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.