that players can peep at, manhandle, and get bored with.

Honestly, the main problem comes from D&D and its system-and-half-a-setting approach. The half a setting - the rules about races, monsters, magic items, and so on - has mutated into Ye Olde Fantasye and a genre in its own right, spawning millions of  DMs' "products of the imagination" that all tend to look the same except for the maps and names. If you look back and see what's casting those shadows on the cave wall, the Order of the Stick cartoon is a pretty fair approximation.

Nethack: Instead of going by the Monster Manual version of what attacks various slimes, jellies and puddings can resist, the DM rolls up the traits of each goo-blob type randomly on a table. Another table tells you whether magic boots go with Levitation, Giant Strength, or what not. I call this "Nethack" because it reminds me of roguelike games. Each new character has to find out anew what the black potion, swirly potion, and all the rest actually do, because these correspondences are randomly generated with each spawn of the game. Telecanter has been producing some fine examples lately (also, also) of this approach.

Nethacking it is the easiest way to go, and it's a required minimum for a DM or game designer who doesn't want players assuming knowledge their characters shouldn't have. Although it's not strictly necessary when running a group of new players, beware if just one troll-burning veteran should join their ranks!

Two limitations on Nethacking's utility, though. For one, you're unlikely to get anything really wild and crazy by just randomly recombining existing things in the game, although a good table can help with that. For another, random generation misses as often as it hits. That's because a random table can help with divergent creativity, but not convergent.

To illustrate, any random monster table can help you Nethack up some off-the-book monsters. I'll use my own, and roll three times. Once for what it looks and moves like ... a beholder. Once for its hit dice, AC and other  number stats. A vampire. And once for its special powers ... a piercer.

Okay, I've got a really tough big round pain-elemental-from-Doom guy who hovers on the ceiling and drops to bite your head off. But my gut reaction is "meh." For one, the surprise part gets in the way of the "zounds! a beholder" mess-with-the-players part. It's original ... but not much more than that.

So the next step is to use your judgment and creativity. Next time, two ways to do that.

Monday 26 September 2011

The Fantastic Through Obscurity

Discussion on how to keep the fantastic in adventure gaming continues, with a renewed desire and specific tips. My further thoughts ...

In information security, the phrase "security through obscurity" is used to disparage the hope that vulnerabilities can be protected by keeping them secret. In their early stages of development, many game forms achieve a sense of wonder through obscurity. Magic: The Gathering, for example, initially provided this sense of wonder through opening packets of collectible cards and finding ones you'd never seen before ... or having them show up in your opponent's deck. Eventually, like many security-though-obscurity hopes, this was dashed through the posting of complete spoilers on the nascent Internet, and through the practice that rapidly developed (to Wizards of the Coast's great joy) of buying whole boxes of product in order to get a complete set. Within a few years it was a poor collectible card game whose manufacturer did not provide rarity symbols, checklists, and eventually complete spoilers and previews.

Was there an attempt to keep the fantastic around through obscurity in early D&D? It's hard to deny when reading the Gygaxian objurgations in AD&D to keep players' noses out of the Dungeon Master's Guide. But that is already late in the day. The time of wonder and fantasy is fading, and the desire to standardize the game deals the death blow; the secrets that used to be kept in the Dungeon Master's cranium are now holy writ. In this light the railing against players accessing the mass-produced secrets sold in Barnes and Noble sounds as hollow as Canute's commands against the tide.

In the age of the Internet spoiler the sense of wonder is even more crucially down to the individual game master. In the comments on Monsters & Manuals I made a point that bears expanding here.

1. When players are denied access to the rules that let them carry out mundane tasks at the starting level, this creates a denial of mastery. You can certainly play this way, with players issuing orders and seeing what happens, in a "fog of war" kind of way. But a lot of players are used to a certain level of rules mastery; a generation has grown up with console RPGs. You don't have to deny them this all the way.

2. Expanding what I've said about high level magic spells, denying knowledge of rules and techniques found at higher levels also helps create the sense of wonder. If the game was about kung fu, then not being able to read all about what a high level Taoist master can do would help achieve this.

3. The technique in Lamentations of providing no standardized monsters or magic items points the way to a game system where the rules of the mundane are known to the players, but the fantastic elements are an idiosyncratic revelation from game to game. Yes, creating the fantastic is hard individual work for the DM. But the alternative, especially with experienced games, is a group of players who ready the oil when they see a troll, who can find out exactly how much every gland in every dead monster corpse is worth, and for whom the only surprise is tactical, not strategic.

I have a few ideas of my own, both on how to make the hard work easier, and how to make the hard work mean more. Next post I'll try to articulate them more fully.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Elves and Dwarves Up, Halflings Down

Cave halflings are another story.
When using a race-as-class system in D&D, as I like to do, halflings have a problem. As outlined in the various versions of Basic D&D, they're little more than short thieves.

Now, elves explicitly started out in OD&D as hybrid fighter-magic-users and stuck with that concept in Basic, so they add something extra to the mix of classes. Dwarves, to the extent they have underground exploration abilities, are kind of a fighter-rogue hybrid; at least, they get more interesting the more they tend toward that, and less interesting the more they are just short fighters.

In my one page rules, although it's not quite so schematic as that, I did consciously try to include a fighter-wizard hybrid (elf), fighter-rogue (dwarf), and rogue-wizard (gnome) type. I suppose an expansion might also take on the various priest hybrids, with fighter (paladin), wizard (mystic) and rogue (monk) to complete the cross-fertilization. Is this a complete scheme, with anything else just being variants on the basic classes? Not sure, but it seems that way to me.

In race-and-class systems, by the way, the halfling also fails to take advantage of the diversity available. This all comes from the concept being too tied down to Tolkien, and made worse, not better, by all the quasi-halflings that show up in Tolkien knockoffs, from kender to gwarpys. But at the same time Tolkien gives us two hobbit models: a fighter-type (Frodo and his companions) and a thief-type (Bilbo). It's a concept made for separate race and class systems, but although in AD&D it's possible to play a halfling fighter, there's very little incentive to do so. The halfling is almost always optimized as a thief under most D&D rules.

Anyway, here are my one page elf and dwarf rules.

Saturday 24 September 2011

One Page Wizard and New Spell Cards

Putting this up makes me realize there's a pending project I have, to write more spell-descriptions for the Old School Players rules I'm using. When last my players met they found the need for descriptions of spells as high as 3rd level, and I'd like to have it all written down so there's no misunderstandings!

Anyway, this set of one-pagers continues the philosophy of spells from here and here. Things are even more changed up from D&D and I have taken on board an idea from (CORRECTION: Italian name related confusion) Tsojcanth's Paolo Greco, to have spell level equal caster level and space the acquisition of new spells more evenly. Of particular note is the change to Sleep which takes its rightful place as a level one feller of rats and kobolds without the implications for higher-level monsters, insectoids and so forth.

In a versatility boost, Force Shield subsumes Hold Portal, Tenser's Floating Disc, and Shield; Weightlessness likewise has more uses than just Feather Fall, and Tonguetie/Tongueloose is kind of like Silence reversible to ESP. I'm careful to make the information revealed by the human intelligence spells, Tongueloose and Detect Thoughts, subject to DM control, so that plot points don't have to be given away directly.

Thursday 22 September 2011

One Page Class Powers: Fighter Feats from Damage Dice

As I've mentioned before, I like the idea of the DCC-RPG's Mighty Deeds of Arms but think their extra dice rolling and table looking-up will slow down combat rather than juicing it up excitingly.

My goal was to design a feats system that proceeded more or less automatically from what the fighter was already doing. True to my vision of the class, the fighter, unlike the rogue, shouldn't need to think as much. He wades into combat with a few minimal tactical precautions and the normal dice rolls do the work.

The second insight was to reduce the table weight (and page space) by using tables I was already using: my critical hit and fumble tables.

The follow-through power, as I note, is not original, but it's classic and it balances the "unhinge the big guy" of the feats with "plow through the little guys."

A caution, though: these rules work best with some other assumptions I make in house-rules, such as that light weapons don't get full super-exceptional Strength bonuses (otherwise dagger + 18 STR = super punch up machine), and that "smashing and bashing" weapons like axes and maces have damage scores in the form d6+1 (for example) while swords and spears have damage scores in the form d8 (for example). This makes the smashers more likely to score Force feats and the slashers more likely to score Finesse feats.

The only extra dice roll is the save, but I felt that was only fair to avoid fighters pushing around much tougher enemies. In a pinch you can say that they only work on a successful hit and forget the save. Does that appeal? Yea or nay ...

Tuesday 20 September 2011

One Page Class Powers: Rogue

The rogue is not just supposed to be a troubleshooting thief filing his nails until the next 13% chance to detect traps, but a light fighter, a real ranger (not the spell-slinging ridiculoid beastmaster 2d8 munchkin thing from AD&D), a swashbuckling fop, and others of that ilk. These powers are all combat, encouraging use of terrain and positioning, built off the need to survive and run in encounters while scouting ahead, and incidentally work best against a lone opponent. Oh yes, and a rogue is really good at the old thiefly adventuring skills, including noticing detail and mechanics.

(D&D Murphy's Rule #57864: elves are only good at noticing secret doors vertically in walls, not mechanically identical secret pressure plates in floors, which count as a trap. And what if the trap is a secret panel in the wall ... is it a door or a trap?)

As I mentioned a while ago, I think each of the classes in D&D is best served by mechanics that emphasize the different styles of their players.

Fighter: unlimited use powers that require little strategy.
Rogue: unlimited use powers that require strategy.
Priest: limited use powers that require little strategy.
Wizard: limited use powers that require strategy.

That's the template I've followed here, anyway.

Monday 19 September 2011

One Page Class Powers: Priest

We're on to the class powers: the big four, then dwarves and elves on one page, and a one-page consolation gnome class (he'll be a little thin so I might pad it out with a table of magical screwiness). This one I'm presenting first because it's the least original, and I mean that as an homage to Talysman's no-spells cleric idea, which I discussed and modified previously here.

I'm only detailing levels 1-5, but at level 7 you get cure poison, and level 9 you get raise dead, with suitable limits. Turning is smoothed out from how it usually appears: you can't blast skeletons into dust, but you can make orcs sweat a little from the back rank.

Sunday 18 September 2011

D&D Combat Isn't Abstract

Getting into the powers for each of my One Page classes, I'm graphically illustrating some of the combat-relevant powers with icons representing the combatants and terrain, on a five foot = 1 inch grid. I fully expect a few people to react with five-foot-square-latter-day-edition-phobia, so let me explain.

I know the role of miniatures in D&D is an evergreen Old School debate topic, right up there with ascending armor class and evil PCs. I don't think the debate has been properly framed, though. It has been about miniatures, but it should be about graphic displays.

"You need miniatures to play D&D" immediately brings up anxiety about blown credit card limits, trying to get every monster you're using in the campaign, having to paint up the damn things, anti-corporate grumbling about required additional equipment. None of this has to apply to other graphic displays, like pennies marked with Sharpie on a dining room table, or whiteboard drawings updated on the go. Sure, the more you invest, the better it looks, but does anyone limit their encounters to their miniatures collection? Sooner or later, orcs are going to have to stand in for lizardmen, chess pawns for extra goblins beyond the 5 or 10 you own. This "miniatures" thing is a red herring.

"Coach, can't we just narrate this encounter?"
Another red herring is the allegedly abstract nature of the D&D combat rules. Come, I will show you an abstract combat system, and its name is Tunnels and Trolls. No locations, no maneuvers, just who's fighting and who gets hurt. D&D only looks abstract as a combat game because it's a kludge, an exaptation, a hybrid of naval and tabletop wargame rules that became obsolete as an accurate simulation of skirmish warfare the moment Runequest came out. Hit points and armor class are for ironclads, the whole idea of incrementally taking damage from a large pool is a better model for large units than individuals, and various other things like the one-minute round and missile rules with assumptions more suited to mass than skirmish archery also betray the game's battle-scale roots.

It would be impossible for such a battle-based system to ignore the various situations that need accurate positioning to resolve: flanking, a charge versus a missile-firing unit, breach of a line. At the most basic level in D&D are similar questions. How many PCs can attack the monsters? How many monsters can attack the PC's? Who's in front, who's safe and who's vulnerable?

People generally accept the relatively fine grain of time in D&D combat, rather than resolving all in one chuck of the dice, because it gives leeway to make tactical decisions as basic as "should we stay or run?" And this, in turn, is because combat is a common and lethal activity that players need to have spelled out for them. It's OK to have the DM rule "The wall is too slippery, you can't climb it" but not OK to have the DM rule "The mummy is too strong for you, he kills you with a single blow."

I'm genuinely curious, though: if you don't use some kind of visual aid in a D&D-like game, how do you keep track of what's happening to the same standard? The abstract solution sounds fine, right up until the point where your players' view and yours diverge. In a world of 10' passages, 5' doorways and marching orders that might never happen. But neither will this scenario where tension, fun, danger and the unexpected are a direct product of the characters interacting with the scenery. Even Ludovico Ariosto, the Renaissance poet and author of Orlando Furioso, used model knights to help choreograph that epic poem's climactic three-on-three battle on the isle of Lampedusa.

Bottom line is, if you're communicating with the players, why give up the ability to illustrate the action in ways that work together with words? I'm not sure but I suspect for some the urge is to flee the figures, the toy soldiers, the wargame roots of D&D and embrace something seen as more mature and story-like. That's not where I want to go, though. For the adventure game I want to play, figures on a map do best to regulate the tension and strategy of knife's edge combat.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Page One of the One Page Character Sheet

"One page" is going to have to be a misnomer when it comes to the character sheet. Although I guess the actual character stuff all fits on one page, with the rest being information about possessions, associates, gold and experience that can go on ... not a character sheet, but an inventory ... yeah, that's the ticket.

Unfortunately Blogger has gone messing with their code again, so clicking a picture reveals the unbearable transparency of the source image...fixed now.

Friday 16 September 2011

The Grand Inquisitor's Roleplaying Game

Portrait by van Rainy Hecht-Neilsen
I've already made this analogy in a comment somewhere, but the broadening of the pallet-shifting quantum ogre debate (see link collection here) brings this to mind yet again.

As a game master, what happens when you take freedom from your players to give them pleasure and security?
As a game master, what happens when you give your players only the illusion of freedom, toward the same goal? Choose path A or path B, each leads to the same pre-prepared encounter.

I think in both cases, you stop having the fun that comes from interacting with the players: taking their choices, building on them with choices of your own, having a mutual conversation.

That kind of relationship tends toward the situation of authoritarianism described in Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor parable. The Inquisitor alone takes on the burdens of freedom, offering the trade of true liberty for security. Under this illusion ...
...they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil.
I can't conceive of the railroading GM as inspiring anything other than misery or defiance in any mature player. Yet the answer of creating illusory freedom is by no means an answer, for it robs the GM of freedom so that the players may think they have it. It tempts the GM, saying "Look! You need only prepare one encounter! The players need never know!" But you know - and can you really maintain your enthusiasm in the face of that predetermined choice?

I know I couldn't. It's a false economy of effort that magnifies each saving tenfold in loss of enjoyment, the same as if players were to be told, "There's no need to think or try to solve problems in different ways here, just run at the monsters every time." The illusion ultimately enslaves both parties, and solves nothing.

Thursday 15 September 2011

One-Page Skills are Hard

This was a real tough page to design. The skills each have a little row of tick boxes on the character sheet. The space limits of that, and this explanation page, forced me to strip down the skills into a bare six things. Even then I'm cheating a little with the skinny font on the explanations. Is all of this necessary? I'm not sure.

There's a little outside baggage from another roleplaying game I followed. Its designers got into trouble for not presenting examples of each difficulty level of action for each skill, in one of the revised editions. It was the usual nerdrage thimblefest, but made me appreciate that in general such guidelines are a useful thing to have. Here, the examples also let you know what traditionally separate skills fall under each category.

Backgrounds also appear on the character sheet; the player supplies two adjectives or nouns like Woodland Barbarian. Wizard, Priest, Elf and Dwarf have one word supplied for them; respectively Magic, Religion, Woodland and Underground. Knowledge skill points are hard to get. I figure this is a way to realistically show knowledge in a background area that retroactively depends upon ability to learn, but requires too much study to improve while adventuring.

Mechanics with the appropriate Background could also represent some kind of craft skill, if needed. But the four-color universe of adventure has little patience for naturalistic characters who hammer their own armor...

All this rethinking means that characters in my previously presented starting page get way too many skill points, so I redid that too. Most characters start with one part-shaded box in most skills, so it's not like only rogues can climb.

I guess the character sheet should be next, or at least the first page.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Which Rock Group Would Play This RPG?

The Warlock, bliss_infinite, has posted a wicked little meme up on the Home Brew asking of classic rock groups, which roleplaying game would they play?

I put it to you the opposite way. Given the following roleplaying games and adventures not covered in that list, which rock group would be most likely to play them?

Still goin' strong!
1. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
2. The Riddle of Steel
3. Dogs in the Vineyard
4. 7th Sea
5. Gary Gygax's Cyborg Commando
6. Dragonlance
7. Tegel Manor
8. GURPS Fantasy
9. TSR S2: White Plume Mountain

My answers below the cut.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Two Page Character Basics: False and Forced Choices

These two pages really go together; one gives the basics of an approach to character creation, the other follows it through with some of the basic stats for each character class. After that there is one page for each class detailing the special powers they get.

One click makes you larger, one click makes you small...

Some comments on the design here. I take a "cut the crap" approach to the relationship between ability scores and character class. If you don't take the obvious incentives in Original, Basic and Advanced D&D to put your highest abilities into the class' prime requisites - the experience bonuses, the stats helping with class powers - you must be making some kind of point. The kind of point that no player I have ever known, ever wanted to make.

So why not just require it?

Making a fighter with average Strength so he can have high Wisdom is a false choice. It's the illusion of an option because it's completely suboptimal, and can only lead to regret once the player understands the game system. By turning the false choice into a forced choice by the rules, mental capacity is freed up to make other, more meaningful choices.

(Other meaningless choices in old school D&D and the neo-clones who won't let its design choices go: duff seldom-useful spells that have to be memorized beforehand ... weapons with no reason to use ...)

After all, characters can still be quirky on their secondary stats, because I only allow the one switch necessary to bring you into the class of your choice. If you roll 9 strength, 15 intelligence and 13 wisdom and you want to play a fighter, he'll still be either smarter or wiser than your average grunt.

Another thing. Turning Constitution into Confidence keeps the abbreviation in line with Original Standard D&D, and lines up with my previous arguments about changing the CON stat and treating character hit points as morale. I'm pretty pleased with this move. It even feels right in its old school location next to Charisma, instead of feeling out of place as a physical stat most akin to Strength.

Another other thing: Dwarf and Elf "class" to let you know, this is race-as-class territory.

This may not be the most modular of the handouts, but it's necessary for a complete game and it lays down the background for some of the assumptions and choices in the more portable stuff coming up.

Solid Gaming History

From Metafilter comes a link to a really well-written blog that covers a lot of history relevant to old-school gaming: cardboard, paper and 5 1/4" floppy. Jimmy Maher's The Digital Antiquarian goes analog for a series on hex wargames and D&D that gives the best concise narratives of these hobbies' origins I've yet seen, and then traces their influence on computer games through the divergent paths of text adventures and computer RPGs. Early in my blog's history I noted a reverse influence - the more naturalistic problem-solving nature of text adventures coming in through the Old School movement and enlightening the number-crunching, cRPG-like ways of later D&D editions. So it's good to have all this history spelled out with great detail and insight. For example:

' I submit that D&D was in practice not mostly played by groups of “artful thespians,” but by scruffy teenage boys and men perfectly happy to remain Jim and Bob as they pondered the best way to kill that group of trolls in the next room. And that experience of D&D a computer could, within inevitable limits, simulate pretty well.'

There's even an emulator version of Temple of Apshai, the pioneering computer RPG. Brave danger as a congeries of extended-set ASCII blocks!

Good stuff here.

Sunday 11 September 2011

One Page Vital Stats

Following the program of One Page Rules, today I present a kind of "master handout" that introduces many of the vital stats characterizing PCs, NPCs and other beings in the game.

This is page 2 ... right after the introductory page where the general play and point of the game, and such terms as "character", "creature", "DM", "d6" and so forth are described. I haven't laid that out yet.

This is a different system than the more elaborate Old School Players rules I'm using for my current campaign. It's built for concision.

More to come ... as always, let me know if this way of presenting rules is clear.

I'm also going to issue a blanket acknowledgment to Telecanter, whose silhouettes will show up throughout this series.

Saturday 10 September 2011

One Page Graphic Style

I'm deep in the one page project and have a bunch of new ones to dole out in the coming days.

Meanwhile, I'm looking at my own efforts and some others' in the genre and trying to determine what the right mix of graphics and text is for me. My first effort was graphic-heavy:

But a little cryptic, especially to the right with the chest and door. A reader also needs to know how damage can come to be applied against a particular piece of equipment, and that the weird shield at bottom is made of metal. A little more text wouldn't be amiss here.

There's art under there ...
One of the card games I play a lot is Race for the Galaxy, which has attracted carping about the complex system of graphic icons on the cards. This is a standard trick in Eurogames to allow them to print cards that work in all languages. Then they print a multilingual rulebook that explains all of those glyphs and numbers.

But some of the effects in Race are too cryptic for the all-graphics approach. They're explained in text on the card, which supports an accompanying graphic that most of the time will not stand on its own as an explanation. This, of course, undermines the multilingual rationale for the glyphic language. But could there be another reason to wed text and symbol?

This is how I see graphics and numbers on my One Page Rules. They're there to break up the monotony and allow a quick visual reference. But unless they're truly representational and understandable icons, they'll be backed up with text. A kind of Rosetta stone for a visual language that's quickly learned, to back up the verbal lesson with a quick glance in play. Symbols interspersed with more iconic silhouettes and illustrations.

So, pop quiz: can you guess at a glance what each of these symbols at left represents in my rules?

Also check out the one-page efforts of Telecanter (there should be more in the archives) and -C at Hack and Slash.

Thursday 8 September 2011

Emotion Dice Chart

And now, here is my one page emotion dice encounter reaction chart. You can use the emotion dice if you have them, or substitute regular d6; as an aid to memory, the odd numbered faces are negative (vs. positive) reactions, and the high-numbered ones are strong (vs. weak) reactions.

Click to enlarge

And one example.

The party, led by a charismatic warrior with a +1 bonus, runs into some orcs with a Hostile disposition.

The orcs greatly outnumber the party (so circumstances favor a move to the right) and the party quickly throws a couple of sacks of gold at them, which is deemed fitting tribute (circumstances favor a move down).

An ANGRY (5) and a NEUTRAL (1) are rolled.

First, the hostile orcs get angry, moving one to the right.

Then, circumstances come into play. The orcs stay in the rightmost column, but shift one down to CONFIDENT. The orcs laugh and bid the party begone, scooping up the gold.

Next time I'll show what one-page format has done to my more traditional-style reaction table using two rolls of 2d6. I think the format has changed it for the better.

Emotion Dice

In Amsterdam this summer I picked up a pair of these dice that are meant to teach kids about emotional expressions. What a great way to mingle gaming with my research into emotions ...

The 6 faces of each die.

Scanning across from top left, let's number them 1 to 6. Four of the expressions are easy to label: 1 is sad, 2 is happy, 4 is indifferent and 6 is angry. But 3 and 5 are interesting because they're expressions that emotion researchers haven't paid much mind to - yet here they are in a set of basic emotion dice for kids, which tells me someone needs to pay closer attention to them.

Number 3 is the wink. A facial expression, yes, but an emotion? The wink to me communicates something more intentionally than an emotion does; amusement, affection, a secret ... I know of no papers on winking.

Number 5 is the "mean smile." At another conference this summer I got into a conversation with a fellow psychologist about this one. He pointed out that the muscle groups for frowning and smiling are rarely activated together. But every child knows the meaning of this expression. It combines the powerful, hostile message of furrowed brows with the pleased expression of the smile, and it means "Ha ha! I gotcha!" Is it just that people often don't show this expression to pictures in a lab? Or that it's more a caricature expression than one found in the wild - combining elements of hostile frown and smile that are understandable when combined, but rarely actually expressed together? These questions require further study.

Anyway, for gaming purposes I also noticed that expressions 1, 2, 5 and 6 vary in two ways: mouth grimacing/smiling and eyebrows frowning/lifted.

Eyebrows are an interesting way of signaling dominance. Some research finds that frowning actually makes you look physically more mature and masculine, because grownups and men have heavier brows. Likewise, the raised eyebrows you see in expressions of fear, surprise and sometimes happiness convey that the person is temporarily feeling less powerful, because children have more space from eye to browline. In gaming, they can represent whether the person is feeling more or less powerful than whoever they're facing - in other words, a morale roll.

As for the mouth, that's used to communicate agreeableness - in other words, a reaction roll.

If you've been following this space for a while, you may see where this is going. Stay tuned - I'm going to adapt that table to use with the emotion dice.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

What do you get the geek who has everything?

A character sheet for the fridge! (not to be confused with a mere zero-level shopping list)

Available through TopatoCo from Dr. McNinja creator Christopher Hastings.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Railroad in the Sandbox

Before I leave the ruins of Undermountain there's one more lesson to be had.

Ed Greenwood provides a great variety of hooks and plots that will take the adventurers into his mega-dungeon by one entrance or another. One of the hooks depends on the players seeing a ghostly knight. I mean, this is hardly a spoiler because it's so bleeding obvious what you're supposed to do. But after the apparition is described, we read:

If the players elect to do nothing about the Ghost Knight, they will soon be unable to sleep - whenever they close their eyes, they will see his angry-faced, shining image coming toward them with sword drawn.
This vision continues regardless of spells, magical barriers or cures, planar travels, and so on, until the sleepless, exhausted PCs lay the Ghost Knight to rest by revisiting the alleyway in which he disappeared. (Undermountain Adventures, Greenwood, p. 2)
That last sentence is particularly rich. It conjures up a scene of human defiance and petty authority worthy of Kafka. Or Looney Tunes.

Players: "Okay, well, we're pretty sick of these hauntings, so we're going to burn this plane shift scroll and travel to the Happy Hunting Grounds."
DM: "You spend the day marveling at the abundance of buffalo and opossum. But when you lay down your head to rest in a stand of pawpaw trees ... yes, this low-level knight ghost, this one-shot clue to a secret alley entrance, relentlessly reaches across the gulfs of space, time and probability to wail 'Whyyyy wonnnnt yoooou plaaay with meeee?' all night long!"

Well, OK, this was 20 years ago, in TSR's golden age of plot railroading. It's a sign of how pervasive the one-track adventure mentality was in those days that Greenwood feels compelled to screw over the players' free will even when there is absolutely no need. It's not like the players are following the hook to an adventure that took their DM two months to prepare, or even to a one-track purchased module. No, this is a boxed set that details at least a dozen entrances to the sprawling Undermountain complex. In modern terms, it's a sandbox ... with a railroad running right through it.

And did I mention the Ghost Knight is bleeding obvious? If your players turn down the hook of their own free will, it's like they're telling you, "Nah, we don't really want a dungeon adventure today, do you have something more in the line of a ship's chandlery economic simulation?"

There's a larger lesson here. It's inconceivable today that one of the top RPG designers could manhandle players with a design choice like this. The reason? Language. Over the course of the last two decades, writing about RPGs has reached a high critical level, spurred on by the emergence of White Wolf as a challenger to the hegemony and outlook of D&D, and by the spread of independent criticism over the Internet. Sure, the language sometimes collapses into jargon. But it also gives us powerful tools to articulate what wasn't obvious twenty years ago, let us spot the railroad in a sandbox, and figure out why it's not just an asshat move by the DM but actually unnecessary.

Sunday 4 September 2011

Out of the Orange Corner

So now we are looking for better solutions for the problem that led Ed Greenwood to break away from his renowned naturalism, with dictatorial bans on most of the high-level travel and intelligence-gathering spells so that parties couldn't use them against the many tricks and traps of Undermountain.

"Sorry guys, can't transport through that mysterious cloud ... again ..."
What do you do if teleport, passwall or ESP just ruins what you have going on in the adventure?

1. Say "Yes." Is it really such a big deal, in D&D, if a wizard has memorized a 5th level teleport spell instead of a cloudkill that could lay low a whole room full of lizardmen- and then uses that spell to deal with a deathtrap? Do you really think brute force solutions are only for combat? Do you realize that blocking these spells, which your player's wizard has memorized with no guarantee that they'll come in useful, forces her into a dumb damage-max mentality? Do you not have enough killer combats and lethal traps set up that the party should be applauded for finding a way around them, instead of booed for avoiding three hours' worth of pointless exercise in your dungeon jungle gym?

2. Say "Yes, but." There are error chances on teleportation, and at the most common levels in AD&D the caster can't take along more than one armored bodyguard. Casting ESP on someone will likely offend them and may not even work if they get a saving throw or think in an unknown language. Be familiar with the difficulties of each supposedly "broken" player approach, even come up with further twists, but don't knee-jerk away from them.

3. Flip the script. If a party can fly up to the window, passwall through the wall, move invisibly and silently while the archwizard is sleeping, and steal the fabled jewelled skull ... best believe someone can fly up to the party's stronghold, passwall through the wall, move invisibly and silently, and steal the skull back plus a whole bunch of other stuff.

4. Be naturalistic about security. So, in a world with such magic, what are the odds that someone has developed countermeasures, and that the stronghold or ruin has got them deployed? Some already exist; for instance, lead sheeting against ESP. Point is, the security measures should be explicable and part of the naturalistic concerns of the opposition, not handwaved in as "super powerful ancient magicks." Security measures are also more fun if they add more difficulty instead of shutting down attempts completely; the wizard's tower protected against flying by a pack of circling griffons, and against teleportation by etheral dimensional hounds that can follow teleport-tracks, Tindalos-style. And soon enough, if you're taking advantage of point number 3, the party will want to know how to protect themselves ....

5. Make spells increase fun, not kill it. This wasn't really available to the designers working within the lines of AD&D, but it's what I and all the rest of the old school players can achieve through house rule tinkering. Teleport is caster-only. ESP lets you detect only the presence of a sentient being, and if they fail a save, a couple of cryptic words from its stream of consciousness. Passwall - nuh uh, no way, though I do allow a high level spell that lets you turn a 10' cube of stone into oatmeal. But then you have to deal with whatever might follow you through, instead of having it neatly close up after you. And also, you have to deal with all that oatmeal.

Saturday 3 September 2011

The Orange-Painted Corner of Naturalism

Is "whale on 2nd Edition AD&D" week over yet? No? All right. I'm here to pay homage to the first Undermountain boxed set, from 1991.

[Spoilers follow]

Let me start with the positive. Ed Greenwood stands tall as a pioneer of fantasy naturalism in role-playing games. I devoured his Dragon magazine articles in the 80's, so rich with invention and detail. They worked up the plain and sometimes weird building blocks of the game into something more like a fantastic museum.

This is about 10% of Level 1.
In re-treading the orange and yellow floors of Undermountain last week I noticed no shortage of this imagination. It's a great resource from which to learn and steal set-pieces: ingenious traps and tricks, disguised monsters, classic fake-outs, detailed combats where the enemy uses every tactic available.

The core area of these Saturday Night Special encounters, justified by "hey, mad 29th level sado-wizard," is fringed by more naturalistic environments: the tavern where adventurers' descents make up a kind of medieval reality show, the slaver town of Skullport, or Waterdeep's monster-infested garbage dump. And even the smallest treasures drip with detail. Why loot "some jugs of wine" when you can have "14 wicker-jacketed, 5-gallon green glass carboys of dry white wine (1 gp)"?

At his best, Greenwood doesn't just create naturalism with physical and economic details. He takes the official monsters, spells and magic items to the limit. Ropers and mimics take on a dizzying variety of guises. Wands are disguised, put into the hands of enemies, worked into traps. Why make a trap rely on magical tentacles when you can use an imprisoned mutant carrion crawler instead? Sure, there are occasional "inexplicable" magical effects, but you get the sense he had more fun working with the standard toolbox.

But here's the catch - players can use their resources to be naturalists too. Faced with a script that says "Endure your heroic, character-defining quest up through seven chromatic levels of the Rainbow Tower to reach the solid gold pineapple on the platform at the top," the prosaically-minded player rebels and says "Er ... what does this fly spell do, exactly?" This is why medieval knights were afraid of crossbows. History is written by innovators who at one point said, "Screw the rules of engagement. This works." Player naturalism finds short cuts around fantasy railroads using the rules and resources built into the game itself.

Ah-ah-ah, but ol' Halaster is not letting you off so easily in Undermountain. Inexplicable, massive "magical fields" stop all teleporting, ESP and other game-breaking spells. We see not just a naturalistic designer, but one who expects players to use naturalism too - and prepares for it! Just about every dead body you find in the maze has a name and a history in case the players try Speak With Dead. That's cool, but at the same time there are places where the player runs up against "because I say so."
  • What you can do in Undermountain: Fry a whole room of orcs with a level 3 fireball spell.
  • What you can't do in Undermountain: Use your 5th level rock to mud spell to deal with that trick where the stone hands take one magic item and give you another. The hands are just impervious to any magic short of  a limited wish.
  • What is detailed in Undermountain: Exact procedures for lifting, smashing, and being crushed by the doors in the Bonecrusher trap.
  • What isn't detailed in Undermountain: How exactly those necrophidii, the ones that jump out of the pillar you have been prying gems from, steal your magic items. They just do! It's part of the trick! What do you mean, you want a DEX check?

"Look sharp, the floor here is orange."
So, it's not the designer's naturalism, but a particular response to anticipating the players' naturalism, that paints the encounter into a corner. I'm not picking on Ed Greenwood. This is a common problem in 2nd Edition-era adventure design,  lampooned pitch-perfectly over many issues of the Knights of the Dinner Table comic.

1. The designer wants the characters and setting to read from the mythic script. Characters should succeed through force of arms where appropriate, and through clever wits in designated clever wits areas. The setting must be allowed to enforce the moral lessons of its tricks and surprises.

2. The players want themselves, not necessarily the characters, to be heroes. Their funniest and most awesome stories are of outwitting the DM, not the dungeon. The more the rules describe a prosaic, lawful system of cause and effect, the more they can leverage this against the mythic story to gain advantage.

3. This is where things go awry. The designer refuses to allow player creativity to work and imposes more rules, by decree. When the players burn down the Hollywood saloon facade they find, not a way out, but walls behind made of solid steel and three feet thick.

Now, how can a designer do naturalism and not end up like this? I have a few tentative solutions, coming up next.

49 Pages

These are no 49 ordinary pages.

This is a plan for 18 point text, graphic modular house-rules pages for the first three character levels of a classic d20 medieval fantasy adventure game. They are in four sections corresponding to what players and GM will be doing in a typical campaign: Characters (white); The Village (yellow); The Adventure (orange); The Town (brown). The format forces conciseness, as regular readers here will have already seen. I usually end up liking what this does to the final products.

Let's be real. Nobody's going to use it who doesn't know what a roleplaying game is. The kids have played enough computer games, and anyone our age who is getting into this stuff has at least one person in the group who knows what it's all about.

So #1 will not be the usual thing. And #49 is downright heretical, but, I think, necessary as a starting point. Especially for the people approaching from computer gaming.

I expect some pages will split, and others merge, and I'll keep it to 49. Bold pages are already completed, with links to the posts if they've been posted (but expect some revisions).

Hey, if I even complete a third of these, starting from the most interesting first, it will be worth it. So, anything obviously missing?
  1. What Is This Game?
  2. Vital Statistics (definition of stats and basic mechanics for characters and beings)
  3. Who Are You? (rolling a character and choosing a character class)
  4. The Adventuring Character (charts of character stats and skills for the first 5 levels)
  5. Adventuring Fighter Powers: Force, Finesse and Followthrough
  6. Adventuring Priest Powers: Restore HP, Faith Healing, and Abjure Evil
  7. Adventuring Rogue Powers: Ambush, Distraction and Skill Mastery
  8. Adventuring Wizard Powers: Spell Casting
  9. Spells for level 1
  10. Spells for levels 3-5
  11. Powers of the Adventuring Dwarf and Elf
  12. The Adventuring Gnome: Dabbler's Magic and Loser's Luck
  13. Going Shopping 1: Weapons
  14. Going Shopping 2: Armor
  15. Going Shopping 3: Equipment
  16. Going Shopping 4: Domestic Animals
  17. Who Else is Out There? (interactions with NPCs explained)
  18. First Meetings (morale and reaction tables)
  19. Companions (hirelings and henchmen) 
  20. Everyday Life (living costs, travel, etc.) 
  21. Adventure Environments
  22. Light and the Senses
  23. Moving Around
  24. Breaking Things
  25. Hazards: Fire, Falling, Water, Poison
  26. Traps
  27. Enemies: Animals
  28. Enemies: Humanoids
  29. Enemies: Monsters
  30. Enemies: The Weird
  31. Enemies: The Unholy
  32. Combat: The Encounter
  33. Combat: Time and Space
  34. Combat: Initiative and Actions
  35. Combat: Missiles and Powers
  36. Combat: Melee
  37. Death and Damage
  38. Critical Hits and Fumbles
  39. Recovery and Healing
  40. Treasure
  41. Magic Items I
  42. Magic Items II
  43. Experience and Advancement
  44. Travel through Civilized Lands
  45. Town Services
  46. Town Goods
  47. Carousing
  48. Town Encounters
  49. Winning The Basic Game

Thursday 1 September 2011

Old School Dungeon Encounters In Action

I updated yesterday's dungeon encounters table (thanking Google Docs for making it easy) to take into account some feedback and fix a few other glitches, adding also a favored old school Barsoomian critter.

One of the innovations is a rule that if an increase in numbers would take the number of monsters above 30 or so, that increase is replaced by a tactical advantage. "What, you can't have more than 30 monsters in a dungeon army?" Practically, no. It's a pain in the ass to track that many monsters. What that combat will usually boil down to, as it did when we fought Ye Olde Room of Umpty-ump Kobolds in 10th grade, is a defended doorway and lots and lots of boring roll-roll-roll. Allied groups of monsters in adjacent rooms, now, that's another story.

Because I want this table to be usable in a pinch, I also replaced the illustration of doubtful value with a table of random handicaps that can be applied to benefit either the party or the enemies.

Now, below are the results of 6 encounters generated for a party of rank II, that is, 2nd and 3rd level characters.

This is a disorganized cave complex and ruin. Leaders and Troops/Surface are replaced respectively with Predators/Loners and Vermin.

Room 1: 12 giant leeches.
Room 2: Giant poisonous frog, confined to a pool of water (inspired by the leeches)
Room 3: 28 large centipedes (food for the frog)
Room 4: 16 saucer fungi, advantage is that they are in a zone of otherworldly darkness around a fungus altar.
Room 5:  A formerly 7 headed hydra, with two handicaps: only 3 heads remain, and it has to attack the party up a slope from its swampy lair.
Room 6: Five ghouls.

What I like about random generation is the way it sometimes throws out a theme. Does anyone else do the encounters first and then map the dungeon around them? Because I'm seeing an area for each of these ... a shallow entrance pool for the leeches, trickling stream in the frog room, the centipedes are in a maze-like area of limestone tunnels, the fungi are a dead end off there, and the ghouls are in an abandoned evil temple past the hydra, which is at the bottom of a huge slanted cave.

One last favor to ask - could someone just download my Varlets & Vermin pdf from the link to the right, and confirm that it is accessible? I just want to make sure the "link only" privacy option works for one of my existing  files before I set them all up to be that way.