Thursday, December 29, 2011

Unified Mechanics vs. Quirkiness for Quirk's Sake

When I think of 1st Edition AD&D, I don't think of the word "streamlined". Thief skills are based on a percentile roll, finding secret doors is rolled low on a d6, initiative is rolled high on a d6, attacks and saves are done with the iconic d20. Magic resistance is a percentile. The switch to 3.x/Pathfinder changed that: now almost everything is done as a d20 roll against Armor Class or a target number, with bonuses and penalties applied based on the situation and the skills or experience of the character rolling.

Some people think the OSR is all about quirky rules, and doing things the old ways for Old Times' Sake, or maybe because we're just crusty old reactionaries. Personally, I don't like a rule because it's charming, or old, or new. I like a rule because it models a situation in a way that lets me conceptualize it and think of options for play. And different situations (arguably) need different models.

Take Call of Cthulhu's experience system, for example: if you have used a skill successfully, you roll a percentile after the adventure to see if you've improved. If you roll higher than your current skill, you improve by 1d6. The beauty of this system is that it models actual skill growth in an elegant way: when you're inexperienced, you're unlikely to succeed that often, so you don't get to roll much. If you do, though, you have a high chance of improving. The combination of success rate and improvement rate picks up speed until the 50% mark, when it becomes less and less likely that you will make the improvement roll even if you do apply the skill successfully. By the time you approach 100% in a skill, it's nearly impossible to improve, even if you succeed almost all of the time.

But that's not how the Resistance Table works. The table is based on opposing attributes (Strength vs. Strength or weight, Power vs. Power, etc.), assuming that equal ratings gives a 50% success rate. A modern designer might look at this and think "Wait! There's two systems here, where there only needs to be one." This hypothetical designer might decide to make a game based entirely on the Resistance Table, adding numbers to attributes to represent skill (Strength plus Sword Rating, or Dexterity plus Stealth); that might be a fun game to play, but it ignores the simple fact that Skills and Resistance Rolls were meant to represent different situations, and don't necessarily benefit by being modeled with the same numbers.

I mention this because my OSR-based game (cobbled from many sources) uses a modified Siege Engine mechanic (adapted from Castles & Crusades) for a lot of things. It's an attribute-based roll and offers an elegant way to customize your character without littering the sheet with feats and skills. I like the rules I've come up with, but I have no compunctions about altering or adding to them. It might be that a situation only has a few identifiable states, so it could be modeled with a d6; it might be that the situation falls in a bell curve, in which case 3d6 (or other combinations) might be called for. Or perhaps a d100 roll, if I want to break out the calculator and figure out the math to a single percent.

Whichever it is, I think it's better to allow the situation to guide the numbers. It doesn't have to be "quirky", nor does it have to hew closely to an imagined Universal Resolution Mechanic; all it needs to do is be (a) fun, (b) fair, and (c) capable of being influenced by wise player choices.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Epithet the Awesome

I recall seeing a documentary on kung fu movies a bit back (the title of which I can't currently recall, sadly). One of the Chinese commentators mentioned that, in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee was called "Lee Three-Kick" because his fight scenes all had 3-kick combinations (and for some reason that was frowned upon). I thought it was a strange nickname to give someone until I realized that, to the Western ear, it would sound better if it was phrased as "Three-kick Lee". Somehow it just scans better. So when I had a chance to play a one-shot T&T game with the inimitable Larry DiTillio, I named my buccaneer character "Three-kick Rick" in homage to Mr. Lee.

Recalling this, I was thinking the other day about stereotypical name patterns in High Fantasy RPGs. You know the type: "Osric the Wise", "Harald Orcbane", or "Beorn Blood-Axe", things like that. Nothing exactly wrong about them, but somehow...lacking. The names all seem to break down basically to this:

Common Name + Descriptive Phrase

It reminds me of White Wolf's pattern of "Noun-that-could-be-used-as-an-adjective: the Other-Noun". (Seriously, couldn't they have just called it "The Vampire Masquerade?")

But if you switch those syntactic groups around, you have a name that sounds a little less corny:
"Wise Osric"; "Orc-Bane Harald"; or "Bloody-Axed Beorn". It seems like pirate movies and westerns follow this pattern, too, which could be why it sounds better to my ears. Things like "Black Bellamy", "Calico Jack", or "'Buffalo' Bill Cody" come to mind.

So if you're having trouble finding an appropriate epithet for your character (if you see fit to give your character one), see if simply switching the order doesn't make it more palateable.


Monday, December 19, 2011

Tunnels and Trolls: optional archery changes

Speaking of "swingy", I've also house-ruled the archery rules for Tunnels and Trolls a little bit.

My archery/missile rules include an 'easier' table:

1-30 ft: L1-SR on DX
30-100 ft: L2-SR
100-200 ft: L3-SR
200-300 ft: L4-SR
300-500 ft: L5-SR or minus 1-2 levels for very large or very small targets.

The archer makes the roll and notes by how much he has exceeded the target. So if I needed a 5 and rolled 11, I'd note the 6-point spread. If the target is a sentient, moving creature, it gets a L1-SR, but has a penalty to the roll equal to the amount the archer exceeded, in this case 6 points. So if I had only needed to roll a 4 or better, I would now need to roll a 10 or better. (If two characters are shooting, optionally it would take a L2-SR beat by the sum of the two successes, but only one of the arrows actually hits--you dodge one only to walk into the other.) This (a) allows archers at low levels a decent chance to hit non-moving targets, and (b) allows characters a chance, however slight, to avoid the considerable damage that even a low-level archer can inflict.

As always, these are just my house-ruled suggestions. It is very possible to enjoy T&T playing by the rules as written.


Tunnels and Trolls: Making Spells less "Swingy"

"Swingy" is a term some gamers use for a rule or a system that can make conflicts go all the way for one side or all the way for the other, based on a die roll or some other consideration. Notably, swingy systems don't allow the players much opportunity to influence the outcome once it's known which side is winning, and often don't allow an opportunity to prevent or influence it beforehand without some kind of GM fiat.

Case in point is Tunnels and Trolls' combat spell Take That You Fiend. It does the caster's INT stat worth of damage directly to the opponents CON/Monster Rating, disregarding armor. And though the spell description states that " is a singular spell and must be directed at a single foe", it also has a disruptive side-effect that adds to the caster's party's combat total. It can't do double damage, but it can pad the numbers so you don't take any. Other spells, like Hellbomb Burst, simply destroy everything in their range. But at least it's a higher-level spell.

Some in-game rules will negate this, such as possessing a weapon made of meteoric iron, which cancels 3rd level and lower spells. But even then, a higher-level wizard can just cast a 4th-level Take That You Fiend. The 7th edition also introduced a new attribute called Wizardry, which is a rating of your character's affinity for magic; spells cast on a character by a wizard with a lower Wizardry rating simply do not take effect, which is why even non-spell-casting characters would want to boost that stat.

As you can see, very "swingy".

In light of this, I propose a new rule for games where the GM and players wish to moderate the power of combat spells: after having a damaging spell cast on a character, the player can roll a SR (Saving Roll, based on Luck or another of the character's stats); the difficulty level is the level of the spell caster. For every point over what is needed for success, reduce the damage by one point. The "minimum roll" applies for success or failure, but not for the amount calculated.

If that last bit sounds confusing, consider that T&T requires a minimum roll of 5 (on 2d6), regardless of the attribute or SR level. A 2nd-level SR, for instance, requires a total of 25 points (attribute plus roll); so if Len the Lucky (with a Luck of 23) needs to make a 2nd-level roll, he'd only need two points on two dice--but there's always a minimum of five needed. If he rolls, say, a nine in this scenario, he'd subtract seven points, not four. Failing the roll wouldn't help him at all, though.

Alternately, you can let the magic system work as-is in most cases, but in any case where the spell would kill  your character, you get to make the SR and keep as many  points of CON as you made the roll by.

This alone is probably not enough to ease the "all-or-nothing" feeling of some T&T magic. It's possible that some spells (like the aforementioned Hellbomb Burst) need to be rewritten or discarded for this style of play. (Please take note of that last clause: if you like T&T's magic as-is, I'm not saying your fun is Wrong and Bad. I just like my wizards to have less of a combat role, because that's where I like warriors to shine.) I'll delve into that a bit more in future posts.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tunnels and Trolls

Among the older games I love is Tunnels & Trolls. Created by Ken St. Andre as a faster, simpler D&D, Tunnels & Trolls is currently in its 7th edition. It underwent rapid evolution in the early years, until the 5th edition, currently the most widely played, was released in 1980. The differences between that one and the current are minimal, which means that much of the material released for one can be used for the other.

The game uses similar stats to D&D, but ditches Wisdom and adds Luck. The combat system is dead simple: both sides in a combat roll up their combat total using a number of d6s based on their weapon or (in the case of NPC monsters), their "Monster Rating", adding whatever bonuses to this number that they have; the lower number is subtracted from the higher, and the difference is applied to the losing side; armor reduces this.

Magic is much freer in T&T than in D&D; wizards have access to a lot of spell early on, and by basing it off of a recharging Strength attribute, the game allows for many castings. The spells also have silly names, which has apparently turned off a lot of people off to the game. It just doesn't seem "serious" to blast an enemy troll with a spell called Take That, You Fiend.

To which I say...hmm. I actually agree with them on that. I'm not fond of T&T's spell names either, although that hasn't stopped me from playing and enjoying the game. I also think the game is a bit "swingy" when it comes to magic, having effects that turn the tables, often decisively, with the casting of a single spell.

For that reason, I set out writing a set of my own house rules, that would allow non-magic-using types to moderate and attenuate the combat effects of magic, and, in the process, rewrite the names of spells.

Others have also done their own take on T&T. Lances & Labyrinths, for example, is an effort to add more D&D-style classes to T&T. And over at Vin's Troll Bridge, people discuss rule changes and additions constantly. So I don't believe this rule re-working is in any way disrespectful to Ken St. Andre, contrariwise, I think this kind of personalization and expansion is an extension of the creative spirit that caused him to create his own rule set in the first place.

In future blogs, I'll talk about some of the T&T rule changes, and eventually post a list of spell names. But I recommend people check out the base rules of T&T, if you haven't already. It's a rules-light system that affords the player and GM a lot of flexibility and creativity.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tilting at the Lists; or, The Utility of Tables

Although I will occasionally refer to them, I prefer not to use pre-published random monster tables. If I've decided that Orcs, for one reason or another, don't exist in my world, a load of 1st-3rd level charts, from the 1st Edition DMG to the Pathfinder Bestiary, suddenly have gaping holes in them. You can substitute brigands, say, when that happens, but at that point, you're just making things up anyhow, unless you pencil in a substitution for every occurrence of the word "orc" in the table.

Needless to say, such behavior is beneath decent, civilized folk like us. So maybe you just look up and down the table until you see something that strikes your fancy. Nothing wrong with that; we've all done it before.

Nonetheless, having a table you can roll some dice against keeps you honest, and also keeps you from returning to the same kind of encounter by force of habit. Also, by not being tied to a specific location, wandering monsters give the illusion that the game world goes on even when the PCs take the day off; those Bugbears obviously don't live in the Ghoul's Crypt, they're probably looking to loot it themseves. (That, or they've made a very bad choice of shelter coming in from the rain.)

The solution to the problem of inappropriate results is to come up with your own tables. And there are two parts to each basic table: the "stuff", and the "numbers".

The "stuff" is just that, whatever's going to show up after you've rolled on that table. A treasure hoard, perhaps. Or a monster. Or an NPC personality trait. This part is not particularly hard to come up with; you just start listing things that you want to see in your game. A table is nothing more than a list with some weighted probabilities attached to it. You list the things that are going to be interesting, not necessarily what is most likely to be there. An NPC may have a secret fear of snakes, but if it's not going to come up in the game, why waste a line on the table?

The trouble is with the numbers. You want something that you can easily roll on dice, and that reflect your (subjective, approximate) feeling of how likely it is to come up. (Note how I said, just a paragraph before, not to list things by how likely they are to come up; that's true for the list part of creating a table, but not for the numbers part.) There are countless ways of doing this, but for the beleaguered DM, it boils down to two old friends: the Bell Curve, and the Linear Distribution.

If you're fine with Linear Distributions, then you're good if your list contains 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, or 100 objects. Just roll the requisite die. Most of us know you can also simulate, say, a d16 by rolling 1d8 and a 1d6; if the d6 comes up 4-6, add 8 to the d8, otherwise just read it as it is. This process can be generalized to get linear distributions of 16, 24, 30, 36, or 1200 results, but I'll leave those as exercises for those so inspired.

But what about Bell Curves? Are we stuck with mimicking D&D stat rolls? We all know that 3d6 create a Bell Curve, and that's great if you have sixteen possibilities that you want to select from; but if you have twenty, it seems sad to relegate your score of encounters to a Linear Distribution just because you have a d20.

The trick is to realize that there are more ways to generate a Bell-Curve-like distribution than just 3d6; rolling 2d8+1d6-2 gives you a slightly distended bell curve in the range of 1-20. Rolling 3d4-2 gives you a curve between 1 and 10. 2d4+1d6-2 gives you 1-12. (There's no reason to subtract that two, if you don't want to; I just like to start from 1 for purposes of illustration.)

If you don't mind doing the math in your head, d3+d4+d6-2 gives you a curve from 1 to 11. The advantage of using an odd-numbered die (either by halving a d6 or a d10) is that the middle value will be uniquely more common than the rest. With regular polyhedrals, the middle two values will always be equally likely. The disadvantage is, unless you have a random number generator handy, you will need to do a slight bit more arithmetic in your head.

Three dice that are close to each other in terms of number of sides (like a d4 and a d6) work best when you want the probabilities fairly close to each other, but there's no reason you can't do, say, 6d4-5 to get a curve where the middle value (ten) is really more likely than the next two. It's probably best in most cases, though, not to obsess with how much more likely one value is to appear, and just realize that values closer to the middle will be more common than those farther away.

So now you have, say, twenty items on your list. And you have a table with lines numbered from 1 to 20. You assign the two most likely (or most/least desirable, it's your call) encounters to slot #s 10 and 11; you take the next two and put them in slot #s 9 and 12; and so on, until all 20 slots are filled. Optionally, you can put the more desirable encounters on the lower half (10 instead of 11, 9 instead of 12, etc.); then a successful  recon strategy or a good Search/Spot/Survival roll can adjust the die roll down a point or two, rewarding the cautious player.

When you need to pull out the chart, roll 2d8+1d6-2 and check that number against the table. (I recommend maybe noting the required dice and math at the top of the sheet, just to make it easy to remember.)  When you roll a 20, your players will know you're honest, and aren't just siccing Orcus on them because they handily dispatched your previous encounter.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Servants of Two Masteries

There is a notion that I think is pretty close to the truth, that it takes  ten years to master any complex skill. Ten years.

I also think that people underestimate how skilled and talented first-level characters are in classic D&D. "They can be killed with just one swing of a sword" is a common lament. Somehow that's supposed to mean that a first-level fighter, for instance, is not that exceptional. (Well, yes. Everyone in the real world can be killed with just one swing of a sword, too. This guy has a chance of surviving two or more.)

On a related note, I've heard people joke about how 1st edition AD&D had laughable names for the class levels. As evidence, they point to how a first-level fighter is called a "Veteran." People who think that that's a misprint or a gross error just aren't getting it, I think: even first-level characters are meant to be exceptional people, in other words, people who have mastered, or are on the verge of mastering, their professions. People who already have experience.

In our daily lives, most of us just don't have that kind of single-minded discipline, or don't find ourselves in positions that force us to undergo that kind of strenuous training, so it's hard for us to imagine the lives of people who do. It may even be a sign of mental imbalance. Look at Bobby Fischer.

Think about how much background work is necessary to have even a first-level character: a fighter might have a training sword placed in his hands at the age of seven, learn archery by holding a drawn bow still for a half hour before firing his first arrow, or be knocked down by a blunted blade ten thousand times so he learns how to take a blow, and then later avoid it.

Think of the esoteric knowledge that a magic-user needs to learn: knowledge of the planes, and the nth-dimensional math required to understand their relationships, the understanding of alchemical and herbal substances, the secret names of things, and a preternatural ability to remain calm while channeling forces from other dimensions through their body.

Try to imagine the iron discipline and daily punishment a monk needs to put his body and mind through before gaining first level. Meditating on sutras while ice-cold waterfalls crash around them, pounding their hands into the sides of trees until their knuckles are toughened leather, and balancing on stumps while dodging spears and sword slashes from their peers. None of these are things to be undertaken lightly.

In that light, I don't find 1st editions restrictions on multi-classing that hard to accept or understand. If you do make that switch, you are saying that you've made a massive effort to re-eductate your mind and body (something that Michael Jordan wasn't able to do), and not only learn new things, but learn how to be a different being. It may happen, but it happens at a cost. It explains why non-human characters like elves can multi-class; they live so long, ten years isn't the same obstacle for them as it is for us. And less long-lived characters can explain it by saying that the skills needed just to survive in their environments or societies means that some degree of multiple class skills are drilled into their heads from day one.

That's why I find it hard to swallow when, in Pathfinder for instance, someone with three levels as a cleric suddenly decides "I'm going to take a level in monk." I hear that as, "I'm going to learn what it takes any other person ten years to begin to understand, and learn it overnight."

Unless a radioactive monk bites you, I just don't see it happening.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Two Things from last Friday's Pathfinder Game

I ran my Pathfinder game last Friday, and had a good time. The last few sessions have taken place on a forsaken island with a temple to my campaign's Earth God and Storm Goddess, who would be relatively friendly to the PCs, but it has long since been abandoned and become the home of wererats. They've explored a lot, spoken to a couple of guardian spirits, and discovered a valuable ally. Next time, they're likely (but by no means guaranteed) to purge the temple of the remaining wererats and be able to go home (as the island was quarantined due to the "mysterious plague" of lycanthropy).

My players said two things that warmed my heart at the end of the session. One was how it wasn't a typical "go to the evil temple and prevent the ritual" scenario that they had originally expected. Now, I've run that scenario before, but the thing about this one was, other than a character interaction that tipped them off to the island's existence and location, I didn't really have a story to present to them. What did happen happened because they were exploring their environment, and I don't know if it should even be called a story, but whatever it was, it was entertaining to my players and me, and that's what was important.

"The first thing you have to do is come up with a compelling story."--I've seen this advice pop up, in one form or another, on countless forums and blog posts, and while it might yield good results some times for some people, it is by no means necessary. Some games, like Capes, In a Wicked Age, or Fiasco, are purely plot-driven, but they also operate on a very different set of assumptions and play very differently from traditional RPGs, to the point where some people prefer to call them "story games" rather than RPGs. But D&D can be an immense amount of fun without having to follow some kind of three-act structure intended to mimic Hollywood movies. (By the way, all three of the above are very fun games, and I recommend you check them out; but for the sake of this discussion, I'm just pointing out that D&D does not need a story, however loosely you may define that term.)

I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as  possible. --Stephen King, On Writing

The second thing was, I mentioned that I had another game in the works, one based on 1st edition AD&D/OD&D, and that I'd cobbled up a few rules from different sources for resolving things without requiring feats, skill systems, or other stuff that clutters up the modern character sheet. They seemed to be interested in it. The way I've set up my campaign, I almost never have a full set of stats for any but the most important/likely to be encountered NPCs, and don't have a lot of my locales written up in game-specific terms, so they can be swapped from one game system to another with minimal effort. (I do write up stats for the encounters and locations that immediately surround them, but that's at a different stage of game prep from world-creation, and happens between games based on where they go.)

They were interested. That surprised me, because they were very interested in Pathfinder itself, and because the experiences I've had with two of them before indicated that they liked d20-style games, replete with all the skills and feats and crunch that post-D&D 3.0 games entail. But I should have known better, because I know they are also playing in a Fate-based game at the moment.

So I'm going to email them the list of house rules I've accumulated and let them decide whether or not they want to go OSR with this game. I'm up for it either way, but I'm not-so-secretly hoping they take the bait and go for it.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Mind Playing Tricks on Me

 I'm paranoid, sleeping with my finger on the trigger. (Geto Boys, Mind Playin Tricks on Me)

Here's an idea I had for Call of Cthulhu. I have yet to playtest it, so take it with a grain of salt, if you don't already do so with everything I put on this blog.

There's a weird nexus in RPGs called "playing your character", and it comprises both "acting out your character" and "seeing things through your character's eyes". The former is where you get stuff like not doing things based on information your character doesn't know, or speaking with a funny accent, or anything that displays the character to an outside observer. The latter is where you get excited by success and troubled by failures, as if it were really you going through the travails of your character.

Call of Cthulhu treats this nexus a little differently than most other RPGs. You're supposed to enjoy the game regardless of whether it ends well for your character or not--and it often ends badly for your character. You know this going in; it's part of the fun of the game. But as a side-effect, it's hard not to treat your character with a bit of ironic distance. You see the game less like Night of the Living Dead and more like Shaun of the Dead. That distance makes it hard to see things through your character's eyes.

"Acting out your character", on the other hand, has a great hand up because of the Sanity rules; seeing things Beyond Mortal Ken causes the stat to drop, and dropping too much too fast will cause him/her to run shrieking in fear or collapse in a catatonic heap, or be bedeviled by any number of phobias or delusions.

Great for presentation. Not so spooky to experience.

So there's got to be something that the Keeper should be able to do to make the player feel a little bit of that fear, revulsion, and paranoia that the character is supposed to be feeling. And I think the best thing to do is rip off an innovation from this game.

Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem is a horror video game with a look adapted from Lovecraft and mechanics clearly derived from Chaosium's RPG. Specifically, your character (whichever one you're playing at the time) has a Sanity bar that goes up and down during the game. But rather than force your character to run or break down, Darkness plays tricks on you when their sanity drops below a certain point: statuary seems to be turning to look at you; your character starts sinking into the floor, as if it were made of molasses; casting spells causes them to explode, then come back and realize that it was just a hallucination; and at one point, the game pretends you've hit the Blue Screen of Death.

The trick here is, the game is presenting you with this information deadpan. It's a lie, and you have to see through it to get past it.

So what I'm suggesting is that you, as a Keeper, lie to your players. Actually, what you'll need to do is present them with multiple, competing versions of the facts, and let them decide which one to believe. Say your characters encounter a shady-looking NPC. He could be a spawn of the Deep Ones, or maybe it's someone else. You present your players with two index cards:

  •     On one, you write: "He seems to be normal, maybe a little bit scared of something himself."
  •     On the other, you write: "He seems evasive, but as he turns his head for a second, you think you spy gill slits on his neck."

So the players have to decide whom to believe. Now you might ask, when do you give these out, and which player gets the "true" card? Probably the easiest thing to do is determine beforehand what facts can be played as hallucinations and just pass them out then. In the case above, it's when they first meet our NPC. But it could also be at any point after someone fails a Sanity check: suppose you're running away from a shoggoth, and you enter a room with a cave exit on the right. Time to pass out the cards, but one of them says the exit's on the left. And running into a cave wall when you thought you were escaping can put a real damper on your day...

But who gets the "real" card? It's too easy to say that the person who's just lost SAN gets the hallucination card, because all of the players will know not to trust him. Better to have a roll-off between any and all of the characters who have ever lost SAN (which should be everyone after a few sessions). (Alternately, anyone who has ever had to make a Sanity check, regardless of whether they lost any; your call.) Roll d100, and see how it stacks against the character's Sanity. Anyone who rolls over their SAN is a candidate for the deceptive card, even if they aren't the one who just lost it. In the case where they both make the secondary roll, you can go with the default assumption that the one who just lost SAN is hallucinating. (If you're rolling at a predetermined spot, like the Deep One NPC above, don't play this trick if everyone makes the under-their-SAN roll.)

So if Harley has a SAN of 30 and just lost 5 points, but you rolled a 23, say, he'll be given the "real" card, even if Mordecai has a SAN of 70 (if you roll over 70 for him.) You do these rolls in secret, of course. Now, the players may know it's likely that Mordecai is the one who really knows the way out, but it's not guaranteed. The trick is in the uncertainty and inconsistency.

This may be a little difficult to run with several PCs, but CoC tends to have smaller parties than adventure RPGs. Also, your players may balk at being deliberately deceived (as opposed to merely failing perception-based die rolls). But if they're game for it, give it a try, maybe on a one-shot. Let me know how it turns out!