Thursday, October 30, 2014

Thief Skills Also Ninjas

I have more wilderness posts I want to write, but these thoughts kinda bit me last night.

OSR thieves aren't normal, mundane burglars.  They're goddamn ninjas.

In 3.x terms, Hide in Shadows has a lot more in common with Hide in Plain Sight than the Hide skill.   Hide in Shadows, on a successful roll in shadows (note: does not require actual cover, just bad lighting) is "invisibility until you move."

Move Silently completely overrides Hear Noises.  This isn't "I got a 25 on my Move Silently, I sure hope the dragon rolls low".  This is quieter than a gliding owl, quieter than the sound of a cat's footfall (incidentally, not all that quiet in my experience).  This is absolute silence like inside a silence spell.  In sum, magical silence.

Exhibit 3: Climb Walls.  You're telling me that this guy can climb a vertical, sheer (ie, perfectly flat) surface at a foot per second, with no gear.  Slab climbing is hard, even with sticky rubber shoes and other specialist equipment and lots of training.  Like "typically not climbable from the ground up without pre-drilled holes" hard.

Ability to read any language at 4th and to use literal magic scrolls like a wizard at 10th also seem a bit beyond the ken of normal men, no?  The d4 HD also points to a life of seclusion and introspection rather than a hard life in the gutters and alleys.

Incidentally, that all of these abilities are semi-magical is part of why I'm opposed to adding mundane gear to support them.  Wearing extra-padded socks isn't going to make a difference when you're trying to move this quietly; true silence comes from within, from slowing your heart rate and controlling your breathing and being One-With-The-Void.

Backstab and Hear Noises are alright.  They're neither clearly supernatural nor clearly natural, are useful in play, core to the class, et cetera.  I feel no need to either explain or alter them.

And then we also have the crappy, mundane abilities like opening locks and finding and disarming traps and picking pockets, which is just the worst of the bunch.  The vast majority of uses of pick pockets, in any campaign, will inevitably be either 1) picking pockets of random NPCs for a pittance (and a DM headache) by clueless but excited players, or 2) stealing stuff from one's fellow party members.  Meanwhile, opening locks and trapfinding are regarded as the thief's core abilities, but are actually rather boring, quite replaceable with mundane gear and livestock (nevermind magic), and have the stupid one-attempt-per-level rules.

It seems you've been living two lives, Mr. Thievingston.  In one, you have magical powers modern science cannot explain.  In the other, your primary advantage over a common locksmith is that you are willing to risk life and limb in search of treasure, though you are arguably less skilled for most of your career and very easily discouraged.

One of these lives is interesting, exciting, and potentially fun; the other is not.

So here are some thoughts, from the ACKS side:
  • Normal people can already take Alertness to boost their Hear Noises from 18+ to 14+.  What if Trapfinding were a proficiency that boosted your Find Traps from 18+ (which everyone can already do) to 14+ and granted a roll to Find Traps without searching whenever you're in the target zone of one?  Much more exciting than searching systematically.  Make it a class prof for Thieves, Explorers, Assassins, Fighters, and dwarves, send those guys in front, alleviate Search Paralysis but at some risk to the scouts...  And then we drop Find Traps from thieves, freeing up a slot for Other Fun Stuff 
  • Likewise Open Locks.  This should be a general proficiency with at most 18+/14+/10+ for success.  I can pick (shitty) locks, and I sure didn't burn a proficiency on it.  When you lug a locked treasure chest back to town, you should be able to hire a civilian locksmith to open it who isn't also a ninja master, but if you or a henchman have Lockpicking then you can try to crack it yourself in the dungeon (with failures taking extra time, and a max of 3 turns in a row spent working on it before you have to take a break, just like listening for noises)
  • Remove Traps: Don't build shitty traps that can't be neutralized or avoided by reasonably clever play.  Spike the portcullises open, put wax in the poison dart holes, rig a rope over the pit, put a rag over the insanity mist sprayer, a mirror in front of the disintegrator ray, and so forth.  Then get rid of Remove Traps.
  • Get rid of Pick Pockets, forget it ever existed.
  • Give thieves some fun and useful abilities.  Ideally fun stuff which is also 1) party support rather than personal power, and 2) in keeping with the ninja pseudomagic.
    • From the ACKSPC, the Barbarian's "Naturally Stealthy" ability makes so much sense for thieves that it hurts.  This provides some degree of mundane stealth as a backup for when the ninja magic fails.  Even when you're not being spooky-quiet, you're just not as noisy as the guy in plate.
    • As the canonical monk-ish class, the Mystic also has some neat stuff we can steal (hey, we're thieves, it's what we do).
      • Command of Voice / Mystic Aura is sort of the stereotypical hypnotic pattern thing
      • Speed of Thought / Combat Reflexes makes decent sense
      • Wholeness of Body / Poison Immunity plays well with both early-game dungeoneering and domain-level assassination operations.  Potentially really strong, though.  Separate into "ability to manufacture poisons and poison a weapon without risking injuring self" and "immunity to natural environmental poisons" available later?
      • Perceive Intentions is great for a party face or scout and retains its value into the high levels, but is notable among social abilities because it doesn't directly make the user into the face.
      • Strength of Spirit / Fear Immunity fits well, but honestly what triggers fear other than dragons and magic?  Is mummy paralysis fear?
    • Plenty of other useful things we could do.  Some of these might make more sense as class proficiencies.
      • Disguise?  Fitting, but it creates the same risk of party-separation that darkvision on a thief does.
      • Skulking, like Naturally Stealthy, softens the pain of the low levels.  It was regarded as basically mandatory by our thieves in previous campaigns anyway.
      • Endurance, for all that it is not exciting, is pretty suitable for an aescetic. 
      • Familiar: not just for wizards anymore!  What sort of competent goatee-stroking spymaster doesn't have a pet monkey or something that can go where he cannot and hear what cannot be heard by men?  Or the assassin with his pet viper or raven, or an animate shadow or suchlike.
      • A Shadowdancery "shadow step" short-range teleportation ability would be thematic and expand on the mobility theme presented with Climb Walls.  Would also allow thieves to shift between the party rear and the vanguard in the standard Dungeon Phalanx configuration.  Honestly you could go full-on Shadowdancer mode with a thief rework and it would probably kick ass.
      • Some sort of unarmed fighting style bonuses
      • Detect Treasure as a spell-like ability would be pretty amusing, very thiefy but not very ninjaesque, and super-useful for generating intelligence in the dungeon.
      • Some sort of 'low profile' ability that lets you evade notice during social situations, searches, &c.  Less overt Disguise, more like faceless in a crowd.  Sort of like Explorer wilderness evasion, but for civilized areas?
 Also, smokebombs should be a thing anyone can buy and use as mundane gear.

In closing: this sort of thief does not model all thieves of literature.  But it could be a lot of fun, and deliver on the original promise of some of the core OSR thief abilities while maintaining the thief's role as dungeon and city support+offense (complementing the cleric's dungeon and city support+defense).

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Where There's Smoke...

there's probably sentient life, but maybe just a forest fire.

In any case, in a Western Marches-esque game, smoke might be a Big Deal.

In the first case, the PCs see a column of smoke in the distance.  If there are several such columns and they're in the right direction, they could be coming from $HOMETOWN.  In this case, they're a good way to find your way home when lost in the woods (if the weather conditions are cooperative).

If there are fewer columns, or they're in places the PCs might otherwise not expect, this is probably a good way to locate native encampments, for whatever purpose one might choose (avoidance, trade, raiding, &c).

And a single plume of smoke is likely a campfire with attendant small party of sentients who might be met on even terms...

And now we come to the second case: what's good for the PCs is good for the monsters.  A fire might keep the cold and the wolves at bay, but bring the goblins a' calling...  The campfire becomes a resource/risk management decision, especially if you (say) reduce natural healing rates when sleeping in the cold.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

On Terrain and Scale

I read an interesting wargaming post last week, which combined with recent consideration of wilderness games has caused me to reconsider the importance of wilderness terrain.  In previous campaigns I have been guilty of speaking primarily in biomes; you're in a desert, or a swamp, and maybe there's a multi-hex feature like a river but for the most part sub-hex detailed terrain has not made it from my brain to the players.  This is problematic.

Part of it is probably a scale problem, and part of it is an improvisation problem.  Obviously I cannot reasonably subhex-map every hex through which the party passes; as a result I must improvise and then record those improvisations for later consistency (hills don't tend to just disappear).  But improvisation is difficult when one lacks a good sense for the thing one is improvising; I suppose this is probably why Tao does research the way he does.  This task is made more difficult by man's alterations; how common are glades in pristine woodlands?  What does unaltered topograhy look like, without roads carved through it and sections flattened?  I honestly don't know.

The problem of scale is that I don't really know how big things are in terms of six-mile hexes (~24 square miles).  Fortunately google maps can help with this one a little.  Turns out the parts of Pittsburgh with which I am familiar, centered somewhere between Downtown and Oakland, fit right about in a six-mile hex.  Frick Park to Downtown (or "dahntahn", as they say) is about 5.8 miles on foot.  The literal topographical Squirrel Hill is two or three miles across, and something like a mile and a half north-south, rising to a height of about 350 feet over the nearby lowlands. A bit of a ravine (now highway) separates it from another similar hill to the south, and another ravine (now train tracks) separates its western edge from a (possibly artificially) flat area of University of Pittsburgh to the west, to the north and west of which is another hill of similar size.  If we figure each of these hills is 3-4 square miles, we can fit six or eight of them in a single "hills" hex, with watercourses, smaller hills, and flat areas in between.

In conclusion, compared to the relative walking range of the average semi-sedentary college student, six-mile hexes are big.

For another point of reference, the portion of Mount Rainier which is permanently snow-covered is about 35 square miles, or a hex and a half.  The Wonderland Trail, which forms a ring around Mount Rainier, is 90 miles long; assuming something like 20% backtracking (possibly a bit low), that's about 12 hexes of distance, sufficient to enclose a ring five hexes across (including the hexes containing the trail).  Most of the campsites on the trail are between 3000 and 6000 feet of elevation, while the mountain's summit is around 14000 feet of elevation, so there's an average gradient of about 4000 or 5000 feet per six miles within the ring.  It looks from the google maps that the foothills radiate another couple of six-mile hexes beyond that ring.  Further, it takes most groups who hike Wonderland about ten days, which is fairly close to what ACKS would predict for a heavily-encumbered party on well-maintained trails through hill terrain.  The PCs, of course, will be lacking in the trail department, and as a result may also suffer penalties for being in forested terrain in addition to hills...

In conclusion: Mountains are big!  I will never again be afraid to take a hexmap and plop down a big zone several hexes across labeled "Mount ???".

Mountains are also useful because you can see them from a long way away.  For the sake of simplicity of mental arithmetic, let's say you're looking at a mountain which is 10000 feet taller than you.  Sqrt(10k) is 100, plus a negligible amount for your height, times 1.22 means you can see it from 122 miles away, or 20 6-mile hexes (given no other mountains in the way, or, as happens more often in Seattle, atmospheric interference).  Obviously you would need to be closer to identify the mountain as Rainier, and not every mountain is as big as Rainier, but if you're in the suburbs of Seattle on a sunny day (ha!) you can use it to get your bearings pretty well.  This nicely addresses one of my issues with running a Western Marches-style game where the players don't get to see the hex map - how do you provide meaningful landmarks?  There are only so many times I can describe "a peculiar tree" or "a big rock that looks like a thing" before I will start to forget what they mean - single-hex visibility landmarks do not seem like a scalable solution across large numbers of hexes.  But big, recognizable mountains, which my players can name...  those sound workable.

Aaaand now I want to go hiking.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why is it unexplored?

One thing that bugged me a little about Western Marches as described was that there wasn't a really clear reason for the wilderness to be unexplored.  Sure, it was dangerous, but it didn't sound dangerous enough to stop a motivated army, or a mass migration.  So, some thoughts on reasons the land you want your PCs to explore hasn't already been settled.
  • Hostile natives
    • As mentioned above, I feel that if an area has sufficiently hostile natives to stop exploration and colonization, they're probably too hostile for small groups of low-level PCs.
  • Taboo
    • The land is off-limits by decree of religious authorities.  I like this one.
    • Pros: Lack of other explorers and reticence of henchmen and mercenaries is totally explicable without raising threat level.
    • Cons: None of the merchants will want to sell the PCs anything but that's really a benefit because The Game Is In The Wilderness and you taboo-breakers aren't really all that welcome in town.
  • Cursed / Haunted
    • Sort of like taboo, but with some teeth behind it.  May also not actually be haunted; in this case it would be like taboo but without the ostracism.
    • May entail some increase in danger level, but also provides a glorious excuse to deploy more undead, supernatural monsters, and magical locations.
    • Ex: Judge Dredd's Twisted Earth, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Wheel of Time's Blight.
  • Hadrian's Wall
    • The natural response of a decaying empire to Hostile Natives - throw a wall up, they can do whatever they please on that side.
    • Provides a very tangible boundary between civilization and wilderness.
    • Unfortunately very in vogue at the moment, what with the Game of Thrones.
  • Literally Undiscovered
    • The island nobody's found yet, the bowl in the high mountains no climber has yet reached, the promised land where it rains milk and honey on the far side of the desert of mulebones...
    • If there's actually a settlement close enough to supply the PCs, though, someone else probably would've found it.  And if not, they're going to be doing some really long slogs between adventures (as we saw with Scaled Continent).
  • Cataclysm
    • A catastrophe has torn the land asunder.  It's scary out there, and all our maps are wrong.
    • Unfortunately, this sounds like something a competent army would put scouts on immediately.  Unless the army were busy suppressing riots in the capital, I suppose.  But in that case, there is an urban game to be had.  The other case is "the land has been torn asunder and we're right in the middle of it, and have no idea if the next town over is even still there.  There is no army, besides the garrison in the tower, and they'll be staying here thanks."  Problem: where do new and replacement PCs come from?
  • Exodus
    • Something has forced an agrarian population to abandon their settlements and march into the wilderness in search of new lands.  Autumn has arrived and preparations are begun for winter in a temporary camp.  The PCs, restless youths that they are, shirk their duties and take it upon themselves to go exploring.  In the spring the settlement moves, probably to a location they have found and deemed safe-ish.
    • This lends itself nicely to a 'plum pudding' of danger, with safe and dangerous areas intermixed rather than a hard gradient.
    • Would make a good setting for a neolithic game.  The tribe has agriculture but not metal.
    • Suffers from the same problems with new PCs that Cataclysm II does.
  • "Logistically Intractable"
    • Some combination of hostile natives, local diseases, hazardous terrain, bad weather, and brutal summers and winters make mounting prolonged military campaigns or sustained settlement here very difficult, but exploration might be workable for a small, motivated group of PCs.
    • Probably the most realistic option.
    • Not likely to be completely unexplored; observe the occasional abandoned homestead.  Perhaps there is a map inside; perhaps it's full of undead.  Perhaps both.
    • Examples: Russia, Africa.

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?
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