Monday 29 July 2013

The Cyranoids

I learned today about one of the weirder concepts of Stanley Milgram, the social psychologist who did that (possibly dubious) electric shock experiment and started the idea (possibly dubious) of "six degrees of separation."

The concept is this: If you wear an earpiece and repeat what is said through the earpiece, you are speaking for someone else - as the handsome Christian spoke for Cyrano de Bergerac in Rostand's play - and so you are a cyranoid. (in which case, wouldn't the other person, the original speaker, be more like Cyrano? But I digress.)

Milgram's point, probably inspired by the correspondence bias in social psychology, was that observers would fall prey to appearances and judge the speaker in the light of the cyranized words. For example, to demonstrate that people construct unitary personalities in others with no real basis, he ran one experiment where multiple people sequentially provided the words for a cyranoid in a conversation, and the person speaking with them noticed nothing out of the ordinary - although the evidence for this rests largely on Milgram's own interpretation. There is even one apocryphal legend of a psychology convention where Milgram had a cyranized six-year-old girl give a physics professor's talk.

Since then there has been some toying with the idea. Some people threw a party and tried it out (pdf). It was weird. This guy is all like "FOR WE ARE ALL CYRANOIDS ARE WE NOT." Cyranoia strikes deep in reality TV shows. Some say the President is a cyranoid.

And adventure gaming? Three ideas.

In frame: You meet a representative with an oddly disjointed, rapid way of speaking. In fact she is possessed by three spirits/devils/wizards. When one pauses, another can take the chance to leap in. This may require a virtuoso performance on behalf of the game master. Each possessor should have a slightly different agenda, which will make the representative seem very indecisive until the secret is figured out.

Half in frame: Next time there is a statue or ghost or some other disembodied voice booming out, let it possess a player's character. Hand them notes and have them read them out loud. The effect can be immediate and startling. Instead of "Okay, let's try and do what the statue says" it is more like "Oh man this is creepy."

Out of frame: Gaming by cyranoid. With the right setup, a party of five at table can become a party of ten - five to play and five to talk, each participating in their own way. A single game master can work by committee, with three wizards, devils or spirits feeding him or her ideas remotely.

Do any of these live up to the sheer looniness of the word "cyranoid"? Probably not, but what can? I'm picturing 1950's science fiction, Invasion of the Cyranoids, an army of big-nose androids who at the last minute can only be stopped by the army's secret weapon - an aerial log bombardment.

Friday 19 July 2013

Judges' Guild "Glory Hole": Review

Looking for a module to run for friends this GenCon, I thought I would pick up Ed Mortimer's old Judges' Guild module "Glory Hole Dwarven Mine" in PDF ($3.99 at RPGNow). Perhaps because the title attracts juvenile humor like a lightning, heh heh, rod,  the ol' Hole has been largely underappreciated by the Old School Repossession, passed over for Guild titles like Caverns of Thracia or Tegel bleedin' Manor.

This is a shame, because GHDM, like Tegel, tries to do a number of unique things while toying with the limits of cliche. Some heavy spoilers follow, so caveat lusor.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

What's Up at Gencon?

So yeah, summer is turning out to be a worse not better time for RPG and blogging... but I feel the need to make this post, though lazy it may be.

I'm going to Gencon (pictured above) in about 4 weeks time, and as in years past will be running a private game in the Hilton (likely an old Judges Guild module, thinking of Dark Tower with high level 52 pages characters, or maybe the legendary ... Glory Hole Dwarven Mine??), but I also want to know of any similar casual or speakeasy games that are going on. Also, my beloved spouse is going to be there at last - and a fair bet she'll want some part of the old school action too.

I always think "wow I should signup for DCC or Next or something" and then second-thought it with "wow, but that would mean playing with 5 random Gencon inmates" and the worst case scenarios just start oozing out.

So hit me up in the comments or on G+ - what's on as far as seminars, booth action, or pickup games?

Friday 12 July 2013

52 Pages: Spells for Prophets

Like I said, the final 52 Pages version is going to swap out prophetic miracles for spells on cards that fit better with magic item generation and keeping your powers in front of you as a player.

A few things:

Flame Princess style, turning is a spell, so it's limited in use. I haven't decided yet but am leaning towards making prophets able to repeat their "miracle" casting of spells.

Restoring hit points is a separate per-day ability, so the low levels of the "gold" healing miracles are aimed at optimizing healing and managing injury, which is what happens when HP hit zero.

I resolved the "prophecy" problem by making it a level 1 orange spell, Augury, but giving it a fairly weak effect for anyone else but prophets.

Okay, now the mechanical part of the 52 pages is really done except for the tweaking. Play examples and GM advice, you are next.

Friday 5 July 2013

Gygax's Treasure Obsession and Mistake

Brendan's comment on my previous post had me going back to the first AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide trying to pinpoint exactly how the game progressed from the monster-related random treasure types in the Monster Manual and OD&D, to the "place what you will" philosophy that has ruled the game ever since.

Arguably, this hurt the game, as DMs became personally responsible for handing out treasure. Eventually the official advice for this became as structured as an office Christmas party gift exchange, with treasures carefully rationed out in a challenge- and level-appropriate manner. Gone from this approach, as from the DM-controlled approach to encounters, is the feeling of discovery for the DM that lets him or her participate in the players' exploration, when preparing an adventure from random elements or from a published module - both of which, of course, still allow for sensible adjustments.

I hardly need to point out that the first edition DMG is organizationally a mess. In this case information about generating treasure is scattered in three different parts - the section on gems and valuable items, tables in the back for generating random maps, hoards and magic items, and a fateful section on pp. 91-92 which gives Gygaxian advice on treasure.

The tables seem entirely compatible with the OD&D/Monster Manual approach, expanding on the OD&D magic item tables and providing random determination for hoards that might be guarded by traps, locks or puzzles rather than monsters. Trouble starts with the valuable items section; while eye-opening, it's hardly clear how furs, ivory, perfume and other luxury goods  fit into the random treasure system. And then in "Placement of Monetary Treasure" ...

"This is not a contradiction in the rules!"

This statement is the tip of a toxic iceberg that lurks hidden throughout the DMG. Gary has been burnt by high-treasure campaigns, and now it has become his white whale. Restrict acquisition of treasure - a party of 5 would have to defeat 333 orcs and pick up 333 of these exemplary 11-20 gp value troves to get the 10,000 xp required for most of them to make it to 2nd level! And wrest it out of players' hands wherever possible - through student-debt-sized training costs, taxes and levies, spell material costs! If by-the-book OD&D can be impossible to figure out, by-the-book AD&D is impossible to play and enjoy.

A bit later, Gygax gets more sensible with the example of two tough ogres guarding 2000 gp, and downright poetic in detailing the use of valuable items and equipment to compose the trove. However, this is still only a tiny fraction of the xp a 3rd-level party would need to make 4th level, the ogres themselves being worth at most 250 xp each. Clearly, AD&D was a game made to be played several times a week, with 40-50 encounters fueling advancement in each level.

A much healthier approach in the DMG, though presented as an afterthought without the authority of Gygax's ex cathedra rumblings, comes from the Appendix A random dungeon generation tables. There, 60% of monsters will have treasure and an average monster-guarded hoard works out to about 600 g.p. per dungeon level.

What has always been lacking, until about 3rd edition, was a comprehensive treasure table that would include all kinds of interesting and surprising finds, scaling well with the experience charts. This would let the DM be objective in placing treasure, while making the generation of adventures more of a surprise and less of a chore for him or her. The droughts or excesses of treasure that would worry some people can, of course, be dealt with intelligently - either allowing such variance as part of  the realism and excitement of the world, or filing off the rougher edges to give a steadier experience.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Magic Items: You Are Your Stuff

Recently playing a little of the "roguelike" computer game Brogue, I was struck by one aspect of its stripped-down design. You are guiding a character through a dungeon, but the character has no variable stats, no levels, no class, no race, not even a name. The powers of this adventurer derive entirely from the items found in the dungeon - magic items to wear and wield, potions that increase strength and health permanently.
He's a bro. He's a rogue.
This brings up loot-based enhancements in a tabletop game. Players' characters can get more powerful and specialized in three ways: through automatic level-ups in the rules; through choices they make in leveling their character (feats, options, spell choices and the like); and through loot, spells and enhancement found in adventuring. While the first two are in the player's hands, the last factor is the GM's responsibility. 

At the same time, especially if you're running a stripped-down system where class choices are few and customization options limited, AND if you put a lot of special flavor into your magic items, the items can end up helping define the character - a dwarf with boots of leaping and a +2 shortsword/dagger combo; a priest with a necklace of lightning bolts; a henchman fighter who prefers a pole arm with a purple worm tooth blade.

So, not just power but fun gets placed in the GM's hands. Let's just dismiss entirely the notion, from later D&D editions, that item gain should be programmed and expected, level by level, as part of a "build." The essence of my old school approach is presenting a world that isn't always built around the saga of the PCs. But some technique needs to apply to these choices. It's one of the most difficult balancing acts in the game.

I suggest an average - not a guarantee - of one permanent and two expendable items per every three character levels of advancement, for each character. This should not be a sure thing for the players or the GM, either, and I find it's better to let magical treasure come up semi-randomly or as a result of other people's modules you use (with appropriate pruning) than to put yourself in charge of rationing out the players' fun. In practice, I've tended to stick to these limits, plus buyable "special" items, but if anything being a little stingy on the expendable stuff.

Is it too much of a coincidence that most roguelike games - including Brogue - go for approximately equal ratios of the three classic item categories: potions, scrolls and permanents (armor, weapons, rings, wands)? That is, a 2:1 ratio of expendable to permanent items?