Sunday, August 13, 2017

[400] State of the game, state of the blog (400th post!)

I wondered what I should do for my 400th post and I decided to muse a bit about what makes this blog tick right now and where it is headed. The short of it is: the development of Lost Songs of the Nibelungs makes me sit down and write. It's long overdue that I tell people who don't want to read 3 years worth of posts (again?) what this game is about. So this is my first attempt of a structured overview of the development process and where the game is at:

Wyrd is not Charisma, is it? (origin story)

The Nibelungenlied is something I grew up with because the town where I come from maintains the seem that it is one of the original backdrops of that tragic story (Worms, in case you were wondering). Growing up with it I had the common "knowing-the-story-without-caring-attitude from children being forced to memorize something. Not inspired. Not at all. It was only much later that I started to see merit in the classics, but by then the Lied had just been one of thousands of books I'd be interested in reading. So I owned a version of it, but never really get back to it.

Well, I'm not going to torture you with the hairy details, but at one point, round about three years ago, all the ingredients had been right: the blog was something I'd do on a regular basis, the D&D RC was something I thought about a lot, some Wagner for a comic inspired me and the right amount of curious boredom (the best kind of boredom where you actually want to sit down to tackle something demanding) led me to take this book back into my hands. All of this came together in one post (or two) and that's when I started thinking about writing my own game for real.

And to answer the question headlining the last two paragraphs: yes, Wyrd is the same as Charisma. It fulfills the same purpose but from a different perspective (or time or frame of mind ... your choice). Once you follow this path, it'll lead to some strange places. For instance, people had been so unhappy with the idea to change the terminology of the game that they actually started arguments with me about it. You know you are up to something when people start getting upset about petty details. Indeed it got so intense that I thought about changing it all. And then I did:

And here's the post from 2014 about it! D&D from an alternate universe ...
This never saw play. At least not at our table. But it got me thinking and at least Muscle, Finesse and Nerve made it into Lost Songs!

Just new meat on the same old bones? (design goals)

As you can see, Lost Songs has in a way very strong roots in D&D. I wouldn't call it a "retroclone", but I'll frequently call it a "Frankenclone" (which has one more layer of pun than I realized up until now ...) and it still is very much compatible with D&D, if you know how to look at it. What it not is, however, is "just" the D&D bones with some new meat and skin around it (like we see so often nowadays).

We all know that D&D is easily customized to be every game you want. With the market being as it is right now, you just have to take your pick among all kinds of flavors. Just don't be fooled to believe that those are "new" games. There's some work to it, art, even, but when all is said and done it's just a myriad of flavors of the same thing. And if my experience with things like this is any indication, then you can believe me that if you are going to write a new game, design it from the bottom up, well, it's going to take years before it's done. Not just a couple of months.

That's why it's rarely done. If you are to earn a buck with these kinds of things, it can't take you years because that'd be economical suicide, especially if you end up writing something that doesn't work with the consumer (for several reasons, the least of them being a bad game). So most just take the same old, but well working formula, bring their very own style and creativity to it and put it out there. Not a bad thing, just something to be aware of, I guess.

That said, I pretty early decided that I'm doing this for the fun of exploring the process, so I really don't care if this takes one or three or six years (I just want to live to see it, to be honest) or if people would be willing to spend money on it. Not even if they play it, really, because, let's be realistic about this: there are some people out there following the process (love you all!) and they'll probably even read the thing as soon as it is done. Maybe a small fracture of those people will actually attempt to even play this or use parts of it for their game (I know of two who already do!), but I'd be very mistaken to do this for anyone but me.

Even that is coming from a guy who has roughly 100 games at home he didn't write and still wants to play/DM at some point, so ... it's for the sport of it. It's for finding new approaches to the same old questions and attempts to not necessarily finding better, but just-as-good working solutions away from the well trodden paths. That's what I'm doing trying for every aspect of the game (like setting and combat and DM tools ...) and it takes time, but it also is pretty satisfying, in a way.

Early version of the character sheet!

It's not about if you hit, but how ... (all those strange ideas)

There had been some defining moments early on in developing Lost Songs. Because what started as a play on terminology, came with more and more decisions along the road, history being the first among them. Setting-wise we are talking Dark Ages here, 550 AC, somewhere north of the Alps and west of the Rhine. The Romans are in heavy decline and the great migration of the tribes just settled down, ready to explore their surroundings filled with the ruins of an old Empire. There's magic, too, and fairies and trolls and gods and ... it's a lot of stuff to hide in a historic setting.

But how "historic" should it actually be? I mean, at that time you have an early Christianity fighting the old faith, you have slavery and you have what we perceive as the role of women in medieval times to worry about. It's not the beer 'n bretzel approach, but how  much of it should I actually embrace? Well, one of the early defining moments of the game ended up to be a post about this very topic: who are the Nibelungs?

The answer is that they are not the winners of this epic struggle that produced kings and knights, but all the unsung heroes that got lost in history. Roleplaying games are about exploring certain topics, tropes and concepts. In that sense Lost Songs is a game about exploring the possibility of history, the stuff in the shadows, like that they had fighting women and even whole tribes led by women or all the little strange beliefs and cultural habits you can come up with or wars or tragic stories ... There's a lot possible in the little confined space that is the setting. So that's a thing, history is embraced and will be very different to what you'd expect (as it always is as soon as you look closer at something).

Combat had been the next big step. The basic idea had been to take the d20 and divide it into 3d6 (nothing new there). Now, if you use this for attacks, you don't just roll to see if you hit something, but (and here's the twist) you can take the individual results and find out how you hit. That's it. Going from there Lost Songs ended up having rules for delaying dice into the next round, giving them away as cooperation, using them to protect yourself or other ... a whole game in the game, really.

If you want to check it out in all it's (early) glory, go and read this post about the Bare-Knuckle Fighter and the Pub Brawl. We had a shit-load of fun with this. And it is just right for Lost Songs, as it is a combat experience very few other (role playing) games offer in that the tactical possibilities over weigh the pure results over the course of a fight. A system you can get better at as a player, as a very good friend put it.

Print this a couple of times and have a brawl with your friends!
Nonetheless, it is still a work in progress in many ways, as I just learned while testing the mid-level game, but we are having blast exploring the possibilities while killing giants.

Arguably the next big phase in development had been the DM tools, a much neglected aspect of role playing games, in my opinion. It's what kept me busy the last couple of months. The basic idea is that everything should be random and still produce material that works for the game. Lost Songs now has oracles for the weather, sandbox generators, narrative generators and right now I'm working on some mechanics that work as connectors between the characters and the sandbox.

As an interesting side note, all of this started because I wanted (needed?) a proper substitute for the brilliant D&D Encounter Reaction Table. There is, in my opinion, nothing just like it and it works so good, in fact, that I would use it for every game without thinking twice. It's just that I wanted my own system to do the same and the first piece to the puzzle that turned out to be had been the Random Narrative Generator (all you need to know about this is in a huge post I wrote about the topic here).

Took me 17 months from the first concept of the narrative generator to getting close to finishing that replacement for the Reaction Table. And that's before testing it in-game! I'm very much looking forward to that :)

There are lots of little concepts that established over time. Nothing that motivated me as much to go on as the pieces above, but strong contenders nonetheless. One of the most important among them is the concept of the hero as scarred but experienced and powerful. The basic idea goes back to how Siegfried dies in the Song of the Nibelungs: he dies because others had been jealous of his power and betray him. It has been, one might argue, his fate (think "Wyrd") to die this way. I wanted that in the game so the idea was born that ability scores actually are pools and can get "scarred" until they are no more and the character dies.

How he dies is defined by which ability score gets depleted to zero. If it's Wyrd, the gods really don't like you anymore and take care that your surroundings will betray you (but it could just as well be a bard spreading ill rumors about the characters until the people come for you because [reasons]). All of that comes together as the gaming experience that Lost Songs of the Nibelungs intends to be. Most of the time.

Character sheet done by one of my players ...
If you want an impression what the games end up being like when I'm DMing them, you could check out this little series about our early play testing, this post about a TPK in a more recent mini-campaign or this post about the mid-level game we are testing right now.

Where it's at

The phase with developing the proper DM tools is almost done (I think). As soon as I have the monsters and NPC rules in testing I got one more thing to write here and that would be a culture/tribe generator. Once that's done there's just one aspect left to do: magic. That'll be a tough nut to crack but I'm somewhat confident that I'll end up having an idea a soon as I'm ready to have it.

However, the hardest part so far has been to take myself as a DM out of the process. That might sound strange, considering that I just wrote a couple of paragraphs above that I don't assume many people will eventually actually play this thing, but it is not difficult for the reasons why I write it and instead about what I attempt to write. Every role playing game should have the aspiration to work for everyone interested enough to try it and the same is true for Lost Songs.

So where is the game at? Well, life being as busy as it is right now, it won't get done this year, but things will get finished and I'm approaching a stage where I'm confident enough to give this another DM for the play-testing (it's already in the works and it'll be very interesting!), maybe even to offer a mini-campaign online ... 

After that I should start writing this bad boy. I'm really not sure if I'm ready yet. At least I don't have a concept visualized that would be able to represent the game properly. Well, I'll get there eventually. Other than that, there is nothing harder than writing rules, let alone a set of rules. It's going to be a challenge. I'm okay with that. In it for a penny, in it for a pound, as they say.

Latest version of our Character Sheet ...
Either way, if you are reading this and this wall of text (attached to other walls of text) got you interested enough to give this a shot, contact me and I'll set you up.

State of the blog

Well, 400th post, everyone! This is not a very popular blog, but a somewhat read blog. People come over, read it and sometimes comment and share their thoughts when I post something. Well, most of the time anyway. I tend to write long posts, so although 400 posts is not much considering that I'm doing this for close to 6 years now, I'm pretty happy with all of this. 

That said, I sometimes feel like I should be more out there, write more, comment more, publish more ... but I guess that is a luxury I cannot afford right now. So for now, it is what it is and Lost Songs is the main reason for that. There'll always be some posts about D&D (as they are popular) and I'll keep coming up with helpful tools for our games, if I can. Maybe even publish another adventure (if I find the time and muse to write one).

One last comment on this being a blog that defined itself to be under the flag of the OSR for a long time (fourth wave OSR blogger, if you will ...). I'm not quite sure the OSR still is what I thought it was 6 years ago (if it ever was that to begin with) or if my little blog ever got accepted as one of those considered to be "old school". Things change and none of the bloggers I like to read and wait for updates nowadays are OSR. Many of them still write about older editions or retroclones (many more have just disappeared) but I got the impression that everyone but those cashing in moved on and OSR is more and more reduced to being a label and a club instead of an open and lively community. That, the drama and the turf wars start to get on my nerves, to be honest.

For now I leave that banner up, as it stood for something positive once and still does for some (I believe), but it is under probation. We'll see what the future brings.

Other than that I hope you guys have had some good reads over the time on the old Disoriented Ranger blog. I'm sure trying. Here's to 400 more!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

[399] A very different take on Monster Stats - Part 1 (LSotN Development Post)

It's been a while since I had a chance to develop some thoughts and vague concepts into rules for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, but this one has been long coming and I'm happy to tackle this specific topic now once and for all in a way that allows some testing (no, I'm not talking magic here, dammit). This post is about how I aim to codify monsters and NPCs in the LSotN rules and why. Let's start with some theory about encounter "technology" ...

Oh Monster, where art thou?

There is a huge discrepancy between the level of detail we allow for characters and the one a DM is able to manage for every other creature a group can encounter. The simple reason for this is (1) the lack of encounter predictability in traditional games (actually, the more baroque a game is in its monster stats, the more likely it also depends on prepared encounters to happen) and (2) sheer mass in direct contradiction to just one person handling it all.

So you get cooked down versions for managing creatures, the bare minimum. It never has been a perfect solution, actually. While simplicity works fine most of the time, you'll miss ways to get complex characters fast and without tons of preparation as soon as, say, a D&D group hits mid-level. There is no such thing as a satisfying random level 20 magic user, if you know what I mean. What spells does he have? What magic items? Did he cast or use any of them already today? Why? Where? How about retainers? Followers? Powerful allies? Because you just don't get to be level 20 without doing some serious noise before ...

Same goes for powerful monsters like dragons. They need to be prepared, if only to be fair about it when they are encountered. And that's a problem, because you either prepare them and hope the characters actually confront them or you wing it and most likely leave ignored the necessary complexity those encounters actually demand. No one wins either way. Maybe this is one of the reasons why mid- to high-level games aren't that popular. Maybe.

In conclusion you might say that one of the main concepts role playing games usually feature has very clear limits out of pure necessity: you can't have a world where everything has numbers (or random tables to get those numbers quickly) and it gets impossible if you want your creatures to have the same amount of detail characters have. A random level 12 thief will not nearly have the same level of detail a played character will have at that point.

Guess who's the player character ... [source]
Yeah, but it's about the illusion of depth, isn't it?

Sure, and as far as a conclusive narrative is needed at the table, every DM worth his/her salt will make it work just fine. But (and that's a big "but") it's almost impossible to make a level 12 non player character as challenging an enemy as player character would be without some hard preparation. What I'm trying to say here is that depth works at the narrative side of most games, but doesn't always translate that well into the mechanics without actually putting the work into it.

Seriously, it's something I did years ago and it scared my players shitless: I let their mid-level characters face themselves. And we are talking traditional games here. Think about NPCs having story points to avoid death, for instance, or every other nice little rule that gives players more power over the narrative. Can't have that with NPCs, can you? There is a truth hidden there and I can't quite put it into words yet ...

Alas, I don't need to, because the problem at hand is a different one. The problem is that we assume that each individual entity actually deserves their individual set of numbers to relate to the characters in a meaningful way.

Maybe it goes back to the war gaming roots of the hobby where everything was units, maybe it's even something way more cultural, but in the end we tend to see things as separate and not as connected (this might really be connected to something deeper than just the war gaming, to be honest ...). To point at the bigger picture here: it's also why we assume the world around the characters must be complete to one degree or another, with maps and history and pictures in addition to all the numbers.

But maps are never accurate, information about your surroundings might be wrong or old or misleading and pictures capture only a specific moment in a specific place and time, so they really don't apply all that often in a gaming context or only in the vaguest of senses ... What we have here are tools that certainly help if you have them and can put them to use, but which are, in the end, not only less helpful, but also false friends.

Let me explain that a bit: the most complex amounts of data in comparison to everything else in a gaming world are the characters. Everything that happens at the table has the characters as context, from the goblins they slaughter just now to the story about the new king they hear from a peasant. Information congregates around the group, if you will.

Wrote a whole post about it, too.
Actually it's as easy as that, if it doesn't become part of the game, if it isn't shared with the group one way or another ... it just didn't happen. It might be prepared, it might be written somewhere and you might have plans with it, but if it never comes up, it never becomes part of the story that is being told at the table.

Which means ...

Well, the "false friends" I mentioned above keep the illusion alive that they are what is needed to make the game "complete" on the DM side of things, but that is far from the truth and actually hinders development of solutions that are more true to the nature of the game (as described above).

Let's take another approach for a second. There is a discrepancy between what an encounter looks like (as in: the data he needs to work if he happens) and how he manifests (as in: traces he might have left, rumors, history, impact, tells ... stuff like that). Given that the narrative always manifests around the characters and develops from there on, it really seems counter-intuitive to roll the encounter itself instead of the signs that are discovered by the group.

Take that one step further and you only need to know what is responsible for those signs to an amount where it allows meaningful choices for the players. And that does NOT mean that it needs to be specific beyond "to proceed means danger". In other words, just one or two signs ahead of the players. In a sandbox those signs will seek connectors with the toys being at hand. Done this way, you establish the background of an encounter while the characters are getting closer to it and only to the extend you need it at the moment.

There is the obvious and then there is what the DM knows ... [source]
There might be different approaches to the whole affair, but it is how I decided to handle it in Lost Songs. The game develops around the group and all the tools I use add to that principle. What I've been lacking the whole time, though, was a system that fulfills all the criteria I described above and connects all the dots right. Since this is still D&D in a very basic way, it hasn't been easy to find something.

The Short Of It!

The basic idea here is that individual entities of the game are always part of some sort of context in the gaming environment. A soldier is part of a group among other groups that form an army. If something happens to him, it might affect the others, at least those who knew him. So the sphere of influence an entity might have is a good point to start. Let's say we have a Contubernium, that's a part of the Roman legion that consists of 9 men. A squat. So the Type and Number would be "Contubernium (9)".

Everything in Lost Songs will measurably affect all numbers on a character sheet. Someone is spreading bad rumors about the character? His Wyrd is affected. Exhaustion? Grit is affected. And so on and so forth. There are also stages how hurt a character is. Those stages are nice little indicators how the character is feeling and easily tracked. While those numbers are nicely detailed on the character sheets, all I need for the unit is one number, the "Potential", and a couple of indicators. If that number reaches 0, the unit will surrender, flee, die, whatever the approach towards the number had been.

There's also a random element called "Category", that's the base number used for the Potential (a reminder what the original number must have looked like). I chose Roman numerals for that (see example below). It'll be relevant to measure experience points.

The last aspect will be the "Strengths". Here I'll use the Elder FUTHARK, the appropriate rune alphabet for the setting. It'll be randomized and will give a unit unique powers for combat, background and interaction. It's also have layers that correspond to character levels. It's used like an oracle, so it'll be applied as the encounter manifests (see above). So a short hand with all the basic information needed will look something like this:

That's all there is ...

Everything from combat to interaction to experience points is right there. Potential can be reduced by all kinds of damage, the runes in their different combinations will make it all feel different (adding magic and what not) and the categories will give indicators how much of a threat an encounter will be, with the nice side effect that you don't just encounter a Contubernium, but maybe they are drunk or wounded or demoralized, all depending on the narrative at hand.

The rest is taking notes and context as they come up.

That's it for now

Alright, so that's the basic idea and my thinking behind it, Part 2 will handle the details (which will be a bit more tricky, especially with the runes). With an example, I suppose. It'll be possible to handle character companions with this and even combat with bigger units is a distinct possibility. There is a lot of potential, I think. A huge part of what the game still needed done. Play-testing will tell if the scaling is right or not.

I'll also try and write a version for the D&D RC. Might it be possible to use a system like this based on the xp of a Monster in D&D? Maybe. Thoughts and impressions are, as always, very welcome.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

[398] The DM as Oracle vs. The DM as Author

There is a bit of talk in the blog-o-sphere about the stories we want to tell in our games. Should there be a literary quality to it? A message? Just entertainment, if such a thing exists (considering that someone has to put some work into it in that scenario to work for the others)? Or dare I say spirituality? And if so, how do we facilitate this in our games? Certainly not only with the stories we tell, because the story is the result of a collaborative process in rpgs and something is really off if someone at the table already knows what's happening ... Here are some thoughts about the whole affair.

This is sort of, kind of also part of what I see as an ongoing dialogue with +Vb Wyrde who posted his thoughts about topics closely related to this here post just the other day (Part 1 & Part 2).

Reality is what you make of it, really

So, everyone has basically his own idea what reality looks like and there are cultural basics we agree upon with language being the overlapping tool to facilitate common ground. Right? I mean, you can go pictures or hand signs, but those are very basic forms of language, too, actually. In a way language helps forming an agreed upon reality when interacting with others. It's no different in gaming. But let's look a bit close at the phenomenon before we apply this to our little hobby.

This goes back to the meaning that the art of storytelling had up until a couple of hundred years ago. It wasn't the only kind of medium, but it had been the most common. Illiteracy in the 18th century is measured at around 94 percent. It's easy to imagine how important talking had been and just as easy to realize the advantage a trained talker had in times like that. It was a necessary skill. Maybe even more necessary than fighting skills.

How powerful it still can be is illustrated easily by just turning on the tv and checking out some ads, or the fake news phenomenon or anything a politician would make you believe. Or a scientist, for that matter (sacrilege, I know, but I'm barely the first to compare science to some sort of religion ... anyway, I digress). The leading National Socialists like Hitler or Goebbels had all been highly skilled speakers and look how much harm they'd been able to do (although the most damning factor might have been the radio, which they made sure anyone owned and listened to).

It's far too easy to lose sight of this, but the art of rhetoric, being able to express yourself, is still a very powerful (and pretty underestimated) skill, even today. Examples are all around you, as a matter of fact. In a way (and this is where I'm getting to the point), if language and communication help forming a common ground, an anchor in reality, if you will, than being able to convince people is nothing less but the ability to shape how we perceive reality.

We know the power of advertisement,
but chose to ignore it way to often [source]
Pattern recognition (or how truth is relative)

One of the reasons why Shakespeare is still as relevant (and popular) as he is can be reduced to his ability to make our emotions palpable, it speaks to us on a very intimate and individual level, although his plays had to be public spectacles (well, maybe that connection is yet another reason for the success ... it provokes the display of raw emotion in the audience which might very well have an amplifying effect).

The immortal bard, posing ... [source]
This still works today although the language has become more of a barrier over 400 years later. That being said, I'm not sure you guys are aware of the fact that those plays had been so wildly popular that they actually influenced the way we describe the world in a very profound way: because Shakespeare had been brilliant in describing (forming?) reality, many, many phrases used in his plays are used to this day. Not as quotes (which also happens, of course), but as part of our every day language.

In Germany you can observe the same effect with plays written by Goethe, Schiller and the like (both huge fans of Shakespeare, btw). Now, seeing it work begs the question how they had been able to achieve this and, maybe, how we can use this for our games. The somewhat simplified answer, in my opinion, is trained pattern recognition in conjunction with the ability to communicate those patterns in a witty way as they occur while embedding them in a more artful, say, literary context.

It's the power of the cliché fueling artistic expression, if you will.

It's no surprise, either. The most effective lies, for instance, are those hiding in a good bit of what is accepted as truth. I hope we can agree at this point that truth, just like reality, is a matter of opinion. Sure, you can achieve a great understanding of the overlap of what is commonly accepted as reality or truth, but since it changes all the time and all over the place, it's all quite subjective.

And that's just it, if you want to convince people of something, you start with the common ground and go from there. That's basic salesman-talk. Another technique would be mirroring, all of it aiming not at the truth but at your agreement, weaseling in from the common ground getting more and more specific as they peel you like an onion, all of it to twist your perception of reality towards the ends of whoever is doing the manipulation.

Suspension of Disbelief (a little gaming intermission)

This, right here, is already relevant for our games. Playing our little elf games works as long as everyone participating is on the same page. Sounds simple enough, but it just isn't something we agree upon before the game. Well, we do that too, of course, but to keep it that way is traditionally one of the duties a DM has. And if my experience is any indication (as player and as DM), it's damn hard work, pretty much for the reasons stated above.

The simple assumption about finding common ground and going from there gets easily screwed the more invested people get about the same thing without actually agreeing. Say, two Star Wars fans arguing canon. Both hold their idea of truth very dear and will fight for/about it, add a third one being the DM in a game of Star Wars and conflict is imminent. Same goes for rules, as a matter of fact (which kind of gets important further down below).

What's more, though, is that the techniques to achieve this are pretty much what is described above: "the power of the cliché fueling artistic expression". The DM is the one stitching it all together, giving it meaning as he goes along while balancing it with the input AND expectations of the players. As an interim result we can say that what works for a play will work to some degree for our games.

But before we can get to an conclusion, we have to go a bit further down the rabbit hole ...

The DM as Author (the book writing variety)

Lots of insights applying to plays and rhetorics also apply to books, naturally. The big difference, though, is the level of self being addressed. An author writes for the number of individuals willing to read it (not necessarily as a reason but as a matter of distribution and reception). As I already said, the same rules apply, but it is a way more intimate affair, a dialogue between author and reader, solely limited to it until the reader goes and talks to someone about it.

Of course, talking about it is a completely different animal compared to reading it. So different, in fact, that it needn't necessarily address the same aspects, as you shift media and although you'll talk about the same story, you do so in a totally different context. It's like the difference between reading The Lord of the Rings and watching the movies or (to make it a bit more strange) to be part of an reenactment of the book. All variants touch different aspects of self, of truth, of perception, you name it.
Reenactment is a thing, of course (and that Aragorn looks dope  ...). [source]
However, that's kind of the point. A point that can be made, to a degree, with almost every kind of authorship (play, tv script, books ... adventures?): they all exclude, out of necessity, the recipient as active part in the creation. The recipient creates after the fact and individually. Now, if we crank this up a step or two and talk about literature, we could say that authors offer meaning as an additional possibility and the artistic form helps encoding meaning in artificial patterns that, well, see above ... The recipient can glean it out of the text, decipher it, if you will.

I think this is the main problem when discussing if it is possible to give our games a literary quality, role playing games are a very different process to the whole writing/reading complex and what is generally believed to be "literary", is in huge parts associated with our ideal of the writer as artist and the elitist educated recipient as the one "getting it", not as a collaborative effort.

The question is (remains?), if it is possible to achieve this within the specific form of story telling that make our games tick. Which leads to (you guessed it) ...

The DM as Oracle (not the goat gutting variety)

In it's simplest, most common understanding, rolling dice and interpreting the results is for a DM like reading an oracle (which comes from the Latin word for "speak", btw). It follows the very same principles, as it offers meaning of random results to the context that is the (gaming) environment. The DM rolls the dice, reads them and tells you the weather or the mood the merchant is in or how big a treasure hoard is.

And finally, the DM can offer the potential or inspiration to elevate that randomness (including the random input the players give, of course) to some sort of literary quality. Not predetermined, but out of the flow of the game.

This is where, in my opinion, the tools of our games get so important. Actually, that's the main beef I have with many of the so-called "light-rules" rpgs out there as they very, very often just leave the DM tools out to keep it short. I mean, let's go a bit full circle here: what we use at the table (the type of oracle, if you will), shapes how the narrative emerges. Use only French terminology to give a game a certain vibe, or sports terminology or whatever makes your goat float (is that how you say it).

The point is, that those things are usually already in depth developed and tools like random tables and terminology and, yes, patterns we might need for our games (structures of armies, advancement, power levels, attributes, to name just a couple of examples, they all offer patterns like that), they all feed the communication in a meaningful way and help a DM weaving a pattern on his own that (in a best case scenario) emulates a certain kind of story.

Old school oracle in action ... [source]
What you get without those tools is just a guy telling stories, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but rob the game of an important aspect and makes it very hard for beginners to get a sense for the relevance of those patterns, how they work and how they are copied. The machinations, so to say. It's the main problem with rpgs that only span a couple of pages and claim to be "complete". For the experienced DM it might just be a matter of taste.

Anyway, what that little detour should illustrate is that good rules offer patterns, that, when they emerge, shape and fill the narrative certain ways. This is why you end up with a different playing experience every time you play a different game, it's different oracles and different input.

Finally, as far as the "literary quality" of role playing games are concerned, we get back to that original, historical meaning of oracles or druids or shaman or bards, even. We read the patterns and give them meaning. The suspension of disbelief helps a lot, the system should give enough input to give us something to read and when the time is right we set the impulses to make the narrative count, to give the sum of all the parts a deeper sense because an campaign arc gets closed or a plot twist revealed or a character has a defining moment ...

Think fast! [source]
That's, for me, when role playing games really click at the table, that moment when everyone gets involved and invested at what is happening and the implications thereof. Very much like with a good book or movie or play, just coming from a different direction.

So much more to say ...

Damn, it's a long one again and I still feel like I did say maybe a quarter of what I feel needs saying about about cooperative story telling and patterns or how to recognize them, where to get ideas, how to practice, how to be a convincing DM ... so many topics. It'll have to wait.

For now just say that:
DMs are like oracles that offer the potential for literary quality by interpreting the patterns that emerge from the cooperative effort that is the game in a meaningful way within the overlap of the established rules of the game and the artistic patterns we know from other media.
In other words, we know the answer to the question what Hamlet would have needed to roll to end up where he ended up in the end and we would come to somewhat similar conclusions if we saw those patterns emerge in our game (I know there should be lots of missed saves in that specific game, for sure).

One final thought, though. The DM has in that sense (or following that logic) not really a story prepared, but a stage with all the tools the groups needs to get going (rules, setting, characters, the works). Story is the result of this endeavor.

And that's my 2 cents of the dollar it should be. I'm sure I'll be exploring this further in the future. Comments, thoughts and experiences are, as always, very welcome.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Of Wormpriests and Epic Challenges - Hard Lessons in Play-Testing (LSotN Design Post and Campaign Recap)

Last time I did one of those it had been about a TPK and how it came to pass. That had been July 2016, pretty much exactly 1 year ago ... time flies, friends and neighbors. Well, the game never took up again after that tpk, mainly (I think) because testing the low levels didn't need any more testing. The game worked at this stage and playing didn't generate new insights. So we paused and I went back to tinkering on Lost Songs of the Nibelungs behind the scenes again. Mid-level play is the next challenge. Here's what the campaign looks like right now and how the game holds up. 

Procedures (campaign prep)

I'm still doing the "everything is random"-schtick. I started with the campaign area, using the Random Terrain Generator, bastardizing the hex-map cheat sheet for it I did for Monkey Business (Apendix 1, for those interested):

Example, not part of the actual map
Basically I roll 3d10 with the first digit indicating what the area looks like (results 1-6) and if a hex has layers (results 7-10). The second digit for an area result gives the altitude, the third gives the complexity of a terrain. If a layer is indicated, second and third result indicate how that exactly shapes up. I went with a maximum of three layers per hex and moved to the next letter if more came up (ignoring the first digit, using the second and third as altitude and complexity in the next hex).

That's how I generated the lay of the land and some of the secrets hidden in the layers (red digits on the example above, the one after the # are altitude and complexity). Going from there I can establish the flow of the land (red arrows show changes in altitude from hex to hex, "=" indicates same altitude) and borders where other tribes came up (red lines, of course). The size of the tribe territories where established as common sense dictated, going by the lay of the land and what the layers add to it, never going more than one hex beyond the one indicating another tribe.

Now you know where rivers flow, where weather is clinging, where the growth is dense and where the populations are, even a good bit of the history of the land. We assume somewhere in Europe, in an area that had been occupied by Romans at some time in the past.

The tribe the characters are with is always in the center of the map (A). That's where they settled for whatever reason (which can already tell an interesting story, see below).

There you go, instant sandbox. Takes about an hour and has all the gaming material you might need to start a game (that is: describing the land and it's inhabitants to degree that it inspires the players to go in some direction, with enough hidden in the shadows to set up some nice little campaign arcs). It'll get more and more specific as the characters explore it.

The Sandbox (Player Version)

(A) is a high plain just south of the highest Mountain in the area. The land falls into rich forests and valleys in all directions but north. The tribe settled here, coming from the north-east, as their holy man saw the god in the mountain and told them tat this was the place. A rather political decision, as this had been the only unclaimed territory on the map, the rest being under the rule of several different and mostly hostile tribes.

A Holy Mountain [source]
If you have some land to go with, it's quite easy to establish a sense of the culture of the people living there. "high plains, south of a mountain" tells me that the area is pretty barren and that this might very well be a folk of riders and (aspiring) miners. Their buildings will mainly be stone, their art will be in stone and horses are important animals for them (also roaming the plain). As a matter of fact, the rite of passage of this tribe is for each young one to catch a horse.

The cultures surrounding the center hex are a hostile people in the east who follow a strange faith (they smear ashes on their faces and wear raven bones and feathers), a tribe of warriors following the old pagan ways, but seem to have adapted the Roman art of weaponry in the south-east (they are hostile to the point of threatening to go to open war), another tribe of fugitives just south (they stay out of everyones hair and are mainly cautious and neutral), some Roman culture to the west (having an alliance with the warrior tribe in the south-east, since they produce Roman weaponry) and a strange tribe of people worshiping a goddess in a fjord just west of the mountain (rather elusive and neutral, for now). There's also a tribe of goblins in the north-east.

The players decide that the tribe is mainly mining salt, but they don't sell much of it, as the surrounding tribes remain to be hostile towards the intruders. The main reason for the warrior tribe to be so hostile is the mining operation, as they themselves are miners and weapon smiths who see their economic advantage threatened.

There are some forests just south of the plains that are mainly no man's land, with all surrounding tribes either traveling through it on a regular basis or even trying to expand into the area. It's the main resource for wood and game for the character's tribe. Naturally there'd already been some minor clashes with other tribes. The situation is tense.

And that's that. Lots of opportunities to go around and explore stuff. The rest is developed in game, in the early stages even to a degree where they can set some cultural quirks of their tribe.

The Campaign (so far)

The characters are level 5 and well established heroes in their tribe. They are the spear tip of the exploration. The two players of the first session create a hunter (Widukind) and a warrior (Swasut the Gentle). Both have a touch of fairy in their blood and Widukind ends up with the magical ability to sense the aura of beings and seeing in the dark, while Swasut has the ability to copy every voice he has heard once.

On a campaign level things are random, too, and the Random Narrative Generator is still my tool of choice to achieve this, so I start by putting some story seeds around the characters. Turns out that the warrior tribe in the south east is preparing an invasion, but held back right now, as their allies in the west (the Romans) struggle with some political unrest.

The players can decide what they deem most interesting in the sandbox and what their characters want to explore. Widukind wants to explore the holy mountain in the north, Swasut states that he had a dream about some evil that somehow prevents souls from reaching the afterlife. Both go to Bui, the holy man of the village, to seek advice and guidance.

Bui questions the oracle about exploring the mountain, a journey that already killed some young adventurers of the tribe, and the oracle came up with all kinds of bad omens, so they decided against that (for now). But Swasut's dream spoke true and the shaman tells them that he feels the tribe surrounded by evil and some of that gets stronger and stronger to the west. The decision is made to travel west. A diplomatic mission, no less, as they'll try to use the political unrest to their tribes advantage.

There is a short intermission where the characters expose and thwart the evil ploy of a goblin shaman to get a mountain ghost harmed, so the goblins seem to be up to no good, too. Anyway, to give them the proper sending off, the chief of the tribe decides that a ritual bout is in order and they have a huge ritual that night during a thunder storm at the foot of the mountain. The omens are good for the quest. As they prepare to leave their village they are joined by Lucius, Swasut's cousin of noble birth and a diplomat of high repute (player 3).

On the road they meet an opportunistic Roman merchant. The guy (and his mother) are in the area using the political unrest in the west to initiate some trading contacts with the tribe. He's more than willing to share his (ten days old) knowledge about the whole affair: the ruling elite of the remaining Roman culture that has itself established due west is situated in a city named Divocortorum and led by Aristophontes Melunus. A guy, if the merchant is to be believed, who controls all the other senators by intimidation, black mail, the occasional violence and even dark magic. A dirty politician if there ever was one and the main reason for the hostility towards the tribe, too.

Divocortorum could look something like this [source]

But something went down. A fight in Melunuses palace. Some say it had been a military coup, others say that the political opposition (namely Soteris Cervidus, the one senator who couldn't get intimidated) finally made its move against the corrupt Senator. But no one knows, as the palace was still under lock down when the merchant left the city. All who dared enter, never came back. And there are unnatural screams every night coming from the estate while Cervidus struggles for control over the streets. A huge part of the military force has in addition to that left the city with three senators who had been firm former allies of Aristophontes. A real shit storm.

So the omens are indeed good to make some powerful new friends in the west and the group makes haste to get there. However, they avoid the main roads and being in an area they don't know, they get lost as they try to avoid enemy contact. They wander around until they come to a crossing over a wild river with a Roman signpost indicating the direction the city is barely visible on the other side. They are back on track, but the crossing is guarded and passage denied.

Turns out the whole area is in tumult, as the whole military seems to be drawn back to the city and the patrols usually providing a sense of security, law and order, are all gone. The result is chaos and anarchy, as war bands form all over the place, either using the opportunity to revive old feuds, to get rich fast or to bring their own sense of law and order. Some of the latter are guarding the crossing and they are not happy to see strangers.

Good thing the group has a diplomat amongst them and it is agreed on a challenge. The characters are to retrieve a sparrowhawk's eggs from a plum tree. The catch is: that plum tree is upstream on a cliff side over a raging part of the river they try to cross. All gather there and witness Swasut getting those eggs and gaining lots of respect for the deed, too.

They spend the night with the tribesmen and learn a bit more about the state of affairs. Apparently the old faith has a huge comeback right now and druids are actively facing some sort of evil infestation that seemed to get stronger after the mysterious events in the palace (or whatever happened in the city that night). Lucius works the crowd and makes new friends with a member of the druid council. They make a deal and Lucius receives a brooch as a sign of their allegiance while Swasut drinks himself to sleep with his new friends and Widukind asks lots of questions about the threats ahead.

Turns out that the warband guarding the river-crossing just recently fought a couple of undead which where blocking the main road to Divocortorum with the help of some druids and that a mysterious figure called the "wormpriest" started making the rounds with his acolytes. They gain more and more support the closer one gets to the city. That night Widukind dreams of a stream of black tentacles that triumphantly engulfs a golden mask of Roman origin.

The next morning group is joined by the guide Gullrönd (npc), the druid Vadelma (player 4) with her bear Otzo and the wanderer Burgh with his dog Hund. They leave camp the next morning with a storm brewing above them. The storm forces them to find shelter early that day. Swasut has the third night watch. The weather outside has calmed down a bit and he's sitting by the entrance of the cave they made camp in. The wind goes through the trees and he thinks he can hear voices in the wind mocking him, daring him to come outside. He uses their voices to mock them back and they vanish into the forest. He goes to bed hours later, not telling Widukind a word about the incident.

As Widukind goes to take his place at the cave entrance, he sees four figures coming out of the forest as dawn start brightening up the sky. The are short, stocky and glad in black. He recognizes them as dark dwarves (which is totally a thing in Germanic folklore!). The creature they have with them is big as an ogre but has two heads and is carrying a huge club in each claw. Chains are dangling from its wrists and the dark dwarves seem to have some sort of control over the monster.

It taunts the characters in the cave and dies after a couple of very effective attacks and a control-shattering command by Lucius (who used the cave's acoustics to his advantage to intimidate the creature. The dwarves didn't join the fight and as the creature dies, they bow in respect. It had been a test and the characters had past it beyond expectation.

Poor thing, just died ... [source]
They start to talk and the dwarves tell how their ancestors had lived in these hills a long time ago and all that is left of them is bones. However, those bones had been desecrated by a power from a realm beyond the nine worlds, just out of reach of the last branches of Yggdrasil. A force of pure evil that tries to gain power here in Midgard. That's why they came here. They are weak in Midgard these days, so they are looking for worthy allies to exact their revenge. The characters agree to help and gather yet another branding: a bone whistle that can be used once to summon the forces of the dark dwarves as aid against the Darkness from Beyond.

Soon after they are on the road again. They are heading for the pass where the undead had been blocking the passage. Widukind is getting more and more paranoid the closer they get to the city and decides to scout the natural choke point before they travel through. And what do you know, it actually is an ambush: 30 to 40 warriors are hiding here and waiting for travelers.

The group discusses their options. Widukind thinks it possible to lead them through the pass under the cover of night, but it'll be difficult. Lucius decides to work his diplomatic skills in the situation, Swasut accompanies him. Lucius addresses the hiding warriors and demands to speak to their leader. It takes a couple of heart beats, but eventually a huge warrior comes out of the woods, riding a magnificent red horse. They talk and agree on a duel to the death. If the group's champion wins, they gain free passage. The huge warrior, who calls himself Hönir, is answering the challenge himself . Swasut is facing him.

It's a short but intense fight, however, Hönir has no luck at all. He's humiliated to a degree that even the gods turn away as Swasut beheads him with a cut so clean that the head stayed in place long enough for a mighty second blow that split it in half. And thus gain the heroes their third branding: that beautiful horse, a mare called Tausendschweif (thousand tails).

They also see black worms crawling out of what was left from Hönir's brain.

The passage is free and the group could move on, but as the remaining warriors ditch Hönir's dishonored remains on the side of the road,  Vadelma rallies eleven of them to follow her in their holy fight against the enemies of the old faith and Lucius convinces 5 more to follow them towards the city.

As they moved on, now a war band of 22 plus bear, spring makes itself known again and a huge storm blows into their backs, from the holy mountain towards Divocortorum. Another good omen, but a storm so strong that they have to seek shelter again. One of the druid's new followers, Regin, offers to lead them to his cousin's steading close by and this is where they go.

A homestead ... [source]
The characters learn, that the ambush had been for them, as their reputation already precedes them and the wormpriest wanted to make sure they don't make it. His minions are all over the place, gaining influence with promises of power.

The weather got really bad as they reach the homestead. Regin's cousin welcomes them, they took care of the horses and went to the main hall. Widukind gets a short glimpse of a figure in a black cowl spying on them and tells the others that one of the wormpriest's acolytes might be with them here. Vadelma made a speech about the evil that threatens the forests and how those of the old faith have to resist it's temptations. There was a tense moment, then some servants went into the rooms of the patresfamilias and came back with the priest, throwing him on the floor in front of the characters.

The End (for now)

Play-Testing Insights/Outsights

THE GOOD - Setting and story come together quite nicely. The Narrative Generator constantly forces me to develop the story in totally different directions. Directions I wouldn't have chosen if on my own. It gives the game exactly the kind of epic vibe you can see in the old stories the game tries to emulate. I'm not sure if I was able to give a glimpse of that feel in the summary above. They are challenged and tested, gain followers and renown and mixed in are beliefs and encounters with fairies and that old cosmology of the Dark Ages.

It's not all the Narrative or the Territory Generator, but they deliver the frame and working that frame does wonders in facilitating a certain kind of narrative. One of my players also started using those tools in his games and comes to some of the same conclusions (which made me quite a bit happy, I have to admit).

THE BAD - The combat system needs some working on. Mid-level game revealed that characters turn out to be very strong. Stronger than anticipated. It also ends up being quite fiddly, with lots of dice. I don't mind it that much, but I admit it is a problem. This needs a couple of new impulses. It's not broken, but I think it needs to change quite a bit to allow for a satisfying mid-level experience. They players don't mind either, but since it became quite hard to even harm them, I'm not very surprised.

THE LACKING - Still no magic. Just didn't have that one great idea that clicks and makes it work. I hope I'll get there eventually. For now, it's just not there. There are some more tools that need to come into existence, mainly a culture generator that helps me giving all those tribes some depth and some random tool to throw some more toys into the sandbox, like ruins and what-not (I did something like that for Monkey Business, but I think I might have to think a bit more about this ...).

It also needs rules for mass combat (way earlier than I thought) and I need to tackle monster stats (which might be a bigger issue than I thought). 

THE NEW - The core system keeps maturing. One of the last problems I got solved was giving hurt areas of attributes some effect for failed saves. Characters get weaker all over the place if their characters get hurt. It works to great effect, I believe. Will be worth a post in the near future. All the little rules I've presented here over the last couple of months also work fine. Confidence/Overconfidence fit, skills really get some use now.

The mass migration ... [source]

That whole business about writing a game, I love it. We start the mid-level campaign and it's all kinds of challenges, all over the place. Never gets boring. I wish I had more time. Or more brain. But I wouldn't miss a minute of it.

Here's also a shout-out to all the play-testers I had the honor of DMing for, the current ones and all the others in the past. Something like this isn't done alone, it needs to be tested and exposed and challenged. So far I had been damn lucky with my players. Thanks!

Well, I hope you guys enjoyed this extensive look at Lost Songs of the Nibelungs and how the campaign shapes up. I'll keep posting this stuff here as the game grows and changes. I think I had been a bit too enthusiastic when I announced that the rules would be done by the end of this year. Very unlikely.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Weather Dice for RPGs (LSotN Design Post)

I'm way behind in keeping you guys posted about how Lost Songs of the Nibelungs grows and changes. Let's work on that a bit. Here's a little system I use now to give the players a sense of weather. Extreme results are random and possible and in my experience that's an easy way to allow weather having the impact in the game it should have. Here we go ...

Weather, what is it good for?

Weather and the seasons change and guide our behavior to this day, but even more so in, say, the Dark Ages (any time before the 20th century, actually). Extreme examples for this would be storms, winter, but even subtle changes in weather will have an impact on the environment. Guessing the weather is a sport as old as humanity and doing it right made you a VIP in your community. Those "oracles" would be consulted before every travel, actually before every major undertaking a community could come up with.

But what is it actually good for? Well, it depends on the game you play and the atmosphere you want in it. The heroes in our game travel in spring right now and the weather changes a lot: it rains often and there are some really bad weather and travel conditions all the time. Mud, thunderstorms ... the works. Weather makes it's presence felt.*

That can't be real ... [source]
We had a wounded character die because they couldn't find shelter fast enough in a thunderstorm, characters caught a cold once and another time they wouldn't travel to a certain location because the omens weren't right. When we come together to game and the re-cap is done I always jump-start the game with the question what the weather is like and those rolls are dreaded. You might think that it's only because it's spring, but no. Summer will bring it's very own hard weather conditions, like heat and no wind, droughts, you name it.

It brings a certain flavor, if you will, and that changes how the game is experienced. You don't always need this and there are styles of play out there that outright oppose implementing it, but for something like Lost Songs, where life is hard and nature is a threat, I find it a necessity. If wilderness travel is a big part of your game and you don't expect many encounters but want to make it count, weather is the way to go.

How to do it ... basics

There are several solutions to this problem and I've seen some great ones out there. When I started doing this I just rolled a d20 and went from there. High is bad, low is good. Worked well enough, but results ended up being a bit too extreme in the long run (5% for a brutal thunderstorm ... well, it's a bit too much).

So the system was lacking subtlety, but what it really had going for itself was that it worked fast and didn't rely on tables or charts or whatever. Just interpreting a roll of a die and you are good to go. Like an oracle, actually. The numbers stay abstract until you apply them to the current situation. Sense is what you generate in the game ... and I like that a lot. Still had to change some of it, though.

First of all, aiming for the bell curve is always a good idea if you want rare extreme results, so we'll go with 3d6 for now. I always found d6 a nice range for all kinds of shenanigans, so the numbers themselves show you how dry or wet it's going to be, doubles, triples and so on give you wind and wind direction. Weather changes, builds and ebbs, so we need some mechanics for that, too. I'll be going with what Lost Songs' combat already does: 1 are discarded, 6 generate new dice.

You basically roll every now and then and see how the weather builds and changes. Keep winds (doubles, triples and so on) and sixes into the next roll, and roll another 3d6 as soon you think the weather should change. Roll more often if you have lots of wind. Keep the matches only if they are growing, otherwise reduce them to a double and to nothing after that (could be done round by round or every second round, if the area is pretty flat, for instance). Sixes only stay one round longer and are discarded after that. Their value counts for the sum of the follow-up roll.

Clouds should start at a sum of 6 and build up from there. 10 would be pretty overhung, 12 would be light rain, 18 would be hard rain. A double is a light breeze, a triple will get you a nice little wind, a quadruple is a strong wind and so on. If new doubles, triples etc. are rolled, keep them and change the direction of the wind. Go clockwise for higher matches and counter-clockwise for lower ones. If you get three different triplets like that, you'll have a hurricane at your hands. A fourth double will dissipate all winds.

If you end up with more than six active dice this way (don't count wind from former rounds), you have an catastrophic event of sorts on your hand.

Keeping track of weather

Start with the surroundings. What kind of climate are the characters in? How is the area structured? Hills and valleys?** You already know where that wind is coming from or where the weather will "hang" or where it'll just fly over just by looking at the map. The first wind is always coming from the most obvious direction. You have a shore close by? That's where it's coming from, bringing all kinds of salty air and what-not. It's the simple things that work great magic like that.

Add seasons to that. Is it summer? Maybe dice should be discarded with 1 and 2 instead of just 1, to get those really stale summer days with just no breeze (no dice left ...). How high are the characters above sea level, in which climate? All good questions, all answers will shape how weather will behave in your game.

As soon as you have a picture what's possible, you can go and see how it is right now in the game: you just roll 3d6, go with the flow and believe the dice. You have your parameters, all you need now is keeping track of a couple of numbers and see how they change.

By the way, my first roll using this system had been 665, adding another 4 (and a 1, which go discarded). Heavy rain. The players hated it :D

Usage beyond the above (see below)

And that's it, my little weather oracle. It can be all kinds of modded and I imagine it to be quite useful for, say, adventures on the high sea. Experiment with it until you have what you need for your campaign. All kinds of weather phenomena should be within those results, but it gets a bit tricky with things like fogs or mists, which usually occur with the changing season, but can appear unseasonal when cold air meets warm (check the links). At this point you might want to check your map again and compare it with how the wind changes. If it comes from higher ground (say, passing snow covered mountains) you might have some fog happening ...

Just have fun with it and make it count for the players, either by adding some atmosphere or by weather having a real impact on, well, everything. I hope you guys find this as useful as I do. Thoughts, comments and different solutions are, as always, very welcome.

I'd like to see that roll ... [source]
*That's also why the druid spells to summon thunderstorms in D&D is a great, great spell, not appreciated enough. It might not have an immediate effect, but it certainly will ruin your travel plans, in fact it might actually weaken an adventuring group or army or what have you on a very basic level, as everything gets so much harder ...

**Here's what I use: The Random Territory Generator. It'll basically give you altitude and complexity of an area, which is all you really need to know what an area looks like ... if you want an idea how this works for a jungle area, you might want to check out Appendix 1 in this PWYW module I wrote *cough* *cough*