Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Numbers Guy

I was talking to a friend the other day about what some people say was the real meaning of the "1d6 per 10 feet of falling" rule in original D&D. In short (per Frank Mentzer, I think), it was supposed to be 1d6 for the first 10, then 2d6 added to the first for the next 10, and so on; so a fifty foot fall was 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 = 15d6 damage, or an average of 52.5 points—not 5d6 (averaging 17.5).

He said, "that's too much math." I was flabbergasted.

He's a smart enough guy; how hard could counting to five, and adding five single-digit numbers, be?

But then I got to thinking about some of the mathematically illiterate statements I've read on reddit or stackexchange. Things like:

  • "A 3d6 bell curve roll is better than d20 because with a d20, you're just as likely to roll a 20 as you are to roll a 1." (And you're just as likely to roll a 3 as an 18 on 3d6—so?)
  • "I have 65% in my Drive skill, but I still fail one-third of the time... why?" (Because you're 1.67% luckier than the statistical average.)
  • "2d8 + 1d6 -2? That's too much math." (Adding and subtracting four numbers?)

I don't want to have to calculate the parabolic arc a missile takes when I fire it (taking wind resistance into account, of course), and I don't want to have to break out a calculator whenever I decide if I should attack from a higher or lower vantage point. I love how Lamentations of the Flame Princess simplifies encumbrance so I don't have to tally up every point of weight I'm carrying. But part of envisioning a world, even a fantastic one, is knowing that going up and down a hill takes longer than walking in a straight line, or that if I have only three arrows left, I'd better start looking for a fletcher.

Heck, even Candyland involves counting; how hard can it be for people ages twelve and up to do just a little bit more math than that?


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Session Report (a First for me)

Last night I played the third game of my new campaign over skype with my girlfriend, D, and her roommate, Q. She's not primarily a gamer; he is. I skyped with my tablet (a Nexus 7), but something was wrong with the sound, so I had to call her up on the phone as well. With headphones, this wasn't so bad.

They had encountered Lilanni, a young woman who, by birthright, should have been the high priestess of the main Temple in town; there had been an attempt on her life as an infant, and so she had been spirited away, returning now just before her 21st birthday to claim her rightful place. The current high priest, her half-brother, knows he is not the true heir, because the ordaining ritual is designed to kill impostors; one must place themselves bodily in the arms of the statue of the God, and if the arms magically embrace them, they are proclaimed the High Priest/Priestess. Pretenders, however, will be crushed.

They approached the Temple in disguise; Lilanni was polymorphed into an old man, so nobody would suspect her. The Temple had ceased to function as a holy place since the false priest was instated three years ago (on the death of their father), but if the true heir set foot in the premises, it would be cleansed immediately, which it was. This alerted the magician in service to the Pretender, but the entryway to the Temple is a place of public business so there was a crowd to hide in.

Long story short, they got into the restricted areas of the Temple, charmed a guard and disguised D's thief as an acolyte, and discovered that there was a faction (as per Alex Schroeder's recommendation) who knew the High Priest was an impostor and was waiting for the True Heir to be revealed. But the folks who wanted the Impostor in power included the Emperor, and so a coterie of city guards just happened to be at the Temple that day...

The interesting thing about this session was, it was almost entirely role-play. By that, I mean there was no combat, and little skill use except for one successful pickpocketing roll by D's Thief character. I attempted to use the process outlined at Hackslashmaster and later fleshed out with his (overpriced, IMHO) supplement, On the Non Player Character. I quickly found out two things: one, the method Campbell describes to create an NPC is fairly slow if you try to create a personality type ahead of time; two, and as a consequence of this, it's easier and relatively painless to decide on-the-fly if, say, bargaining will fail or succeed automatically, or what the NPC will do once he/she arrives at their final disposition.

Since none of the NPCs died in the course of this interaction, I can use the experience later to flesh them out, if they survive the combat that is all but certain to erupt next session. I'm going to give my players a handful of NPCs to command (more or less, depending on morale rolls), and play against a numerically superior force. We'll see if there's any tricks up their sleeves.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Appendix N Prime

A lot has been made about the books different editions of D&D have cited as inspiration. The Dying Earth, the various tales of Conan, the Swords series by Leiber featuring Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Lovecraftian tales, the Elric books—it's not hard to see those elements of the game that sprang from these sources. But, truth be told, for the beleaguered DM, almost any work, fantasy or not, can serve as an inspiration, i.e., a source of Stuff To Put In Your Game.

I just took a look at the bookshelf in my study (one of five bookshelves in my home), and listed a couple dozen works (and in some cases, series) that jumped out at me. Several are fantasy, some are 'literary', but all of them have elements to mine for a game:

  • A Prayer For Own Meany: A halfling-sized protagonist with a literary bent and a prediction of his own death; after the fatal event transpires, he possesses a minister and forces him to reveal secrets of the narrator's heritage. This could easily become a literal halfling, and if we pushed the magical end, maybe a gnome magic user or illusionist. His relevance to the players could come in the form of helping them with other NPCs, perhaps by magically digging up the dirt on them. And what about that possessing spirit? If our gnome/halfling is still alive, perhaps it's a ghost that accompanies him and can be persuaded to do favors for the NPCs, if they do one for him.
  • The Catcher in the Rye: A wealthy, disaffected teen has a personal oddyssey through Manhattan after being kicked out of school. His wanderings bring him in contact with prostitutes, cab drivers, a former teacher, some would-be girlfriends, and his own sister. A picaresque masterpiece; Holden could easily become a low-level Thief/rogue who knows where the secret doors and back alleys lead. Being broke and without a girlfriend, he might lead the PCs somewhere they need to go for a modest fee. He might also have a completely unrealistic view of his ability to handle danger.
  • Howard's End: A rich, dying woman wishes her home to be given to a poor but intelligent friend. Her pencilled note isn't legally binding, but the controversy over it eventually leads to the man's demise. Although we know whodunnit in the novel (the death is unintentional, but he did physically assault the victim), removing that piece of information could make for a good mystery scenario. And the dead man's ghost might not rest easily.
  • The Trial: A man is accused of an unspecified crime, and spends a year trying to find out what it is before being murdered by one of his oppressors. Of course, in your campaign, those oppressors may be a secret society, and perhaps, in perfect Conspiracy Theory style, he's accidentally stumbled upon their operation, but doesn't know it. Maybe they're the power behind the throne. Maybe their power is even more widespread, and the players are in for a world of hurt if they try to investigate.

Characters, factions, locations, magic items, secret information. Even the most high-brow 'serious' work of fiction has Stuff in it; Stuff that can be extracted, exaggerated, twisted and disguised until it becomes a seemingly natural, organic part of your campaign.


Friday, September 12, 2014

At the End of the Day

D&D 5th edition is out, partially. The PHB and Starter Set are available at my new FLGS. From the intro rules (available as a free download), it looks to be more like the D&D I know and love than 4th edition, and much cleaned up and simplified from 3.5. "Advantage" and "Disadvantage" are rules worth stealing, and backgrounds are cool ways of adding roleplaying flavor to your character. Further proof of my contention that the only good editions are odd-numbered ones, ha-ha.

I will play in such a game, and steal the rules I like. I'll even pay for the books, eventually. (I have another expensive book that's a higher priority for me right now.) But I'm still happier to run my OSR mish-mash. The killer feature, for me, is the simple game prep.

You can argue for and against certain rules, and you can reasonably assert that 1st edition AD&D was a disorganized mass of rules and odd exceptions, but for the most part, those rules did not slow down game prep or character creation once you got them under your belt. Not so for, say, 3rd edition, where the concept of a character "build" really took flight. Creating a character, NPC or player, takes a lot of time in 3.x, due to the need to worry about where to spend your skill points. 5e has reduced the skill list dramatically, and added "backgrounds" which allow you to customize your character in a simple and reasonable way, but it's still faster using the old rules.

This is important to me because (as my blogging record of late might indicate) I don't have a lot of free time, and I don't want to spend too much of that doing game prep. I like having a reasonable amount of detail in my game, but only in the areas I choose; I don't want to have to include game-mechanic complexity in my prep time, because I want to focus on character complexity, or the details of a dungeon map. Rolling 3d6 six times, picking a character class, selecting equipment and (possibly) a spell list is still faster. Especially when done during gameplay. And most monsters only need a single roll to determine hit points. At the end of the day (literally), I want something that isn't going to bog me down, and old-school prep fits that bill nicely. cheers, Adam

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Hit Points Are Dumb.

Hit Points are old and outmoded. Everyone says so on Reddit. We have so many more modern and sophisticated ways of making combat meaningful and dramatic now, ways that enable the players to take Narrative Control. I agree.

For instance, I had an idea recently, where if the GM says something like "the bandit stabs you in the heart; you're dead", the player can take narrative control and, if they can give a good reason why it doesn't happen, then it doesn't happen. So I might say "we're fighting on uneven terrain, so when he takes a swing at me, he slips on rubble and it throws his aim off". It doesn't have to be any one particular thing. And then I hand the GM a glass bead or some token that represents what I call the Locus of Narrative Combat, or LNC for short. You don't want to be able to do this indefinitely, so you only have a few. You'd get them back at some point, similar to the way FATE has the concept of a "refresh rate", so they're not gone forever. And over time, you'd get more beads to represent how much closer to his or her Heroic Destiny your character is.

Now, sometimes when someone attacks you, it's could be anything from a superficial cut on the side of your arm to slashing your throat. So we'd have some mechanism of determining a variable amount of LNCs I would need to protect myself; maybe only one for a scratch, but maybe as many as four for a really good shot. And it's more realistic if a sword had more opportunities to stab or bash or cut me when he attacks; the GM might even give it a narrative flair and say that, because he got my weapon in a bind, my enemy was able to punch or kick me for a few points when he wasn't able to before. So we might have to give up anywhere from one to eight LNCs to stop that.

You don't actually have to hand over the glass beads or poker chips, of course. That's simply a convenience. If you wanted to do it the hard way, you could keep track of your LNCs on your character sheet somewhere. If you lost five, for instance, you could just subtract five from whatever your current number is. But that's math, and you shouldn't have to be good at math, or have a desire ever to improve your real-life skills, to have fun in a Narrative Game. So you can just use a big pile of beads for convenience.

The only problem is, Locus of Narrative Combat is a mouthful, and even LNCs is a lot to say over and over again. I thought of calling them your Fate Tally, but for some reason that sounded bad. Calling them Destiny Dots was too alliterative, and implied that you could spend them for other things, and I didn't want them to be just an automatic Success button. So I'm stuck with the term Locus of Narrative Combat, because there's really no better term I can think of for Points that protect your character when they get Hit.

But yeah, Hit Points are dumb.


Thursday, April 3, 2014


Dave Trampier has passed away. He had cancer and had suffered a stroke earlier this year.

Trampier (a.k.a. "Tramp", a.k.a. "DAT") created many of my favorite illustrations for the game. Many of his best were oddly naturalistic, in the sense that they depicted monsters or adventurers engaged in everyday activities, whatever "everyday" might mean for a salamander or a band of halflings or a team of dwarven miners. His style had what I like to call a strong design sense, making heavy use of fields of black both as representational figures and as abstract shapes, beautiful in their own right. Individual figures often struck tableau-like poses, but he was capable of drawing dynamic scenes, such as a fight with a catoblepas or Emirikol's fatal ride down some unnamed city street.

He left TSR in 1988, frustrated by company politics, and vanished from the gaming and art scene. He was believed to be dead until an article mentioned a cab driver in Carbondale, IL named Dave Trampier. But he shunned attention from the gaming community almost up to the point of his death last week. When it was suggested that he might publish a re-print of his Wormy cartoons, he implied that he might be willing so long as TSR had no rights to the product; he was unaware that TSR had long ago been bought out by Wizards of the Coast.

I do not know what inner conflicts might have made him throw out the baby with the bathwater. He seemed to change his mind right at the end, selling some of his original artwork and offering to show up as a guest at a local game convention. He may have been in need of money, and still bitter over slights suffered over a quarter-century ago. Even so, I'd like to think he eventually realized how much his work meant to a generation of gamers.

RIP, Dave A. Trampier, 1954 - 2014.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I'm Both an Analyst, and a Therapist...

Okay, Lindsay, are you forgetting that I was a professional twice over
 - an analyst and a therapist. The world's first analrapist.
-Tobias Funke in "Arrested Development"

I'm trying to categorize all of the traits that one might use to describe monsters. This is a fundamentally analytic practice, adding nerdity on top of nerdity, but it has a reason. Although there are many random generators for dungeons, encounters, and adventures out there, and although many of them are quite customizable, I don't see any that allow you to specify, to the degree of fineness that satisfies me, what types of monsters to include, and what types to exclude.

I envision an online generator, or a simple program, that leads you through an interview process, in much the same way that certain software "wizards" lead you through a set-up of your installation options; at the end, you have a set of encounter tables customized to your specific adventure or campaign. If, for example, you never want to see Brownies in your game, you would have the option of excluding that creature. Or, if you have an underwater adventure, you might specify that all of the creatures must be aquatic.

I envision something with a little more subtlety than that, though; something where you can specify the main type, an anomalous entry, power groups, and the like. But the main goal is to create encounter tables, and from those, possibly encounter lists.

So I came up with the following list of traits to describe monsters for some kind of D&D-like game:
  • environment : sylvan, subterranean, aquatic, aerial, elemental, desert, ethereal, astral; (one may be primary)
  • order - ophidian, reptilian, mammalian, insectoid, arachnoid, plant, fungus, slime, avian, draconic
  •       humanoid - goblinoid, human-like, giant, other
  • unnatural : summoned, undead, magical, extra-planar, lycanthrope, animated, incorporeal, construct
  •           elemental : earth, water, wind, fire
  • size - tiny, small, medium, large, huge
  • sociability - unique, solitary, group, horde, swarm
  • intelligence - animal, low, average, high, genius, supra-genius
  • dominance : leader, follower, independent
  • special defenses: bonus to surprise/not surprised, invisible,
  •         resistant to : magic, cold, heat, sleep, charm, edged weapons, pointed weapons, non-magical attacks, blunt weapons, gas, electrical
  •         camouflaged : magically, naturally
  • special attack : no normal defense, area effect, zone control, save or die, save or condition, gaze weapon, natural missiles, level draining, attribute draining, initiative bonus
  • speaks : human languages, own language, other beings langauges
  • mobility : overland, flying, swimming
  • alignment - LG, NG, CG, CN, CE, NE, LE, LN, TN
  • other : hybrid, mutated, polymorphing, nocturnal, teleporting
  • primes - physical, mental (A Castles & Crusades-specific trait.)
  • challenge level - I to XV
I'm sure I'm missing many, and might want to group some things differently, but that's my first go at it. (And yes, I know that "order" includes some things in Kingdom, Class, and Genus, but it also includes dragons, so what were you expecting?)

cheers, Adam

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Happy Belated Birthday, Kid, Now How Old Are You?

D&D's 40th anniversary, determined by acclamation to be January 26th of this year, passed me by since I was sitting in an airplane that ultimately returned to its starting point because of mechanical failure with the landing gear. Fortunately, it was stuck in the down position, not up.

Prior to that day, I spent my vacation mostly being sick and cold, and in a place with spotty internet access. But my troubles are few in the grand view of things, and I'm writing this just to say thanks to everyone who's created, played, blogged, bought, or otherwise supported RPGs in the past four decades. Here's to another four.

cheers, Adam

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

OCEANs and Streams

It occurred to me belatedly that yesterday's post amounted to an elaborate way of randomly selecting one of 40 character traits. Then I realized, this is a roundabout way of doing what every other random trait table does. What would make this more systematic or scientific (not saying that anything needs to be either of those in an RPG) would be to have a way of clustering traits together. So I came up with a quick alteration of this method:

  1. Roll on the 1d20 - 2d6 table first, and roll three times.
  2. Determine which of the three numbers is the most "extreme", i.e., the furthest from seven. Two and twelve would be equally extreme, as would eleven and three, et cetera. If all three numbers are equally distant from the middle, or if the two most extreme values are, choose one at random and bump it up (if over seven) or down (if below) by one. If all three are either twelve or two, select one at random and move the other two closer to seven by one point.
  3. Randomly determine which three of the OCEAN criteria these represent. The most extreme one will be the Controlling Aspect.
  4. Determine which two traits the NPC has by combining the Controlling Aspect with the other two.

For instance, suppose you roll 7, 12, and 15. Checking the d20 - d26 chart, this represents rolls of  5, 9, and 10. 10 will be the value of the Controlling Aspect. Now determine which three aspects they are: suppose they come out Openness, Extroversion, and Neuroticism. Combining with the other two, in order, that means High Openness, Low Extroversion = Un-Filtered, and High Openness, High Neuroticism = Sensitive. So we have a romantic type who wears his heart out on his sleeve.

Combinations that wouldn't happen, however, would be something like Volatile and Amiable, because one requires Neuroticism to be High, and the other requires it to be Low.

You could, if you chose, average out the values that went into composing a trait, so in the example above, the average of ten and nine would be (rounding up) ten, so our Poetic Soul would have Sensitive(10), and averaging ten and five, we'd have Un-Filtered(8). Or just use them as simple descriptors, and go by that. In any case, knowing two character traits makes for a better grip on the character than knowing only one.

cheers, Adam