Wednesday 26 June 2013

High-Concept Monster Suites

How many movies owe their existence to fevered high-concept pitches like:

"It's like Dracula, but with a soul brother!"
"Like Jaws, but with a squid!"
"Like Deliverance, but with mutants!"

This suggests a technique I find myself using more and more, to rescue adventure locations from the same old, dull, "ogres and gray oozes and rust monsters" dungeon crew. The critters do the same things as the classic monsters, even with the same stats, but the look and feel is different - which may change the special abilities as well.

"Like zoo animals, but X-treme!*"

I'm doing this right now in my party's current dungeon, but I can't spoil the exact details. So here are a few  examples, rolled up on the spot using my dungeon encounter table (to the right). You can take the first monster or the most distinctive one as the basis for the theme.


Original rolls: Necrophidius, giant rats, kenku, minor devil
Now: Skeletal rats, necrophidius as is, bony bird-men, lesser bone devil.


Original rolls: Grell, ogres, winter wolf, giant lizards
Now: Grell, brain ogres with extra pair of tentacles (2 weapon attacks), cryo-psychic brain hound with ice attack, lizards who move on 4 snake bodies (tentacles).


Original rolls: Homunculus, purple worm, bat swarm, giant spider
Now: Homunculus; summoning circle that "slinkies" out into a purple-worm-like monster if disturbed; book that, if opened, creates a stream of origami bats from its pages (beware paper cuts); formerly itsy bitsy spider that wandered into an enlargement ray.

* I hereby motion to replace all uses of the term "dire" in Wizards D&D with "X-treme"

Monday 24 June 2013

Decision Under Pressure As Player Skill

Something I've never been really tough on as a game-master is the enforcement of realistic decision limits on the players. In the middle of a combat they are usually free to take as long as they like to debate strategy, positioning, and maneuvers. Occasionally, especially when taken by surprise, I will try to hustle them along.

The same is true when talking to an NPC, although here the players do a little more self-policing as they realize they can't really be having these kinds of discussions in earshot. A simple way to deal with this is to have a single spokesperson for the party step up, and have any objections dealt with by sleeve-tugging, whispering, or in extreme cases breaking off for a huddle - with all of this noted by the NPC.

But back to the combat example. The hardass argument states that doing the correct thing quickly is part of player skill, and the chaos of battle is only realistic. There's plenty of time to think over strategy while others are stating their actions. If players want to work on their playbook together, they have to find time before the encounter, through reconnaissance or contingency planning. Once made, the plan has to be carried out quickly and without much detailed communication. Only this way can the real tension of combat even be approached.

The softer touch recognizes that there's a gulf between the players and their battle-hardened characters - that the minutes of dithering are a way to encapsulate combat-honed reflexes and canny decisions that players can't be expected to simulate, any more than they should simulate feats of strength or lockpicking.

Certainly I've found that my table style doesn't really flow smoothly with pre-declared actions, even though they can help deal with odd paradoxes of "I-go-you-go" combat, like the time the players busted through a door, lost initiative and couldn't rush all the main fighters through before the enemy closed. In general, anything that requires tight discipline or tracking is a drag; keeping track of the turn sequence is my bare minimum, and even that can be taxing. So even though it seems that imposing a decision time limit might speed up play, subjectively it seems that it would make play more effortful and less fluid.

My feelings are still mixed. It seems like a time limit would increase the "fun" in combat in the sense of unpredictable things happening, but decrease "fun" in the sense of being the masters of your characters' survival. It would increase the reward of combat in the sense that you would feel great accomplishment for doing something right or carrying out a complicated play, but decrease the reward in the sense that you didn't feel you got to play the game at your own pace. Perhaps it's telling that I far prefer turn-based to real-time computer games. Anyway, there things stand, so I'm not going to be changing things in the near future, unless I run a game for a set of experienced, hardcore gamers who would find it a suitable challenge.

Friday 21 June 2013

Who Brings New Player Characters? The Plot-Copter Does

The usual way to integrate a new player-character into the party is some "hail fellow well met" cut scene at Ye Olde Tavern. But what happens if the party is on long-range recon and there isn't a tavern for miles?

Well, you can always be hardcore and require them to return to civilization before the new player can start. But that frustrates everyone.

Taking a cue from picaresque literature, I prefer the meeting to be on-site, and covered by the barest fig leaf of plausibility. There's always room in a fantastic universe for the party to meet up with a fellow "solo adventurer" in the ruins, or to encounter a wanderer from even stranger spaces and times who was placed in temporal stasis or thrust through a gate. A strange origin can itself be a plot hook for the new player.

In my campaign there have been three character introductions, none of them in a tavern. For the first, I took the character through a mini-game detailing his travels from south to north, before joining him to a caravan that the party had been hired to guard. For the second, two players had to be introduced, so I had it that the one (hermit) met the other (merchant agent), who had been hired by the party's current employer to follow the party, joining it if necessary, in order to make sure they were carrying out the duty they had been hired to do.

Most recently, a rogue and her wizardly henchwoman were introduced to the party in the middle of a coastal maze of cliffs and rocks. Having been shipwrecked, the new players had been huddling in a cave until the party showed up. Conveniently, this cave was a good parking place for the hermit character to go on a retreat, because her player was going to be away over the summer; another, less common real-world occurrence where an in-game solution needs to be thought up.

Regardless, I always also the new player with words such as "You take an instant liking to her for some reason" or "You all feel you can trust each other and move on." Yes, in reality, these kinds of wilderness meetings would be hedged round with suspicion, and any NPC met under those circumstances would be treated very differently.

But there's no getting around it; the players know that the new player wants to get along and become part of the band. Better to acknowledge that immediately and move on, rather than give the impression that the game is about setting the players against each other. If there's any jarring incongruity about the meeting, it will quickly be forgotten as the players create new memories of fun and adventure together.

Thursday 20 June 2013

One-Phrase Alignments and the New Prophet

I'll say it again: healing characters are important. My current campaign party is having the cleric ("prophet" in 52 Pages) sit out for the summer, and boy are they scared. Potions compensate somewhat, but especially on long expeditions, there's nothing like renewable healing.

From 4th Edition, Wizards' D&D has seen this as a problem and compensated with all sorts of innate healing surges and the like. For me, it's an opportunity to take a light hand in the design of the character class, because healers are so damn good anyway.

The new 52 Pages lets a prophet, on average, not quite heal up one fighter a day. Turning, Flame Princess style, will become a spell, and the miracles will also be on spell cards. This lets me, and the DM, come up with different religions having different spells and sacred weapons, folding the Druid option into "brown magic." That's the tree on the page; the cup is restoration magic, and the sun is abjuration, while the star is the wizard's divination school. Spell cards will come later.

The main question is whether to go with a variant of the current miracle system (shown here), where you get one guaranteed spell per day and you can keep on casting as long as you make Mind saves, or more of a standard wizard-like spell pack-out. Prophets should have fewer of these spells than wizards, so having worked out the numbers, they should probably gain +1 Mind save every level instead of every other level, giving them on average 1.4 "miracle" spells as day at 1st (with a +1 Wisdom bonus) and 3.3 at 9th. I might also let them repeat spells, unlike wizards.

Finally, the diversity of available religions has given me a neat idea: to reduce alignment to a motto. The beauty of this is that it becomes a negotiation between player and GM, where the meaning of such words as "deserving" and "protect" can be twisted in justification of the deeds of the day. Pretty much any motto you can think of will allow for shades of religious interpretation, which is how I like it.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Blog Shout Out: Spells and Steel

A recent exchange running through a couple of other blogs I follow led me to check out the back catalog of Spells and Steel, a blog focusing on developing a version of Basic D&D that's informed by facts and experience with medieval combat.

What I like about Charles Taylor's approach: he's intent on keeping the simplicity of Basic D&D throughout, resulting in a very boiled-down system that still relies mainly on d20 hit, d6 damage logic. So, multiple opponents are tough, trained fighters have a huge advantage in ability versus civilians, skill and not hit points helps heroes survive, etc.  Although my house-rules don't kill nearly the same amount of sacred cows, I do appreciate the impulse to consult reality instead of received "game" logic.

One observation of his that I want to put into my own rules: outside of the movies, combat with weapons actually takes place at about a 10' distance heel to heel, with combatants stepping in to attack. So a zone of attack should look more like the right picture than the left:

This means that the situation on the left should then represent close and brawling combat, where longer weapons would be less effective. Closing to a 1 space distance would require some disadvantage, like taking a hit attempt on you and failing to close if it hits.

I already have rules for that but they stick to the example of the Metagaming Melee game, where you actually moved one counter into another's space. Apart from realism, the benefit when playing with figures on a grid (as I do) is that you don't have to jam figures into the same space to represent a brawl. Just say that if one figure is facing another and adjacent, it's brawling with the other guy.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

New 52 Pages Download and To Do List

Well, now that the 52 Pages system is a fully playable document I'm making the new pdf available for download, on the right. Still, the pdf is not complete. Here is my "to do" list for changes:
* There are 4 pages still to create, dedicated to adventure examples and GM/player advice.
* I want to rework the Prophet class so they operate by spells like the others (more on that soon)
* Do something different with starting equipment so a whole page of equipment cards is not required. Most likely, a starting party will get a standard shopping basket of equipment, and new members will get a pick or random roll of X pieces from the list.
* Reduce the character sheet to one vertical page. Perhaps include it at the back, outside the 52 page count, and add a character creation walkthrough of the kind that got me props back in the day.
* Other player aids: spell lists, GM's log
* Air out the combat section, make it less dense, with an extra page.
* There have been some problems interpreting the feats of strength and magic items sections, so rework that.
* Generally proofread, standardize terms, get graphic elements lined up and clearer.

I'm not sure if the pages of rules need more detailed text annotations - I would rather make them stand clearly on their own, with maybe a little bit of RPG experience desirable to grasp the concepts.

And then it's on to the 52 pages "expert" edition for adventures at levels 4-6, including:

* New class powers and spells.
* Hybrid class options for more variety.
* Basic world creation for the GM.
* Wilderness and sea adventure rules.
* Lots more monsters.
* Building reputation in settlements toward the next party goal - gaining official status as agents of a realm.

But before that, the next project will be to clean up my wilderness encounter tables and present them together with a detailed world, weather and outdoor adventure system for any game.

Monday 17 June 2013

One Page Magic Items

No room here for pages and pages of listings. Instead, as with monsters and treasures I enlist the Game Master's own discretion and imagination - framing the possibilities, not exhausting them. Just like spell failures in my system can involve the wrong other spell, so magic items are mostly spells in a box, removing the need for separate descriptions.

And most of the need for enhanced items at low levels can be supplied by the "special" non-magical items instead. The starred ones can even be bought in a large enough settlement. This will help overcome "blah, another +1 dagger" blues, and ensure that the really enchanted stuff shines out someway.

More powerful weapons/armor than +1 are rare (you pretty much need to roll high on a second roll to get them, or get lucky with "roll twice" results.) Again, this will help arrest the climb of the combat game to silly power levels. But every once in a while you will get a weapon that reaches artifact-level powers. Further rules for higher levels will give more possibilities.

Well, now ... this means that except for the play examples, and a few changes I want to make in previous pages (the prophet class and some other things), the 52 Pages is now a complete "basic" system for character levels 1-3! I'll have a viable download of the rules so far up for you tomorrow.

Sunday 16 June 2013

...Considered as a Matrix of Semi-Precious Stones

Found this cool "table" on a Chinese gem seller's site while figuring out what kind of semi-precious stones (entry <5>, [1] on my treasure table)  to put in a treasure hoard. Numbers added, anachronisms (synthetic stones) removed and replaced with glowing stuff. Enjoy your petrified wood necklaces!

Click to read it.

Thursday 13 June 2013

More Sufficiently Advanced Chemistry

Following this earlier post, but going back to an earlier Cracked article,  here are some more inspirations for adventure-game wonders based on real chemistry.

Ferrofluids: Suspensions of iron particles in a liquid that form shapes when magnetic fields are applied.

  • An iron door that is solid only through the grace of magnetism; turning off the field collapses it.
  • Over here is a jug of some black oily material. Over there is a statue holding a detachable hilt that exudes an invisible magnetic field (going near, you feel the pull on your iron weapons and armor). Pour the jug on the hilt for a real Liquid Sword.
  • Flicking the switch means that the slimy liquid at the bottom of the pit rises up and forms nasty spikes.

Aerogel: Translucent, super-strong material that's mostly air.

  • Cloudy glassteel pane: you can kind of see through it to all that treasure on display, but not break it.
  • Or you can break it - but there's an angry air elemental inside.
Perfluorocarbons: Breathable fluids imbued with oxygen.
  • It's a pool with ... a manticore at the bottom?
  • I stashed my treasure under water at the end of this long tunnel. Suicide to try and swim, but only I know the water is breathable.
  • Potion of water breathing - but you have summon up the guts to inhale it right into your lungs.
Elastic conductor: Material that expands and becomes rigid when current is applied.
  • Wizard's bridge over a chasm. You need to cast a lightning bolt to extend it all the way, but hurry - it only stays that way for a round.
  • Curtains that part for anyone except the electric shock monster being held captive.
  • Gloves that enhance a shocking grasp spell with a floppy ribbon that turns into a blade, adding stabby injury to shocking injury.
Non-Newtonian fluid: "A liquid that turns solid when sufficient stress is applied."
  • "It's only a ten-foot drop, I'll just dive into this ... AAAGHHH"
  • You find a strange leather suit, that seems to be made of two layers with a little valve. Elsewhere you find a bottle of the fluid. It gives full mobility, works as plate mail against blows of all kinds, and can only be pierced by small soft scratches.
  • The giant can walk on this water, but you little guys just fall through.
  • Lair feature of a Great Old One wishing to outdo Cthulhu's non-Euclidean geometry.
Transparent alumina: See-through (if slightly cloudy) metal.
  • See above under glassteel doors and windows.
  • Metal bikinis and codpieces just got more interesting.
Carbon nanotubes: Nano-scale fibers made of carbon: incredibly strong, electrically conductive, and yeah, the Cracked writer gets overwhelmed by the Cracked style guide at this point and just gets stuck on "bur bur bur awesome mind-blowing bur bur bur" so here's the website of a company that makes them, and the wiki article.
  • +3 armor that looks like just a shirt and pants. Nanotubes.
  • The beast with nanotube fur ... equivalent to plate mail.
  • A sword with an invisible blade. It's just one nanotube.
  • The wizard installed some looong nanotube wiring in her castle to deliver fire and lightning damage to those below.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Very Quick Carousing Rules

Having reconciled myself a little more to the fact that the 52 One Page Rules are not going to allow for all the baroque splendor of my carousing procedure, or anyone else's, here's an attempt at a very short one that fills the corner of the "settlements" page:

I'm actually not unhappy with it; it offloads some of the decisions onto the GM, of course, but looks like it can produce effects similar to what my main party has experienced so far in campaign play, with the notorious cheese roll being a "contest."

Sunday 9 June 2013

Meaningful and Unpredictable: Results by Random Match

It's desirable, when setting forth a world, to show both the predictable occurrences that give it meaning and the unpredictable ones that give it surprise. I don't have much of an interest in running a world where everything is unique and surprising, because I suspect that people would quickly bore of it. You need to get an idea of business as usual, in order to really appreciate business as unusual.

Typically, a random table will handle this by including greater- and lesser-probability outcomes. But there's another way to get this effect.

To illustrate, roll a d6 five times, then another five times. You'll get two lists of numbers like:

5, 1, 5, 4, 2

1, 6, 4, 2, 3

If we try to match the numbers as closely as possible that gives 3 exact matches - 1,4, 2 - and two that are off by 1 or 2 points - 5 to 6 and 5 to 3. More rare are sets in which the matches are way off - in which a 2 is forced to go with a 6, for example. So this seems like a good procedure for generating, not expected or unexpected lone elements, but expected or unexpected match-ups.

The point of the classic treasure types is that monsters have different kinds of treasures - orcs have coins and looted objects, sphinxes have scrolls and magic items, dragons have, well, everything. Rather than make a cut-and dried list, though, why not group encounters into units of five or so, and try to create the best matching possible within each unit? This will give a mix of expected and unexpected treasures.

So as an example, the treasures I generated with my new table were:

A well-crafted large stone statue worth 6000$
100$ of drugs and 2 gold pieces
2000 cp (what, no rats?)
Two high quality, decorated swords each worth 1000$
A Grand Hoard of 4000$ in silver, 5000$ in exotic hides and a 1000$ gem.

And the monsters of approximately appropriate level:

2 owlbears
An NPC, level 6 (fighter)
Winter wolf
4 gibbering mouthers
A juvenile ankheg

Some of these matches are easy. The NPC is the one with the gold and drugs (a 3 round dose of powdered haste). The ankheg is the weakest encounter, and has turfed a sack of crappy coppers into its burrow. The gibbering mouthers are the strongest challenge, so they guard the grand hoard.

Then some are less obvious. You could decide in the end that the swords belong to the NPC and the winter wolf is her pet. This leaves the statue with the owlbears, and it's just coincidence that it's in their lair. The statue is the second best treasure, but also a complete white elephant to move, and may not even be recognized as treasure.

I find that five units is about the right size to get a mix between completely appropriate monster-treasure "stories" and surprising or strange stories. It also occurs that this might be a good way to get other matches done - monsters and lairs, for example, or tricks and their effects.

Friday 7 June 2013

The Man-E-Faces Trick

I've been playing the browser game Four Scepters. Like Grow RPG, it's a puzzle game disguised as a fantasy adventure, but with an unusual twist. Instead of sending in the four party members together, they must go in the dungeon one after another, one stepping in when the other one dies.

This neat scenario had me thinking how to make the premise work as a tabletop trick to spring on the players - making them send in the fighter for some monsters, the wizard for others, the thief to spring traps, and so forth. Of course, some contrived gauntlet of one-person teleporters, amulets, and so forth could simulate the exact play of the game. But what about ... this solution?
Bonus if the statue actually changes faces.
A granite statue of a human-sized helmeted figure, of ambiguous gender and race, stands on a carnelian pedestal. When anyone touches the pedestal, the statue emits a blinding radiance, and all persons in the room are amalgamated into the statue, which then comes alive. Any equipment or items are left in the room.

The composite statue has the combined hit points of all its inhabitants. In order for it to act, all must agree to let one personality dominate as the "caller" - at which point the statue takes on the caller's abilities. The statue has a natural armor class as partial plate mail, and can use held items and weapons appropriate to the caller's class.

How can the players get back in their bodies? Well, that might be a matter of reaching a goal buried deeper in the dungeon - of one of the players reaching a new experience level (experience points are divided up as normal) - or most deviously, by letting the statue die.