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.

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Recent developments made it necessary to moderate posts again. Sorry about that, folks.