Thursday, March 31, 2016

Faking it (dirty DM secrets are somewhere in there)

Asked the girlfriend the other day how she perceives my DMing and she said I'm really good in faking knowledge (as in: she knows how much I prepare ...). So, I guess that's a good thing. Worth a post, too, because you can't know everything as a DM but people will have to rely on your opinion. If a DM can't make it work for a group, he's the wrong guy for the job (or girl, being inclusive and all). Right?

About being right ...

We saw Thank you for Smoking the other day again. I love that movie. There is a scene where the main character, Nick Nayler, shows his son how to win an argument not by being right or convincing an opposition, but by proofing them wrong. Behold:

In other words, credibility is half the battle. Wits is the other half. Goes for defending cigarettes (I wouldn't, but anyway) and for DMing a game. You see now, knowledge doesn't even have to be a part of it. It helps with the credibility, that's true, but credibility could be derived from many other sources (being famous could compensate a lot, intelligence doesn't hurt, friendship, google ... I could go on). 

And wits can do a lot for you in an argument. Man, people good at talking will get you to tell them what they need and end up shining with it, too. Following the above, proofing someone wrong would be one technique to support credibility and wits is one way to achieve this. But it could also be knowledge and/or fact checking. Even agreeing or admitting to be wrong could help winning an argument or gaining credibility ...

What I'm trying to say here: there is a lot about "being right" that goes way beyond knowing something. There are people telling you earth is a disc and there are people actually believing it. There are books about urban legends and in every case you'll find people who'll assure you it's all true. Aliens, anal probes, the complete show. 

Pratchett knew the truth is out there ... or something [source]
DMs can use this at the table!

But how? As most things, it starts by surrounding yourself with the right people. Friends are a good direction to start looking, but what you really want is acceptance. Respect even, if you can get it the beginning. But when the players don't even accept you in the role as DM, you might as well quit it right there. Because this is your foundation for trust, credibility and, yes, respect. If you get a chance you usually also get some wiggle room to navigate, which you'll need, because ...

... you have to learn how your crowd clicks. Favorites, weaknesses, group dynamics. Again, acceptance is the basis. Only if they are comfortable with you running things, they'll relax somewhat and give you the benefit of the doubt more often than not. Learn to work that crowd. Humor them, ask people for their opinions (especially if they know better for some reason), but also show them where you draw the line.

Here we go full circle. Check above. Consensus is not about being right, but about getting right. So wherever an individual DM would draw a line, he needs to be able to enforce it. That's one reason to have a sentence like "The DM has the final say in all matters!" (or some such thing) in almost all rule books. Codifying it like this to allow a DM that freedom, supports the very ideas discussed above. It builds on acceptance and demands respect. If not abused (because a DM has the obligation to provide, of course) it will result in trust.

In a way being a DM is a lot like nurturing a plant. You do it right and you'll have a strong and growing plant, with some room to model as an extra. You do it wrong and you get a dead plant ...

So it's all about manipulation?

There is now a multitude of ways to facilitate this. Way more than I have room, time or inclination to write about. Manipulation is one of them. People like to dominate people and sure enough, it's often all you need to make something work. Just as wrong, in my opinion, but that's neither here nor there. I'd rather talk about how I try to work this at my table.

I believe there is a certain set of traits that help a DM getting the job done. Knowledge of the rules certainly is one of them (although I actually suck at that one ... most of the time, anyway), but knowing your way around the books is a close enough substitute (you don't need to know the rules for aimed shots if you know where to look at, right?).

What helps me a lot, though, is being able to come to quick and realistic estimations of facts and situations. That's something you can train and I believe every DM worth his salt is somewhat good at "winging it" like it's the genuine item. That's not manipulation, but a good sense of what could be right and what could be accepted as right. Wits might come in handy here, too, as (the other) half the battle is credibility and being able to win an argument (fast) goes a long way in keeping the game on track.

In other words, it needs to look at least as if you could be right about what you say and people will accept it as the truth within the game. How this might be achieved is implied above (the part where you can get right without having actual knowledge of The Ten Thousand Things ...).

Those are not the druids ...

So being able to "fake it" is (in my opinion) a skill worth having for every DM. It's an useful illusion that can help greasing the flow of a game. But it's not all smoke and mirrors. You can't avoid feeding the brain a lot. Music, films, tv shows, documentaries, fiction and non fiction books, comics, blogs, role playing books, computer games, board games, all genres, all topics are interesting. We live in a golden age for stuff like that and while it's impossible to read/see/play all or even a small part of what we got access to, it is very well possible to keep yourself busy with it all the time.

Over time it all starts to connect. At least in places. Your game is in an existing city? If you can't visit it, read about it, look for documentaries and the towns history. You don't even have to write stuff down, just expose yourself to the information and you'll remember a lot without even trying. Main villain in a campaign is a banker? See movies portraying them, read a biography and try to get a feeling for the guy beyond the stats the game provides ... Always think: how could I use this in the game?

But why stop there? You go for a walk and you observe your surroundings for inspiration. I've read somewhere (can't remember where, sorry) that it is a good exercise to look back at your day before the game and take three random events, encounters and/or observations of that day and work them into the game. It's a good exercise to train using everything for your game.

And then there is the interaction with the players. Prepare stuff (as you are bound to anyway), not only send a mail, but add some flavor text and a picture, if you can. Reminding them what happened can help immensely with the immersion. But most of all, play with people you can treat with integrity, appreciation and respect ...

I'm not saying I am all of that, all the time, but it's something I aspire to keep trying. But something I really got good at over time is, you know, faking it to bridge the gap. Well, I hope you guys found an original idea or two in here and I didn't just state the obvious in a way too long text. What things do you guys do for your campaigns? What's different?


Shit, totally forgot about humor! Yeah, you'd need that, too :)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

D30 Table: Picaresque Storydevelopment (for every game)

Play-testing for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs still runs strong with the force right now. One of the recurring problems had been randomizing the flow of the narrative, that is allowing the story to unfold in every way the dice and the players decide. But using a simple roll has it's limitations, especially when you are looking for more inspiration than answering yes/no questions. I've tried something new yesterday and it worked so well, I thought I'd share.

Randomness and the Picaresque

I roll everything at the table but the bare necessities that need preparation. I take my freedom in free association and often enough just go with the flow where I can. The beauty of it is that I might have an idea what's happening in the setting, but have no idea about the story that will get told. But it doesn't go far enough just yet. I'd like to have a random key that allows the story to twist and turn in a natural and random way that goes beyond my capabilities as a story teller.

So every now and then I go and check terms as "narrative structure" or "plot development" on google for inspiration. Problem is, most stories are pretty linear, structure-wise. Not all the time, but often enough even the more adventurous structures just deviate from the known without ever loosing sight of it. One of the few exceptions is the picaresque story, because your basic picaresque is like a rpg game report. In a good way.

Scene from a picaresque novel [source]
But it's exactly that elusive arbitrariness that makes it almost impossible to structure it in a meaningful way. I realize that rpg campaigns mostly end up being picaresque because of what the players do, I just want the same "feel" for the gaming world surrounding the players. Because that's what happens in a world: you encounter stories after stories at different stages, sometimes you are the story, sometimes you just start it, sometimes you just witness part of it. Your own story is always the point of reference, your personal center of the universe, your medium of understanding.

And that's exactly the reason why we can enter a story at every point and have an understanding of it immediately: our point reference is, at it's very core, the same. As gamers we already know that randomness can help expressing this better than anything else.

Anyway, I was (randomly, really) looking for for pictures illustrating narrative structures (and structure flow in general) when I stumbled across Vladimir Propp, a Soviet folklorist and scholar from the 20th century who analyzed basic plot components. He came up with 31 ... that's a d30 in my book. Behold! Source is the Wikipedia entry linked with the name:

  1. ABSENTATION: A member of the hero's community or family leaves the security of the home environment. This may be the hero themselves, or it may be some other relation that the hero must later rescue. This division of the cohesive family injects initial tension into the storyline. This may serve as the Hero's introduction, typically portraying them as an ordinary person.
  2. INTERDICTION: A forbidding edict or command is passed upon the hero ('don't go there', 'don't do this'). The hero is warned against some action.
  3. VIOLATION of INTERDICTION. The prior rule is violated. Whether performed by the Hero by accident or temper, a third party or a foe, this generally leads to negative consequences. The villain enters the story via this event, although not necessarily confronting the hero. They may be a lurking and manipulative presence, or might act against the Hero's family in his absence.
  4. RECONNAISSANCE: The villain makes an effort to attain knowledge needed to fulfill their plot. Disguises are often invoked as the villain actively probes for information, perhaps for a valuable item or to abduct someone. They may speak with a member of the family who innocently divulges a crucial insight. The villain may also seek out the hero in their reconnaissance, perhaps to gage their strengths in response to learning of their special nature.
  5. DELIVERY: The villain succeeds at recon and gains a lead on their intended victim. A map is often involved in some level of the event.
  6. TRICKERY: The villain attempts to deceive the victim to acquire something valuable. They press further, aiming to con the protagonists and earn their trust. Sometimes the villain make little or no deception and instead ransoms one valuable thing for another.
  7. COMPLICITY: The victim is fooled or forced to concede and unwittingly or unwillingly helps the villain. The villain is now free to access somewhere previously off-limits, like the privacy of the hero's home or a treasure vault, acting without restraint in their ploy.
  8. VILLAINY or LACKING: The villain harms or injures a family member, including but not limited to abduction, theft, spoiling crops, plundering, banishment or expulsion of one or more protagonists, committing murder, threatening a forced marriage, providing nightly torments and so on. Simultaneously or alternatively, a protagonist finds they desire or require something lacking from the home environment (a potion or artifact etc.). The villain may still be indirectly involved in the latter option, perhaps fooling the family member into believing they need such an item.
  9. MEDIATION: One or more of the negative factors covered above comes to the attention of the Hero, who uncovers the deceit/perceives the lacking/learns of the villainous acts that have transpired.
  10. BEGINNING COUNTER-ACTION: The hero considers ways to resolve the issues, by seeking a needed magical item, rescuing those who are captured or otherwise thwarting the villain. This is a defining moment for the hero, one that shapes their further actions and marks the point when they begin to fit their noble mantle.
  11. DEPARTURE: The hero leaves the home environment, this time with a sense of purpose. Here begins their adventure.
  12. FIRST FUNCTION OF THE DONOR: The hero encounters a magical agent or helper (donor) on their path, and is tested in some manner through interrogation, combat, puzzles or more.
  13. HERO'S REACTION: The hero responds to the actions of their future donor; perhaps withstanding the rigours of a test and/or failing in some manner, freeing a captive, reconciles disputing parties or otherwise performing good services. This may also be the first time the hero comes to understand the villain's skills and powers, and uses them for good.
  14. RECEIPT OF A MAGICAL AGENT: The hero acquires use of a magical agent as a consequence of their good actions. This may be a directly acquired item, something located after navigating a tough environment, a good purchased or bartered with a hard-earned resourced or fashioned from parts and ingredients prepared by the hero, spontaneously summoned from another world, a magical food that is consumed, or even the earned loyalty and aid of another.
  15. GUIDANCE: The hero is transferred, delivered or somehow led to a vital location, perhaps related to one of the above functions such as the home of the donor or the location of the magical agent or its parts, or to the villain.
  16. STRUGGLE: The hero and villain meet and engage in conflict directly, either in battle or some nature of contest.
  17. BRANDING: The hero is marked in some manner, perhaps receiving a distinctive scar or granted a cosmetic item like a ring or scarf.
  18. VICTORY: The villain is defeated by the hero - killed in combat, outperformed in a contest, struck when vulnerable, banished and so on.
  19. LIQUIDATION: The earlier misfortunes or issues of the story are resolved; object of search are distributed, spells broken, captives freed.
  20. RETURN: The hero travels back to their home.
  21. PURSUIT: The hero is pursued by some threatening adversary, who perhaps seek to capture or eat them.
  22. RESCUE: The hero is saved from a chase. Something may act as an obstacle to delay the pursuer, or the hero may find or be shown a way to hide, up to and included transformation unrecognizably. The hero's life may be saved by another.
  23. UNRECOGNIZED ARRIVAL: The hero arrives, whether in a location along their journey or in their return home, and is unrecognized or unacknowledged.
  24. UNFOUNDED CLAIMS: A false hero presents unfounded claims or performs some other form of deceit. This may be the villain, one of the villain's underlings or an unrelated party. It may even be some form of future donor for the hero, once they've faced their actions.
  25. DIFFICULT TASK: A trial is proposed to the hero - riddles, test of strength or endurance, acrobatics and other ordeals.
  26. SOLUTION: The hero accomplishes a difficult task.
  27. RECOGNITION: The hero is given due recognition - usually by means of their prior branding.
  28. EXPOSURE: The false hero and/or villain is exposed to all and sundry.
  29. TRANSFIGURATION: The hero gains a new appearance. This may reflect aging and/or the benefits of labour and health, or it may constitute a magical remembering after a limb or digit was lost (as a part of the branding or from failing a trial). Regardless it will serves to improve their looks.
  30. PUNISHMENT: The villain suffers the consequences of their actions, perhaps at the hands of the hero, the avenged victims, or as a direct results of their own ploy.
  31. WEDDING: The hero marries and is rewarded or promoted by the family or community, typically ascending to a throne.

That last point is something that a system normally already does to some degree or another with leveling up and stuff, so we don't need it. There, 30 entries left. This is what I did: we have quests going, of course, and the characters do their thing, of course, but I roll once at this table, check the result and work it until it's somehow resolved in the story. After it's resolved, roll again ... and so on. If it fits with what's already going on, fine, it's a twist in the ongoing quests somehow.

If it really doesn't fit anywhere, it's something random the characters encounter. They enter a different story at that random point. Go with what you get, even if it seems counter-intuitive and the story is better for it every time. It's also a joy for a DM to see a story unfold in a way he or the players couldn't have anticipated.

Also check out the updated version here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Musings about Combat in Tabletop Role Playing Games

I've been thinking about combat a lot lately. Mainly because I write at two systems right now where I try to go away from what D&D did. It's harder than one would think. For me at least it is. "Combat Design" is something you won't find that much information about, as far as role playing games are concerned. And that's a shame, really, as I think it's a chance to build systems that enhance the experience of combat without being too complex. At least on the player side ...

Case in point: HALO (1)

Bear with me a moment. I will go back to the tabletop variant soon(-ish). But I really love me some HALO and some of the concepts that work here should work with the analogue step parents we love to play so much.
The Masterchief! [source]
It's the first ego-shooter that had huge areas to explore and a decent AI to make it feel organic, realistic even. How to engage a group of enemies is totally up to the player and the coop-feature (for the old x-box) is the icing on the cake. It's beautiful.

So what are the main factors to make this work? I see 8:
  • complex but realistic environments (laws of physics apply and so on)
  • different enemy types (groups with different strengths and weaknesses)
  • common sense (as in predictable) directs enemy behavior
  • wide range of possible tactics (from efficient to improvised)
  • mission goals and agile story arcs (small objectives in a "living" environment)
  • huge availability of tools and equipment (vehicles, enemy weapons)
  • (but) limited (!) weapon use for players (ammunition, number of weapons carried)
  • precise and generous interface with high basic character capabilities (runs fast, jumps far, reacts immediately, fair hit zones)
Environment is a neutral factor until a player or the opposition or the story changes that. Freedom of movement and the opportunity to explore allow a player to collect as much information as he needs to apply the tactics he deems necessary to complete his missions. In other words, a player gets a chance to make informed desicions (if he wants to). The interface supports this by getting out of the way during play and highlighting possible interactions with the environment where necessary, which, in turn, helps with the immersion into the game and encourages exploration.

My favorite level in Halo 1 [source]
So it's easy to navigate the game, with lots to explore, find and use before you even start shooting. Having the time to do so is just as important, in that regard. Limiting the number of main weapons a character can carry to two, with access to two different types of grenades (also limited) and (rarely) a fifth option where you are able to zoom in on a target, actually helps keeping it simple on the player side. It's furthermore important that all weapon and equipment options are viable options and what a player uses is to a huge degree a matter of taste (limited by access and tactical necessities).

The final three factors are now the opposition, objectives and the story as the glue. The character has a reason to be in the story and that story unfolds in front of the player because of his decisions and accomplishments or scripted events (most of the time when entering a new area, so as a result of exploration).

Having a story means narrowing the scope of a scenario somewhat, mission objectives will narrow it even more so. With the freedom a player has (as described above), I'd say this is a good thing, because it gives the player an opportunity to make important decisions and use all of that to his advantage and with a goal.

And only now we start shooting at the opposition. Story, missions, resources and environment inform our tactics and goals. The good design doesn't stop here. Enemies react "realistically" to threats, run for cover (and use it) or flee even. Line of sight is important, they are calm if they are just on watch and alarm others if alerted .. and all that means they are somewhat predictable for the player.

Even if he doesn't care to study them he will find them reacting as they are "supposed to", which is just as important as giving him the chance to study them. It's this openness to player choice or player approach, that makes the game so engaging. But it is still not enough. Diversity in the enemy design is the last factor. Hierarchy, power levels, different abilities and weaknesses are key here and make the experience complete.

The question now is how al that is relevant to tabletop role playing games.

War Game versus Theatre of the Mind!

The first thing you'll probably think now, is that role playing games in general (and D&D especially) have some very solid roots in war gaming, which is kindof, sort of doing most of the above. and you'd be partially right. There are some pretty solid skirmish rules for many, many tabletop rpgs. If you like to use (or have the resources for) miniatures and terrain, that is.

I know people go to great lengths to make this work at their table and I admire that. Honestly, I love looking at pictures of some of the set ups people come up with. I've seen things. And admittedly, if I had the space and the money, I'd have a room full with everything needed to build a huge dungeon and ...
Awesome! [source]
More awesome! [source]
Nah, I won't go down that specific rabbit hole (for now). Let's just say, I'm really not against using props like this at the table, but it has it's limitations. Except for the material part, which is immense, even if it might change with the advent of 3d printers as we see it right now (but that's not the point), well, except for that I often feel that ready access to another venue of commerce made some developers lazy enough to not only leave the bridge to war gaming wide open, but also neglect the chances to explore systems where the theatre of the mind is the only stage you have.

Or when they do, it often enough gets (and some might disagree here) unnecessarily compartmentalized and crunchy. I'll tell you where I see the problem with systems (A) either ignoring that combat might be any different than climbing a tree or (B) going all in with the details: the perspective is wrong or, better yet, skewed and that's mostly because games tend to treat characters as single and disconnected entities.

Every system that designs combat around that premise will more often than not rely on the DM to fill the gap somehow (using props or the narrative, for instance) or expands a character's abilities to a degree of detail that creates the illusion of verisimilitude (characters in those systems can dodge, take cover, have ammunition and a normative handle of sorts how well they'll hit the target under several circumstances ...).

One could think now that it is important that a character is able to jump 2.13 meters or run 8.376 mph. But is it, really? I think the idea that we might want (need?) exact measurements for our characters that are somehow relatable to our "real world" systems (other than in an abstract way), is pretty outdated and proven as tiresome (to say the least).

All that being said, even if I feel that many systems I have encountered are lacking a proper Combat Design (or at least are missing a great opportunity there) I have to admit that it is very possible for a DM worth his salt to make every combat system all shades of awesome if it works for him. But that just doesn't mean we shouldn't think about alternate approaches for combat systems when we are writing games ...

Insights and directions

I won't present complete solutions in this post, as I don't have them. But there are a few insights I will share. Halo is an extremely good example for well made Combat Design. Players can just interact with the world without any prior knowledge other than common sense and basic usage of a controller (the rest is done with tutorials and the story). I think it's not unusual in tabletop rpgs to handle it similar. Players don't need to know the rules. Or all the rules, for that matter. They should be able to just have an idea what their character is about and play it from there.

Fight! [source]
I believe that's for many people the reason to go back to those older system where you just had a sword or a fireball (I'm simplifying, of course). Anyway, that's what I meant with a skewed perspective. There is a point where systems got popular which outright demand that a player not only knows all of his character's abilities, but even needs to plan his character development tree and what not.

WoW is to blame. For sure. And all the games that tried to translate the idea into tabletop gaming. I won't call names and it isn't important. Anyway, at some point people said "No more!" and went back in time systems where they found a freedom they had been looking for. Halo teaches us that an easy to handle system helps with the immersion into the setting and I think the phenomena are related.

Environment is another big factor. NPCs in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs get (randomly determined) dice support from the environment (if they are familiar with it) and it really helps remembering and integrating it into a fight. It's a start.

As I was writing this, I thought a (good?) idea for a system heavily supporting the use of environment in a game could vary the combat die depending on the type of environment the fight is in. Fight in a swamp? It's a d12! In light forest? A d20! Open field? Also a d20, but a d30 when using a horse ... or something like that. Scale dice by how difficult a environment is and how familiar the combatant is with it. Could work for D&D, too. Either way, it should count as an example :)

Next up is enemy diversity and we all know about that one. I believe we could do more on that front, although we seem to have 1000 and 1 monster compendiums out there. Halo is, again, a prime example of how it can be done. Quality, not quantity might describe it best. As i wrote above: "hierarchy, power levels, different abilities and weaknesses are key". Role playing games are traditionally strong on the different abilities and power level fronts, hierarchies are in there, too. Sometimes. But the weaknesses? I don't know ... Tell me if I'm wrong, but I really can't think of an example where it actually mattered. Maybe single monsters, but in general? I think not.

As a rule of thumb I'd say a DM should only have a handful of very well prepared monsters* in his campaign (and that's certainly not new advice, but something I'll repeat just because it fits, again, with what Halo does). Let them have roots in the setting, folklore, rumors and yes, weaknesses. That old shtick with the Goblins having trouble with the sun or the dragon having a weak spot. A DM that can pull it off, will make his campaign shine so much brighter.

Having only light rules on the players side means there is a need and a chance to connect all this with a system like a dynamic sandbox or storybox or mysterybox or whatever. Not doing this would leave the heavy lifting with the DM. Or forces him to BUY PRODUCT (TM). And there you see how some solely commercial calculation fucks up good (proper?) design. You need an incomplete set of rules to sell miniatures and splat-books ... Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit. But only a bit.

Thing is, a role playing game needs DM tools to make it complete in my eyes. If a DM is to pull it all out of his arse, it stays and falls with that DM. A good set of tools could avoid some of that. And sure enough, there is a lot of that out there in the www. But since we are talking chances here, it's worth considering that a DM tool made with a specific system and all it's idiosyncrasies in mind, might (just might) be better suited for that system than some general advice you find in the blog-o-sphere.

I just started to think that I went a bit off track here. But no, all of that goes somehow into combat: Swamp Goblins hate rain and will avoid fighting or even laying ambushes when the weather is bad (ruins their camouflage ...), so characters get told they should travel those swamps only when it's raining ... which brings it's own set of problems ... and so on and so forth. A living environment, story arcs and missions all help the players to decide where and when they need to fight and how they do that.

Lastly a word on cooperation. It's a big feature for Halo on the xbox back then and although people are already at the table and playing together for tabletop rpgs, I feel like it really helps when the system not only somehow retroactively rewards working together but actually has rules that make it a tactical option in combat. Something like if characters support each other, they could double their damage or get an extra attack or double their AC. You know, something significant. Something players would not merely consider (because of some stupid +1 more or less) but really seek out.

You can't make this unseen! ... and it's teamwork :D [source]
A good system tries to take all of that under consideration. Early D&D does some of that and I love the Monster Reaction roll, for instance, for allowing exactly that. But when we are writing games ourselves (and that's something I think every DM should at least try once), we could do more than that. Or at least aim higher. And if we do it with the purpose to get it published, we should make it as complete as possible.

One more thought: player skill is something that thrives when the rules are reasonably light on the player side of things.

Combat Design

As for Combat Design, I'll try to see the characters as part of the rest, not as singular entity. Part of that is in the card based mission generator I wrote about a week ago. The Grind will also feature a system where the environment factors into armor in a way that allows a character to reduce his position instead of his health (or vice versa) and cards will be used to support some of that in adding another dimension to the whole thing. Cooperation will be big, too, like giving others your successes.

Lost Songs adds another dimension to this in using board game elements for combat. Habtics is an aspect I didn't talk about in this post, but the short of it is, that it helps players to have, say, a number of dice you can use in a round and using them means actually putting them somewhere on the character sheet. Also helps "reading" a fight better.

In the end I think it's important to find ways to transcend the step-by-step thinking we see so often in combat systems and get to a more organic, fluid way to kill for xp. I've seen this to some extent with some indie role playing games and peope keep writing and coming up with awesome stuff, so all is good.

Well, I know I have yet a long way to go before any of that is done and mistakes are part of the deal. But trying, folks, trying again and again is where it gets better :)

It turned out to be a long one. Again. Still, I hope you guys found some food for thought ... If you have encountered some good Combat Design on your travels outside the mainstream, please feel free to share it in the comments.

*Yeah, a footnote. Sorry :) I just wanted to add that the same goes for settings. It's something you may observe in almost every good anime tv show: they'll take a couple of strong themes and mix them without blurring the lines too hard (take Samurai Champloo, for instance, as a fantastic mix of Samurai and Rap culture ... if you haven't seen that yet, check it out). They explore themes by reflecting them unto each other. I always thought that's a nice idea for building a campaign setting, too. Footnote: out.

Also: Samurai Champloo Opening Credits for those who managed to get all the way down here!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Some ideas about alternate resource management in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (and I just thought this title isn't long enough ...)

There is this German blog I like to read, Tagschatten, and this guy, +Tag Schattenseems to be writing a D&D retroclone (Hic Sunt Dracones and I can't tell you how happy that title me makes). A few days weeks ago (it's been weeks already, goddammit) he also wrote a post asking what ideas people have for resource management systems that don't require lots of buerocracy and character sheet abuse (it's all in German, of course, so you have been warned). Got me thinking, too. It is not an easy question to answer and I think I got at least two proposals and waaaay too much text for just a comment. So here we go. I hope he doesn't mind.


I like to think that I know a bit about the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, so this is where I will go looking for inspiration. I also believe that we should check what is already done before we start inventing new rules, so I will loot that game relentlessly. Another fine aspect of an approach like this is that those rules are already tested where they were used, so we have an idea how they could work when used somewhere else. It will also mean that the results should be highly compatible with other D&D games out there (Hic Sunt Dracones seems to emulate Mentzer, so it should work without any problems).

1. That thing about the Mystic

I wrote about this in 2012, but it bears repeating: the mystic's acrobatic ability is flawed for many reasons, but the concept itself might have merit in the game. Since Resource Management is a bit more complex than just affecting one Ability Score, I'd go and use 2 instead: Constitution (two times) and Wisdom (one time). So the formula for that additional ability a character could have (we could call it Survival, for lack of a better term) would be:

[(Constitution x 2) + (Wisdom) + (level x 2)] vs. d%
is the Survival Test

Or something like that. A group could decide for someone taking care of it (the roll) or the one with the lowest percentage is the one to check if stuff went sour. This being a percentage roll, allows for some shenanigans with bonuses and so on. They could look something like this:

  • add 2 for every factor that could have a positive effect on the groups resources during their travels or night camps (well equipped, well traveled road, being in an area full with (natural) resources)
  • add 5 for every class or skill that could be useful to the group, but never more than 30 (having a cleric, a hunter, a field medic and/or a cook)
  • reduce by 1 for every negative effect on the groups resources during their travels or night camps (no fire, wet, fear of being hunted ...)
  • reduce Survival by the number of days since the last time the group restocked their resources completely
  • reduce Survival by (3 x Dungeon Level) if they have camp there
  • reduce by 1 for every additional non-player group member they have with them (horses, henchmen, dogs ...)
  • and so on ...

That's basically what the DM needs to keep track of. If he has a modifier for that Survival roll, he'll be able to interpret the result as he sees fit according to the circumstances. As a guideline I'd say, the greater the gap between difficulty (that is: Survival +/- modifier) the harsher is the effect on the group.

This could mean just the loss of some of the resources with a low gap (moldy food, damaged oil containers, wet torches or ruined cloths, resulting in another modifier to add to the next roll) or real damage to the resources with a middle high gap (horses or NPCs get sick or really unhappy, also resulting in another modifier and adding some in game difficulties, like not regenerating any hp) or in a worst case scenario real consequences for the group (critical failure or a gap bigger than 90, here the characters get sick, maybe from food poisoning, lack of fire, wet cloths, stuff like that).

Damaging Con or Wisdom would have a direct effect on the Survival ability, of course. And if a player describes something exceptional for a night, like sharing his precious brandy with the others or doing something entertaining, it could end in something extra for the roll ...

I'd have this checked every time they make camp or once per travel. A DM doesn't need to know what exactly the characters have in their backpacks and might even come up with the results of a failed roll as he sees fit, but the trade-off is (might be) that it's not very precise.

Example: Buckaroo, the group's fat level 4 Halfling, is the one managing the resources and really gets busy when they set up camp. He has a plan what needs to get done and when, so he sends people into he forest for fire wood, tells the henchmen to take care of the horses or raising the tents and cooks a nice, warm meal for the others to get in their stomach. His Con is 16 and his Wis is 12, so he has a Survival of 52 %. They are well equipped, travelling through a forest in late summer, met some travelers on the road and the weather has been very pleasant, netting a +10 there. They also get the +30 for having other useful people in the group. So that's a 92 they have going for them right now.

It's been 12 days since they last had a chance to refill their supplies, they have 8 horses, two donkeys, a dog and three henchmen with them and think someone is following them ... so I'd end up reducing that by 30 (26 plus the four for being extra cautious that night). That means Buckaroo needs to make a roll of 62 or lower. Seeing morale is a bit low since they haven't seen proper lodging for almost 2 weeks now and see monsters in every shadow, he decides to make his favorite biscuits for the group and takes care that everyone gets a good sip of that Elven wine they found a few days ago, getting another +8 for the roll (or 70 %) ...

2. That thing about the Cleric

And that would be re-purposing the Turn Undead Table, of course. It's basically the above but with 2d6 instead of 1d100. I think it might end up being even less precise, but it'd fit all into one nice table, so that's certainly something. It could look something like this:

This is how one could re-purpose that Turn Undead Table from the D&D RC (p. 15, changes by me)
It is untested, of course. But I imagine a DM could make it work. Still no bookkeeping and the group could actually die from exposure and all the other fine things characters die from if they aren't taking care of their equipment ...

Example: A group with an average level 2 is in over their head. They are deep in the Dungeon (level 3) and their cleric died, leaving them with only a cook and too many mouths to feed and as they lay down to sleep, they are at severity level 7. No roll. The lack of a proper fire and the damp air will have them all lose 3 Constitution and it will get worse if they don't manage to get out of there ...

Some loose ideas

I had the vague idea to re-utilize the D&D combat system. Something like using the Severity levels from 2 as hd and environment (like Dungeon Level, et cetera) as AC and have each of the characters roll their attack (as per level) and for damage. But it feels a bit excessive to have a group fight it out every time they make a rest, so I'll just mention it as a road not taken (in this post, at least). I still believe it could be done. Maybe if people just where to roll damage and if they overcome the severity, nothing happens. But if they don't ... Anyway, just food for thought here.

The lazy answer, by the way, is to bridge this stuff with the Dungeon World set of rules (a page with all the rules can be found here and Truncheon is a PWYW pdf sporting the same rules and can be found here). The DM tools are easily enough ported into D&D and they are in the cc, so they could be used in a D&D retro-clone, for instance. Well, whatever that's worth, I thought it couldn't hurt to mention it.

This is it. I hope I was able to show some possibilities how resource management could matter without having a huge amount of bookkeeping in there, too. Those ideas are untested and merely pointing the direction.

At least there would be almost no character sheet abuse, right? :)

Friday, March 11, 2016

Random Signature Moves for The Grind! (2d100, could be used anywhere ...)

Still trucking along with The Grind, that DungeonPunk RPG I've been talking about the last few weeks. It's a fun exercise and my latest idea is to give each character a random Signature Move they could interpret as they like and use when their characters make the highest possible damage ... I do this rarely here on the blog, but have yourselves some 2d100 randomness for a change!

But first a few words about 19th slang terms and ...

... the randomness of things. Round about 80 % of the words in those two lists you'll find below are from a tome with the charming title Vocabulum; or, The Rogue's Lexicon. (compiled from the most authentic sources), a book published in 1859 and that means that most readers, even the native speakers, won't know some of those words or aren't aware of the meaning some others held over 150 years ago. That is not a problem. It is intentional.

The idea to give characters a randomly generated Signature Move (and with that something the players can play around with) should leave lots of interpretation. So they could take the random combination of words at face value and invent something or they could google it and go from there. It also carries some of the atmosphere from the era that is the backdrop for The Grind so that shroud of mystery is most welcome.

I'm not sure if I'll have a glossary in the game and if those words would be explained in it if I had one. For now I'll go with the mystery and people using google or checking that book out I've linked above. This could be used for several other things, of course. 

The combinations won't necessarily make much sense, but that's part of the charm and leaves room for the imagination. It could describe anything, but it will mean the certain doom for one unfortunate individual, even it's called [rolling 2d100] The Downy Ding (which could be translated as a "smooth throw away" ...) or [rolling some more] The Hockey Pop (something like a "drunk shot"), The Terrier Chimney (which sounds horrifying, IMO) or The Hammered Packet. Have fun!

Learned today about the Martial Arts Holmes is using: Bartitsu
Signature Moves (roll 2d100 for "The (A) ___ (B) ___"):

  1. Agog
  2. Amazing
  3. Amusing
  4. Annihilating
  5. Astonishing
  6. Bear
  7. Beef
  8. Big
  9. Bingo
  10. Blasted
  11. Blathering
  12. Bleak
  13. Bloody
  14. Blooming
  15. Bluffing
  16. Boiling
  17. Burning
  18. Calculated
  19. Chaunting
  20. Cold
  21. Cruel
  22. Cutty-Eyed
  23. Dabbing
  24. Dancing
  25. Daring
  26. Dazzling
  27. Devestating
  28. Dinging
  29. Dismaying
  30. Distressing
  31. Downy
  32. Drab
  33. Edging
  34. Fizzing
  35. Flat
  36. Flay
  37. Flickering
  38. Flicking
  39. Frumper
  40. Glamming
  41. Glancing
  42. Glib
  43. Goosecap
  44. Growling
  45. Gunpowder
  46. Gutter
  47. Hammered
  48. Hash
  49. Hilarious
  50. Hockey
  51. Honoring
  52. Hot
  53. Hung
  54. Ivory
  55. Jabbing
  56. Jolly
  57. Leery
  58. Lurking
  59. Maulding
  60. Misleading
  61. Mobile
  62. Nacky
  63. Old
  64. Ottomised
  65. Perforating
  66. Phony
  67. Pig
  68. Pissing
  69. Popular
  70. Punishing
  71. Purifying
  72. Pushing
  73. Quag
  74. Raging
  75. Randy
  76. Ravenous
  77. Ripe
  78. Ripping
  79. Savage
  80. Screwing
  81. Shady
  82. Shallow
  83. Shivering
  84. Shredding
  85. Sickening
  86. Slicing
  87. Smacking
  88. Smelling
  89. Soft
  90. Stupefying
  91. Surprising
  92. Swell
  93. Terrier
  94. Tumbling
  95. Twisting
  96. Vinegar
  97. Weeping
  98. Whirling
  99. Wuss
  100. Yelling

  1. Albert
  2. Alls
  3. Begger
  4. Blinker
  5. Box
  6. Bread-bag
  7. Buzzle
  8. Carnage
  9. Capper
  10. Chimney
  11. Cloud
  12. Coffin
  13. Corset
  14. Coven
  15. Crab
  16. Crop
  17. Cut
  18. Death
  19. Demander
  20. Derbies
  21. Devil
  22. Ding
  23. Doctors
  24. Dodge
  25. Doom
  26. Down
  27. Drunk
  28. Earth-bath
  29. Ease
  30. Explosion
  31. Fever
  32. Floorer
  33. Fool
  34. Gentleman
  35. Grim
  36. Growler
  37. Handle
  38. Hank
  39. Harlot
  40. Hook
  41. Hose
  42. Hubbub
  43. Humiliation
  44. Innocent
  45. Implosion
  46. Itch
  47. Jack
  48. Jeffey
  49. Jig
  50. Kittler
  51. Lady
  52. Lap up
  53. Licker
  54. Lift
  55. Macer
  56. Mischief
  57. Moocher
  58. Naider
  59. Nail
  60. Nancy
  61. Nobble
  62. Nose-ender
  63. Oar
  64. Office
  65. Packet
  66. Paradox
  67. Peel
  68. Pidgeon
  69. Pimp
  70. Pipe
  71. Pomp
  72. Pop
  73. Principle
  74. Rabbit
  75. Racket
  76. Red
  77. Revolution
  78. Rib
  79. Rose
  80. Rub
  81. Saddle
  82. Scandal
  83. Scare
  84. Scrape
  85. Shirkster
  86. Slap
  87. Sleep
  88. Split
  89. Sprinkler
  90. Tackle
  91. Tail
  92. Tatts
  93. Thrust
  94. Tickle
  95. Toffer
  96. Tomb
  97. Twister
  98. Tye
  99. Vigor
  100. Virgin
Well, maybe I should add those extra meanings at some point :) They'll be in the rules ...