Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Old-School DMing Blogiography 2: Of Dungeons

Continued from Part 1

Old-school dungeoncrawls are conventionally resource-constrained.  Hit points and spells are limited, and the more time you spend in the dungeon, the more treasureless random encounters you'll have, which are a poor use of your resources.  The party is not in the dungeon to kill everything that moves.  Old-school dungeoneering has as much in common with the heist genre as the action genre.  Get in, get the goods, get out alive.  Players should reach consensus about the expedition (not adventure)'s objective before reaching the dungeon, and know when to call it quits and head back to town.  Retreat is an option; encourage players to exercise it regularly.  Does winning this fight advance the aims of the expedition?  How much (spells, HP, time, ammunition) will it cost you to win?  Any individual fight might be winnable, but they add up, and there's always the chance that there'll be one more random encounter than you expected on your way out of the dungeon.  Let them know these facts.

It is possible to build dungeons sufficiently small as to be clearable in a single expedition.  This is inadvisable.  Dungeon reuse is good, because it contributes to the emergent worldbuilding mentioned in the Dungeon of Signs link in part 1.  Players can experience the effects of their actions on the environment - if you kill all of the giant spiders, the bat and rat populations are going to grow out of control.  If you unseal the crypts, undead might start appearing as wandering monsters throughout the dungeon.  Stories and lore grow up around reused dungeons; the iron spikes, chalk marks, soot, blood, and corpses your players leave around provide emergent detail, and the dungeon takes on a character of its own.  Reusing a dungeon is also very prep-time efficient; once you've done the initial work of mapping and stocking, having some new monsters move in to replace the ones killed last session is very quick.

If your system of choice permits resources to be restored within the dungeon (ye olde Short Rest), this makes it somewhat more difficult to make a dungeon highly reusable, because the PCs will tend to rest in the dungeon instead of leaving and re-traversing territory.  This can be partially alleviated with "the park closes at sundown"-type rules for a supernatural underworld (pdf warning, see page 22)-style dungeon, especially if you keep careful track of time until 'doomsday'.  If taking a short rest trades limited time for spells and HP, parties will have to make careful resource-management decisions, which are one of the pillars of old-school play.

A half-sheet of graph paper of dungeon, stocked and ready to play today, is infinitely better than a ten-page megadungeon that you never finish building.  I've gotten about ten sessions out of a sheet-and-a-half-of-uncramped-graph-paper dungeon.  If you intend for your party to keep their own maps, you should take ease-of-duplication into account when designing your dungeons - rectangles are easy to describe precisely in words, curves and 37-degree angles are less so.  If you want to build reusable dungeons, you should Jayquay them - lots of entrances, exits, paths between levels, loops, and other topologically-interesting paths.  Re-traversing a linear dungeon many times is boring, and a linear dungeon also provides no paths around obstacles like particularly-deadly monster lairs.

Other considerations for building reusable, old-school dungeons: competing NPC/monster factions in the dungeon can add a lot of potential for divide-and-conquer, tenuous alliances, mutual betrayal, and other satisfying emergent narratives.  Empty rooms are great - they build tension and provide buffer zones between lairs of different types of monsters, good places to restock replacement monsters into, and areas for players to retreat through.  Building proper megadungeons on a hobbyist time-budget is really hard unless you take shortcuts like node-based design or filling in the blank spaces on the map during play.  Avoid Bad Trap Syndrome - Hack & Slash has many quality traps, which I heartily recommend.  Just as Hack & Slash emphasizes providing hints, clues, and actionable information about traps to PCs so that they can make informed decisions, you can (and should!) do the same for monsters within a dungeon and in the wilderness.

Most OSR rulebooks have plenty to say about filling dungeons with monsters and treasure.  I have little to add, save that building a custom random encounter / dungeon stocking table per level is great for differentiating / theming your dungeons, and that I find it works better to figure out how many monsters you need, then roll and place them sensibly, than to roll for each room and end up with nonsensical arrangements.  Pretty straightforward.

When in doubt, err on the side of too much treasure.  It's good for player morale and keeps the pace of levelling up, especially as PC deaths pull XP out of the party.  XP-for-treasure is a great rule, because it incentivizes interactions with the game-world other than violence.  There's no such thing as level-appropriate treasure - sometimes you roll a +3 suit of full plate in a first-level dungeon, and it's awesome, but ultimately it just means the party can play a little more aggressively, taking on stronger foes and greater risks.  Since monsters aren't tightly level-appropriate either, this isn't really a problem.  Magic items that would be wildly level-inappropriate in a new-school game become storied and important to the party as a whole.  I've seen players mount rescue missions for characters separated from the party because that character had an awesome magic item that the party was unwilling to lose.

Characterize your monsters.  Old-school statblocks don't differ all that much, but a few behavioral changes can make interactions with two monsters with similar statblocks very different.  This is hard to do on the fly, so it's wise to consider during prep.  Traveller's critter reaction mechanics and old D&D's morale and number encountered statblock entries are part of this, but a little extra effort in characteristic monster behavior can go a long way.

Next up - actually running an old-school dungeoncrawl.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Of Classic Traveller

First - the Classic Traveller Bundle of Holding is back, this time with supplements instead of adventures.  CT had some pretty interesting features; if you already have Mongoose, it might be worth checking out for historical perspective and potential houserules.  I may have to dig through the supplements on the upgraded tier.

Second, I stumbled across this very, very interesting article from an old scifi webzine discussing the inspiring works for Traveller.  The author concludes that Traveller has always been hard science fiction noir, with a focus on the criminal and the political dissident, and that its two primary literary inspirations were the Dumarest Saga (which I'd never heard of before, but is evidently the source of low berth and the whole non-ship part of the game) and H. Beam Piper's Space Viking, which I've heard of but not read.  I think the article makes a pretty convincing case, and also explains where a lot of the odd Travellerisms like mesh, blade, and feudal technocracy.  Definitely worth a read, and not just because it supports my conclusions that Traveller is intended to be about cash-strapped antiheroes doing jobs of dubious morality to make the next payment.  I suspect a clear understanding of where it comes from and why it made the design decisions that it did might be important for successfully upgrading Traveller.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

An Old-School DMing Blogiography I: Unpacking Assumptions

LQuinze on the Autarch fora asked recently about running old-school games, noting that one does not usually see hex-crawling-style adventures in movies and literature and that a lot of OSR material has many implicit, poorly-documented assumptions.  I was going to reply there, but it turned out that there were more links than I felt would be polite in a forum post, so this was going to be a blog post instead.  But it got too long for that, too, so now it's going to be a series of posts...  I'm going to bold links that I believe are critical to the topic area.

Unpacking Some Important Assumptions:

The Alexandrian has done some great work documenting some of the assumptions of old-school play.  His posts Subtle Shifts in Play, Prime Requisites, and the Death of the Wandering Monster are must-reads, and his other Reactions to OD&D and OD&D in the Caverns of Thracia posts are also worthwhile.  Subtle Shifts are particularly relevant to ACKS, which wholeheartedly embraces the phase-changes Alexander talks about.

As the Prime Requisites post's section on Darwinian Attrition points out (and as the OD&D in Thracia posts suggest), death is a common part of the old-school experience and helps balance out the very random stat distribution.  There was an excellent post at Dungeon of Signs which argues that  PC death is useful for worldbuilding and that in OSR games, the party as a whole is the main character.  Also, death can be fun and shared danger helps unify the party.  Losing a PC is not the end of the game for a player; try to avoid putting PCs in positions of such cosmic significance (The Prophecied One!) that the death of a PC means the end of the game-world, because sometimes these things happen.  Do not point the dice at anything you are not willing to destroy - therefore if you are going to point the dice at PCs, you (and your campaign world) must be willing to tolerate the consequences of occasionally destroying those PCs.

If you are going to be harsh, you ought also to be fair, where by fair I mean consistent.  Autarch and the Judges' Guild prefer the term Judge to DM or GM, and I think this gives the right mindset.  I have in the past put substantial stock in Beyond the Black Gate's take on referee impartiality and the Western Marches approach, but am slowly swaying back the other way a little.  Still, make as many rolls as you reasonably can in the open, especially if a PC's life is at stake.  If you're going to kill a PC, it's best to do it By The Book, and to make sure your players agree that it was legitimately done - either through unambiguous application of the rules, or as an forseeable risk of interacting with something known to be dangerous and outside the rules (artifacts, deities, &c).  Avoid succumbing to DM bloodthirst; monsters should do their best to kill (or drive off, capture for ransom, implant with their eggs, or whatever their objective is) the PCs, but you as the DM don't need to make much of an effort.  Deaths will happen on their own, and typically PCs bring it on themselves by being too aggressive.

Next up: Dungeon Design

Monday, June 22, 2015

Trapfinding Surprise

It occurs to me that trapfinding mechanics are a bit unnecessary.  We already have a perfectly good system for resolving who is surprised during an ambush or chance encounter: it is called surprise.  Alert characters already get bonuses to it.  Why not reuse this mechanic for trapfinding?

There are basically four possible outcomes to an encounter with a trap:
  • It goes off without being detected first
  • It is detected and disarmed or circumvented
  • It is detected, but someone cocks up and accidentally sets it off anyway
  • It is undetected, but does not trigger.
Four outcomes map nicely to two independent d6 rolls with mods, don't they?

If the trap surprised the party, it was undetected.  If the party surprised the trap, they avoided triggering it.  Most traps will have modifiers to the party's surprise roll for their construction; thieves receive a bonus to their surprise rolls against traps.  In the event that the trap is triggered, only characters in front of the first character to detect it may be threatened (ie, if you have a character with a +2 surprise modifier in the middle of the party and you stumble over a trap that he detects, the front half of the party is in jeopardy if the party fails its surprise roll to avoid triggering the trap).  Resolve who gets got in a manner consistent with the nature of the trap and trigger.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Of Thieves and Wizards

I was thinking the other day about how magic items for wizards and magic items for fighters more-or-less mirror those class' native/inherent resource management schemes, and how those resource management schemes tie back to their roles on the Kirk-Spock Axis (I'm going to refer back to that post again; it's a little roundabout but really good, and you should read it).  Fighter magic items are typically persistent, passive boosts which don't need to be shepherded carefully, while wizard magic items are typically consumable, and must be managed in a similar way to spells.  This consistency continues to encourage fighters to play (relatively) recklessly and wizards relatively cautiously and analytically into the high levels.

This connection between resource management and playstyle got me thinking about thieves again.  As I've mentioned before, the thief's sort of "core mechanic", thief skills, are essentially saving throws against certain situations likely to doom the thief and the party.  If you fail move silently, you're no worse off than if you'd never rolled it.  They're mainly useful (at least at low levels) in "oh god we're all going to die maybe I can roll out of this and sneak away" situations; high-risk, high-reward, with none of the guarantees of the fighter's AC or the wizard's known spells that solve problems outright.

The very boolean nature of thief skills ("I'm either totally invisible or just as visible as a regular guy, and I don't know which") and their general unreliability leaves a lot of players cold, though.  These strain suspension of disbelief, and require supernatural explanation, which is unsatisfying.

Likewise, for gamers brought up outside of the D&D tradition, wizards make no sort of sense.  Vancian magic is pretty unusual, and a bad fit for many campaign worlds.

So what if we changed things up a bit?

What if we swapped the positions of the thief and the wizard on Roger's Party Axes diagram, placing the thief in the analytical, cautious, clever position opposite the fighter, and the wizard in the "forbidden secrets, great sacrifices, desperate measures" location opposite the cleric's consistant, happy moral magic?  And updated these class' mechanics accordingly, of course.  What would that look like?

Fighter-vs-thief is, in some ways, a quitessentially Combat-as-Sport vs Combat-as-War axis.  The fighter is very good at dealing with the tactical exercise of combat, but not strong outside of it.  The thief, on the other hand, is logically strong at avoiding combats and mitigating losses but weak at direct combat.  The fighter welcomes the glory of single combat against a worthy opponent; the thief would like nothing better than attacking in the dead of night with superior numbers (or, better yet, stealing the treasure, opening the gate, or otherwise achieving the objective without fighting or being noticed at all).  So we have a tactical-vs-strategic conflict here.  The fighter is already well-equipped tactically; what does an alternate thief equipped to deal primarily strategically look like?

If we accept that strategy is "putting yourself in a position to win battles and profit from them", then two functions immediately spring to mind for the Strategic Thief: intelligence-gathering and logistics.  Logistics is, of course, boring, but we could certainly cherry-pick an ability or two from the venturer and call it done (in a way, the hijinks system as it exists currently serves a logistical support function at the domain level, in that it provides cash to enable other operations).

Intelligence-gathering and public relations, however, are rather more interesting.  Abilities like Perceive Intentions, Hear Noises, and Sensing Evil let you avoid fights before they happen, saving valuable resources, or let you get the drop on enemies and win fights more easily.  Likewise, map management and operation-planning that brings you to the treasure more quickly reduces the number of risky fights you might have to deal with.  The thief is logically well-suited for a scouting role, though historically this is both risky and somewhat boring for the rest of the party.  I do not have a great solution to this problem just yet, although I suspect that in ACKS at least the way this plays out is that the thief has to remain within the area of shadowy illumination in front of the party's torch (in order to see anything at all), which requires the party to advance relatively closely behind him.

Another problem with using the thief in an intelligence-gathering / combat avoidance role is that ultimately, his function is diminishing the "fun" of the game, if one assumes that combat is fun rather than deadly.  In a game where the enemies are very dangerous, the thief will dominate the fighters; in a game where the enemies are weak, the fighters will tend to overrule the thief.  Treasure-sensing abilities would sort of address this and be quite thematic; they give the thief a "we should" piece of intel, rather than being purely "we shouldn't".  Maybe an Appraisal ability that lets a thief estimate the value of a magical object or pile of coins instantly.  Done directly, treasure detection could strain belief, but such abilities could also be explained as having gathered map fragments and rumors in taverns (HumInt).  Making the thief the go-to guy for rumors and partial maps before the expedition might actually make a good mechanic; exchange time and gold for rolls on the Dungeon Intel table, which are modified by thief level, charisma, distance from dungeon, and level of dungeon, with results ranging from false rumors from peasants to maps from reliable veterans who've been there before you and door passwords or other secrets from sages.  A more resource-managementy and mechanical concept here (to fill in the gap being left by the wizard) would have the thief gather intel points through Tavern Research rolls, which can then be spent in the dungeon ("consulting your notebook for a few minutes, you deduce that...") to 'cast' effects like Detect Treasure, Find Secret Doors, Align Map Fragment, Locate Shortcut, Know Password, and so forth, Indiana Jones-style.  Heck, you could even tie Find Traps into such a system, if you're so inclined as to trap.  This also transitions nicely into...

At domain levels, the thief runs a spy network, which he can set to work gathering information on enemy troop dispositions, leader capabilities, realm morales, and so forth.  While the fighter is leading troops, the thief's network is sabotaging supply caravans, funding resistance organizations, kidnapping heirs, and otherwise causing trouble.  The spy network is a well-established trope, and one which I suspect would be more satisfactory and less...  inconsistent with the game's economy than the thieves' guild.

So what does the strategic thief look like?  Backstab and hear noises stay in their current forms; they're solid abilities and we want thieves to be somewhat useful in combat.  Modifiers to surprise rolls and enemy surprise rolls in the vein of Naturally Stealthy and Combat Reflexes (but improving with level) let the thief scout effectively while making use of (rather than circumventing) ACKS' existing mechanics for stealth and make the thief more consistently sneaky.  Some sort of Black Market ability lets the thief provide materiel support (maybe "divide the cost of an item by a number up to your level +1 for purposes of finding it in the market, but multiply the price you have to pay for it by that same factor; usable once per item per market per month").  Finally, a Tavern Research roll mechanic fills out the intelligence-gathering abilities.  At domain level, a spy network lets you use a similar mechanic to gather intelligence or perform spooky operations at larger scales; rather than tracking individual ruffians, your spy network is mostly comprised of no-detail "cells" of rookie thieves and common men, which let you perform intelligence-gathering in far-away lands, as well as a few high-level "operatives" who can incite cells to do riskier things.

(Amusingly, this actually removes one of the fighter-thief conflicts present in vanilla ACKS, namely "thieves' guild is looting my town for obscene amounts of money but not actually hurting domain morale so I guess it's OK?")

There is, of course, the question of "whither traps and locks?"  Make Lockpicking a general proficiency at 18/14/10 and Trapfinding a class proficiency for fighters, thieves, assassins, &c.  (Assassins, incidentally, are mostly unchanged - they replace hide in shadows and move silently with scaling surprise modifiers.  Their domain game needs some work I guess)

That's that for the thief.  Next post, because this one is quite long enough: wizards.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Viking Nonsense

Have had those crazy Scandinavians on the brain again.  Currently about halfway through Burnt Njal's Saga; most of my observations from Egil's Saga apply, though this is more similar to the very late parts of Egil's Saga; much trouble between households and politics at the althing and such.  Sort of interesting as a study in the functioning of an effectively-anarchist society with prechristian morality, but not super-gameable.

I also picked up and skimmed Mythic Iceland recently.  There were a lot of things I probably won't use (because I'm not running BFRP and doubt I could get buy-in for Runequest), but they had one rule that was pretty interesting.  Characters have Luck points, which basically work like action points and aren't recharged.  When your PC runs out of luck points, he starts to take additional penalties (beyond just being out of luck points); his neighbors say that he is "luckless", that his time is almost up, and that he has fulfilled his fate, and start avoiding him, because associating with a luckless man can bring no good.  So that's a big of an interesting variation on the standard action point system; I guess Dungeon Crawl Classics is sort of similar in that luck is a stat and if you run out you get no bonuses to luck rolls, but I'm not sure it goes quite as far with the penalties.

Also Mythic Iceland's Big Table of Icelandic Names and section on various places in Iceland are pretty good.  Oh, and the King of the Polar Bears.

Finally, there was an interesting post on /r/askhistorians about berserkers, and an historian specialising in Norse history made some remarks on how it's likely that berserkers were probably religious warriors associated with animal cults.  Thus, if I were to run a norse game, some manner of divinely-powered berserker class might make a good replacement for paladins...

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Risk-Aversion and Powergaming

This came out of a discussion I had with my father yesterday, where he mentioned a skill-focused / noncombat session he played in where one player had a strictly combat-focused "damage monster" character, and was subsequently bored.  It got me asking the question "why do we often see characters built to focus solely on combat, but rarely see characters built to solely focus on noncombat capabilities?"  In some sense this is part of the OSR's Thief Problem and maybe an issue with ACKS' Venturer, so it does sort of matter.

The naive answer is "combat is the biggest portion of the rules, and most options during character creation and advancement focus on combat", ie "the rules made us do it."  There is some truth in this, but as an explanation it is incomplete.  It begs the question, "Why are the rules this way?"

A more complete explanation, I think, follows from risk aversion and what is at stake during combat vs non-combat challenges.  In combat, if you fail you are likely to die.  Your only other remedies are retreat (often infeasible) and surrender / trust in the mercy of your foes (also often inapplicable, as with unintelligent monsters, and probably quite costly even with merciful intelligent foes).  The rules for combat are detailed precisely because of what is at stake, and players build combat-monster characters in order to avoid dying ignominously.

By comparison, non-combat encounters are likely to feature a wide variety of possible outcomes, and are less often immediately lethal on failure (these do happen, but the proportion of potentially-lethal combats much outweighs the proportion of potentially-lethal noncombats).  This is why noncombat gets both briefer treatment in the rules and less attention from players; if a non-combat is going poorly, one can often "retreat" from it more effectively than one could a combat, and seek another way around.  Couldn't pick the lock?  Time to bring out a hammer.  Couldn't bribe the guard?  Time to find some blackmail fodder, or a back door, or any number of other approaches.  But once the swords come out, somebody's going to end up under a shroud, and you'd rather it weren't you.