Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Simplest Dungeoncrawl

You know, I didn't follow all the way through on the whole "simple option and complex option" notion from last post.  I missed a very important sacred cow which came up in conversation with a friend yesterday.

Maybe painstakingly exploring dungeons square by square is great fun for your group.

But maybe it isn't.  Then what?

Option 1: Don't play low-level OSR D&D.
Option 2: Simplify.

What we have observed with most ACKS dungeoncrawls is this: you go into the dungeon, and go deeper, and fight some stuff, and hopefully find some treasure.  At some point you decide you're done (low on resources or party members) and decide to come back out, at which point you might still get got by wandering monsters.

So what this looks like, stripped down to its essentials, is a linear structure.  Every turn of exploration time, you go deeper into the dungeon or back towards the entrance.  If you go deeper, the DM rolls on his table of "stuff on this dungeon level", slings some flavor text, and maybe you find a thing which you then interact with (wandering or laired monsters, unguarded treasure, traps, stairs down to next level).  If you go back towards the surface, you're passing through territory you've already been in, and the only encounters possible are with wandering monsters, who have no treasure.  Depending on the nature of the dungeon, features may or may not remain consistent between expeditions - the stairs down to level 2 might always be 7 turns of movement from the entrance, for example.

And that's how you run a game which captures the absolute minimal game structure and core strategic risk/reward decisions of the OSR megadungeoncrawl without the details of the structure of the dungeon.  Dungeoncrawling in the theater of the mind's eye.  Admittedly you could expand this to do more general nodecrawl style dungeons - they'd probably arise in play naturally from the linear model, as abilities like sensing evil and sensing treasure might grant advance warning of next zone contents, and permit you to choose a different path forward (towards a desirable outcome) through the implicit high-outdegree dungeon graph.  That would probably be a reasonable and fun compromise position, but this is simpler, and that's the point.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Of Strategy in RPGs (Also: Simplify)

Some thoughts following from Transformation of War applied to the RPG context.

If we accept the assertion that "tactics is winning battles, strategy is putting yourself in a position to win battles and then profit from them," the existence of a pair of spectra becomes evident.  In RPGs where tactical combat is a focus, grids are the norm and combat is detailed.  Combat modifiers and options abound in order to model details, and positioning matters.  In RPGs where tactical combat is neglected, there are typically fewer options, fewer modifiers, and less focus on position and teamwork.  In RPGs where strategy is a focus, resource management across battles is typically important.  Ammunition, encumbrance, and limited healing and spell slots are all normal in this form.  Conversely, RPGs which neglect strategy tend to feature readily available healing, per-encounter rather than per-time resources, and generally neglect mundane supply considerations.

Combat as War and Combat as Sport is a false dichotomy.  These are cultures that have grown up around strategically- and tactically-focused combat.  I believe that an RPG which was high-detail in both tactics and strategy is eminently possible, and could provide a compromise position for a group of players with mixed CaW/CaS preferences if done properly; you put the CaW players in charge of the strategy / bookkeeping / mule train, the CaS players in the tactically-complex roles, and make the opponents sufficiently difficult that you need both talents in order to succeed.  The problem is (as usual) complexity.  Such a system would probably be quite the pain in the ass.

Complexity is why we tend to see systems falling into one of "strategically-detailed", "tactically-detailed", or "very rules-light".  There is an upper complexity threshold, above which nobody publishes successful games.

What is interesting is that the tactical branch of the D&D family seems to accept tactical abstractions more readily than the strategic branch accepts strategic abstractions.  4e took this position to its extreme - a highly normalized, tactically-focused RPG where powers all fell into uniform abstractions.  I believe this is a contributing factor to the tactical branch's success in the last decade and a half.

So I guess that's my challenge to the OSR - I like strategic RPGs.  I like resource and risk management and intelligence-gathering and general skullduggery.  But the problem if you want to bring strategy to the masses is the degree of detail.  Your average tactical-tradition player doesn't give a hoot about historical zweihander stances and can't be bothered with weapon-vs-armor tables or weapon speed factors, and the tactical tradition at large accepts that these tactical details are acceptable losses.  We need to ask ourselves some questions in the same vein.  Let's start with gear.  Torch vs lantern: important?  The only time the cost makes a difference is at 1st level.  After that the lantern is straight-up superior except for the torch's extremely marginal combat utility.  Iron vs normal rations?  Five different flavors of medicinal herbs?  Counting copper pieces?  Encumbrance by stone was a good start, a step in the right direction, but we need more usable abstractions.

For example: At the end of the day mundane noncombat gear tends to fall into just a few categories - light sources, tools (stuff you'd get at a hardware store; iron spikes, hammers, crowbars, chain, ...), medicine / alchemy, rations, containers (sacks, backpacks, &c), and specialist tools for particular tasks (holy symbols, instruments, grappling hooks, portable rams, lockpicks...).  What if those were your units of mundane gear?  "I've got my armor and weapons, a stone of tools, and a stone of lighting."  Then during play, either having a stone of X lets you do Y (ie, a stone of medicine lets you treat stuff but has six charges), or you can concretize during play (You had a stone of unspecified tools, now you have a hammer, some iron spikes, 50' of rope, and half a stone of unspecified tools), or they're just sort of one-stone gear packages (ie, a stone of tools is actually a hammer, 12 spikes, 50' of rope or chain, a crowbar, a dagger, and a lock or manacles).  Do these mechanics diminish pre-mission planning, which is an element of strategy?  Yes, certainly!  But is that an acceptable sacrifice in order to make mundane noncombat gear and encumbrance usable voluntarily and sustainably by say, the average player of the tactical tradition?  Just how simple can we make logistics while preserving its essence during play?

Heck, another one I've wanted for a while is hiring mercenaries as squads rather than individuals.  Or you hire a mercenary sergeant and he takes care of recruiting, training, and wrangling a single unit of dudes and sends you a bill and a status report every month.  Yes, you could spend your time sending your PC to scour the ends of the earth for a few good pikemen.  Maybe that's fun for you, and if so you're welcome to it.  But for everyone else, there are sergeants.  Likewise, you could hexcrawl manually, tracking every tree and mountain in the Western Marches style.  Maybe that's fun.  Maybe you just want to hire local guides instead to lead you to the ruined Temple of Ulf.  That works too.  Maybe you like designing castles on graph paper, maybe you just want to plunk down 50kgp plus engineering expenses and go "has castle" and not worry about the details until they matter, if ever.  Maybe you derive great satisfaction from optimising your gear loadout, but many folks don't, and a simple option which keeps things moving while also keeping mundane gear and encumbrance relevant would be welcome.

This is, I think, the wisdom of Traveller.  Trav has a number of complicated subsystems (ship design and trade spring to mind), but they're isolated.  If those aren't your thing, it's not a problem - just pick one of these prebuilt ships and run bulk cargo and it'll be alright.  You can do (much) better if you do it the hard way, but whether that's worth the time is a question of personal preference.  This is something that ACKS and probably other parts of the OSR could learn from (though to ACKS' credit, fighting a battle with Domains at War is much like this - if you want to get tactical, you can use Battles, and if you don't there's a simple system in Campaigns.  We need more options like this).

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Pandemic, 5e Multiclassing, OGRE

Last night there were games!  And it was good.

First was a game of Pandemic with the In the Lab expansion active, and we actually won on the last possible turn.  Having never won a Pandemic before, that was pretty neat.  Part of it was obviously that we didn't need five cards of one color on a single person and could spread them out over multiple people, which helped, but I think part of our success was also that we built more research stations than we usually do, which made getting to troublezones easier than it is in most of our Pandemic games.

Then I read 5e's multiclassing rules while others played Smash.  I approve of these multiclassing rules - spell slots scale with multiclass total caster level in a Trailblazeresque fashion, you don't necessarily get all the proficiencies with your first level of a new class, and there are minimum ability score reqs to multiclass - 13+ in all of your classes' main stats (typically one per class).  I was originally skeptical of the minreqs, but on further reflection this seems like a good way to reign in the "dipping for class features" issue common in 3.x, since your odds of having a 13 in everything are fairly low.  Sort of a blunt/brute-force solution, but I can appreciate that.

Finally, there was a game of OGRE with Matt.  We rolled for it and I drew the OGRE.  His armor picks were two GEVs, two howitzers, two missile tanks, and four heavies.  I initially wanted to go down the left flank, but he came after me there.  The GEVs engaged first near the edge of the howitzer bubble and did a little tread damage before being chased down and destroyed.  Meanwhile the rest of his armor moved forward, and I caught some of his infantry and two tanks without having to come under howitzer fire.  I moved back around to the other flank, hoping to spread his units out a bit, and then pushed down the one column of hexes on the right flank that were outside of the range of the left howitzer (so as to only take fire from only one howitzer as a time).  I managed to spread out being engaged by the remaining tanks over two turns - took fire from the lead elements, overran and destroyed them, took fire from the tail elements, then overran and destroyed those too, with a missile for the right-flank howitzer.  This reduced the firepower that could be stacked against me on any one turn; I did still lose my main battery to heavy+howitzer fire, but with all of my other systems in good order and no remaining mobile armor units, we called it.

We concluded that the main tactical error was Matt's eagerness to engage me at the edge of the howitzer bubble rather than making me "tower-dive" into howitzer fire in order to attrit his mobile units (at which point I might as well just go for broke and drive for the command post...).  Concentration of force was an issue too, as with splitting firepower across turns.  There was some discussion of running a very GEV-driven defense, possibly foregoing howitzers, for a "light cavalry" mass of GEVs that could encircle and engage as a group, stack firepower, and then scatter out to the sides, requiring the OGRE to move laterally / not towards the objective in order to attrit the armor.  Such a force would work much better with an "offensive defense" posture than a howitzer-bound one could.  On the other hand, the OGRE counter to such tactics is probably to hug the edge of the map, to limit the number of directions you can be engaged from and force the GEVs to get in each other's way.  This does suggest a deployment area for the defense's infantry deployment, I guess.

On the other end of the scale, I think a fixed-ish defense of howitzers and missile tanks with a mobile reserve of GEVs might also work.  We're still not really sure what to do with infantry; there was some speculation about using them en masse to attack treads.  I definitely think it's winnable for the defense, but it also seems to me that you want to have everything hit the OGRE all at once to improve your odds.  At the end of the day the main asymmetry is in concentration of force - the OGRE is inferior to the defense in terms of total firepower, but it's much more concentrated.

In any case, an interesting game; would play again, though I should probably play defense next and give someone else a change to OGRE.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Of Strategy and Software Engineering

This post has nothing to do with gaming.  Probably.

I've been continuing to work my way through The Transformation of War, and hit something somewhat interesting last night.  Van Creveld commented on the traditional division between strategy and tactics, that tactics is the art of winning battles while strategy is the groundwork, to make sure that the battle will be fought under advantageous circumstances, that men and equipment will be in good order on arrival, and that victory can be capitalized on to achieve a campaign's objectives.  Further, he argued that much of successful strategy is working around three sorts of difficulties; uncertainty and friction (the tendency for things to go wrong and impede progress) were recognized by Clauswitz, while van Creveld also adds inflexibility.

This is probably not news to those familiar with Western strategy, but it did make an interesting connection with software engineering for me.  You see, software engineering isn't really engineering as one might use the term for, say, civil or mechanical engineering.  A mechanical engineer can look up the strength of various alloys of steel in reasonably reputable sources, crunch the numbers, and figure out what he needs in order to make the thing he's designing meet the requirements.  When he's done, he can be reasonably certain that the thing he's built will more-or-less work as intended if he has done his job properly.  Software engineers cannot do this.  The performance benchmarks available are gamed all to hell, the mathematics taught in school are primarily concerned with asymptotic behavior and completely neglect very substantial performance concerns, nobody outside of Intel and maybe some of the agencies actually knows the full instruction set most general-purpose computers are running, and next year that library you're using is going to break its interface out from under you with no warning.  Not only do we not know the 'laws of physics' of the area we're working in, but those laws are constantly changing, often adversarially.

(And of course, the client wants it done yesterday with a completely different set of requirements than they asked for six months ago, but I figure that's probably normal for most engineering disciplines)

At the end of the day, software engineering has more in common with art and alchemy than with traditional mathematically-rigorous engineering approaches.  The proof of this, I think, is that we see reflections of strategy's aims and obstables in modern software engineering practices.  Waterfall has fallen by the wayside because its timetables failed to account for friction.  Its fixed requirements led to inflexibility and may have been wrong or useless by the time the project was brought to completion.  Test-driven development makes a tradeoff between flexibility and friction, as codified tests somewhat reduce your ability to adapt to changing requirements but also reduce the impact of random failures.  The Agile family of methodologies seems focused on flexibility to changing requirements and reducing uncertainty about customer requirements through communication, which is good, but may come at the cost of a flavor of friction as developer-time is lost playing Meetings & Metrics (have you heard of my new game?  Best-selling the world over...).

(Exercise for the reader: commission a civil engineering firm to design a highway suspension bridge using Agile.  Be sure the change the requirements regularly to keep them on their toes.  Record the stand-up meetings and put them on youtube.)

Anyway: at the end of the day, software engineering is about establishing a context to programming, where the unpleasant, messy work of one's developers can actually achieve the objective despite uncertainty and both human and machine failures.  In this it is like strategy.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Rise and Decline of the State (Part 2)

Continued from part 1

Also incorporates some elements from The Transformation of War, which my friendly local library has so kindly lent me.

I was close to the mark in part 1 when I guessed that the argument van Creveld would make was that the state's ability to wage war outgrew its willingness via nuclear weapons.  He does place the turning point at the beginning of the Atomic Age, but changes due to nuclear weapons are only part of his thesis.  The argument he makes regarding warfare is that the availability of nuclear weapons made extinction a possible outcome of any major war between powerful states, and this has so far been deemed an unacceptable risk.  As a result, we've seen border and proxy wars, but the sort of deep strategic advances hundreds of miles into hostile territory are a thing of the past because if you put a nuclear state into a position where it has everything to lose, then so do you.  Likewise, large concentrations of conventional forces are convenient targets for nuclear weapons.

The interesting bit of the nuclear hypothesis that I didn't see coming was its effect on international law, namely the criminalization of wars of aggression and the end of territorial annexation.  This is a significant change from the established order, and one which is (I suppose) being tested in the Donbas, where two social mores are in conflict - on the one hand, it sure looks like Russia is waging something rather like an aggressive war for annexation of Crimea / Sevastopol, violating the no-annexation principle.  On the other hand, the Russian majority in the regions they're trying to annex supposedly voted to secede and join the Russian Federation (admittedly, possibly after the spetsnaz arrived), so there is an argument from self-determination, representative government, and such.  Interesting times to set a precedent.

(Nationalism, incidentally, is part of what has made victorious annexation impracticable these days.  Back when, if your province was conquered you paid taxes to your new rulers much as you paid them to your old rulers.  Now national identity enters into the question, and popular resistance follows.  The end of annexation has meant that one of the main motivating factors (from the perspective of the state) for waging was has disappeared.  Consequently, he argues, conventional military forces are basically obsolete)

The other technology-center that van Creveld addresses is information and logistical.  I saw part of this coming too, as regards the ability of non-state, nonbureaucratic organizations to utilize information technologies more flexibly than states.  Again, while I see the micro view, van Creveld looks at the macro view, where from the telegraph and railroad to the internet technology over the last century and a half has become networked.  One telegraph doesn't do you any good, and if you can't agree on standard protocols for how to telegraph with your neighbors they're not much help either.  States which ignore these technologies and don't standardize with other states run the risk of falling behind economically and socially, but those that standardize end up losing some of their power to international standards bodies.  Likewise, the international corporation has become the center for technological development and economic growth, outpacing most states.  Finally, if you wish to participate in international trade, you also end up losing some degree of liberty over your own currency.

So what is left for the state?  With conventional warfare and its economic sovereignty in decline, the state is left to supervising a nuclear arsenal, maintaining order, and providing welfare.  Van Creveld and I do not see eye-to-eye on the future of the welfare state; we both seem to be on the libertarian side of the fence, but while he (as of 2000) sees the welfare state in decline, I see it resurgent, driven by a new wave of youth born after the fall of communism unknowingly allied with a pragmatic elderly population.  While van Creveld sees the end of the welfare state as inevitable as a result of "loss of faith in government" and economics, I believe that faith in government is in a cyclical mode for the time being, and that the demands of a hungry population know no economic bounds.  Lest I be called a heartless bastard on the internet (I am, though, you know), I am curious for the potential for distributed, non-government welfare systems, rather like I hear things were done back in the Bad Old Days, when communities took care of their own rather than expecting the state to solve their problems, but organized and run in a modern (ie, networked, webscale) mode.

Anyway, enough politics.

Van Creveld also looks at guerilla warfare and terrorism as a consequence of the end of conventional warfare, and this leads nicely into The Transformation of War.  One point I found interesting here was the failure of the French and British to keep their colonies after the Second World War; I had a theory that the rise of terrorism these days was directly enabled by the proliferation of arms during the Cold War, and that armed resistance movements were inviable before then, but now I think that this is false.  The note that resistance fighters are now recognized under international law was interesting too (though as he also notes, every country does its best to have its own local, home-grown freedom fighters classified as terrorists instead).

Another interesting thing that is mentioned is that traditional strategy (since Napoleon at least, and probably earlier) relies on encirclement and cutting off the enemy force's lines of supply and communication.  This is part of why fighting guerillas is hard - they don't (usually) have organized geographic lines of supply which can be cut by physical encirclement (consider, for example, the futility of Russian operations in Afghanistan to cut lines of supply across the Pakistani border), and they typically have sufficient initiative and motivation to continue fighting independently if lines of communication are cut.  It seems to me that the way to achieve strategic victory over the guerilla, then, is to cut his lines of supply by driving a wedge between him and the community of local sympathizers on whom he relies for food, shelter, and cover.  This is, of course, much harder than mere encirclement, especially when fighting a cross-culture war, where most of your force doesn't share the enemy's language and traditions.  Field intel folks, psychological ops, and special forces seem a more natural fit for this sort of war than conventional "line" military forces.

I am not that far into Transformation of War yet, but so far it seems quite a critique of Clauswitz; I think the argument being made is that Clauswitz's model of war, which has become the standard for 'conventional' war, was predicated on war between states and on clear divisions between military and civilians, and that as that distinction is now disintegrating Clauswitz's theories are no longer applicable (also that Clauswitz's theory of war was incomplete at publication, as it failed to account for war in the pre-state era).  I'm not sure if a new constructive theory (beyond that expressed in RaDotS) is to follow or if this is primarily a critical work, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Henchinator v0.1

Some folks have been asking me about my ACKS scripts lately.  They're not really packaged for general human consumption, though, so instead I threw together something resembling a website (webapp would be overselling it) this afternoon for the most-asked-about one, henchman generation.  Go take a look (but do try not to knock my server over; it is not a beefy machine at all).

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Rise and Decline of the State (Part 1)

I've been reading Martin van Creveld's Rise and Decline of the State recently.  I'm not quite done with it (having finished the Rise section, but not yet read the Decline section), but it has given me plenty of food for thought.

Historical assertions follow; I have not checked all of van Creveld's sources.

The overarching 'plot', if you will, is that Western European monarchies spent a lot of effort eliminating the power of the nobility, the church, and the towns, then found themselves with nobody to help them rule (for one man alone cannot rule a kingdom).  So they created bureaucracies, which in turn outgrew and devoured them, creating the modern impersonal state.  These bureaucracies aggregated as much power to themselves as possible and eventually, via nuclear weapons, their ability to wage total war outgrew their willingness to wage total war.  Now we see a shift back towards the power of guerillas and militias who, using the technology developed by states with less bureaucratically-fixed tactics, can effectively oppose states (at least this is where I think this book and its sequel, The Transformation of War, are going).  To decentralize power in order to fight a decentralized enemy is counter to the ethos of the state ("All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.").  I think there are some glorious grand strategy gaming opportunities here, which make the failure of War on Terror all the sadder, but there remains much reading to be done.

One of the interesting thrusts of RaDotS is that a lot of the social context we take for granted today came about only in the last couple of hundred years (since 1600, say) as part of a feedback loop, where state bureaucracies caused changes in order to increase their own power, which in turn allowed them to cause more changes to their advantage (van Crevelds characterizes the modern state by its permanent, impersonal, secular bureaucracy and regional monopoly on violence; much of the book is really a history of bureaucracy, which is awfully relevant for tax season).

Mapping, census, languages, and fixed centers of government were probably the most interesting elements of this transitional period from an ACKS context.  Geometrically-precise mapping on the scale of national borders was not performed (at least in Western Europe) until the 15-1600s, after the development of the printing press, putting it well after the Medieval period.  If we want to be reasonably accurate to the experience of ruling a domain or exploring a wilderness, then, we ought to kiss our hexmaps goodbye (at least on the player side of the table) and switch everything to pointcrawls.  Likewise, William the Conqueror's Domesday Book aside, national censuses were not undertaken until about the same timeframe, with the natural interests of accurate taxation and ability to raise levies.  ACKS' familial abstraction may well be too fine-grained for the period.  Common national languages began to be standardized during this period, again primarily for military purposes, though as the Basques show this process is still not complete.  Again, the Common tongue is a mighty powerful abstraction, and we often skip having multiple human languages.  Finally, fixed centers of government are particularly entertaining from an ACKS perspective.  It was not until after the printing press and attendant beginnings of the rise of bureaucracy that kings stopped travelling their own countrysides and began ruling from distant seats through proxy bureaucrats; RaDotS cites several kings of the Medieval period who travelled perpetually through their domains, checking up on their vassals and holding court as they went.  This is very different from the fixed model of rulership we saw emerging while playing ACKS!  This change to remote rule also saw kings stop leading their own troops (with a few exceptions like Gustavus Adolphus).  Both of these changes, though, require an established, educated, loyal bureaucratic apparatus, which is something that takes a lot longer than a single king's lifetime to bring into being.

Another interesting thing to note is the relation of religion to the state.  van Crevelds contends that historically, almost all rulers of domains above the size of towns have been justified religiously, with emperors typically approaching the status of living gods and always holding the status of head of their religion.  An exception occurred in Western Europe, though, where Charlemagne became Holy Roman Emperor, but the pope remained head of the religion.  This put monarchical interests into opposition with religious ones, rather than the harmony typical of the rest of the world, and led to the eventual loss of religious temporal power in the West, which permitted the growth of a secular bureaucracy (which, without respect for traditional religious / "natural" law, soon rendered the monarchy vestigial).  "Separation of church and state" is an aberration from the 'natural order' of human history, if you will, albeit a rather durable one and one of which I am quite fond.  This separation of church and state, though, begat political philosophy (which served the same purpose as religion, ie justifying the power of those who rule - I have always been dubious of mainstream political philosophy, and am now moreso) and nationalism (a secular religion if ever there were one - Nietzsche would've called it an answer to the death of god, if he hadn't been too busy fighting the German protonationalists of his day about antisemitism to get a clear look at nationalism).

So anyway, all of that has some interesting implications for the whole fighter-cleric domain dynamic.

More to follow as I continue reading.