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.