Friday, December 7, 2012

A Question of Quests

I'm not one to quibble about semantics, usually. But one commonly-misused word is really grating to my ears. I'm not talking about trivia like 'irregardless' or 'begging the question'; if you use the first or misuse the second, you're only making yourself look silly. That's no skin off my nose. No, the word I can't abide being abused is one that is commonly tossed around in RPG circles, especially since the advent of MMORPGs.

That word is quest.

This was the offending use that broke this particular camel's back. Someone referred to his adventure as a "simple fetch quest". I refrained from commenting, but that trivialization of what was once an awe-inspiring term has been gnawing on me for a while now.

If something is "simple", then, by definition, it's not a quest. A quest is an arduous search for something that severely tests the mettle of any party bold enough to attempt it. It is epic in scope, and poses extreme challenges and perils along the way. Think of the Holy Grail; Odysseus' return; Jason and the Golden Fleece; and (do I even have to mention it?) the destruction of the One Ring. A quest changes you, and not always in pleasant ways. "Simply fetching" something isn't a quest: it's a Chore, perhaps, or even an Errand, but it's not a quest.

I don't know when this depreciation in meaning began; for all I know, it started with MUDs, or maybe even with television, outside the gaming realm altogether. But I hadn't heard it much until World of Warcraft became the phenomenon that it did. I've never played the game, but my former roommate was an addict, and he would throw the term about casually, labeling as "quests" such non-epic tasks as escorting a merchant, killing X number of goblins, or retrieving a low-power magic item from a known location. "Quest-givers" were NPCs wandering around the city with question marks over their heads. The character record could even list which quests--plural--your avatar is currently pursuing, a kind of fantasy "to-do" list.

Maybe it's just me, but I just don't see Frodo ticking off "Destroy Ring" on a sheet of paper and then looking down to see if there's a Grail he needs to pick up somewhere.

Now, anyone who thinks that the best first response to something is to head to the Web and correct people's usage is living in a very different world than I am. But it's good to get things off your chest occasionally, and to whomever finds their way to this blog, I advise you not to engage in any arguments about it. Just use more precise terminology yourself; calling something a Task is dramatic enough, and a hard one might even be called a Labor. But let the word Quest settle for a while; it will be that much more awe-inspiring when you have a legitimate chance to use it.


Friday, November 30, 2012

An Experiment in Narrative Form

Random Idea:

Most role-playing is done in present tense, in first- and second-person narrative, at least in the case of the PCs. ("You see an eerie red light emanating from behind the throne.")

But if we could get everyone on board with using third person for PCs exclusively, players and GM, and using the past tense, what kind of psychological shift might we find in the way we play? Something like:

GM: After opening the door, they saw an eerie red light emanating from a throne at the other end of the room.

Player: Magda approached it carefully, holding her staff in front of her.

(Dice and game rule stuff happens.)

GM: Suddenly, a shadow flickered from within the red nimbus, and a creature like the shadow of a long, hungry panther leapt out at her. It clawed, but a shield of light sprung from Magda's staff, protecting her from its claws.

This could be cool. Or totally dorky. But I like the idea, for now.

cheers, Adam

Saturday, October 20, 2012


I've noticed a term popping up here and there lately in the OSR world: minigame. No, not those minigames, but smaller, home-brewed rules for covering some aspect of character life that wasn't reflected in the official rulebooks. Telecanter's Port Trading system and Zak's Mass Combat suggestions are two excellent recent examples.

To me, the reason this kind of supplementalism is hitting stride right now stems from a couple of things:

Like I said before, many old-school gamers don't see, beyond a reasonable minimum, the need for niggling consistency, or at least uniformity, in a rules system. The problem with Core Mechanics is that they reduce every possible modelable situation to the same die roll, whether it's a dice pool or a d20. Reducing a search through a port town for goods to trade to one or even a series of d20 rolls loses all of the flavor that searching, stealing, bartering and bickering provides. Transforming all of that flea-bitten nastiness into a sum of dice roll modifiers and a target number is best reserved for people who don't really want to play it out.

(As an aside, this seems to be what Complex Skill Rolls in 3.5 and Skill Challenges in 4e D&D seem to want to be: a way of embracing a different dynamic flow while still reducing everything to a d20 roll. I'm fascinated, but ultimately unconvinced, by this approach.)

But this kind of situation is exactly the challenge-the-player-not-the-character style of play that many in the OSR prefer.

The characteristics I've seen of this type of minigame are:

1. It lends itself to that fabled desideratum, "player agency": as Zak says, the GM can give the PCs "...a choice of choosing the enemy rolled or any tougher one. Choosing the tougher one subtracts from the number of total encounters." In Telecanter's case, it presents a mini-challenge with more information than dungeon exploration typically offers--a role-playing puzzle of sorts.

2. It also lends itself to using/creating random tables, which are both a boon and a curse for the GM. It's a curse if you want to come up with your own tables, but a boon once you have them, because now you can quickly and painlessly generate a batch of content. And there are countless tables available from the web.

3. The tables, however, are optional: one benefit of them is that the players can't game the GM by trying to diving "what Adam would put here". But if they're not available, there's no reason why this style of content generation isn't amenable to good old seat-of-the-pants making it up.

The best point of all of these rules options, however, is that they are short, simple, and above all *optional*. Each one could be hammered out by players and the GM through verbal give-and-take, or
skipped over with a die roll, or otherwise hand-waved away. But the use of these mini-systems, and the selections of what situations to model with them, becomes an element of gamemastering style. And that embrace of individual difference, while still holding to a core set of rules, is why I think there's such a recent explosion of them.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Simple-ish Grappling Rules for D&D

So, like, grappling:
  1. You must Close to Grapple, which is a combat stunt like the Simple Combat Maneuvers listed here. I envision something like Escrima Stick Grappling, so if you aren't armed with  a 1-handed weapon, your intended target gets a free counter-attack against you. A successful counter-attack spoils the Close attempt.
  2. Upon a successful Close, you roll your Hit Dice plus the better of your DEX bonus or STR bonus, if any; your target does the same.
  3. If your total is higher, you have successfully Grappled the enemy. They may not move and have a 4-point AC penalty. You may drag the enemy 5 feet per round (more, or less, at the GM's option) if you wish.
  4. If their total is higher, the Hold is Broken and they may push you back, or initiate a  grapple on you, without needing to Close to Grapple and without allowing you a free attack.
  5. 3 successive Grapples on a combatant in a row indicates a Choke-Out, and they are unconscious for 1d6 rounds. That is, you must succeed on a Grapple, then continue succeeding without the Hold being Broken at any point. If it is, start over.
Possible considerations:
  • The opponent must be grapplable: no slimes, dragons, or beholders.
  • Sure, you could Grapple a skeleton or an iron golem, but you can't choke it out.
  • Opponents with high hit dice (say, in multiples of 3) may take longer to choke out, so a 4 HD fighter takes four grapples and a 7 HD fighter takes five.
  • Multiple assailants can dog-pile a single opponent; each assailant may add their Hit Dice to the next successive Grapple roll. They must still Close to Attack, but they don't suffer free attacks against them, and the target still has the aforementioned 4-point AC penalty.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A couple of Holmes-isms

My blogging has been sparse due to my computer being stolen. However, I wanted to point out a couple of interesting tidbits I found while re-reading Holmes D&D over the weekend; why these were unknown to me before, I don't know, but I suspect it had something to do with my ingrained AD&D habits and assumptions:

1) Prime requisites can be lower than nine. There is a considerable experience penalty for very low stats, and there are other reasons why having a 3-STR fighter wouldn't be a great idea tactically speaking, but you can do it, according to the rules.

2) A round is one minute, and a turn is ten rounds, but during combat, a round shrinks to a (in my opinion, more reasonable) shorter span of ten seconds. I haven't seen where this affects spell durations, but it is one of those places where I wish D&D had, from the start, (a) picked a more reasonable default, like 10 seconds, and (b) decided to use actual, and not scale, numbers (i.e., instead of measuring distances and spell radii in inches, then converting to feet).


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Death to Thieves

Been meaning to blog more, but have encountered a non-trivial setback: someone broke into the house I was staying at and stole my laptop.

If only the house were trapped the way I trapped dungeons, I would be gloating while contemplating their heads on pikes. But alas, they are, at the moment, at large.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lords of Waterdeep

I played Lords of Waterdeep with my co-workers tonight. LoW is what is known as a "worker placement" game ostensibly set in the world of the Forgotten Realms. I'm no  fan of the realms, because magic is slung about willy-nilly in that setting, and I like the idea, even in a fantasy setting, of magic being something dangerous, mysterious, and rare. But LoW is a so-called "Eurogame"; one of the characteristics of these games is that the theme or flavor of the game is less important than the abstract mechanics. In other words, it doesn't make much of a difference where it takes place.

Unlike other Eurogames, though, a little bit more of the theme cross-pollinates the abstraction. You place your 'agents' on spaces on the board, named after locations in the game city of Waterdeep, to gain resources; many of these resources are named after familiar PC classes from D&D: Warriors, Rogues, Clerics, and Wizards. The object of the game is to accumulate as many points as you can in eight turns, and one of the ways you gain a lot of points is to satisfy "quest" cards--"Domesticate Owlbears", or (paraphrasing here) "Uncover the Secret of [Some Wizard's] Hideout".

The quest cards are where the flavor seeps in the most, because they come in five types themselves: Pious (clerical), Skullduggery (rogue-like), Warfare (for warriors), Arcane (for wizards), and Commerce (a usually-even mix). The Arcane quests, for instance, usually require you to obtain and trade in multiple wizard units, although few quests use only one type. Get, say, two wizards, two rogues, and a fighter, and bang!--quest solved. The themes of the cards seem to map pretty well to the resources needed, so that Warfare cards need a lot more warriors than clerics or mages. The rewards, in addition to points, may also be resources, like gold or character units.

This completely abstracts away the actual adventure--not very roleplaying like, but the notion of different styles of quest card using different balances of character types struck me as theft-worthy. Many, many adventure-writing pieces of advice say something like "make sure every character type has something to do", but creating an adventure better suited for fighters than clerics strikes me as a little more pseudo-naturalistic, and allows for more possibilities; of course, in old-school gaming, there's a lot more overlap between what the fighter and the magic-user can do. And to me, providing multiple quests which fit different mixes of character types (or fitting them better than others), is a sand-boxy notion that opens up the game world to multiple avenues of player exploration.

As of this moment, my imagination is officially stoked, thanks to Lords of Waterdeep.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sooooooper Geeeeenius

I changed the description of this blog because, although I prefer old-school RPGs in general (and old-school, pre-2nd edition D&D in particular), I do play in a variety of games.

Two weeks ago, Marvel's The Avengers came out and smashed all sorts of box-office records. (Of course, I don't know what happens if you normalize for inflation and population growth, but in any case, some execs at Disney are happy that they bet on this particular horse.) As I watched, I couldn't help but think about setting these characters up as RPG characters.

My first thought was for Champions, by Hero Games. This stalwart game, which later morphed into the more generic "Hero System", was among the first superhero games, and one of the early "point buy" systems. It was, as far as I know, the first that allowed you to buy extra points with disadvantages, so if your flying strongman weren't quite strong enough, you could take a susceptibility to, say, glowing green rocks, and boost your strength attribute a bit more.

But another supers game has caught my eye recently, the independently-published Capes. Not a traditional RPG by any means, it's more of a so-called "story game", but more fun than other games that call themselves that. There is no GM in Capes; players take turns setting up scenes, and one player may suggest the overall conflict for the night, but that's about the limit for how much one person influences the game.

Instead, players try to spend down their emotional Debt and gain Story tokens in order to influence the outcome of the game. They do this by using character abilities, but who plays which character can change from scene to scene. To counter this apparent anarchy, Capes has a more rigidly-defined structure than most other RPGs; play, for example, always goes around the table to the left. If I start a scene and Greg is the second player, next scene he'll be the starter and I'll be the last to jump in. And, barring some house rules, that means he can start playing the character I was playing last scene.

Conflicts are resolved by creating and claiming Goals, and using your character's abilities to raise the dice (starting out as single d6's) For or Against them. Every power is ranked from 1 to 5, and you can only influence a die (by rolling it down in case of the opposing die, or up in the case of the supporting one) if your ability has a higher rating. If you stake Debt (a resource representing the emotional burden of such astounding responsibility), you can "split" the die, turning it into two evenly-matched dice; so a four turns into two twos, and a five would split into two and three (as close to even as you can get), so you can raise the total even higher.

There are more intricacies, but that's the basic gameplay. Half the fun, as it often is in point-buy-based RPGs, is coming up with your character. It is very simple with Capes: you create twelve powers in three columns, Powers, Attitudes, and Styles. No column can have more than five or less than three entries, which get numbered from one to however many slots are in that column. Powers are whatever you can think of: rocket boots, laser eyes, super strength, power armor, magic hammer, whatever. Attitudes are personality traits: shy, idealistic, loner, leader, etc.

Styles are not simple traits themselves, but are common events or situations that arise as a result of powers and attitudes. My favorite example in the book is for a Giant Robot character, "Massive Property Damage".

Anything not in one of these three columns can be normal or extraordinary, but will not affect the game. So you could have a character who flies, but if it's just the way he gets from scene to scene, you might not even list it as a power. Advanced rules show how objects and locations can be treated as characters and brought into play on a scene-by-scene basis, or how one character sheet can represent an entire horde of ninjas or mooks.

If this sounds pretty abstract, it's because it is. It's the responsibility of the player to determine what happens when they use their powers, and specifics (flight speed, upper weight limits) are hand-waved away; only the numbers on the character sheet and on the dice make any difference. In fact, you could do away with the superhero trappings altogether and make it a dice game about gaining and losing points in certain categories, but despite this, it really plays like a fast-paced RPG.

I wrote up three of the Avengers characters as Capes PCs a few nights ago, a process which took about an hour for all three. You can see from my Thor example that abilities are very subjective things:


Flight:   1
Hammer:   4
Strength: 5
Invulnerability: 2
Lightning: 3

Determined: 3
Rebellious: 1
Reckless:   2

Hammer Returns when Thrown: 4
Appears in a Clap of Thunder: 2
Casually overpowers Mortals: 3
Escapes without a Scratch: 1

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Review I Didn't Want to Write

It is with some sadness that I sit down to write my review of the Castles & Crusades Castle Keeper's Guide, from Troll Lord Games. I say this because I wanted to like it. I wanted my money to be well-spent. But after perusing its Nineteen Chapters (some only cursorily, I'll admit), I can't say that there's enough here to merit the $24.99 asking price for the digest-sized paperback.

Some of my problems with the book stem from very different assumptions about how to run a game; I prefer the old school, which to me means that there are no story arcs except those that arise during play; characters can fail, and failure can lead to death; that most skills can be role-played or reasoned out between a GM and players, and those that can't can be resolved by a die roll, sometimes following an ad hoc estimate of the characters' chances.

For reasons like that, I see no need for, say, Chapter Nineteen, "Character Death". For me, there is no question about whether or not I should 'allow' a character to die if they've run into a fatal consequence of a dangerous environment and the dice don't save them. Even though that chapter is only five pages long, I feel they were wasted. And the suggestion of adding a Deus ex Machina or (worse yet) Fate points to the game is unpalateable to me. (As far as I'm concerned, Hit Points and Saving Throws are the Fate points that shield a character from death.) I also see no need for character Feats or Skill Packages; the whole reason I use a modified SIEGE engine mechanic is so I don't need to mark up character sheets with such things.

Another problem I have is with the writing style; now, anyone who reads RPGs for their literary quality should have their head examined, but even for workaday prose, this volume often waxes far too verbose.

An example: "All attributes are designated as either primary or secondary. The chance for an action's success or failure is based on the attribute's designation as primary or secondary; this determines a check's challenge base. If the attribute being checked against is a primary attribute, the check succeeds if the character's die roll is 12 or greater; primary attributes have a challenge base of 12. If the attribute being checked against is a secondary attribute, the check succeeds if the character's die roll is 18 or greater; primary attributes have a challenge base of 18."

Then, on the next page, we have the same fact, restated: "The Challenge Base is always one of two numbers. It is always a 12 or an 18..."

The chapter goes on to say that there are other ways to conceptualize these numbers, such as the base always being 18, but that rolls off of primes add +6 to the roll (which is how I do it anyway). But then they add bizarre variants such as the base always being 20, but you add 8 for primes and 2 for non-primes, or the base is always fifteen, but you subtract three if the attribute is prime and add three if it's not.


This could be written more succinctly: "All attributes are designated as either primary or secondary. Primary attributes have a challenge base of 12; secondary attributes have a challenge base of 18. Alternately, the base is always 18, but you can add +6 to the die roll if the attribute is prime."

This kind of awkward, verbose writing and restatement of the point permeates the book, perhaps doubling the size.

Another style point is the illustrations; they range from the occasionally excellent (p.99 comes to mind) to the serviceable (most others), but what kind of soft-core boy's fantasy inspired pp. 84, 136, and 166? Sexy is great, but the poses these women strike is about as hard to defend as the chainmail bikini.

That isn't to say that there isn't some useful information here; the chapters on dungeon adventures and Air adventures would be useful for GMs/CKs completely new to the hobby, but I wonder how many people really fit that description. Even there, though, the verbosity and poor editing hinder what should have been a worthy offering.

I sincerely hope TLG puts more thought into their future offerings. I really like C&C as a system, and it is entirely playable with the Players Handbook and the Monsters & Treasure book. But that's just a further reason to steer clear of this volume; it just doesn't have enough meat to justify its price.


Friday, March 23, 2012

Plan B

Just got through playing Defenders of the Realm again. As I've mentioned before, it's a dice-based variant on Pandemic, using enemy armies as the board antagonist rather than viral outbreaks. Although I'd mentioned that card games offer more opportunities for strategy by deciding when to hold cards and when to play them, I realized there's something else going on in dice games (board or RPG): they almost force the player to consider what will happen if the turn doesn't go according to plan.

As an example of what I mean, in Defenders the Wizard player has a "Fireball" option which makes his attacks much more likely to succeed. The basic attack against any enemy "minion" piece requires a roll of three or higher for the weakest opponent, and a five or higher for the strongest. But the Fireball allows the Wizard to succeed on a two or higher (per d6) against any minion. It requires you to discard a card that might be useful in other circumstances, so it's not without its costs.

But that tactic isn't guaranteed: you can always roll a one. In fact, one time when I used the Fireball, I rolled two ones and a five, which meant that it wasn't needed for the one success, and wasn't a help for the two failures. Suddenly, what I thought was going to be a quick and easy battle turned out to be a slog (relatively speaking), and now I wasn't able to prance around the board as easily as I thought I could. My play became a lot more defensive as I was looking for safe havens on the board, and other, non-combat opportunities to spend my remaining movement points.

Cards are random, too, but there's something about dice that makes me think more about possible failure even when the odds are in my favor, which in turn (I hope) makes me a more cautious player.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Note About Secret Doors

You know, a couple of times I've seen (in published modules, nonetheless), a use of secret doors like the following:

Secret...what, shortcut?
What I don't understand is, what is the secret supposed to be? Both rooms are easily found.

More sensible is something like this:
Aha...a secret room.
This way, no matter where you're coming from, you need to do some detective work. I know that dungeons don't need realism or logic, but even so, a little bit can make the game more tangible to the players.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cards and Fortunes

Statisticians and other people who care about that sort of thing distinguish between two kinds of randomizers in games: those with replacement (e.g., dice) and those without (e.g., cards). By "replacement" they simply mean, when you roll a six on a d6, you can always roll another one; but when you play the Queen of Spades from a standard 52-card deck, you don't get another one. The six is "replaced", the queen isn't.

The difference can be seen in two board games: Pandemic and Defenders of the Realm. Pandemic is a game that uses cards to determine where one of four diseases will erupt on a map representing the whole world; Defenders is a game that uses cards and dice to represent where one of four armies will appear on  a board representing a fantasy realm. If they sound similar, that's because they are: Defenders was specifically designed to mimic Pandemic, except with a fantasy flavor, and with dice.

Of the two, I prefer Pandemic, because the cards are a resource that must be managed, and there's no hoping for a lucky roll. Even though the card draws are random, the astute player will notice when the action pile is running low, and when particular city cards are more likely to turn up. Thus the game has more of a sharp, strategic feel to it.

Most RPGs use dice, and it's easy enough to see why. If you roll a successful hit, say a 19 on a d20, the pool of future successful hits isn't diminished. (Primetime Adventures uses cards, but then shuffles them back after every scene; it doesn't take advantage of the traits that make card games what they are, and could just as well be represented by a dice pool mechanic.)

As an evening's diversion, I once had my players roll out five combat rolls at a time and write them down on index cards, e.g.:

4 16 3 12 10

...they'd then tick off a roll that they wanted, knowing that it meant not being able to get that score later:

4 16 3 12 10

 Although "gamey", and we didn't do it again, it was a fun and interesting way of injecting a little strategy into what would otherwise be a blind die roll.

It made me think of what would happen if I set up a fortune teller's booth in the town; if the players visit, I'll make up some dramatic hokum with cryptic predictions and mumbo-jumbo about tea leaves or tarot cards, but then hand them a strip of paper like this:

6 16 20 4 15 19 11 5 9 11 3 5 16 9 8 17 13 2 12 19 12 9 10 20 14 1 5 2 12 8

...only this time, they don't get to choose the order. They may hold off going up against a frost giant until they can burn that low roll off on a kobold, however.

Alternately, you could have 6, 8, 10, or 12 of these made up, and roll an appropriate die to select them. And there's no need to restrict it to combat rolls; they could just as well be saving throws, although something tells me it wouldn't do to mix them...each strip would be for one roll type.

Just a couple of considerations for altering the flavor of the randomness in your games.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Twenty Answers

 In response to this questionnaire:

1. Ability scores generation method?
Either a 75-point buy or 4d6 drop lowest; when rolling, you can place the result in any slot you like, but you have to choose before rolling again.

2. How are death and dying handled?
Knocked out at 0 hp; roll under CON to keep from losing more HP; every time you go down, roll over the absolute value of your hp (so if you have -3, you'd need to roll 4 or higher); failure to do so indicates death. Going down to -10 in a single attack = instant death.

3. What about raising the dead?
Possible, but high-level NPCs are pretty rare in my game, so it's an epic quest to find one until the PCs themselves are high enough.

4. How are replacement PCs handled?
I waffle on this; part of me wants to say start at 1st level again, but if the party is really high, I'll have the new character start at 1/2 the average level.

5. Initiative; individual, group, or something else?
Individual. d20 + DEX mod, plus others, possibly.

6.Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?
No crits or fumbles.

7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?
The benefit of not getting clocked upside the head; I use the "50% of attacks hit the AC 10 head" rule if someone wants to be fashionable and show off their facial tattoos.

8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?
Yes, oh yes, you can.

9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?
Whether you run or not is up to you, but don't expect everything to be tailored to your abilities.

10. Level-draining monsters; yes or no?

11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?
Yes, but I won't pull them on you by surprise, so you'll always know you risk that. Rumors of the wizard's evil spells or signs of a trap's previous victims, that sort of thing.

12. How strictly are encumbrance and resources tracked?
I use the Lamentations of the Flame Princess chart for encumbrance, and beads for other consumable resources.

13. What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?
You level up when you can relax and learn from your experience. No training necessary, but spells must be found and researched. "Relaxing" can be as brief as sleeping one night.

14. What do I get experience for?
Combat, including 1 point per every point of damage taken, and for every g.p. taken from the dungeon and spent in a character-appropriate manner. Plus bonuses for doing something clever or cool.

15. How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?
Description, mainly. I don't use "Spot" or "Perception" checks, but I will describe the setting accurately and fairly.

16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?
They definitely are, using a 2d6 morale roll, influenced by CHA. They need to be paid, but unless you're financing an army, the financial/XP drain won't be that great.

17. How do I identify magic items?
Detect Magic is an innate talent of Magic-Users in my game, but it takes ten minutes per level of spell to identify it; alternately, players can cast the Detect Magic spell.

18. Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?
You can buy some limited potions. There is no market for magic items, as they are rare in my game.

19. Can I create magic items? When and how?
At a high-enough level, wizards can conduct research to create magic items. They need a laboratory and plenty of time to do so.

20. What about splitting the party?
I allow it. It is usually an unwise decision, however, as "Divide" precedes "Conquer".


Lines and Curves

(D'oh. Found this in my "drafts" folder. This post is part of the background for this one.)

A lot of times people will post, on reddit or elsewhere, that 3d6 is a "better" resolution roll than a d20 because the results fall along a bell curve. Whether or not this makes it better is a matter of choice,  but it never helps anyone's case when they follow up their opinion with a statement like "With a d20, a roll of twenty is just as likely as a one." That tells me they don't understand probability, because with a 3d6 roll, an eighteen is also just as likely as a three. I've even read this phrased as "with a d20, you're just as likely to roll under your target as you are over", which is patently untrue for any target number other than ten (Okay, "equal to or under".) But alas, some people on the internets are wrong, and you can't correct them all.

What they should be saying is, "with a d20, a roll of twenty is just as likely as a nineteen", which makes more sense; with 3d6, a roll of eighteen is not as likely as a seventeen, not even close: a seventeen is three times as likely. And a sixteen is twice as likely as that. But any number is equally as likely as any other number on a d20. If you need to roll, say, 16 or higher on a d20, that means you have a 25% chance of success, about what you'd have if you needed to roll a 13 or higher on 3d6. But if you make the d20 roll, any of the successful numbers is as likely as any of the others.

To me, this means that a linear roll is best used only to determine flat, binary, yes-or-no questions: Did I hit him? Do we find anything? Did I die from the poison? Conversely, it shouldn't be used to determine degrees of success. If a question ever contains the words "by how much" or "by how many", a 3d6 (or other bell curve friendly) roll is usually more appropriate. D&D decouples the question of "how much" from the success roll in most cases; whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is mostly a matter of taste, but there's no reason that the one roll must, as a matter of course, influence the second.

I mention this because I'm at best ambivalent about rewarding a "natural" twenty with a critical hit or a "natural" one with a fumble in my OSR game. There simply is no logical reason why, assuming an attack was successful, one equally likely number should be rewarded over any of the other equally likely numbers.

Of course, if you find that the arbitrary inclusion of massive damage or horrible fumbles increases the enjoyment of your game, who am I to say otherwise? But that's my reasoning.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Because I Could

The OSR game for my Pathfinder crew went well. Since it was a one-shot, I just created characters for them (a process which took < 1 hour for all three) and had them visit (yet another) ancient temple in search of the legendary statue of...y'know, it was just a one-shot.

I had intended to use the night as a showcase for combat tactics, giving them a ruined overground area with rubble, walls, and a couple of hollowed-out buildings so they could play with setting their own traps, exploiting cover, utilizing verticals, and the like. There wasn't so much of that, but there was some old-school dungeon crawling in the secret underground chambers. Since there was no "spot" check, but there were obvious traps, the players were going slow, asking relevant questions ("what do the tiles look like?" and "how many holes are there in the wall?") and making smart decisions ("I can cast Protection from Normal Missiles and set the dart trap off"). Chief among these was the use of the Cloak of the Mountebank to steal the idol and disappear before the ethereal Chimera could materialize and attack, although D., the rogue's player, decided to taunt it before disappearing and lost a dozen hit points from claw/claw/bite for it.

Feedback was positive, especially from the two who'd played 1st and 2nd edition D&D before, but even the one who'd only played 3.0 and later enjoyed it; the general opinion was that they'd felt more immersed because they were really looking at things. A question came up on reddit about how to increase immersion, and (though I didn't post to it), the answer was clear to me: don't have Spot/Sense/Notice checks, but let the players ask about the world around them.

So, it was a good night for showcasing what the old-school does well, and my players like it, but I still want to run a good mass combat one of these days. Fortunately, they've given me the go-ahead to try some more, so I will get the chance to one of these days soon.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Because I Can

I'm going to run an OSR-style game for a group I usually GM Pathfinder for tomorrow. I'm pumped. Since it's a one-shot, I'm going to have less context than usual. As a result, I'm going to make it a display of the things you can do in an old-school style, which is, in my humble opinion, everything you can do in the new-school. In particular, I'm going to single out something that gets a lot of attention as being a strength of 4e: exploitation of terrain features.

I think I'll have the opportunity for chase or combat in an abandoned, multi-storey temple of some sort; I want to exploit the verticals. And I'll have some rubble to create rough terrain, and perhaps have the whole outdoor part take place while it's raining, so smooth surfaces become slippery and soil becomes mud. It'll be an opportunity for players to find and exploit cover and partial shelter, to try to funnel enemies into single-file formations, that sort of thing.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

"I Can See the Wires"

Back in the days before blue-screen (and wayyyy before CG), when a sci-fi movie needed to show a spaceship, it was common to create a model and hang it from wires to simulate flight. Depending on the quality of the model, the lighting, and other minutiae of production, the wires might not be noticeable, and the illusion would hold, at least if you weren't looking too closely. But as often as not, the wires would end up being more visible than the ship and the effect would look pretty dorky; hence the title of this entry. But if I liked the story and the model looked cool, I usually didn't care.

Not that I don't appreciate craftsmanship, of course; even then, there were techniques to obscure or camouflage the wires. My favorite was a technique used in 2001: A Space Odyssey for some of the shots of the astronauts floating in their spacesuits: the set was tilted on the side, and the camera was actually under them looking up, so the actors' bodies hid the wires, and there was no telltale lean "downwards" to make it look like they were suspended from anything. I've read that it was also an endurance challenge for the actors and stuntmen.

I mention this because there are two ways of applying this metaphor to RPGs, one perhaps obvious, the other maybe less so.

The first is viewing game rules themselves as the wires: you can see them when the rules jar you out of the game. For some, it's when the probabilities seem off. For others, it's when arbitrary rules ("clerics can't use edged weapons", or "you can never, ever tell anyone you're a vampire") inhibit players from taking actions that they reasonably should be able to do. Retro-roleplaying has a take on the former that, while I think is basically true, waffles a bit when he says:

Avoiding "Math" so broken that the game does not work as intended (e.g. "skill challenges" in D&D 4e as originally released) is important in any game, but beyond that I think "The Math" is less important to creating a fun game than many of its proponents believe.

...but deciding when the game is working as intended is largely a matter of opinion. And I think people should learn more mathematics than most do. Nonetheless, when I'm having a fun time, I don't really care about the realism of having my hit points go up just because I've gotten better at picking locks, or vice versa. The 'body' of the gameplay is hiding the wires just fine, thank you very much.

There's another referent to the "seeing the wires" metaphor, though, and it applies to both movies and RPGs: when the story itself seems to be jerked in a direction that it isn't already headed, mostly for the sake of reaching a pre-conceived ending. Characters change their mind for no reason, the previously brilliant evil mastermind falls for a stupid trick, or (most grating to me) explosions violent enough to destroy a truck, instead of toasting and shredding the protagonists, merely push them gently to safety.

In RPGs, this usually falls under the heading of GM railroading, and there are a few common sources of temptation for that:

  • The characters must Fulfill their Epic Destiny! Maybe I should let him re-roll that critical fumble...
  • I've got this Secret Twist that's So Clever, the players' heads will explode when they find out; all they have to do is turn left down this corridor. "Your NPC ally tells you he thinks it's better to turn left here"...
  • I spent five hours detailing the Lineage of the Town's Mayor, so they'll have to have an encounter with him or all that time will have been spent for naught! Better have the city guards haul them in for some made-up charge...
  • That Story Games site says I have to say Yes to everything my players want, so, yeah, there's a giant steampunk airship manned by anime cat-girls in my bronze-age setting...

These are all wires, and they're easy to see.


Sounds Like Fun (But I'm Still Not Sold)

I got a call from my best friend over the weekend, on his new phone. Like me, he is returning to gaming after a long hiatus, and having a fun time of it. Unlike me, he is playing 4e. He said he liked how streamlined the rules had become (ascending AC, unified d20 mechanic, et al), but I pointed out that a lot of that streamlining took place in 3.x. I gave him my stock 4e spiel, that I don't dislike it as a game in and of itself, I just feel it's strayed too far from the feel of the original game to call itself Dungeons & Dragons. For him, though, it fixed a lot of things that he'd been struggling against in the mid-80's; in particular, he liked the simplicity of rolling a d20 to hit a target #, versus the hodge-podge of roll-over or roll-under d6, d20, and percentile rolls from 1st edition. Fair enough, said I.

Then we got to the good stuff: the game recap.

I don't recall much of what he said, other than that the game ended when they were in a room where zombie minions were crawling out of a trapdoor in the floor; it was meant to be a bombastic set-piece to top off the night, but that ended quickly when the mage of the group (or one of them) got to the trapdoor and started blasting the z-words with some at-will damaging power. Since they were crawling out one-by-one, and since "minion" types only have one hit point, she could simply smack them down almost at her leisure as they sprung up. After that, the DM basically said "okay, you've gotten through all I had planned for tonight."

Since I don't know what at-will power she used, I couldn't comment on whether or not the zombies should have had a saving throw, but I pointed out that if they did, then the plan wasn't so airtight: in 4e, even though minions have only one hp, if they save in a situation that would ordinarily mean taking half damage, they take no damage instead. "See," I told him, "I do know the rules to 4th edition."

This, however, was not the game recap to sell me on the idea of playing it. For one thing, as I've mentioned before, I like Vancian magic, and "at-will" powers run completely contrary to that aesthetic. And even if you do have such casual thaumaturgy, I don't like the idea that it could be damage-inflicting magic. Of course, it could just be that the DM didn't think the encounter through enough, as we are all wont not to do sometimes. If he'd had multiple trapdoors, it wouldn't have formed a bottleneck like that, and if he'd thrown non-minions in the mix, the mage couldn't have simply defended it by playing magical whack-a-mole. But I can't help but think that the endless supply of damage spells--even low-damage spells--sucked all the challenge, and therefore most of the fun, out of that particular encounter.

Still, it did have one element that unites it to my preferred style of play: by making a clever assessment of the situation, the players were able to take advantage of circumstances and turn them to their favor.

And that's what makes these games fun in the first place.


Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Unfounded Optimism, aka Character Death

I played in a game of Traveller on Saturday, and had a lot of fun with a character who unfortunately died by the end of the night. It taught me two things: one, I have an unrealistically optimistic view of my character's chances in a gunfight, even when I can estimate the odds pretty well. Two, one of the blessings of the Old School--the opportunity to learn from your mistakes--was handed to me in the form of a resolution not to let my character go on a mission again without some form of armor.

We'd been running a few adventures based on the supplement 76 Patrons, and one had gone poorly: one of our characters got busted by the local police and we had to bail her out, for a net loss even after we got our reward for some street-level industrial espionage. The next went well, if uneventfully, and we were on our way to getting off of the planet Persephone. The third, however, was seemingly routine, if somewhat odd: to recover a notary's seal from his apartment. We got there, found the seal, and while my character was stationed outside as watch, the gunfire started.

It should be pointed out that 76 Patrons is a list of encounters (you may guess how many) with people who will enlist the help of the player characters. Each contains a setup, and a twist determined by a d6 roll. The mission may be exactly as it seems, or there might be something going on deeper and more hidden. The one thing you can't do is try to metagame the GM to see what he would typically do; ours was going strictly by the dice rolls, so there was no point in asking "What would B. put in this situation?" I don't know what the twist in this scenario was, other than that there were other people who wanted what we wanted, and were willing to come in with guns a-blazin' to get it.

In any case, once the shots started ringing out, I got into the fray. My character had Gun Combat (Pistol) - 2, so my odds of hitting things were pretty good. Slightly better, in fact, than the two people who were firing on me. I needed to roll nines against their tens. That's 27.78% vs. 16.67%. The first time I got hit, totally wiping out my Endurance, I should have re-thought what those odds meant. I didn't want to dodge, because I was afraid that the -1 penalty would make it too unlikely for me to hit them. Of course, it also gave them a penalty. I would have needed the tens, and they would have needed elevens. Instead of being having slightly better than 1.5 times the probability of hitting, I would have gone to a straight two times. (I would have had 16.67%, but they would have gone down to 8.33%.) But I was so sure that I would roll a successful shot before they did, I chose to stand there and trade slugs.

I should have dodged.

Also, I should have worn armor. I had the money, and could buy high-quality, inconspicuous protection, but for some reason it completely slipped my mind.

So farewell, Nicholas Langfried, we hardly knew ye. But your death, as un-epic and non-storied as it was, served to highlight the grittiness of the setting and as a reminder to your player that there are consequences to the choices he makes, and penalties for embarking on a mission unprepared.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Edition Wars that Weren't

Periodically, in posts where someone disparages 4e D&D, you'll hear someone say something along the lines of "There have been edition wars ever since the second version blah blah and it doesn't mean that this edition has done anything different than update the rules."

While the first part is nominally true, that doesn't imply the second.

I'm not here to post about 4e in particular, only to point out that other games than D&D have also had multiple editions, and although there might be some bit of disgruntlement among fans, they have not risen to the level of disappointment that certain editions of D&D have, not even when you consider the smaller community size.

The reason, I believe, is that other games, when updating their rules, aim to keep them compatible with characters and settings from the previous edition, so that you can convert with minimal fuss. Tunnels and Trolls, in particular, plays almost exactly the same in 7th edition as it does in 5th, and the differences are orthogonal enough to each other that you can easily mix 5th and 7th edition rules in the same game, if you prefer to use WIZ as an attribute for magic, or want to retain the minimum roll of 5 for saving rolls. The same goes for Call of Cthulhu, or Hero System/Champions--in those games, you could take a twenty-year-old character sheet and adapt it rapidly for the new game, or even use it in the new game and only change what was necessary on-the-fly.

And as a result, these games have kept their audiences, small as they may have been.

I mention this because I'm starting in a new Mongoose Traveller game today. Traveller is a far-future sci-fi game that's gone through several iterations, (including GURPS and d20 versions), but the current edition is very, very similar in style and play to the original (although death during character creation has been turned into an optional rule) Not that there  aren't changes. In particular, the Jack of all Trades skill has been reworked (although the boundaries of this all-encompassing skill was sufficiently poorly defined in the original game that any rules clarification could be seen as a change); but much of the rules updating, like the John Carter of Mars novels, has had to do with updating the "futuristic" medical and computer technology to keep pace with the real world. (Burroughs had to keep making his airships faster and faster as the series went on, to keep them faster than real airplanes.)

With that in mind, I don't envy the tast of the D&D 5e designers, since one of their stated goals is backward compatibility with every edition. There's been a lot of talk about how that's going to work--most of it revolving around the concept of modularity--but we'll see how well it comes out in practice. In the meantime, I hope we all enjoy whatever version of the game is that we're playing.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

5th Edition, and a re-issue

Some people would blog about the recent announcement by WotC of a new 5th edition ("One edition to unite them all") and about the re-issue of the 1st edition AD&D rules in separate posts. But not me; I'm more efficient than that. I can say what I need to say about them in a single post, because it's roughly the same thing: I don't need it.

I don't need the re-issue because I've got good copies of the originals, and if I want to donate to the Gygax Memorial Fund, I can do that independently. I don't need 5th edition because I've got the editions and retro-clones that I like.

That said, if Wizards does things nice with 5th edition and really can present something that I, as an old-schooler, can use and enjoy, I'll be happy enough to part with my cash. But I don't need them to.

But there's something else going on with both of them, and that's a little harder to get around: by spending my money, I'm rewarding WotC for doing something that I've wanted them to do for a long time--namely, support older editions. And if they release a 5th edition that supports (my idea of) old-school play, then I just might drop the cash to get it. Even if I don't need it, it could signal a change in the gaming ecosystem. When the (second-?) biggest RPG does something, it influences the whole hobby. And that can be a very good or a very bad thing, regardless of  your favored style of play.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Vacation Gaming, part II

A followup to the previous post:

I returned to the store (Tower Games in Minneapolis) later, during business hours, and was pleasantly surprised. Although the tabletop RPG selection was a bit limited, it did include plenty of Pathfinder and Mongoose Traveller materials, so my gamer aesthetic sense was satisfied. I had a brief, but pleasant, conversation with the owner, who was preparing to sell some of his old stuff on ebay; it included the Mentzer Basic D&D and other mid-80s-era TSR products.

I ended up buying no RPG merchandise except for a single d6, but instead bought the Lovecraftian boardgame Elder Sign. Put out by Fantasy Flight, it's a different (and much quicker) take on Arkham Horrror, re-using a lot of the artwork but using a task resolution system that reminds me of nothing so much as the 4th edition D&D Skill Challenge system. The number of dice rolled represent the number of failures you have left, and the type of result rolled on the specialized dice represent the kind of successes. It works for a boardgame, and very well.

The proprietor mentioned their open game nights, and said that Wednesday was D&D/Pathfinder night. So on Wednesday, I returned to check out the miniatures and bulk out my d6 collection--I'm a little retentive about the kinds of dice I lug around--and while I was shopping, I eavesdropped on the games.

One of the DMs seemed to have pitch-perfect narration: succinct but clear description and a fast-paced narrative style. I almost felt pangs of jealousy until I saw that he was reading directly from some pre-printed text, when all the sadness went away. I'm not a fan of pre-packaged narration, because it presupposes when and how players will meet NPCs or encounter other game elements--at best. At worst, it's a sign of out-and-out railroading. The guy did seem to have a good flair for the dramatic when the interaction went off-page, but nothing that a mere mortal like me couldn't pull off.

It turns out I spent the most time looking at Crusader Miniatures.They produce a line of historical figures for old-school wargames: Saxons, Vikings, Medieval Spaniards, Irish warriors, and the like. While not as detailed as the fantasy miniatures for D&D and Pathfinder, they appealed to me more because of their relative historical accuracy (as far as I could tell) and their price. A typical set of 8 figures was priced at $18.00, or $2.25 a figure. I'm told the Old Guard thinks that's outrageously high, but for RPG figures, where the typical price starts at $5.99 for a single piece, it's a steal.

I'm probably going to go there one more time during my trip and purchase some of those minis. I try not to buy on impulse, Elder Sign not withstanding, and I want to have a good look at what kind of historically-accurate warriors I want to collect (even if they're going to be used in a historically-impossible fantasy setting).


Monday, January 9, 2012

Vacation Gaming, part I

Vacationing away from Southern Arizona, I find myself in Minneapolis during what I am told is an "unseasonably warm" week in January, which means that water is frozen into ice, but Nitrogen has not liquefied yet. I still need to bundle up, but apparently not as much as if I were at an Arctic station.

I drove by a gaming store here last night, and decided that, since it's within walking distance, I'd pay it a visit this morning and see what the local gaming vibe was like. Turns out they're not open until 2 p.m. That may itself be a sign that the gaming economy here doesn't support a full-time store. Of course, I've always wondered how furniture stores stayed open when everyone else was at work or in school, so my understanding of retail economics is sketchy at best.

I did take a peek in the window to see what I could; the first thing I saw was a White Dwarf display rack. The next thing I saw was a pegboard full of Warhammer minis. In fact, it seemed like most of the floor space was turned over to miniature-based sci-fi wargaming. In the back, barely lit by the reflected sunlight in the window, was a Dungeons and Dragons display rack. I wondered if there weren't some other games behind that, but I saw no identifiable logos. No White Wolf, no Pathfinder.

But speaking of gaming economy, I do know that a smart retailer apportions floorspace according to the most profitable merchandise, and it isn't really a surprise that miniatures are more profitable than rulebooks. After all, you can get by with only one set per 1-5 people, and with pdfs--not exactly a retail-friendly product--you can get by even without those. But you need bunches of minis to play W40K or other wargames, and there isn't yet a good digital substitute for them.

Still, I plan to visit them again soon, during business hours, and see what tabletop RPG goodness they might have. I'm hoping that, at the very least, it isn't the generic D&D plus White Wolf...I'm hoping that it has a touch of local flavor. After all, we're not that far from Wisconsin and Illinois, where the hobby was born.