Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Trilemma

Holy cow.  Ars Ludi linked to Trilemma yesterday, and this guy knows what's what.  Good posts I've read so far:
  • Useful Dungeon Descriptors accurately expresses my difficulties with random room contents tables, and takes a clear stance in favor of informed dungeoneering and informative dungeon design.  Monstrous Effects on Terrain applies the same ideas to the wilderness.
  • Non-Mechanical Difficulty Levels for Monstrous Threats, the post originally linked by Ars Ludi, provides a good explanation of why my players feared wyverns so terribly, as well as a good mental framework for making things scarier then their raw numbers would otherwise indicate (or less scary, I guess, but why would you want to do that?  Oh right so elephants aren't CR7 or whatever, and to explain why commoners can safely keep cats as pets).  Reminiscent of Traveller's per-species reaction roll tables.  This whole schema, and particularly Cohesion, seems perfect for differentiating the otherwise forgettably-similar low-level humanoid species.
  • Gameable Campaign Capital provides a useful taxonomy for understanding and perhaps encouraging player investment in exploration-driven campaigns.  As a concept, it may help explain the failure of the ACKS game when we introduced new players (too much reference buildup in the world and among the old guard, which held no 'currency' with the new players).
  • The whole Dirty Dungeon concept, which Trilemma mentions here and here, is intriguing.
  • How Far Can You See on a Hex Map? is useful for the obvious reasons, if fairly easily derivable.
Also, not exactly useful but entertaining: apparently the 2012 ACKS game had a lethality of somewhere between 100 and 125 milliWhacks for PCs (I figure somewhere between 16 and 20 total sessions and about 4.5 players on average), and somewhere closer to 250 milliWhacks for henchmen.  ACKS: About As Deadly As Fiasco, Unless You're a Henchman.

In any case, more fodder for wilderness campaigning and always good to find a vital blog to read.  Sort of a breath of fresh air from outside the OSR, really (disclaimer: this is not an attempt to define the OSR, but more a statement that I do not get the impression that Trilemma identifies as Of The OSR).  He seems very well-rounded, taking what is worth taking from both storygames and the Old School.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Traveller Pitch

I had a really long thing written out for this, but frankly it was overblown.  Here's the stripped down kernel:

Man begat thinking machine, and thinking machine begat jump drive.  For a time it was good, but good times never last.  The machines won and superweaponed the Sun, which has gone red and expanded out past Jupiter's orbit.  All that remains of the human empire is one decrepit space station in Pluto's shadow, two thousand foppish nobility and attending bureaurats who lack the hardware to repair the station's failing life support systems, and over a billion slumbering souls in cryostasis.  An anomaly was recently located inside a melting Kuiper Belt body - a ship of unfathomably ancient origin, but apparently compatible with human life and with a functioning jump drive and weapon systems.  Unfortunately, none of said nobles know how to operate such a ship, which is why you, O Daring Spacemen, have been thawed.  Go forth and begin the return of man to galactic prominence, by acquiring ships and technology from the Enemy, making contact with rebel groups and splinter factions, and perhaps securing transport for the frozen masses to a new homeworld!  Or maybe just bring back some fresh airlock seals and atmosfilters.  Soon, please?

Sources of inspiration:
  • Pirates of Drinax - Decrepit 'empire' with one high-tech relic ship in need of a crew for raiding.
  • Homeworld - The Endgame, and Suns of Gold has such rules for it too.
  • Titan AE - Humanity is very much a minor species, Earth a dead world.
  • AI War: Fleet Command - General balance of power, inattentive AI.
In terms of playstyle:
  • Sandbox with consequences and deadlines.  You can leave Terra and never look back, but then humanity dies, you lose your base of operations, and the game probably gets rather more difficult.  C'est la vie.
  • Substantial exploratory element - you're not really sure what's in the next system over, and getting that data out of the AI is likely difficult.  Other minor alien factions are likely more helpful in this regard.
  • Higher-continuity than anything I've run in a long time.  Species-critical personnel don't usually just appear and disappear at random.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Jedi Ruin Everything

I was reading a Stars Without Number supplement the other day, and there was a martial arts fighting style that basically let you do jedi things, like block lasers with swords.  Granted, it was explained as precognition, which is a hell of a lot better than Star Wars tends to explain it, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.  Why, oh why, do science fiction games feel the need to have space-wizards?

What I want to see in a science fiction game is this: people doing sort-of-plausible-with-years-of-training things with their brains.  Dune's mentat are a good example, with perfect calculation and exceptional ability to process and correlate data, to infer, to draw conclusions.  Stranger in a Strange Land's perfect witnesses are another, with perfect recall and ability to observe things as they are.  One of my favorites is Zygmunt Molotch, a villain from Abnett's Ravenor trilogy.  Molotch is not a sorcerer, or a cyborg, or a space marine; he is a normal man, deeply schooled in observing and manipulating people, with a lot of knowledge and devotion to back it up.  The sort of man who, when he comes into possession of one dose of deadly poison, can find just the right target and set of circumstances in which to apply it in order to destability an entire planetary economy.  On that basis, by cunning alone, he gives a strong-psychic inquisitor's warband a run for their money for three books.

So!  Where are our mentalists, our cold-readers, our lucid dreamers, our mathematical savants, our Sherlock Holmeses, our perfect-recallers, our lunatics who can read machine code like english and reach fluency in new natural languages in a week of immersion?  Don't give me that "nobody wants those skills because they're not useful while adventuring" line.  It's a lie, at least in most Travelleresque games.

The real reason, the embarrassing truth, is that telekinetic wizards (of either the space or garden variety) are easier to deal with as a DM than divination specialists.  I don't have a solution to that yet, other than to provide very clear-cut guidelines on what your braintalents can and cannot do; a perfect recaller can obviously only work with things he or she has seen.  A mentat can only infer given sufficient data, the acquisition of which might be an adventure in and of itself.  A cold-reader needs body language and tone of voice cues, and those are going to vary across species and possibly language.  A dreamer can only sleep on one problem at a time, and only for so long, and maybe doesn't get a choice of what problem his subconscious is working on (dreaming was how I made it through discrete math in college...).  And yeah you're probably right that nobody wants to play that guy whose superpower is knowing ten million digits of pi, but I could see something closer to a bayesian inferest, where you can figure the odds of things instantly, being workable and meshing nicely with game structures that already exist. Factoring really really large numbers in your head for cryptographic applications would be a neat trick, and I've met people who can do other similarly-'impossible' things like approximate really large factorials mentally, so it's not in the realm of the patently ridiculous.

So I dunno.  It seems workable.  Thoughts?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Traveller: Things I'd Change

Mongoose Traveller is a fine game, but it's still rooted in the assumptions of the 70s.  Things that could do with some updating:
  • The whole computer technology progression is charmingly quaint.  You never have enough RAM to run all the things you want to run.  VR goggles are like TL12 or something ridiculous.  You get the idea.
  • Cybernetics. As has been noted elsewhere, transdermal cybernetics are practically impossible to keep clean and free of sepsis.  Nope, cybernetics ought to be internal-only, wirelessly-charged (or glucose-driven at higher TLs), and communicating either via nerves or over a bluetooth-style wireless personal area network (careful around the Comms jammers...).
    • This model also has the convenient side effect of eliminating the ridiculous implanted weapons and wolverine claws and crap...  I guess you could still get claws as wetware, tailor-grown for your immune system and grafted at substantial expense, but less common is better.
  • Drones.  At the very least they ought to replace space fighters, since comms are a lot less massy than pilots and life support.  Gives the guy with Remote Ops something to do during starship combat, puts small, cheap, extra craft in the hands of PCs (don't need tens of MCr for a drone), and again some advantages to the Comms guys for jamming.  Miniaturized drones for planetside use are already in civilian hands IRL, too.  For all that Eclipse Phase does, this is one thing I don't recall seeing.  Shadowrun is moderately infamous for this; I suppose I ought to study its mistakes.  The first rule, I would guess, is that if the rigger thinks he's invincible hiding back in the ship or the getaway car, it's time for the customs inspectors or other unwelcome visitors to come a'knocking, or for signals to get traced by the local spectrum-allocation goons.  There may (almost certainly) be legal consequences for having killbots, which might limit the combat utility of a drone operator and push him back towards a utility / reconnaisance role.
  • Economics.  The Golden Pair is a persistent problem in travonomics.  Also, the trade system as it exists is fairly boring a lot of the time.  Needs work both from realism and gameplay experience sides.  Suns of Gold may be helpful in this respect.
  • Training.  Perpetual sticky in many craws.  L0 skills ought to be easy to pick up; they're basic familiarity.  L4 skills ought to be nearly-impossible to pick up; they're world-champion grade.  The training system does not do a good job of this.  It also seems that a possible balance point might be to alter the difficulty of learning new skills, so that rather than scaling with skills known, it scales with age.  This provides an incentive to stop character generation before the end of the 4th term (the traditional stopping point, when stat-aging kicks in), and would also prevent any one-term-Navy-PDev-only hacks that could otherwise learn an ungodly number of L0 skills very very rapidly (while still providing a reason to play younger PCs).  There is also the inconsistency of one point of a skill being about four years of experience; for character generation to be consistent with play as well as something that actually happens in the course of a regular game, we either need to drastically expand timescales (perhaps Pendragon-style, with large gaps between adventures, or ooh we could make jump take a really long time?  But you don't earn a whole lot of experience in cryostasis, or under relativistic time dilation), or change the assumptions about skill acquisition rate present in chargen.  One might argue that operating freelance brings more opportunities for learning and improvement, and I think that's sort of true but 1) shouldn't Drifters or other freelance backgrounds have a higher rate of skill acquisition during chargen then?, and 2) the opportunities to learn presented by freelancing seem typically circumstantial / of immediate necessity rather than directed, specialized training like one might encounter in a military or corporate setting.  I do not know the proper solution to this problem.
    • Lest anyone suggest it, I am fairly certain the proper solution is not reversion to SWN / D&D-style XP mechanics and levels.  Although a "skill point"-based XP system with varying time and point cost to boost a skill based on age and its rating might not be the worst of all evils, honestly.
  • Armor penetration continues to bug me.  Something like Classic Traveller's weapon vs armor tables would work, but they're clunky.
  • SOC continues to bug me.  I think Eclipse Phase got group standing right in this regard.  It's not quite a skill, and not quite an ability score.
  • Wafer Jacks / The Exocortex Problem.  How many people do you know who are basically incapable of navigating without a GPS?  (Certainly many people my age seem this way)  How many programmers rely heavily on stackoverflow to do their jobs?  (...  I don't know anyone like that.  No sir.  Actually though, but only because the stuff I'm doing is so bizarre that it isn't on SO yet, rather than for lack of googling)  Who remembers all of their appointments, deadlines, and scheduled phone calls anymore, or even their friends' birthdays?  I can barely spell without a computer anymore; it's embarrassing, really.  Traveller did not consider this outsourcing of brainpower to personal electronics and The ButtCloud.  There's some thought to be put into making this gameable.  The wafer jack is not a perfect solution (it's transdermal, for one thing!), but it's a start in the right direction maybe.  Also notable is that I don't need a wafer jack to look stuff up on WebMD and have it be way better than guessing blindly.  This is sort of true in Traveller as well, except expert programs live only on local machines, rather than being available on distant servers for public use.  On the flip side, variations in local custom regarding data is potentially a really interesting area to add to the law / government tables (along with drones).  Presumeably you're not running IP Over X-Boat, so you're going to have a lot of fragmented one-planet networks with their own rules (common protocol stacks if you're lucky...).
  • Speaking of which, Governments.  What is up with all these Feudal Technocracies, and what does that even mean?  This table needs reworked.
  • Psionics. Mind over matter and placebo are one thing, but these are another.
  • AI.  AI is hard for many reasons.  SWN did an OK job of it; perhaps I could borrow from there.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Boardgames 3

More board game reports!

We played more King of Tokyo; the first game I picked up for someone who had to take a phone call, and I/we did OK but not amazingly.  I managed to avoid getting killed, but lost on points.  The second game, I got murderized by a roll of five punches while in Tokyo pretty early on, and then relaxed for a while.

I then tried Pandemic, and everyone died.  We gave it a decent run, though, I guess; got cures for two of the diseases, and were really close on the other two, but ran out of outbreaks and were going to lose by running out of cards to draw on the next turn anyway.  Had fun, would play again.  I think I like cooperative games.

Following Pandemic, we had an arts and crafts interlude in which we manufactured a copy of the long-out-of-print King's Court from notecards.  Two games followed; during both, the last player in the order had really terrible rolls on the first two turns, which combined with buying out of cards by earlier players led to them being badly shafted.  Some discussion of balancing measures for last-in-order ensued.  There was also some debate over the relative merits of the Laborer and the Farmer, which might bear some math at a later date.  Overall it was interesting, but I think we reached a static spot in the buying metagame and I don't know where it would go from here.

More games to follow this evening, I think.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mythic Wilderlands

I'm a bit excited about ckutalik's Slumbering Ursine Dunes.  I've been reading Chris' Hill Cantons material for some time, and he's had a number of very inspiring; his news posts are always entertaining, I've linked his pointcrawling posts before, and I discovered world-engines through him (one of the things which I believe would make living worlds more viable to run).  But most recently he's put 'mythic wilderness' on my brain.

I think mythic wilderness is probably a very useful concept for a number of reasons.  First, the required degree of simulation fidelity is reduced for the judge (moi), because Out There is fuzzier than In Here, by the nature of Out There.  It has rules, but they're not quite the same rules as the woods out back in real life.  This works for my playerbase, too - we're not Boy Scouts, survivalists, and ecologists.  We're computer programmers, and we know about as much about real wilderness as your average ecologist knows about perl (if that), except maybe for our one guy who does orienteering.  We are, however, substantially more familiar with European mythology, so that's might provide a common set of expectations around the table.

Finally, the mythic wilderness offers me a nice chance to move away from 'black chaos' to 'green chaos.'  One of my players once told me "Every game you run is actually Warhammer.  Traveller, ACKS, 3.5, whatever - you can run Warhammer in any system."  And it's fairly true; I've been stuck in a thematic rut.  It's all about the ineffable demon gods and their cultists, piles of skulls, devouring horrors from beyond space and time, good guys who are bad, and bad guys who are worse.

So perhaps it is time for a change, from "man against the darker parts of his own nature" to "man against nature", as a theme.

But while the Ursine Dunes are tempting, they're also some months out, probably.  As a result, I am considering rolling my own.  I think the Wilderlands of High Fantasy would suit - there's a lot of the titular Wilderlands near the City-State which, for all its storied grandeur, stands as one of a handful of bastions of civilization in the region.  To the south lies jungled Altanis, and to the west the Tharbrian steppe.  Plenty of space for the fey to cavort and the wolf-men to howl. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Saving Throws - Convergence

Last time, I talked about the divergence between strong saves, weak saves, and saving throw DCs, as observed in 3.x and theorized in 5e.  Today, I will discuss two save systems that avoid the problems associated with save divergence, namely the high susceptibility of high-level characters to the nasty save-or-suck effects that get thrown around at that level.

Turns out, TSR got one thing right in B/X.  Well, at least one thing.  The fact that their saving throws grow in a very peculiar way is often obscured by the ridiculous category names that they chose for their saves, but upon some examination, it is notable that save DCs don't exist.  There is no question of your stats vs the stats of the guy who cast Finger of Death on you; your class and level give you a target number that you must roll to resist, and barring a handful of spells and effects that specify a modifier to your save, that's all that goes into it.  The save DC was inside you all along.  And that's actually how it started, too; saving throws were "You're dead to rights, but throw the dice and maybe luck will save you."  You weren't any deader-to-rights if the guy casting Finger of Death on you had 18 Int vs 16 Int, and high level characters were assumed to be tougher and luckier, so their saves were substantially better than at low levels.

This has some interesting effects on high-level [TO]SR play.  At low levels, spells that give saves are pretty great, because the enemies have few HD and consequently really bad saves.  We added a save vs death to Sleep, and it still wipes rooms with no problem.  But, at this level, spellcasters have few slots and little versatility.  At high levels, they have tons (well, more) of slots and more spells to choose from, too!  ...  but everyone's saves are much better than they used to be, so your spells are much more likely to fail or have limited effects.  There are a couple variations in the uniformly good saves, like fighters being relatively weak in saves vs spells, and clerics being particularly strong in saves vs death, but most of saves tend to be pretty clustered together and somewhere in the 50-70% success range (at ACKS' level cap, at least).  And high-HD monsters have really good saves, like -1+.  So at high levels, wizards are much more useful for taking out massed weak opponents or doing battlefield control or buffing or summonging than at save-or-sucking single targets.  This is the balance of the quadratic wizard.  They can have effective spells but few slots, or ineffective spells and many slots.  The power of the spellcaster is tied inextricably with the structure of saving throws.

So, summary: in TSR/Basic-derived games (caveats because I don't feel like digging around in my backups for OSRIC...), saving throws success rates get strictly better over levels.  This is exactly the opposite from the way saves work in WotC games.  What's more, the TSR save system is dead-simple outside of its save categories, requiring no math.  It's very straightforward to analyze, and its consequences fall out naturally.  Convenient!

The downside, of course, is that since saves are "you're dead to rights", at low levels, your saves really, really suck.  About as badly as save suck at high levels in 3.x, really.  When the entire party gets poisoned in an OSR game at low levels, you probably have one or two survivors, much like a banshee in high-level 3.5.  Further, all of your saves suck.

I think there's a happy middle ground to be had between the TSR and the WotC Ways of Saving, though. It plays nicely with the Hero's Journey, too.

Consider the archetypical farmboy with a sword.  He might be inured to bodily distress from years of hard labor, and honest, pious, and pure of mind as befits his status as 'salt of the earth', but he's not quick on his feet or courtly-mannered (I can only assume that Cha saves are for extricating yourself from social situations), nor will he best the Sphinx in riddles or perform feats of great strength.  But over the course of his journeys, he will become able of these things, and by the time he achieves full hero status, he is resistant to many things which would've spelled his end as a callow youth.

And so, convergent saving throws.  You get a set of good saves; maybe they're from your class, but even better would be from your background.  These saves start out high and grow slowly (say +6 +1 per three levels, on a 3.x scale) while the rest of your saves start out low but grow more quickly (+2+1 per two levels, again on a 3.x scale), meeting your good saves at or near the level cap.

Consequences: low-level characters are flawed and vulnerable, but not absolutely-godawful-dies-to-anything vulnerable like they were in TSR.  High level characters are invulnerablish like they were in TSR D&D.  They are also more resistant to effects whose DCs grow at the same rate than they were at low levels; they fail to degenerate, except possibly in their strong saves, but that's acceptable, because those start really strong.  Spellcasters are forced to diversify their role in combat at high levels and rely on finger of death and similar single-target save spells for dramatic effect, taking out soft targets quietly, or as desperate gambles.

To return to Trailblazer's problems with the save structure: action points are a dirty post-hoc patch rather than a systemic solution.  If saves aren't growing at rates sufficient for them to remain effective at high levels, change the base save growth rate.  If saves are diverging and causing people to keel over dead whenever they get hit in a soft save, fix the cause of the divergence.  Hell, give bad saves such a high growth rate that they pass good saves, on the assumption that good saves will tend to be backed by good stats.  I dunno man.  Write new laws on new tablets.

...  quoting Nietzsche is probably a good sign that I should sleep.
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