Saturday, March 18, 2017

ACKS Estates - Burghers

The burghers represent townsfolk, skilled craftsmen, guild members, merchants, and thieves.  Peasant families supporting burgher families are mostly farmers who bring their products to market in a village, town, or city, but might also be fishermen.  Burghers provide Market Class, as well as tax money.  They also hire and manage their own town watch/garrison (but are loath to provide it to the oligarchy for offensive use), and maintain the urban infrastructure.  In warfare, the burghers provide logistical support and transport via ships and caravans, as well as intelligence assets.  While the oligarchs of the noble estate style themselves barons, counts, dukes, and so forth, burgher oligarchs have titles ranging from hetman to burgomeister to most serene doge.

Every burgher family pays 6gp/season in taxes.  In addition, every 125 burgher families provides one point of Fleet Support.  Naval, logistical, and intelligence units have their support costs shown below:

Purchase price and support cost are fairly straightforward; the number of GP you must pay to construct the unit, and the number of points of Fleet Support required to sustain it.  Logistical units can be allocated to three tasks: trade, transport, and supply.  Trading generates income for the oligarchy.  Transport allows ships to transport ground units (cavalry platoons and foot platoons take up the same amount of space, as cavalry platoons are half as large).  Ships with marines have their marines levied, paid, and supplied by the burghers.  Units conducting supply missions carry supplies to land units in the field; their ability to conduct supply operations is expressed in a range and a capacity, which is the number of companies that they can keep in supply at that range.  You can double the range by halving the capacity, and visa versa, to a maximum of two doublings (so a 40-wagon caravan could supply 12 companies at a range of 60 miles or 6 companies at 120 miles, but not 3 companies at 240 miles).  Only riverboats and longships can carry supplies up most rivers, while only caravans can carry supplies overland, and large ships may require a good harbor to unload efficiently.  Further, cavalry requires four times as much supply as infantry, and siege weapons and special units may require more.  This nicely models the strong historical preference for conducting operations along coastlines without introducing too much additional complexity - most domains are going to already want to have logistical units during peacetime for the trade income.  If dealing with detailed supply is too much work, just reallocate sailing ships to cover the number of units you have in the field and don't worry about rivers, caravans, or supply distance; the important thing is that supplying troops reduces trade income (a lot).

Goon Squads, Spies, and Assassins are intelligence units.  A goon squad is a gang of 1st-level thieves and assassins, suitable for petty mischief, breaking kneecaps, and kidnapping the children of influential persons.  What they lack in subtlety and ability, they make up for in comic relief and expendability.  A spy is a 4th-level thief who can infiltrate other estates, domains, and armies, provide intelligence to the burgomeister, and conduct sabotage.  An assassin is a 4th-level assassin who can be used to off people.  These units use the hijinks rules to accomplish effects instead of to make money.  Details TBD.

While the burgh does support its own garrison, at a rate of 2gp/family/month, they're mostly constables and watchmen, not soldiers.  One bowman per ten families mans the walls and can be called to arms, but the greater part of the fighting men of the city are the marines of the fleet.  Depending on culture, marines might be a mix of hoplite-style heavy infantry and bowmen, reavers, or something else entirely.  If the city finds itself under siege, constables and thieves may be pressed into service.  Two constables can be mustered per ten families, and they are armed with clubs and shields and armored in leather.  They're basically slightly-better militia.  One first-level thief per ten families is willing to fight if circumstances are sufficiently dire (the other first-level thief per ten families has already skipped town).  Thief units are expensive and fragile, but sneaky, and may be useful for sallying out against siege camps.

Constables: 2/4/6 Irregular Foot, AC3, HD 1-1, UHP 6, ML -1, 2 club 11+.  Wages 3gp/mo.
Thieves: 2/4/6 Loose Foot, AC2, HD 1-2, UHP 4, ML 0, 2 short sword 10+, 2 javelin 10+.  Wages 25gp/mo, can hide in shadows (deploy hidden at night or in cover), backstab for +2 to hit and +1 damage on a successful hit against disordered enemies or to flank or rear.

Finally, the total burgher population of the domain determines the class of its main market:

  • <1000 families: Class VI
  • 1000 families: Class V
  • 2500 families: Class IV
  • 10,000 families: Class III
  • 25,000 families: Class II
  • 150,000 families: Class I

Burgher events are probably mostly about money, markets, and hijinks.  A merchant needs sponsorship to fund an expedition to a distant land, promising to share profits with his patrons.  A sailor bears news of internal affairs in a nearby domain.  A prominent nobleman borrowed money from the burghers but the harvest was poor, so he can't repay them, and the case is brought before the oligarchs (there's probably a whole slew of worthwhile "inter-estate conflict brought before the oligarchs" dilemma events, where favoring one side over the other influences loyalty).  The city is unsanitary and there's a plague outbreak, killing some and sending others fleeing to the countryside (strengthening the other estates but weakening the burghers), or there's an economic boom or bad harvest and peasants migrate to the city from the countryside.  A fire breaks out and ravages the city.  Hurricane threatens navy.  Vessel sunk in storm with hold full of gold.  Prices of raw materials fluctuate, changing the prices or availability of goods.  Trade shifts and trade income rises or falls for a season.  Pirates begin attacking shipping.  A famous bard, assassin, or thief moves to the city; could be a hench, could be a thorn in your side.  A guild member is recognized as a master of his craft, providing an opportunity to recruit a skilled specialist.  Weak burghers mean you have low-tier markets, which is penalty enough.  Disloyal burghers evade taxes, burgle the treasury, burgle other estates, raise prices on all goods via predatory monopolies, provide intelligence to other domains, turn their ships to piracy or steal / "lose" their cargos, and try to have PCs assassinated.

Strategic locations relevant to the burghers might include areas with rich fishing (increased taxes or natural population growth), natural trade chokepoints like the mouths of major river systems (passive trade income as long as there's a sufficiently large burgher population there to control trade through the straights, pass, or river mouth), sources for rare trade goods (increased trade income), or sources of naval stores like pitch and timber (reduced shipbuilding costs).


Urban family surplus is only around 4gp/mo after garrison, urban upkeep, and all that stuff.  We'll allocate 2gp/mo/family to taxes, and the other 2gp/mo to supporting fleet units.  This yields 250gp/mo per 125 families.  The amount of support that units need is based on the Merchant Ships and Caravans table on page 145, rounded a little.  The trade income is also based off of that table, but it turns out to be about 100gp/mo of revenue per thousand stone of transport capacity.  I did reduce this trade income by about 20%, with the assumption that the lost fraction is being taken by burgher captains and merchants and being ploughed into urban investment and their own private ships.  Transport capacity is based on 200st per man, and marine capacity is likewise rounded a little.  Supply is based on the value and volume of grain, assuming that food will be the primary requirement of an army on campaign ("An army moves on its stomach").  Grain is 1gp/8st, so if a unit requires 60gp/week in supplies, that's 240gp/month, is ~2000st of grain per month.  A large sailing ship carries 30kst of cargo, so it can keep 15 companies of infantry in supply if it's making one delivery per month.  Instead I've worked these numbers to reflect one trip per week, assuming that supply depots cannot be maintained by a mobile army.  In a week, a large sailing ship with a navigator can move 720 miles (assuming a day to load and unload at each end and five days under sail).  Since we're assuming round trips, that gives us a supply distance of 360 miles, and means it can keep 60 companies in supply (since it's carrying 15 company*months of grain on each weekly trip).  Cavalry costs 4x as much supply, since most cavalry units have a supply cost of 240gp/wk instead of 60gp/wk.

The families for the various market classes have been reduced somewhat from ACKS' nominal figures, as a result of assumed-centralization and also to account for the shift of certain types of markets out to the other estates (church controls the market for divine spellcasting, tower controls the market for arcane spellcasting and sages).

Design notes:

This addresses some of my historical complaints about the thief domain game [1][2][3].  Thieves retain their status as a "support" domain - they generate money, supply and transport armies, and gather intelligence, none of which are "primary strike" functions but all of which are necessary.  Thieves win wars, and they do it without fighting.  Pretty sneaky, eh?  The thing here is that I have separated thief domain income from hijinks and crime.  This opens up a broader range of playstyles for thief-domain PCs; a venturer can focus on trade and ignore hijinks altogether, while an assassin might only dabble in trade and keep a bunch of assassins on the payroll.  It introduces real tradeoffs.

It also helps with suspension of disbelief.  If trade generates a ton of money, that's reasonable and believable (maybe should add a chance of sinking for each vessel trading for each season, but meh).  If thieves generate the same amount of money per unit time by blackmailing people, that's a little less believable.

Finally, by making ships easier for players to acquire and maintain (and by having Fleet Supply go to relative waste without them), hopefully ships would see more use, both for mid-level travel for adventure sites and for high-level naval battles.  Since we want PCs to use ships for transport, we'd probably also want a rule that a ship performing Trade can carry a small number of characters without interfering with its trade mission - otherwise PCs will be loathe to use them, for fear of disrupting their cashflow.

Establishing burghers as the naval power also sets up the nice historical dichotomy between Athens and Sparta, Britain and France (and later Germany), and the US and Russia, of sea powers and land powers, depending on how you allocate your population.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

ACKS Estates - Nobility

When most people think "fantasy kingdom / domain", they think nobility, with a warrior elite supported by farming peasants.  Here I'm running with High Medieval-style heavy cavalry nobles, but I'll leave enough of the math in to make it easy to switch it to old-school horse-archer samurai, berserkers, or whatever.

Executive summary: Every ten families under Feudal administration provide 60gp/season in taxes, 30gp/season in labor and materials for construction, and labor to maintain up to 1000gp in fortifications or roads.  Additionally, every ten families provides the services of a knight (2nd-level elite heavy cavalryman), his squire (1st-level veteran heavy cavalryman), and two men-at-arms (heavy infantry) for one season per year (typically summer).  All of their expenses (wages, supply, armorers) are paid by the hamlet for those three months per year.  For every knight or squire lost on campaign, two families move from the Feudal estate to the Border estate at the end of the campaign season.

Feudal heavy cavalry (mixed units of knights and squires) have the following Domains at War stats:
3/6/9 Formed Mounted, AC 6, Unit HD 1+2, UHP 12, Morale +3, 3 lance and shield 9+, charge 3 hooves 8+.

So you have three numbers to keep track of: number of families (changes rarely), total fortification value controlled by nobles (increases slowly over time; feel free to track it in actual fortresses with floorplans, or not), and estate loyalty.  I'm still thinking about how I want to handle estate loyalty; I think a common set of modifiers based on representation in the council of oligarchs, population change, strength relative to other factions, and unreasonable demands from the oligarchs should cover most of the cases, but I haven't worked them out yet.

Likewise, I'm not sure how I want to do random events yet.  I liked 1e Oriental Adventures' approach, with a yearly "big event" and monthly small events related to it, but that's a lot of work to build.  A more reasonable approach might be to build a table of templates, like Crawford's mad-libs.

In terms of seasonal random events, nobles like to fight, feast, and build castles.  So some ideas there would be feud between noble families, hold tournament, raiding across the border, knight slays dragon and appears as nth-level NPC for hire as henchman, PC receives marriage offer from major noble family, and so forth.  A drought, poor harvest, or widespread feuding could weaken the nobility.  A weak nobility (below a certain percentage of total realm population) might lead to random events with bandits or monsters encroaching on the countryside.  A disloyal nobility might raise an army against the oligarchy, hold a feast and slaughter any of the PCs or their henchmen in attendance, or have an NPC noble leader challenge its current oligarch for leadership (by single combat, of course).

Strategic locations relevant to the nobility might include areas of particularly fertile farmland (bonus taxes or natural population growth), particularly fortifiable locations like mountaintops and peninsulas (which boost the effective gold piece value of fortresses built on them and make it harder to besiege them), and locations which can restrict troop movement like river-fords.


Assuming average land, a family of peasants in ACKS produces 12gp/mo in goods and services and spends ~2.5gp/mo in festivals and tithes, leaving us with a pre-tax pre-garrison surplus of about 9.5gp/mo/family.  We also know, from the Demographics of Heroism, that for every 50 people (ten families), there is one 2nd-level character, and for every 20 people (four families), there is a first-level character.  So we're going to take a ten-family hamlet as our basic unit of organization here - it can support a 2nd-level knight, a 1st-level squire, and probably a 1st-level priest, wise woman, hedge wizard, or retired veteran mercenary, who we're not going to worry about.

A ten-family hamlet has an annual surplus of 9.5gp/family/mo * 12 months * 10 families = 1140gp.
A 2nd-level knight costs 115.5 gp/mo (60 in heavy cav wages, 38 in 2nd-level veteran wages, 1.5 in specialist wages, and 16 in supplies), while his 1st-level squire costs 99.5gp/mo (60 in heavy cav wages, 12 in 1st-level veteran wages, 1.5 in specialist, and 16 in supplies), so the pair of them together is 215gp/mo.  Obviously, this hamlet cannot afford to keep them in the field year-round (that would be 2580gp, more than twice its annual surplus).  Instead, they owe the state three months per year of service, typically exercised during the summer campaign season, consuming 645gp/year of the hamlet's surplus.  Additionally, when called to arms, they bring two heavy infantrymen with them for an additional 72gp, bringing our remaining annual surplus to 423gp.  The expenditures to support these guys more than covers the hamlet's garrison requirements (at 3gp/family/mo, 360 gp/year), and they spend the part of the year during which they are not serving the state at the hamlet, where they can take care of trouble as it arises.

Thus, in wartime, 150 families of peasants under noble / feudal rule can raise two platoons of feudal heavy cavalry (a mixed unit of 1st and 2nd-level fighters) and a platoon of heavy infantry.  Feudal heavy cavalry, as a mixed unit of 1st and 2nd-level fighters, has 12UHP (twice that of mercenary heavy cavalry), and makes 3 lance attacks at 9+.  It is otherwise identical to mercenary veteran heavy cavalry.  150 families is a decent borderlands six-mile hex; a population-dense civilized hex of 600 families would be able to raise two companies of cavalry.

ACKS notes that a reasonable tax rate is 2gp/family/month (60 gp/hamlet/season), which would consume an additional 240gp of the surplus and deliver it to the oligarchy's coffers, leaving a remaining annual surplus of 183 gp.

If this were used for fortress construction and upkeep, it would come to about 1.5gp/family/month.  We could use this is a simple construction rate, where each hamlet yields 18gp/mo of free construction.  This is...  not very much, though, at 44gp/hamlet/season.  Still, it adds up with many hamlets.  If we take that 44gp/season and split it into 30gp/season of construction and 14gp/season of maintenance, then each hamlet can maintain about 1000gp worth of fortifications.  This works OK with ACKS' assumptions about how big a fortification you need to hold enough land to protect so many families (in the borderlands case, 22500gp of fortress protects 25 hamlets, they maintain it, and also produce another 750gp/season in unmaintained defensive fieldworks on the eve of battle).  You could try to balance between construction and maintenance automatically, but I've looked at the math and you end up with a differential equation analogous to the charging of a capacitor.  Neat, but not worth the hassle for a game.  Where does the extra construction go if it's not spent?  The peasants put up new barns, redo their roofs, whatever.  They are obligated to provide 30gp/hamlet/season in construction and 14gp/hamlet/season in fortress maintenance to the oligarchy, and if the oligarchy doesn't exercise those obligations, they go to waste.  This is the nature of the social contract.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Fifth Character

I recall that the cast-commentary on Serenity described the ship as "another character", and we see this reflected sometimes in Traveller.  There was also a saying, back in Tribes 1 (I swear I'm not actually this old), that the missile turret on Raindance was the 11th man on a 10-man team.

Got to thinking, maybe we ought to treat domains more like we treat ships in Traveller.

In Traveller, the party as a whole has a ship.  Sure, there is one guy who, practically-speaking, is in charge of managing most of the paperwork.  You can get by with just a pilot, but in practice you want a pilot, an engineer, an astrogator, and a gunner or two for the whole thing to work.

What if domains were like that?

The party as a whole has a domain.  The player with the highest paperwork tolerance is probably in charge of dealing with most of the numbers, and you can get away with just one character running it, but in practice you really want a full party, fighter-wizard-thief-cleric team to run a single domain.

This approach is somewhat internally-consistent with ACKS' assumptions; if you assume that most domains come into being via adventurers clearing territory, then you'd expect to see that enshrined in their origin myths and the structure of their institutions.  The normal way for things to be run in this world is a council of oligarchs, one from each of the Four Estates (nobility, burghers, church, and wizard's tower - yes, I am absolutely stealing from EU4's Cossacks DLC.  It's a good idea.).  Moreover, each estate expects its representative to be independent, not a henchman of some other estate's representative.  Per The Art of Not Being Governed, a fifth "hill tribes" estate willing to follow explorers, barbarians, and shamans might be worth adding.  A domain's dwarven population might want a dwarven oligarch; likewise elves.

Estates have morale/loyalty scores instead of the domain as a whole having a morale score.  Loyal estates give you good stuff, mostly usable by the classtype that is supposed to lead them (eg, divine power, arcane research stuff, troops, offensive hijink capability / reach), while disloyal estates cause trouble (the church foments peasant uprising against reprobate leaders, the burghers hire assassins, &c).  You also need multiple estates cooperating to keep things running smoothly - nobles for garrison, burghers for cash+market, and divine for disaster-resistance, at a minimum.  As a result, having a party split up into many tiny personal domains means that each will have a great deal of trouble, while uniting as a single domain reaps rewards.

Might also be worth assigning estates a strength score, affecting their ability to cause trouble as well as their ability to provide benefits; the priests cannot foment a rebellion if that have all been killed, but likewise there will be nobody to buy a Restore Life and Limb from (market class for divine spellcasting reduced to VI).  Strong, loyal burghers pay lots of taxes, but strong, disloyal burghers have lots of money to hire assassins (per-season per-estate random event rolls, modified by estate loyalty, anyone?).

The ACKSiest approach would be to track estate strength numerically with families.  I recall reading that historically, about 90% of the population farmed, supporting the remaining 10% who specialized.  This is reflected in the default assumptions about the urban population fraction in ACKS (though there it's actually 90.9% and 9.09%, which is a pain in the ass).  Taking the "no land area, only families" simplified domain approach I postulated here, when you gain families, you place them under the administration of one of the estates, which is then responsible for extracting labor, taxes, and such from them and yielding some benefits to its oligarch and the realm as a whole.

The noble / feudal estate provides a knight and his retinue for every 10 families under its administration (the ACKS-math works, with demographics of heroism providing 1 2nd-level character per 50 people, which is 10 families), as well as providing garrison for the realm and labor and materials to build and maintain strongholds.  The burgher population determines market class, as well as providing labor and maintenance for a navy, which generates trade income in peacetime and can transport and supply military units during wartime.  Families laboring for the church generate divine power, which can be used for realm-scale blessings, averting disasters like plague, and personal research.  They also support paladins, although at a lower rate than feudal families support knights.  Wizards are trickier; we want to both provide a benefit to the domain as a whole, as well as to the mage-oligarch personally.  Monsters and magic items are hideously expensive and not super effective, but if ever there were a time and place to train wizards in mass-combat quantities, it would be a prince-wizardric (existing within a larger domain, like the prince-bishropics of the Holy Roman Empire).  Such an organized enclave would also maintain libraries and labs, and possibly a repository of spells.  The hillfolk are unruly and pay very little tribute to the realm, instead redirecting their economic surplus into population growth.  They're a good source of light/skirmish mercenary units, though.  There are a lot of things dwarves could provide, including siege weaponry, heavy infantry, fortress maintenance, high-quality nonmagical equipment (gunpowder?), and loans from the vaults.  Elves have mass-combat spellswords and top-tier archers (possibly spellsword archers?), and are a source for monstrous mounts (giant eagles, gryphons).

I guess one of the goals of this, in addition to bringing the party together on one domain by design and eliminating the need for hex-mapping, is to make domains give you tools, weapons, stuff-you-can-use, rather than just cash.  All too often in previous domain play, players had cash but needed mercs.  Having families provide less cash, but also obligated troops, helps address this problem.  Also, cash is boring, troops are fun.  Eliminating hexmapping also opens up more possibilities for the low-level domain game, because you no longer have such strict requirements for clearing hexes and claiming land.  If you're third level and you have ten families in your 30-acre "domain", you can start getting troops out of them very early.  Further, switching to just tracking families under nebulous governing institutions removes the need for deep NPC-trees.  It's absolutely unrealistic for modeling Medieval Europe, where governance was intensely personal, but man it would make life easier for me (provided a decent spreadsheet to manage all the stuff that domains provide - then it's just "they're a very militaristic realm of 10k families with medium priests, weak burghers, and no wizards, call it a 50% feudal, 30% church, 20% city split on population, so that gives 500 knights, 500 squires, and a thousand pikemen led by an 8th-level fighter, 150 paladins led by a 7th-level cleric, and a class IV small city market run by a 7th-level thief, with a fleet of one small galley and three large sailing ships.  Boom done, go invade it already, and take their families for yourself.").  It is also a better fit psychologically for my players (and possibly non-historian players more generally), who typically expect impersonal states with a couple of figureheads at the top and aren't huge on the courtier game.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Simple Fumble, Mortal Wounds, and Resurrection Tables

I mentioned before that fumbles are a very normal part of real-life combat.  So here is a very simple fumble ruleset:

On a natural 1 on an attack roll, save vs paralysis.  On a failure, roll a d6 on the following table:

  1. Fall prone
  2. Off-balance, flat-footed until your next action
  3. Drop weapon
  4. Injure self for half of attack's damage 
  5. Attack another, randomly-determined nearby target
  6. Roll twice, ignoring identical results
While I'm at it, may as well address a few complaints with ACKS' tables...

Simpler Mortal Wounds:
  1. Very dead, -1 to resurrection roll if your compatriots bother hauling your parts out in a bag
  2. Pretty dead
  3. Only mostly dead, +1 bonus to resurrection roll
  4. Minor permanent injuries; some big scars, some teeth, a couple fingers, probably a penalty to reaction rolls.  Pick a result from the actual table that you find amusing.  Also in shock (as 5).
  5. Mission-killed, in shock or severe concussion, 1HP but not fit to fight or cast and probably needs a minder to get out of the dungeon, but going to be OK.
  6. KO / minor concussion, get back up with 1HP.
Roll 1d4+1.  Add 1 if Con 18, subtract 1 if Con 3.  Add 1 if checked by a medic within one combat round, subtract 1 if receive no medical treatment within a day.  Add 1 if 0 or more HP after magical healing, subtract 1 if negative HP >= half of normal max HP.  Treat results >6 as 6, <1 as 1.  Optionally, you can take one non-spellcasting action after being struck down at the cost of a -1 penalty on your eventual mortal wounds roll.

Simpler Restore Life and Limb:
  1. No return, not even miracle.
  2. Restless Spirit - You don't make it back, but at any point in the future your ghost can appear to do something important during play (with stats as they were when you died, but max HP and full spells).  You can only come back for one session, and then you're done and out permanently.  Make it count.
  3. Eurydice - Somebody's going to have to go to hell and drag you out.  Since your friends couldn't keep you from dying on the prime material, they're probably not up for storming the brimstone gates, and you might just have to make a deal with a devil instead.
  4. Quest - The resurrecting deity demands that you undertake a quest in return for being allowed to return to life.  Failure to complete it (or at least convince said deity that you're making progress) within a year and a day will result in your prompt and thorough unresurrection.
  5. Something goes weird.  Pick a result from the RL&L table that you and/or the DM find amusing and not totally crippling.
  6. Scott-Free, except for a little memory loss around the time of death (hence no earned XP from the expedition).
Roll 1d4+1.  Add 1 if Wis 18, subtract 1 if Wis 3.  Add 1 if performed by 12th+ level cleric, subtract 1 if not performed in a sanctified place.  Treat results >6 as 6, <1 as 1.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Mad Ramblings - Wargames, Dreamworlds, Nihilism, Sandboxes

This is not a well-structured, carefully-pruned, cohesive post.

Sometimes I think the game I really want to be running is not D&D, a fantasy RPG with dungeoneering, but a fantasy campaign skirmish wargame.  Ditch hitpoints, switch to single-digit numbers of Warhammer-style wounds, use an armor save instead of AC, and make characters largely replaceable.  Remove character detail, improve speed-in-play, perhaps increase tactical detail (as discussed back in Starmada, there's a big difference between character-creation complexity and tactical complexity).  A lot of this would just be nice on the DM side - I don't want to think about how many HP this goblin has.  It's 1HD, it has 1 wound, done.  A shift to wargaming mentality also does some interesting things for party composition; each player builds a warband from some fixed pool of resources.  "Just one sixth-level wizard with no henchmen" and "a big pile of second-level fighters" both become valid, interoperable ways to play.

The primeval purpose of play, as seen in young animals, is training, for food acquisition, mating-fights, or flight.  What are we training for?  With a wargame it's pretty clear.  With D&D it's much less so.  Maybe we're training for everything, but when you defend everything, you defend nothing.

On the other hand, rather than "I want to run D&D as a wargame", it may be more true that I seem to always end up running D&D as a wargame, and making systemic changes would make my life easier, but not more satisfying.  I'm not really sure why my games seem to keep ending up as wargames.  I think I enjoy the tactical challenge of actually giving players a good fight (and a good fright).  I also feel that I have lost confidence in the quality of my creative output, leaving tactics as the only place I'm willing to go nuts.  The well feels dry more than it used to.  Part of this, I suspect, is that I've basically stopped consuming fantasy media.  The last fantasy book I read was Wizard of Earthsea about a year ago (I did read Beowulf and finally finished the Saga of Burnt Njal this winter, but those doesn't quite count).  In terms of videogames, I think the only fantasy stuff I've played in the last year was Skyrim (lousy) and Hammerwatch (arcade, empty).  Skyrim was a strong contributing factor to launching the last campaign, actually - "If as many people loved Skyrim as seemed to, the bar must be lower than I thought; maybe I should give it another shot."  In any case, not much fantasy input, not much to remix and quietly steal.  I tried tapping dreams and hypnagogic hallucinations - that's how we ended up with a mad city-dungeon open to the endless void of space, showered by metal shavings from the decrepit cosmic engine that burns the souls of the damned to spin the earth.  No seriously, that's where the copper pieces came from - they fell out of the sky and into the dungeon as the engine ground itself towards inevitable failure and the End of Days.  Really the embarrassing part is that I put something as mundane as ratmen in such a place.

Reflecting on that, I was remiss to omit that I began reading Kill Six Billion Demons some time last summer, and I greatly enjoyed its Planescape-ness, its strangeness.  Still do.  So I suppose perhaps that influenced me more than I thought, but I put my own spin (ie, Warhammer-esque) on it, and thereby took most of the strangeness right out of it.

What I have been reading has been mostly history and sociology, which are relevant to D&D but not in useful ways.  D&D (and RPGs generally) are fundamentally based around emulating stories; myth, legend, books, movies.  I have gotten very skeptical, suspicious, of stories.  Stories simplify the very complex into nice simple causal chains.  A good story is always simpler than the reality of the situation; it's an authorial duty to cut out parts, to simplify for human consumption (Venkatesh Rao argues in a very roundabout way that all human organizations are based on such simplifications, claiming that leaders create simplifying myths for their underlings to live within).  Making wilderness illegible, or making running a domain hard because of historically-reasonable administrative information shortages, is not conducive to producing any sort of resonant narrative.  They're interesting thought experiments, but probably terrible in practice.  Which is a better story, the one that people all know, that riffs off of will resonate with them: Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, or King William and the Census?

At any rate, I suspect my nonfiction reading has made me a worse ACKS DM.  Played in a more typical D&D fashion ("band of roving murderers saves kingdom"), things like administrative information shortages could be turned into reasonable narratives, but when it comes to players looking at rulership, it gets mighty tedious to have to maintain both a true set of information for my own use, and a plausible false set of information to feed players.  In the case of an NPC governor deceiving an NPC king, I don't have to do the latter.  Frankly I have little desire to do the former anymore either.  I need all of my paperwork tolerance for taxes this season.

You know what else I'm starting to hate?  Character levels.  Having mechanical advancement be a thing that the system does means that players (well OK, people like me and my players) will aggressively optimize for it.  ACKS has this problem where the level of risk you have to take in order to make enough money to level at any sort of reasonable* pace results in levels being attritted away by casualties faster than they are earned.  I like the exponential XP curve; I really do.  It means that you can bring in 1st-level guys and they catch up, provided that any XP at all is being earned.  Domain XP breaks this, by providing XP only to the high-level characters in the party, and leads to the gap opening rather than closing.  The real problem with the OSR's XP curves (for us) is that they're build to support loooong-haul campaigns that run for multiple years of real-time.  That's something that we never do; in the six month duration of my typical ACKS campaign, players tend to get from 3rd or 4th level to 7th or 8th level.  Calibrated on 3.x, my players are frustrated by this slow progression and unwilling to take the sort of risks required to accelerate it.  ACKS dangles the domain carrot, of safe monthly gold and XP, and they really want to skip getting beaten with the wilderness stick (having labeled it as a poor risk-reward balance previously).  This is frustrating for me, because I feel that we haven't even scratched the surface of wilderness play (for example, tactics in the wilderness), while I find domain play tedious / boring so far.  It's kind of funny if you interpret it in a certain light: as adolescents the fantasy was to kill the dragon and win the princess, but as adults the fantasy is to be the guy at the top of the hierarchy who collects taxes from the safety of his castle while other people do the dying and the dirty work.  I miss Tim's meandering / anti-domain style of play.  Probably I should switch to some other retroclone, but I suspect my current playerbase (such as it is) has been accumulated in part by the allure of domains.

It would be an interesting experiment to bring a bunch of PCs in at low domain level (8th or 9th or so) and say "OK that's it, no leveling, all advancement will be Traveller-style through gear and hirelings and domains and achieving ends-in-the-world" (or just lower the level cap to 9th across the board...).  I've also been thinking about how poorly the leveling system as it currently exists does at supporting common narrative tropes.  The characters who start the weakest, the farmboy and the squire, have the greatest potential, while the characters to start strong, the knight and the wizard, rarely gain.  Lancelot and Merlin and Han Solo never get any stronger; Arthur and Luke do (though I guess this could also be interpreted as a game with a lower level cap).  What if you had the option to start at a higher level, but your maximum level was lowered accordingly?  This is a much more interesting use of level limits than demihumans; make it correlate with age at the beginning of the campaign.  Starting older gives you XP, but limits the new tricks your old dog can learn.  What if henchmen simply couldn't outlevel their masters - they could continue accumulating XP, but without adequate mentorship, they can never reach their full potential.  There are lots of interesting things to try in this space.

In any case, stopping or capping leveling suddenly introduces a gaping existential hole - why play?  I had hoped that ACKS, by making the domain game mechanical and providing XP for interacting with it, would encourage players to interact with the world on non-mechanical terms.  This was foolish; if you have mechanics for interacting with something, it will be interacted with mechanically at the exclusion of non-mechanical interactions (for another example, see 3.x Diplomacy hacks).  This is the underlying logical crux of the OSR's "rulings, not rules" stance, and its opposition to skill systems.  It also relates back to old thoughts on reliability and aim-of-playing, which loops back to "why play?".  Last spring, when I quit, I had been reading Interaction Ritual Chains, which discusses the process by which sacredness is manufactured through ritual (by which is meant routine, roughly-weekly interactions where a set of participants gather, isolated from the rest of the world, and waste resources).  I observed that this description fit the weekly D&D game perfectly, and was left very conflicted and disturbed about it all.  It left me asking "why do we really play?  Sure we have our surface reasons, that we like to kill monsters and gain levels, but is there another level of motivations underneath it where we value the game in itself?"  I observed that this potential treatment of the game as lightly-sacred was consistent with my behavior on one occasion, where I wrecked my bike on the way home from work and wasn't sure whether I'd sprained or broken my wrist, but went to run the weekly ACKS instead of to the hospital (I ended up there the next morning when the pain woke me up at 0430).  That is not the sort of thing that rational self-interested actors do.  Past-me is an idiot and the ACKS ritual made me so.  There is something weird going on here.  There is also a conflict between Interaction Ritual Chains and Rao's schema here, in that Rao doesn't believe that the organizing myth-makers get caught up in their own myths.  When I was reading Interaction Ritual Chains, I was elated, that now I understood how to create values, and the keys to power, to binding man, were in my grasp.  It was not until later that I realized that I could not help but become caught in those values myself, at which point I destroyed all of my social rituals (except the inescapable lunchtime at the office) and strove for hermit-hood, moral freedom, and the rejection of fantasy.  Success has been mixed; habits, personal rituals, are hard to break, and it is draining work.

I did not viscerally understand nihilism / moral relativism until Interaction Ritual Chains showed me how the sacred sausage is made.  It is one thing to be told "all morality is constructed", and another to be told exactly how it is constructed and at what cost.  I'm still not sure what to do with that information.  I suppose I can link this back to the bit above about leveling by noting that removing explicit / absolute mechanical objectives (like XP / leveling) is killing god (to borrow Nietzsche's phrase and meaning) and exposing the players to that same paralyzing freedom, of "all is permitted but nothing matters; freedom, and futility, are the only absolutes."  This ties back to the article by Rao, where political leadership requires simplifying political realities for human consumption.  It is also true that moral leadership generally requires simplifying moral realities for human consumption.  XP and reward system is essentially a moral choice (albeit a laughably small one), and delegating that choice down onto players is probably not what they're looking for.  They are here to play a game, to escape the spirit of gravity and the burdens of life, maybe for some occasional catharsis, but not to stare into the abyss.  Sandboxing in general has this problem.

One reasonable response, though, is that while the sacredness of moral norms may be an emergent property of social organizations rather than a reflection of any cosmic significance, that doesn't invalidate their usefulness.  Sacredness and morality formation are a mechanism for something (probably social cohesion and ingroup predictability) - if they weren't worth their cost in "wasted" resources, they wouldn't have emerged over and over again, in every society across human history.  Now granted, they may provide a fitness advantage to societies in competition with each other rather than to the individuals within those societies, who are materially poorer as a result of ritual expenditures (but the success of those individuals' genes and memes over the long term is tied to that of the society in which they live).  In any case, my response, cutting out all sacredness without really reflecting on its function, was like that of the D&D3.0 group that removes attacks of opportunity or the XP cost from creating magic items, or bans grappling because it's complicated, without understanding the effects that these will have on the system (spellcasters even more overpowered than normal).  Chesterton's Fence applies here:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

But enough of that.

I also miss the competitive-cooperative nature of the first ACKS campaign.  I've been reading some game theory stuff lately and there is a category of "non-fixed sum" games that describes observed player behavior during that campaign well.  It also helped that there were a variety of vigorously-argued value-systems / player utility functions present in that campaign, rather than a tacit convergence on the "whatever maximizes GP/XP" utility function that I see more now.  There's no playfulness anymore, and this is probably my fault for setting lethality high and leveling so slow.  I keep hoping that we'll hit the point of fatalist playfulness - "we're all going to die, so better to die for something, heroically or entertainingly, rather than waiting for the eventually-inevitable lame, random, or cowardly death" - but I think character advancement, and specifically the risk of falling behind the rest of the party, discourages this.  So I suppose there is still some competition, but it's boring, tacit competition that drives inaction, rather than entertaining competition that drives action.

I've come to the conclusion that the Death and Dismemberment table just isn't worth it.  It's funny about 10% of the time.  The other 90% of the time it just sucks - either you get an injury that doesn't matter for your class, or you get one that does and then you repeat the same "hope for effects that don't matter" procedure on the RL&L table.  If I were to build a new one, I'd probably just make it a roll between "mission killed" (out of action for the rest of this adventure), "multi-mission killed" (out of action for a couple adventures), and "campaign killed" (maybe there's enough left of you to retire, but your adventuring days are done), and leave details up to players.  I really want to make the bedrest mechanic work.  It seems like a good way to encourage players to maintain stables of characters and to swap out for mission requirements.  It sort of works for henchmen, but if a PC is out for bedrest, adventuring is often delayed, because playing a henchman risks being outleveled and because PCs are the highest level (hence most useful) and missing out on XP for a PC means falling behind on already-glacial leveling.

In conclusion: great dissatisfaction!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Dark Souls and Dungeon Design

Instead of doing anything productive this weekend, so far I've mostly been watching Joseph Anderson's youtube channel of videogame criticism.  I found his videos on the Dark Souls series quite interesting.  Figured I might as well extend my procrastination by blogging about it.

Caveat 1: I have never played any of the Dark Souls games, and it seems unlikely that I will any time soon.  Everything I know about Dark Souls has come second-hand from Anderson.  This is both good and bad.

Caveat 2: Given that it is hardly new, other OSR bloggers have probably already beaten it to death.  It sounds like something The Delvers might've talked about.  But, I do not care.

Here are some things that stuck out to me from Anderson's videos:

  • Jayquaying - The sections of Dark Souls 1 that Anderson praises heavily are mostly thoroughly-jayquayed environments.  He rags on DS2 for switching to largely linear levels, and then has mixed praise for DS3 in this regard.  He notes that DS1 was jayquayed on two scales - both in local environments (eg, multiple paths and routes through a town), and in connections between environments (with links between, say, town and a valley full of dragons by way of both an aboveground road and a magma-filled cave below the mountains).  DS3 did a good job of jayquaying on the small scale, but not at the large scale.  Varying the level of jayquaying in megadungeon zones is an interesting possibility of looking at things this way - the megadungeon can have a nonlinear, loopful superstructure, with zones varying in their degree of nonlinearity.  It also expresses one of the problems I had with Rathell - the zone itself had an extremely nonlinear / loop-heavy microstructure, but the overstructure of the dungeon it was supposed to be a part of didn't (at all).
  • Resource model - DS1 provided the player with pretty limited healing resources that could be restored by resting at selected "bonfire" locations, which also respawned all of the enemies in the level.  This leads to an expeditionary playstyle that sounds very similar to what we expect to see in the OSR, but with a focus on making it to a boss - you explore a level and get to know its monsters, gradually getting good enough at traversing the area that you can make it to the boss with enough healing remaining to win that fight.  DS2 added inexpensive healing-over-time items to allow players to fight larger groups of enemies, while DS3 just provided much larger pools of healing than DS1.  Similar changes to resource management have taken place over the editions in D&D.
  • Investment - Anderson praises Dark Souls 1's system of investing limited resources in particular bonfires, which allows them to restore additional healing resources.  This is useful when there's a boss you're having trouble with; you invest in a nearby bonfire and can bring more healing resources to bear in traversing that zone and defeating that boss.  This is something that it seems like low/mid-level ACKS should be able to do a lot better than it does, with PCs investing in towns as bases of operation and receiving tangible, dungeon-relevant benefits for doing so.  Currently town-buyable, dungeon-relevant resources in ACKS fall into three categories: gear, personnel, and reserve XP.  None of these are really tied to the town itself; they're all pretty movable.  A decent approach might be to take commissioning equipment one step further and allow a lump sum to be spent to increase availability of certain types of goods permanently in that market (eg, acquire a little land, build a building, hire a guy, and establish Doctor Comfrey's Nursery and Garden Center to increase available quantities of healing herbs forever).  Have half the money spent count towards urban investment, and you add another link between the mid- and late-games.
  • Predictable, Preventable, Decisive Damage - Anderson claims that damage in Dark Souls is largely avoidable, because enemies telegraph their moves, which allows the player to dodge / block / parry, but that when hits land, they hurt a lot (~3 hits to a player kill, usually).  This ties into the healing resource management game, where you only have to spend resources when you've made a mistake, and part of mastering a level to make it to the boss is learning the attack patterns of the enemies on that level.  Decisive damage is one of the things I like about OSR D&D (on a good day), but it does less well at predictable (ergo preventable).  Bad Trap Syndrome describes this issue in the context of traps, but combat damage is sort of unpredictable too - if you engage in combat without a win-button like sleep, turning, or surprise, damage is a predictable outcome, but the details are left to chance.  In a sense damage predictability is more nuanced in D&D than in Dark Souls - rather than making a mistake, you're taking a risk, and instead of a binary outcome you get a distribution.
  • Training Wheels - Part of the reason that Anderson claims that Dark Souls is a mostly-fair game is that things are almost always introduced in a relatively safe way before being introduced in a dangerous way.  When you meet a new type of enemy, you probably only meet one of them; deeper in the area where they appear, you start meeting multiple.  When you enter the trap zone, you're alerted that it's a trap zone by a low-damage arrow trap triggered by a pressure plate, and then the traps escalate from there.  This process of gradual escalation that helps make damage predictable.  It is also something that I, as a table-driven DM, have not been doing well.
  • Shortcuts - Another part of mastering a level in Dark Souls is finding and opening shortcuts - changing the environment open shorter routes to the boss.  Keys to locked doors, lowerable drawbridges, levers that move terrain, that sort of thing (one neat example was destroying structures that were shielding monsters along a route, thereby making it effectively shorter for resource conservation purposes).  This is something that makes sense in jayquayed dungeons, but usually rather than opening new routes from the other side they're used to gate entirely new areas.  In practice the closest my players ever came to developing a shortcut was clearing (or befriending) monsters on preliminary expeditions in order to open a route that was safe to move quickly on.  The trouble with building shortcut opportunities into an OSR-style megadungeon is that what counts as a shortcut depends on where you're trying to go, and player objectives usually vary per session, so what is a critical shortcut one day is irrelevant the next.  Dark Souls overcomes this with the focus on getting to the boss.  But...
  • Boss Monsters - Bosses are something I always hate in videogames, but in tabletop games they can actually be kind of fun.  They're pretty well-supported by ACKS' worldbuilding guidelines (where every tribe has a chieftain and every warband of barbarians is led by a 9th-level fighter), and would work pretty well with megadungeon factions - kill the boss and the faction disintegrates, opening up space for others or allowing players recruit the survivors.  We saw the beginnings of this emerge in Rathell, where the Marrowgnawer (5HD nonmagic-weapon-immune giant rat) served as a "boss" of sorts of a ratman tribe.  As usual for D&D "bosses", Marrowgnawer died like a chump to a 3rd-level party, due in large part to...
  • Action Economy - Curiously, this has been a persistent issue for the Dark Souls series too.  Anderson notes that in DS1, the best fights are one-vs-one duels, while any fight of multiple nontrivial enemies versus the solo player was usually quite difficult, and led to players using dirty tricks to isolate enemies, while in DS2 additional healing was made available to make these fights workable, and in DS3 healing was mostly-reverted but other changes to the combat system were made for this reason.  In D&D the same problem rears its head on the DM-side.  No bosses without bodyguards (and not chump 1HP 4e minions, either...), and also no bosses that don't one-shot henchman or two-shot PC frontliners.
  • Gauntlets - In addition to nonlinear exploration zones and straight-line combat slogs, Anderson notes another sort of zone / level in the Dark Souls series, characterized by testing the player's ability to deal with some sort of complication that forces the player to reconsider and adapt their tactics.  Examples that he cites include a level that is heavy on harassment by ranged attackers, a level with darkness (which requires the player to use a torch instead of his shield), and a level with environmental damage-over-time.  Designing megadungeon zones based not merely around cosmetics/theme but also with a particular kind of tactical challenge in mind seems like a really good idea to me, especially because the shield-phalanx has come to dominate our games (of course, precisely because the shield phalanx has come to dominate our games, players are now reluctant to enter areas that require a change in tactics).
  • "Explore cautiously, fight bravely" - I'm not going to go watch all the videos again to find the section where Anderson talks about this, but he claims that Dark Souls rewards players for exploring cautiously, taking it slow and not biting off bigger encounters than they can chew, but also for playing aggressively once combat is engaged, getting inside the reach of larger enemies, rolling behind them, and backstabbing.  I like this philosophy, even if I'm not sure how to produce combats that encourage it in ACKS.

Saturday, January 21, 2017


Someone asked a question about sandboxing on /r/rpg recently, and now I have the wilderness on the brain again.  I have some complaints about existing mapping doctrine.  In the standard ACKS doctrine, civilization is basically required to be mapped (for the domain game if nothing else), which is an awful lot of work for very little payoff because you're not adventuring there.  Really all you need is populations/market classes and travel times between points of interest in civilization, because the travel itself is minimally dangerous; random encounters are likely to be civilized folks, and there are roads and signs and farmers that you can ask for directions.  There aren't really any strategic choices to be made in civilized travel that benefit from the degree of detail that hexes bring.  Consequently, hexmapping civilization is a tremendous waste of time for the mid-levels, and frankly you could run a reasonable (simplified, population- rather than land-focused) domain game without it too.

In the West Marches approach, by contrast, civilization is left unmapped (which is great), but there is an onus to have functionally-infinite wilderness.  This likewise is neither efficient nor realistic.  It isn't efficient because anything that you build that the players never reach in the course of a campaign is probably wasted (sure, you can reuse it later maybe, but how many of us actually do that consistently?).  It also isn't realistic because civilization expands to fill the area that can support it.  The wilderness may be big, but there's always some civilization on the other side if you're willing to travel far enough (or lower your standards for civilization a little).

Ultimately I think the "non-state spaces" notion present in James C. Scott's writing (Seeing Like a State, The Art of Not Being Governed) presents a promising opportunity.  Non-state space enclaves within a state are (relatively) tiny, self-contained wilderness sandboxes that are easily reached from civilization.  I've talked about Mount Rainier before, and it's a good example - one could easily take a couple of hundred square miles around a large mountain, map it in detail, fill it with hill tribes and yetis and a dragon or two, and have a small, self-contained sandbox.  There's civilization on both sides of the Cascade Range (well, if you count Eastern Washington...  I kid), but there's still wilderness in the mountains.  In the historical D&D context, Dearthwood from the City-State of the Invincible Overlord springs to mind.  It's a forest practically up against the City-State's gates, and it's full of orcs.  This is a classic non-state space, and would make a perfect tiny wilderness sandbox conveniently close to a large market.  That was probably the whole point of Dearthwood, from the very beginning (with the trolls of the Mermist Marshes, a little further away, comprising a higher-level microsandbox).  The Isle of Dread is another good example; it's big enough to play for a couple of sessions, like a good-sized dungeon, but it's bounded and therefore manageable.

Obviously the non-state enclave isn't the only type of wilderness.  Borderlands between civilized areas can be bigger, and then there are places like the Russian steppe and the American Old West that are just huge.  But these are unmanageably big, both to DMs who would use them and to players who would traverse them.  If I have learned two things from running the Megadungeon Full of Rats, it is that tightly theming can stimulate DM creativity but bore players, and that tightly-scoping is really important.  My initial intent with the Dungeon Dimensions was not a full-page dungeon of rats; it was many small dungeons, each tightly-themed and linked.  In retrospect, that might have gone better, but I got carried away with the first level.  I think loosely-themed, tightly-scoped, small-scale wildernesses offer a lot of opportunity in this regard.  Having two or three such microsandboxes available offers choices and ability to alleviate boredom with a particular theme by handwaved safe travel through civilization.

So what are some decent ideas for wilderness microsandboxes?  Big enough to take some time to explore, small enough to be manageable to DM and to be easily reached from civilization, and evocative?
  • The Lonely Mountain
  • Mirkwood
  • Swamp of the frogmen
  • Tropical island chain with walled port-city and cannibal natives in the uplands
  • Wasteland
Such wee sandboxes are also relatively easy to drop into an existing campaign.

Of course, there is the distinct possibility that this is what the actual practice of sandbox wilderness play has been all along, everyone knows it but doesn't talk about it much (because talking about the West Marches is much sexier), and I'm a little slow on the uptake where grand ambitions and practical limits are concerned.  Much as I learned in a recent Autarch thread on having players draw their own maps (or not, as it turns out...).  In which case, this is a perfectly useful post for the "OSR Lessons Learned" file [1][2][3].  In the same way that the typical, practical OSR dungeon is not Dwimmermount or Stonehell, the typical, practical OSR wilderness is not the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.