Sunday, January 27, 2019

A/X: Refuges

Central thrust: General class of partial-resource-restoration sites in the wilderness leading naturally to domains

I've been thinking about the resource game in the wilderness more, particularly as it related to mercenary casualties.  Domains at War provides us with the handy heuristic that half of troop casualties are slain or die on the field, and the other half are lightly wounded.  Looking at the Mortal Wounds table's better half, this means they probably need about a week of bed rest to be back in fighting shape (Domains at War glosses over this, but I think it could be useful for our purposes), provided that you have held the field and can retrieve your wounded.

The bar for bed rest in ACKS is something like "complete rest in reasonably sanitary conditions".  For a site to be useful for this purpose, 1) you need to be able to defend it without involving the wounded troops - it should be defensible and out of the weather, and 2) the basis of sanitation is access to clean water.  You need it for drinking, for cleaning injuries, and for keeping the site itself clean.  It's also just nice to have generally to ease logistics and refill.

So some examples of such sites might include:
  • Shallow cave complex with a natural spring near the entrance
  • Crumbling tower built by the men of the first age, with intact cistern
  • Caravanserai near an oasis
  • Rivendell, Beorn's homestead, Craster's Keep, and other features defensible by virtue of powerful friendlies. 
  • A palisaded beastman village with a well, whose inhabitants have been put to the sword
 All of these sites have limits to the number of people they can shelter - you can't fit a battalion into a tiny cave, and you can't fit one in Rivendell either, for risking Elrond's ire.  Having more men than a site can shelter means spilling your camp out into the field, at an increased risk of random encounters (or, perhaps, being under a shelter's capacity reduces the likelihood of a random encounter by 1 on the d6 below the terrain's baseline; being over capacity just pushes it back to normal).  Capacity also imposes a limit on how many mercs can be on bed-rest at a site at once.

So the system in play would look something like this: you're exploring a hex and you find a crumbling tower overlooking a stream, a refuge with a capacity of say 60 men.  Your thief scopes it out and by luck finds it empty, the door locked.  You make a note of it on your map and continue forward.  After a skirmish with some beastmen, your heavy infantry retinue squad is at half UHP, 3 of 6.  This represents about 1 dead and 2 wounded.  You hold the field, gather your wounded, and retreat to the refuge, where you put the 2 wounded on bed rest and the rest of the squad on guard.  You send your explorer and his light infantry squad out foraging for rations while the heavies heal up.  He gets into a random encounter or two, but by good fortune they're just animals and easily dealt with (and eaten).  Seven days of rest later, your heavy infantry squad is now at 5 out of 6 UHP and hungry for revenge.

So the tradeoffs here: if you're far from town, you can get some mercenary healing (and PC healing too actually, at 1d3 HP per day of bed rest, more with the Healing proficiency - only relevant if changing the resource model on spells in the wilderness from "per day" to "per adventure"), but you can't refill all the way back up, it'll cost you in rations, and you put yourself at some risk for further random encounters (but a reduced risk compared to going all the way back to town at one roll per hex).

This ties to domain play in a couple of ways:

First, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.  Refuges are very attractive sites for monster lairs, and in some cases you might have to "liberate" them from a monster lair to use them at all.  A refuge that sits empty is liable to be re-inhabited between expeditions, which might necessitate re-clearing it.  This creates an incentive to establish small garrisons, to hold refuges between expeditions.  Human presence is likely to keep most animals out of the way, but may not be a deterrent to beastman warbands.  A back-and-forth, where a refuge is taken by and re-taken from beastmen, is pretty plausible and good re-use, good for building up campaign capital in a site.  Heck, "we're in town and can see a smoke signal from the garrison, let's get all our cavalry together and go relieve them" sounds like a pretty good time.

When you have a garrison, you have to support it, not just by relieving it with cavalry, but also with food.  Generally you can only feed about one person per square mile on hunter-gathering (so say 30 men per 6-mile hex, for convenience) under good conditions (ie, not desert, glacier).  Conveniently, 30 is also about the size of a beastman warband, which presumably also forages and hunts for its rations (as opposed to a village, which is dense enough that they're probably doing slash-and-burn agriculture).  So if you want bigger garrisons that will have better odds against a warband, you need to either lay in supplies (entailing logistics, defending caravans - and with spoilage, this might not be viable at all), or you need on-site agriculture, ie peasants.  An amusing intermediate step might be livestock.  30 men eat 30 stone of food a week, provided water.  A 550lb cow from the Livestock table yields about 27 stone of meat, probably more total rations if you're willing to boil the bones and such.  A cow per platoon per week sounds very reasonable, and they don't spoil - if you want to supply a garrison for a month, give 'em a week of standard rations and three cows.  And then you have an incentive to clear predatory-animal lairs that would otherwise be of no interest (dang giant eagles eating your cows), and you can have goblin cattle-rustlers!

Extra rules for butchering livestock provoking random encounter rolls?  Herdsman hirelings?  Clearly this whole livestock angle is one that could use more detail.

Anyway, another way that refuges lead into domain play is through capacity restrictions.  You want to have a garrison strong enough to hold them, but you also want enough space for your retinues to heal.  So you're probably going to want to expand the capacity of the refuge.  Put up a palisade around your crumbling tower to increase the capacity.  Uncrumble it to increase the capacity.  Build and consecrate a little shrine so your cleric can get a bonus to RL&L rolls (and maybe even restore his 1st- and 2nd-level spells in the field).  A refuge is the raw materials for a base, and players like base-building; so give 'em base-building.  Whether this will actually work with ACKSonomics is another question - it's not that construction is hideously expensive in ACKS, it's that labor is hideously unproductive.  3gp/man-month on an unskilled laborer (like a mercenary being employed to build a palisade) means it would take a platoon 40 days to build 100ft of palisade.  I suppose if you have a platoon-sized garrison just sitting around that's not totally implausible?  Might need some notion of garrison activities - a garrison can be building structures, or hunting and foraging, or patrolling the hex, in addition to holding the refuge, with different risk profiles for each of these activities.

Finally, as a feature on a hex-map placed during stocking, how common should refuges be?  I feel like a power law is reasonable - squad- or party-scale refuges, with a capacity of maybe 12, should be pretty common.  Almost any lair of large predators, once cleared, can probably suffice.  Platoon-scale refuges in the 30-60 capacity range are probably less common, maybe one in every seven hexes (one within a one-hex radius of any point, in expectation).  Company-scale refuges you probably have to take from a tough lair like a beastman village, maybe one in 19 hexes (one within a two-hex radius of any point, in expectation).

Bonus: dealing with mercenary casualties as combat ineffectives who need shelter and bed rest also lends itself nicely to disease and exposure.  A "trap" in a swamp hex might have characters save to avoid catching disease - mercenary squads who fail their save take some amount of damage temporary damage which can be fixed by bed rest, but if they don't get that bed rest within a certain timeframe, the damage becomes permanent as people die of dysentery.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Abilities for the Wilderness Levels

Contents: more speculative proposals.  Would probably take several posts to hash out details.

Last post, I asked what spells in the mid-levels look like in a system that took that shift to wilderness very seriously.  This is really a special-case of a more general question:

What would wilderness-appropriate mid-level abilities look like for all classes in a system that took that shift seriously?

In the low levels in the dungeon, the fighter fights, the thief gathers intel, opens paths to treasure, and occasionally one-shots things with backstab, cleric spells make everything a little easier and interact with the resource game, and mage spells straight-solve problems.

If we went hard on wilderness, what sort of abilities would we want mid-level thieves and fighters to have?

Thieves are probably the easy one.  Gathering information about the environment without attracting random encounters is just as important in the wilderness as in the dungeon.  The explorer's mechanics for evading random encounters make sense, as well as extra stuff for exploring hexes more quickly and more efficiently, locating and evading "wilderness traps" like crevasses, mudslides, etc.  I've been thinking about walking back my position on "don't show them the map" - show them a little of the map.  Hexes that have been entered but aren't yet "explored" and mapped are slower and more dangerous to move through (and, if maintaining a map for the players, have their terrain shown but greyed out).  Exploration takes time and can discover lairs and features.  So then you tie thief abilities to that hex exploration mechanic.  On the "opening treasure" side of things, you might have mechanics like ACKS' treasure-hunting and smuggling hijinks - figuring out where treasure is located and getting more out of the treasure you find by evading taxes.

The fighter's in a funny position.  The +1 morale at 5th level sends a very clear message - the fighter's signature mid-level schtick is mercenaries.  But actually running wilderness combats where you have a bunch of mercs (especially the sort of ragtag "two crossbowmen, a slinger, three light infantry, two heavy infantry, and one light cavalryman" mercs you see at low wilderness level) is generally a rough experience.  Setting up reasonable, actionable outdoor terrain for a squad-scale fight between a goblin warband and a player warband in a way that seems fair to players and doesn't consume a huge amount of time is not an easy thing (and this perception of wilderness fights as high-risk and very susceptible to either short-notice variations in terrain or long-slog tactical combat is, I think, part of why my players historically dislike them).  So I'm wondering if that's the wrong way to go about it, whether loosely-zoned wilderness combat would serve better, with mercenary troops and demihuman gangs "pinning" each other (in much the way that combatants in personal combat become "engaged"), doing some simplified resolution on their fights, and going into finer detail on the actions of the PCs against enemy heroes (and PC-engaged gangs).  Slightly higher detail than the Domains at War: Campaigns battle system, but lower detail than the Domains at War: Battles one.  There's probably some combat system that fits these parameters in Axioms somewhere...

And then for those single-monster fights that mercenaries aren't really supposed to help you with (make trivial by sheer volume of crossbow fire), maybe an answer is a morale penalty when facing big monsters.  Wait, I'm repeating myself.  Fighter morale bonus then helps make mercenaries slightly more effective against monsters, but might not fully eliminate the penalty (-2 sounds like a good starting point).

Another reasonable wilderness-tier ability for fighters would be something that helps them recruit mercenaries more quickly.  Name-level's "free followers!" has the right idea, but it's too little too late.  I've been kicking around a more structured system for downtime, and something as simple as "roll one mercenary type per downtime (roughly two weeks) in a market, without having to pay recruiting costs or spend any actual time" would probably be a good start.  Literal free units ("companion cavalry" or "retinue") that replenish themselves are a nice option too, though.  And a barbarian "Call Horde" (or Paladin "Call for aid from knightly order", scaling up to "Call Crusade") ability is too much fun to dismiss, though maybe more of a name-level feature.  Manual of Arms to upgrade your mercs makes sense too - provided a simple way of tracking mercenary XP, maybe giving your mercs +10% would be nice.

...  maybe mercenary squads should compete for henchman slots.  You take the "spokesman" for the unit as an effective henchman, and then they're personal retinue, with maximum retinue unit size scaling with level, just as ability to command large units does (3rd level -> squad scale, 5th level -> platoon scale, 7th level -> company scale, and on up).  The spokesmerc is assumed to be running a hench-tree below himself, which is a full-time job.  He takes care of wrangling quartermasters and supplies and presents you with the bill, acts as a lieutenant in mass combat, and absolutely will not follow you into dungeons, no sir, he needs to keep these idiots from starting fights with the locals or poking the wildlife for fun.  Retinue squads will go with you on wilderness adventures (and earn XP, with bonuses from Manual of Arms), whereas non-retinue mercenaries can only be used on military campaign with a clear domain-scale target, or as garrison.  And then we can ban hench-trees outside of military command structures to simplify my life, and any recruiting bonus that fighters get helps refill the ranks of their retinues.  If you like, can send a henchman to a market to gather mercs and become a known-loyal spokesmerc and retinue leader.  Upgrading a retinue unit to the next size requires both sufficient level and time in market to expand its ranks.

(Probably some room for using henchman slots ("direct reports"?) for other classes' wilderness-level stuff too; thief gangs / cells, cleric congregations, wizard lab-rats, a pirate-assassin variant with ships' crews, and then in domain level stewards for one's domains.  Concern: CHA was already a good stat, does linking it to literally every class' wilderness-and-domain game make it just ridiculous?)

...  Heck, you could even relate retinues to domain-founding.  Build up a big retinue, clear some land, and then grant it to them / "settle" them there, ending up with about one family per mercenary (camp followers, the girl back home, relatives who hear they've got land now and migrate) and a trained militia.  And your spokesmerc becomes the steward.  I like having domains be mostly-static, but if I had to deal with domain founding, this seems like an interesting way to do it.  Similar economics to the "subject tribes" I discussed here.

Anyway, mercenaries as the fighter's central wilderness mechanic also suggests some ideas for cleric.  Spells to mitigate mercenary damage in mass combat make a lot of sense; attrition in the wilderness is often through mercenary bodycount, analogous to the fighter's HP being ground down.  I feel like morale-boosting spells or abilities also make sense for the cleric when used on troops of the same faith.  Divine spells providing improvements to exploration and evasion also follow naturally (much like Find Traps).  Some abilities in support of retinues of either holy warriors or fanatical peasants would also be entertaining (and makes sense with Fighting 1 - some fighting stuff, but not as much as Fighting 2).

As for the hybrid classes - assassin's wilderness game probably looks a lot like thief's.  Bladedancer is like cleric but more focused on offense; maybe they should get more of the +mercenary morale spells, while cleric focuses on keeping mercenaries patched up between fights?  Mass Swift Sword?  Bard's wilderness game probably looks a lot like the fighter's, but less Manual of Arms and more Inspire Courage.

Explorer is the tricky one, because the whole class is built around the wilderness game.  It does exploration the best, but also gets the fighter morale bonus.  Perhaps a reasonable compromise is to give them similar morale and recruiting abilities to fighters, but only for light troops (light infantry, archers, and light cavalry).  And then in comparison to the thief, they still don't have the treasure-related capabilities.  Assassin is the one who comes away with the short end of the stick under that proposal, and I'm not really sure what to do about that.  Abilities supporting plant-based poison use are a natural addition, I suppose.  I feel like assassin's core gameplay in wilderness levels should be "go find beastman chieftains, shamans, and witchdoctors, and murder them", and poison supports that.  So would something like Tracking or bonuses to interrogating captured beastmen; differentiating the assassin's "exploration" abilities from the thief's, by the focus on finding and killing things.  They achieve similar results (getting you to the lair), but with different flavors.  Likewise, could differentiate explorer and thief "exploration" abilities by giving explorer stuff focused on actually exploring and traversing hexes, with thief instead specializing in encounter evasion.

I have the nasty feeling I'm embarking down Fantasy Heartbreaker Lane.  Call it A/X, Adventurer / Hexplorer, with a design ethos of "take ACKS' core rules and add slick, usable abstractions for wilderness (and maybe eventually domain) level play, grounded in ACKS' economic assumptions but with more focus on gameplay than simulation."

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

On Balancing New Spells for Wilderness and Domain Play, Contra ACKS' Design Systems

Central questions: what does it mean for a spell to be balanced at a particular spell level, in the presence of shifts in play?  What would a spell list / system of casting that really took the notion of shifts in play to heart look like?  How would you have to change the resource model to balance it without breaking the world?

Contents: speculative proposals.

I've been kicking around a couple of projects lately.  Both would entail designing new spells and figuring out what it means for a spell to be level-appropriate.

First, Magic the ACKSening.  I would like to hit the old Arena-era feeling, with physical objects that a caster attunes to which let him cast a particular spell.  I think there's some room for interesting mechanics here (blue card draw?  Attune to a talisman in your possession temporarily.  Black discard?  Temporarily disrupt someone else's attunement).  Also makes copying spells between casters within the party harder, makes competition for spells between casters in party more prominent.  But, comes with a whole bunch of problems, like "how do you model the different colors?  What's your spell-slots / mana pool mechanic look like?  How does recharging work?  How do you not shaft multi-color casters (if they even exist)?"

The ACKSiest way to do this would be to use the custom magic system creation rules from Axioms, but that makes life very difficult for multi-color casters.  If red casting and white casting are two different magic systems, they track two different repertoires and sets of spell slots, and if you want to combine them in one class, that class is not going to be very good at either of them.  In effect, its spellcasting will not actually be "level-appropriate" (I hate to use that word, but it serves), in the same way that a nightblade who casts as a wizard of half his level isn't actually going to be a useful spellcaster outside of the first couple of levels, or a high-level venturer isn't going to be a useful spellcaster.  Neither has access to spells which are relevant in their current tier of play; they don't keep up with the subtle shifts.  That's a damn shame, particularly in ACKS where those subtle shifts are not so subtle and a big selling point.

(This is probably a little too harsh on nightblade - if you pitch it as "at low levels when thief is weak, you're most of a mage with d6 HD and leather armor, and at high levels when thief is strong, you're most of a thief but with d6 HD, free Acrobatics, and the ability to cast Invisibility on yourself", it's probably a reasonable class.  But my players sure don't use it)

I think this is fundamentally a problem with ACKS' design systems.  They are too quantitative and insufficiently qualitative.  For another example of this, consider fireball, which by ACKS' design rules should be a 5th-level spell.  As I argue in the linked post, fireball is fine at 3rd - provided that the "expands to volume" clause is relentlessly enforced, in which case it becomes an outdoor spell, providing a big hit against either a humanoid warband (where the area of effect is the important point) or a single tough monster (where the d6 per level is the important bit, to force a morale roll through half-HP damage).  It's much like sleep, which in the low levels provided the ability to either neutralize an encounter's worth of weak humanoids or to take out a single big monster like an ogre.  The parallel is striking.  I'm a little surprised that death spell doesn't have a single-target mode (which was split out into disintegrate), following that same pattern.

The second project I have been considering is a result of my travel to Taiwan for work last summer.  While there, I visited the shrine of the Xia-Hai City God of Taipei.  I was rather tickled by the notion of a City God.  I subsequently read Journey to the West, and enjoyed its portrayal of the Celestial Bureaucracy, with deities ranked.  So I'm considering attempting to model that sort of messily syncretic polytheism, with ancestor worship, immortal heroes, animal spirits, boddhisatvas, dragon kings, hearth gods, stable gods, all manner of gods being worshiped, preferably with a minimum of systematic complexity.  I'm considering keeping just one divine caster class.  Your first and maybe second level spells are from ancestors and commoner deities like the Kitchen God, your third and fourth from regional deities, and then your fifth level spells are from higher powers, picking (say) two of three patrons per spell level, which then determine your spells available at that level.  But in any case, would need (many) new spells for this as well, hence the interest in "balance" with existing divine options.

So there's the question - if I'm dubious of ACKS' numbers for producing really balanced, tier-appropriate spells, I need to get a better qualitative idea of what's appropriate for a spell of each type (arcane | divine) at each level.  I think I was on the right track here - generally arcane does just straight-up solve (or oversolve) a level-appropriate problem at low levels, while divine does tend to only half-solve problems, give a bonus, or something like that.  But there's more to it than that.  I'm interested in the relationship between eg Wizard Lock and Hold Portal, 2nd and 1st level arcane spells that do roughly the same thing at different degrees of thoroughness.  That might seem like a silly thing to care about, but I'm kicking around spells that fog whole hexes to solve fundamentally the same problem ("we are being pursued") at wilderness levels, because the wilderness is just a big megadungeon - so if your wizard can have a spell to solve the problem of pursuit in the dungeon, and now we're doing wilderness stuff, well sure, you should have spells to solve similar problems at this new level of play.  Flood Ford and Hold Mountain Pass as 3rd-level analogs of Hold Portal, maybe...  Light solves the problem of tracking consumable torches temporarily, Continual Light solves it more permanently - Create Food and Water solves consumable wilderness resources temporarily, Cornucopia solves it more permanently by imbuing an object and requires maintenance (the divine version, meanwhile, is more like Call Game Animals and gives you a bonus to hunting throws to find food.  Purify Food and Water / Preserve Food and Water are also more along the divine "partial-solve" lines, but rely on enforcing ration spoilage).

If wizards could straight-solve wilderness-level problems like they straight-solve dungeoneering problems, maybe wilderness play would be more fun.  Perhaps my players would be willing to take more risks if they felt they had some aces in the hole besides fireball.

Unfortunately, this [high-powered wilderness- and domain-grade spells] is in tension with ACKS' ethos of "let's tone wizards down a little so that we can still have conventional armies and historical-looking economics."  This is why ACKS' fireball only has a 10' radius instead of 20', for example.  A partial resolution to this is really enforcing the "spell slots only recovered by rest in safe, sanity conditions" rule - this means that yeah, that wizard is gonna wreck one unit, but then he has to get back to town to recharge.  This breaks down under siege conditions, providing a huge advantage to casters defending a town over those laying siege to it, and might have other unforeseen edge problems.  Maybe the right thing is really to vary the recharge time for spell slots by phase of play.  Dungeoneering-tier spells recharge every day, while a turn in the dungeon is ten minutes - a similar scheme would have wilderness-tier spells recharging maybe every month, against a "wilderness turn" of one day (...  or maybe every 3 months; 144 10-minute turns per day, and 144 days is 4.8 months, but that seems excessive), and domain spells...  I don't even know.  The upshot of boosting the recharge times is that you can go nuts with high-power spells that solve level-relevant problems but aren't really useful at lower tiers (does raise some questions like "how do they interact with Dispel Magic?").

Maybe it makes sense to move the bar for ritual spells down.  The nice thing about spell slots, though, is that they don't build up over time like ritual spell items do - lord help him who goes to war with the elven or lich wizard-lord who has had a couple of centuries to stockpile ritual items.  Maybe a limit on "sustainable" ritual spell items, just like on Continual Light?  Or you have a spell slot, but you have to do something like ritual research to recharge it?  The logical endpoint of this train of thought probably looks rather vancian...  I think I like longer recharge times better.

There is also the difficulty that most of the existing 5th-6th level spells are really more like high-level-dungeoneering spells than wilderness or domain spells.  Passwall, disintegrate, anti-magic shell, feeblemind, dimension door...  this stuff has domain applications (siege, fighting high-level NPCs and big monsters), but it's not for domains.  Passwall is for punching temporary shortcuts in dungeons; disintegrate's secondary function clearing a 10' cube is the same but more permanent, and probably wasn't designed or balanced with reducing fortresses in mind.  They're not designed around the shifts, and if your game doesn't include dungeons as a salient feature of high-level play, they're a bit out of place (especially if competing for repertoire space with eg a spell you can only cast every five years that summons 500 demons for a single mass combat).

Maybe tacking these high-level dungeoneering effects onto low-level spells when cast by high-level casters is a reasonable solution?  So say, knock can produce passwall if the caster is 9th+ level, much like bless can make holy water or magic missile scales up.  And then 1st-2nd level spells are your dungoneering and personal combat bread and butter, 3rd-4th are mostly wilderness or small mass-combat (haste, prayer, and other mass- spells fit here) with longer recharge times, and 5th-6th are for domains and big mass combats and have looong recharge times.

What a mess.

This is starting to sound suspiciously like Trailblazer's reforms to spells, grouping them into different recharge times even within the same level...  And I also adopted their solution to half-casters being bad.  Trailblazer was right about everything.  Well OK, maybe not action points, but a lot of things. Although even ACKS is headed in that direction with the Heroic Fantasy book...

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Figuring out Morrowind

When I was a kid playing Morrowind, I thought its leveling system was horribly slow and convoluted.  So I downloaded mods that changed how it worked and it was fine.

Returning to Morrowind via OpenMW as an adult, I re-downloaded and re-created a couple of simple mods that I had used, and played through the game.  When I finished, I was way overpowered and had a tremendous amount of cash.

I went and did other things for a month and came back to it.  I started a new game and one of the first things the first questgiver in the game does is give you some cash and tell you to get some training or gear.  I stopped and thought about that for a moment, and everything kind of clicked.

Training was the missing mechanic.

When I was a kid, coming from a 3.x background, Morrowind's economy made no sense.  There's hardly anything worth buying in terms of equipment - there are a few vendors in out-of-the-way places that carry high-quality items (the glass armor guy, the grandmaster alchemist), but all the good weapons can only be found by adventuring.  Spending money on leveling was immersion-breaking, incompatible with my 3.x-flavored understanding of fantasy worlds.  So I just accumulated money and ground out levels.

Having seen the OSR, this "money for XP" thing now makes total sense.  Morrowind's development began in the mid-90s, and its descent from AD&D is apparent in its training mechanics and the relationship between wilderness and city.  Go to wilderness, get money and magic items, return to city, spend money on training.

And the heavy use of training changes the way the whole rest of the game works.  It tames the worst parts of Morrowind's leveling system, where you can raise ability scores based on what skills you raised during the level.  If you're not using training, you really have to grind skill uses to get good ability score boosts, and you're likely to incidentally raise some skills and waste some multipliers.  But if most of your skill points are coming from training rather than skill use, you eliminate the grind, and reduce the window for uncontrolled skill increases to mess up your ability score increase plan.  If a couple of skills rise while you're out on an adventure, you have to take them into account when you're spending your money on post-adventure training, but it's pretty manageable.

Heavy use of training also changes the utility of guilds.  Guild rank increases how much guild members like you, and if they're trainers that means they charge you less.  Getting about halfway up the ranks in guilds also opens up a second set of trainers, who usually have higher skills (and can train you to higher levels) than the first tier of guild trainers.  So heavy use of trainers increases the utility of guilds, because they make trainers more available and doing quests makes training less expensive.  This is nice, because a lot of the guild quest rewards in Morrowind are rather lackluster.

Heavy use of training also changes the player's feeling about the Blades (imperial intelligence service) dramatically.  The Blades give out the first half of the quests in the main questline.  Without training, your interaction with the Blades is pretty much restricted to that one questgiver.  The Blades also have about six NPCs who are pretty decent early-game trainers (better than the entry-tier guild trainers, but worse than the second-tier guild trainers).  These trainers cover a wide range of skills, but not such a wide range that you can rely on them alone unless you have a pretty weird build.  Stealth is covered for thieves, but not short blades or marksmanship.  Long blades and shield use are covered for fighters, but not heavy armor.  Most of the magic skills are covered, but not alchemy, and the mage trainer who covers destruction magic is a bit out of the way.  It's really beautifully done; you can go a long way with the Blades trainers, but you're still probably going to have to join a guild to cover the gaps.  And when you seek these people out for training, and ask them about local rumors, they have unique (and interesting) responses because they're in the intelligence service.  It makes the Blades feel a lot more like an actual faction, rather than one inebriate spymaster with his one lonely operative.

At a certain point though, probably in the 60s-70s for your top skills, you're going to cap out on training from the guilds.  To make those last couple of ranks, you need to get a skill up to 80 or 90, which means finding the master trainers.  For each skill (except one), there is a master trainer who can raise it to the highest possible level.  They're mostly not in guilds; instead they're scattered over the continent.  Some of them are in ruins and you find them by adventuring; some of them are in taverns and you find them by frickin' roleplaying like you're some kind of human who occasionally unwinds by talking to people at the local watering hole instead of an unstoppable adventuring machine who only sleeps one hour a week when it's time to level.  I had no idea the utility of bars in Morrowind before, but it turns out they're full of trainers, most of whom are mediocre but some of whom are the best.

So if at low levels, the training system encouraged you to cycle quickly between local guild quests and training, at mid levels it sends you on the wanderjahr to find the trainers to raise your skills to their peak for guildmastery.  It's an interesting commentary on organizations, that you need insight from outside in order to rise to the top.  And when you do find a master trainer, they're about the biggest cash sink in the game besides the rare high-grade armor vendor.  If you have similar charisma and mercantile skills, it's plausible to drop 14000 gp to raise a skill from 60 to 80, and then another 18000 to go from 80 to 100.  For comparison, other big-ticket items in guild advancement are a stronghold and a wizard's staff, both of which are around 5000 gold.  This is a decent solution to the lategame problem of accumulating too much money, if you decide to master multiple skills.  Like all of Morrowind, it isn't too hard to break this (by boosting your charisma and mercantile skills), but you kind of have to try.

In conclusion: as with the OSR, the solutions to (some of) the game's problems are often already in the game.  It's the culture around playing the game that has forgotten about them, and subsequently mods its way to solutions.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Domains at War: Lizardmen

Someone in the ACKS discord was asking about expanded units for beastman races, most of which only have light and heavy infantry.  The mental image that got me interested was lizardmen with lizard chariots.  I've done this sort of thing before, so here we go again.

Lizardmen Overview

Lizardmen are right bastards in melee, with 2+1 HD, THAC0 8+, three natural attacks,  a +1 damage bonus, three points of natural armor, and +2 morale.  A company of 120 lizardmen is about a match for a dense phalanx of 240 human heavy infantry; the lizardmen have lower AC, but one and a half times as many HP, and a similar number of attacks with better to-hit.  So lizardman infantry is pretty great in a straight-up fight.

One curious bonus lizardmen have is their 120' swim speed, which is crazy fast.  The rules for lakes, rivers, and mud in Domains at War: Battles don't mention how amphibious infantry with swim speeds interact with these terrain features, but it seems totally reasonable to me for lizardmen to move through them without penalty.  Lizardmen also make fantastic marines - they're faster in the water than most ships, and can probably just jump off, chase them down, and climb the sides (like a cat climbing a tree with their claws).  Sailing ships only have 45' or 60' base speed; wind modifiers can double that, but that still only brings them up to parity.  Warships can mostly manage 120' to 150' under oars, so your lizardman galleys may still want to maneuver close before deploying the boarding parties into the water.

On the downside, on land, lizardman infantry is dog slow, at 60'.  They're beastmen, so all of their units are irregular.  They also have crappy low-tech equipment (javelins, spiked clubs, shields, and leather armor).  All of this combines to mean that their skirmishers / light infantry are pretty crap at actually skirmishing, and lizardman armies probably do badly against fast units with ranged attacks.
I feel like stone axes, maybe spears and shortbows or atlatls ought to be in scope too.
Finally, to top it all off, their extra lair stuff pretty lousy - they get no warbeasts or allied races, and their witchdoctors are only level 1d4, so no fireball.  At least their champions, subchieftains, and chieftains are pretty strong.  One lair of lizardmen is right about one company of lizardman infantry; at platoon-scale, would be easy to split it up into four or five platoons, one of champions led by the chieftain, three of heavy infantry, one of light infantry (Campaigns helpfully informs us that 75% of lizardmen quality for heavy infantry), with a subchieftain lieutenant per platoon.

Lizardman Champion Maneaters: 1/2/3 Irregular Foot, AC 5, HD 3+1, UHP 26, ML +3?, 6 claw/claw/bite 7+ or 4 dart 7+, BR ~11, TCO ~6.5kgp/mo

Lizardman Champion Immortals: 1/2/3 Irregular Foot, AC 8, HD 3+1, UHP 26, ML +3?, 5 club and shield 7+ or 5 javelin 7+, BR ~16 (club, shield, leather armor, 3 javelins), TCO ~11.75kgp/mo

(I figured these wages based on the doubling curves for henchman wages - just increasing wages by 12gp/mo for an extra hit die seemed wrong)

With stats like those, who needs post-Neolithic tech anyway?  Hell, with wages like that (veteran lizardman heavy infantry mercs estimated around 100gp/mo just in wages), maybe you just hire out as mercenaries.  A coastal, mercantile city state could tap into the local lizard tribes, drill and equip them, and integrate them as a warrior caste.  The humans work the contracting and logistics angles, and the lizards are the muscle.  As long as the lizardmen don't get too numerous, nothing could possibly go wrong...

There's even canonical art in the ACKS book for this

Lizardman Ironscale Pikes: 1/2/3 Formed Foot, AC 9, HD 2+1, UHP 18, ML +2, 5 polearm 8+ or 3 javelin 8+, BR ~23 (plate, polearm, 3 javelins), TCO ~6kgp/mo? (not taking training costs into account, just lizardman heavy infantry plus extra equipment cost)

But that's not what we're here for.  We're here for lizard-chariots.  Unfortunately, all the options under Lizard, Giant kind of suck - they're not very fast, and they don't have much carrying capacity.  Crocodiles have the carrying capacity, but they're even slower (except in water - canoe-chariots with lizardman archers, pulled by crocodiles in naval combat?).  I also considered crab chariots, because giant crabs have amazing carrying capacity, great AC and attacks, and fit the marsh aesthetic, but they are also quite slow.


Asking the hard questions


Fortunately, we lately have a new source for dinosaur stats, which I picked up through kickstarter but hadn't actually opened until just now.  In proper ACKS fashion, it includes carrying capacities, sizes, and trainability for a wide variety of dinosaurs.  I was hoping for deinonychus-chariots, but their carrying capacity is really low.  It looks like our best bet is the timurlengia, an aggressive theropod about the size of a horse that I had never heard of until just now (the more you know).  We're still going to have to bend the rules a little though - timurlengia's carrying capacity is only 12 stone, and we need 40 stone of capacity to pull a light chariot, but we're only supposed to have two steeds per light chariot.  Instead, we're going to have four timurlengia per light chariot and assume they've done something clever with the reins.  To make up for it, we'll only have 15 chariots per unit, as if they were heavy chariots (figuring the steeds take up most of the space in the formation).  We're also going to give our lizard-charioteers shortbows, lances, and leather armor because they've clearly had some technological development over the usual rocks-and-sticks.

Lizardman Raptor Chariots: 3/6/9 Irregular Mounted, AC 5, HD 24+2, UHP 26, 1 lance 8+ or 1 shortbow 8+, charge 7 bites 6+ and bonus lance damage, ML +2 Unpredictable, BR ~17, TCO ~12.5kgp/mo

This isn't really a unit of cavalry.  This is a device for delivering horse-sized raptors to the enemy flank in a semi-controlled fashion.  The fact that there are some lizardman archers clinging to these contraptions is just a bonus.

I considered building a unit of lizardman charioteers herding a pack of dienonychuses, but building mixed units of cavalry and infantry is haram, and it sounded complicated to fudge something together.  Such a unit would cover up the weakness of the raptor chariots post-charge, but would almost certainly lose the ranged attack.

So what else can we do with lizardman cavalry?  Maybe something that can still fight after the charge is done?


Lizardman Edmontosaurus Cavalry: 3/6/9 Irregular Mounted, AC 5, HD 8+2, UHP 11, 3 lance 8+ or 2 shortbow 8+, charge 1 trample 7+ and bonus lance damage, ML +1 Unpredictable, BR 4.5, TCO ~6.75 kgp/mo

Edmontosaurs are huge herbivores, and this unit is 20 of them, each with leather barding and two lizardmen in a war howdah on their back.  As lizardmen go, this is not a very impressive unit, because there are not very many lizardmen in it and the mounts are not very ferocious.  Squeezing four lizardmen into each war howdah might be a better move:

Packed Edmontosaurus Cavalry: 3/6/9 Irregular Mounted, AC 5, HD 13, UHP 17, 6 lance 12+ or 4 shortbow 12+, charge 1 trample 7+ and bonus lance damage, ML +1 Unpredictable, BR 12.25, TCO ~10.75 kgp/mo

That's starting to look more like typical lizardman performance - comparable to two or three units of human cavalry all stacked into one hex.  I like how their good THAC0 helps cancel out the packing penalty and puts them at about par with human THAC0.

Doing titanosaur behemoth cavalry would also be interesting, but as the monster description notes, they're not very good warbeasts.  A more interesting take, maybe, would be a whole lizardman village spread out across the backs of a herd of titanosaurs in yurt-howdahs.  At that point we're doing worldbuilding rather than unit design, though.

Well that's probably enough dinosaur cavalry.  What else would make sense?

Ah, here's a solution to the skirmisher problem.  For some reason I thought troglodytes were 3HD and slow.  Not so!  2HD, AC4, 120' speed, 5st carrying capacity, the chameleon surprise bonus, and "great barbed darts (treat as javelins with +3 to attack throws)".  Holy crap.

They're also stinky, which is alright I guess.

Troglodyte Skirmishers: 2/4/6 Irregular Foot, AC 4, HD 2, UHP 16, 4 bite and claw 9+, 2 great barbed darts 6+, ML +1, BR ~4 (before surprise and stink), TCO ~2.75 kgp/mo

Troglodytes can deploy in cover and remain hidden until an opposing unit either moves into contact or they are activated.  A unit engaged with a troglodyte unit in melee must save vs poison or take a -2 penalty to melee attacks against the trogs for as long as they remain engaged.

Trogs have carrying capacity of 5 stone, so we could even up-armor them and give them two-handed clubs.

Troglodyte Heavy Infantry: 2/4/6 Irregular Foot, AC 6, HD 2, UHP 16, 4 greatclub 9+, 2 great barbed darts 6+, ML +1, BR ~6, TCO~3kgp/mo

In conclusion, trogs are great.  But if I thought lizardman spellcasters were bad, trogs are even worse.

How can we get good spellcasters?  I was really hoping kobolds would have them, in the usual pattern of "weaker beastmen -> stronger spellcasters", but kobold spellcasters look on par with lizardman spellcasters.  We could still mount kobolds on pterodactyls, but I already did that with goblins and kobolds are just straight worse.

I guess the new Thrassian class from the Heroic Fantasy book would work (d8 HD, fighter attack progression, and spellsinging), but that would require me to figure out how spellsinging works.

I think we're just going to stick to Player's Companion shamans for now, half-assedly grafted onto a lizardman chassis.

Sslokas the Prehistoric, Lizardman Shaman
Lizardman Shaman 6, Str 9, Int 15, Wis 13, Dex 7, Con 9, Cha 14
Class proficiencies: Prophecy, Laying on Hands (Python totem)
General proficiencies: Naturalism, Healing, Military Strategy
Equipment: 3 javelins, potion of human control, Cloak of Protection +1, Leather Armor +3 (...  my frickin' dice, can't roll up one NPC without getting +3 armor)
Derived stats:
21 HP, 4+1 HD, AC11, init -1, THAC0 6+ for 1d3+2/1d3+2/1d8+2, or javelins 7+ for 1d6+3
Leadership 4, ZOC 2, Strategic Ability +1?, ML +1
1/2/3 Foot Hero,
Company scale: no attacks, not qualified
Platoon scale: 2 claw and bite 6+, qualified as commander or hero
Spellcasting:
1/day: Dispel Magic, Skinchange
1/day: Call Lightning, Winged Flight, Growth of Animals
2/day: Obscuring Cloud, Bless
2/day: Cure Light Wounds, Pass Without Trace

Sslokas has been around for a long time, due in large part to his suit of fine elvish leather armor.  Which is not to say that the armor was created by elves.  He's a reasonably well-rounded leader without any glaring weaknesses but with no real strengths either. He is competent to serve as an independent hero or commander on platoon scale.  Not amazing in a straight-up fight, but he has enough escape magic and AC that he might actually get out alive if his unit crumples.

Rushas the Repugnant, Lizardman Chieftain
Str 14, Int 11, Wis 10, Dex 10, Con 13, Cha 17
Class proficiencies: Combat Reflexes, Command, Fighting Style (bonus to hit)
General proficiencies: Leadership, Endurance
Equipment: Ring of Spell Turning (4 spell remaining), Hide Armor +2 (goddamnit), 3 javelins
Derived stats:
36 HP, 6+2 HD, AC 11, surprise and init +1, THAC0 2+ for 1d3+4/1d3+4/1d8+4 or javelins 4+ for 1d6+3
Leadership 6, ZOC 3, Strategic Ability -1, ML +5
1/2/3 Foot Hero
Company scale: 1 claw and bite 2+, qualified as commander
Platoon scale: 3 claw and bite, 2 javelin 4+, qualified as commander or hero

Rushas is renowned and beloved by his warriors for never declining a single combat, and also for horribly mutilating his challengers (and then eating them).  His tactics in mass combat are unsubtle and predictable, relying on brute force, but his followers are fanatical.  He qualifies as a commander at both company and platoon scales.  Technically he doesn't qualify as an independent hero at platoon scales (6+2 HD instead of 7HD), but I'd allow it.

Krrk Cold-Blooded, Lizardman Witch-Doctor
Lizardman witch-doctor 4, Str 14, Int 13, Wis 11, Dex 13, Con 12, Cha 16
Class proficiencies: Battle Magic
General proficiencies: Alchemy, Leadership
Equipment: Boots of Traveling and Springing, Leather Armor, 3 poisoned javelins (hellebore)
Derived stats:
17 HP, 3+1 HD, AC8, init +1 (+2 when casting), THAC0 6+ claw/claw/bite for 1d3+2/1d3+2/1d8+2, 6+ javelin 1d6+3
Leadership 6, ZOC3, Strategic Ability +0, ML +2
1/2/3 Foot Hero
Company scale: no attacks, not qualified
Platoon scale: 2 claw/bite 6+, lieutenant or hero
Spellcasting:
2/day: Stinking Cloud, Invisibility, Hypnotic Pattern
2/day: Sleep, Chameleon, Summon (Scaly) Berserkers

I was kinda hoping for Shield, Sharpness, and Ogre Power, but I am OK with these sneaky spell rolls.  Krrk qualifies as both a lieutenant and an independent hero at platoon scale, and does not qualify as anything at company scale.  His morale modifier makes him a pretty decent lieutenant, and if the division commander bites it, that high LD could come in handy.  He has ambitions to unseat Rushas as chieftain, but recognizes that he'll have to do it covertly and he'll lack legitimacy.  If only Rushas were to meet with some sort of unfortunate accident, at the hands of an adventuring party, perhaps...

I really, really wanted to do a hero with Beast Friendship riding a t-rex.  This is close enough I guess:

His Scaliness Ssrethen Dragon-spawned, Chieftain Among Chieftains, Bearer of the Black Spear, Lizard-Lord of the Marshes
52 HP, HD 11, AC12, init +0, speed 60', swim 120', fly 120'
THAC0 2+, claw/claw/bite 1d3x2+6/1d3x2+6/1d8x2+6
OR spear -1+, 1d8x2+10 and three negative levels if target is a mammal
Special attacks: breath weapon 1/day, 11d6 fire in 60' cone, save vs blast for half, throw boulders (200' range, 3d6 damage)
Special defenses: fire resistance x2 (+4 to save, -2 damage per die), potion of gaseous form, regeneration 3/day
SV F11 + Divine Blessing, ML +2

Gear:
Potion of Gaseous Form
Ring of Fire Resistance
Girdle of Giant Strength
Spear +3 sentient, Hirkas the Death of Mammals -
Int 12, 3 detection powers, 1 spell-like ability, speech, read languages
Chaotic, 4 languages - Lizardman, Draconic, Elvish, Infernal
Ego 12, Willpower 25, Purpose: Destroy Mammals
Inflicts 3 levels of energy drain per hit on mammals
Detection, 3/day each: Evil, Good, Metals
Spell-like ability: Regeneration (3/day, healing effect, 1 HP/round for 15 rounds)

Mount: Hunger, Carnotaurus - 150' speed, AC 8, HD 7+1, HP 39, THAC0 3+, bite 2d10, huge scale barding and huge war howdah (+3 AC and +3 save vs blast to occupants), ML +0

Mass combat stuff:
LD 6, ZOC 3, Strat +2 (spear gives advice), ML +3
1/2/3 Foot Hero or 2/4/6 Flying Hero or 2/5/8 Mounted Hero
Qualifies as a commander on all scales, Hero on Battalion scale and lower
Platoon: 7 claw/bite 2+ or 9 spear -1+ (and energy drain for 3 points of bonus damage against mammals), on charge while mounted 3 bites 3+ and bonus spear damage, 5 thrown boulder ranged 2+
Company: 2 claw/bite 2+ or 2 spear -1+ (and energy drain for 3 points against mammals), on charge while mounted 1 bite 3+ and bonus spear damage, 1 thrown boulder ranged 2+
Battalion: 1 spear -1+ (and energy drain) by the narrowest of margins

Ssrethen is leading the Scaly Crusade, to exterminate all the mammals and reclaim the rightful realm of his ancestors.  He has the blessing of the lizard deities, reflected in his superior saving throws.  His master plan, revealed to him in a dream, is to use ritual magic to melt the ice caps, flood the human cities, and expand the marshes, and he is gathering troops, spellcasters, and artifacts before embarking by ship for the far north to put this plan into effect.

(Too soon?)

If you wanted to run him on clocks as a campaign villain, you could certainly do it in phases - he's doing his thing in the swamp, and at some point a series of clocks start:
  • Fever-dreaming
  • Quest for the Black Spear
  • Taming Hunger
  • Learning the rituals from a dragongeist in the dragon boneyard
    • I really considered giving him arcane spellcasting, but that was gonna get complicated.  Feel free to add it here if you like.
  • Uniting the tribes
  • Building the great fleet
    • Add some "get the Toenail of Eternal Flame" quests concurrently maybe
  • Journey to the North
  • Melting the ice-cap
  • Journey home
  • Invasion

Saturday, September 22, 2018

ACKS: The Ability Scores Are Too Damn High

(A Herman Cain meme?  What year is it?)

But seriously - the way we have historically generated stats contributes to several pathologies in play, because the stats generated are too high.  These pathologies include:
  • The imbalance between melee fighting styles
  • The inadequacy of the thief
  • The breakdown of the reaction roll mechanic
  • The long-term supremacy of first-generation PCs, and resulting party cohesion problems

How are ability scores generated?

ACKS' default character generation process is 3d6 in order, choose a class that you qualify for, and then you can trade down non-primereq stats to boost your prime req, at a rate of 2 points from one stat for 1 point of a prime req, down to a minimum of 9 in stats traded down.  There's also an optional rule, "Generating Multiple Characters", where each player rolls five sets of 3d6 in order and chooses one to play and two backups.  We've always played with this optional rule and it does what it says on the tin - "gives players a variety of characters to choose from."  It's also fun, if a little time-consuming.  As a side effect, though, it raises mean prime requisite a lot.

Consider: you're starting a new campaign.  Four players players show up and are rolling characters.  You are probably going to want a mage PC and a fighter PC, classes for which high prime requisites matter a lot.  If you each roll one set of stats, the best Int at the table will be (in expectation) right around 14 - enough to get +5% and one bonus spell known.  The best Str at the table will also be around 14, for +5% fighter XP and +1 to hit and damage.

For a single-prime-req class, there are five other stats, distributed independently, each of which has a 23% chance of being an 11 or 12 (which can be traded down without reducing a bonus).  So we should expect 1.2 points of obvious / no-real-cost prime req boosting via trading down.  So the best PC fighter in an "average" party will have a Str of 15 and a +1 bonus in one other stat that he might trade down to bring it up to a 16 for +2 to hit and damage and 10% XP (and, incidentally, among his other four stats, probably 2-3 +0s and 1-2 -1s).

In the case where the optional Generating Multiple Characters rule is in effect, each player rolls five sets of stats, for 20 sets total.  In expectation, the maximum strength rolled is something around 16.3, before any tradeoffs are made.  There is a 9% chance that the highest Str statset has an 18, and 23% chance that the highest statset has a 17.  If tradeoffs are in effect, there's around a 33% chance that the highest Str set can be made into an 18 without having to compromise any other bonuses.  If you're willing to compromise other bonuses, you have about at 86% chance of a 15 or better, which you can probably turn into an 18.

OK, fine, rolling more stat sets gets you higher scores.  Nothing surprising there.  The trouble is that really high peak stats mess some parts of the game up.

Melee Fighting Styles

Previously, I did some analysis of the comparative power of the three melee fighting styles: sword-and-shield, two-handed weapon, and two-weapon fighting in ACKS.  The results supported my players' general impression that sword-and-board is superior under most circumstances across the entire level range.  Two-weapon fighting has better cleaving through masses of weak opponents at high levels, and two-handed weapons have a better chance to one-shot and be able to cleave through 2HD foes at low levels, but the superlinear utility of increased AC outstrips these benefits most of the time.

That analysis was conducted under the assumption of 16 Strength for the fighters.  With 18 Str, shields are even more dominant by that set of metrics.  Increasing strength is an effective increase in fighter level (since the main benefits of leveling under consideration are increased to-hit and damage), which tends to favor shields because the marginal utility of a point of damage decreases as you get more of them.  At 16 Str, going from 1d6+3 damage to 1d10+3 damage increases your hobgoblins-per-round from 0.34 to 0.44; 10 percentage points and about 33%.  At 18 Str, going from 1d6+4 to 1d10+4 only increases your hobgoblins-per-round from 0.44 to 0.5, 6 percentage points or 13%.  These numbers are before cleaving is taken into account, but look pretty similar - the gain in killing power with cleave from the d10 weapon is still around half as good with 18 Str as with 16 Str.

While running these analyses, I discovered a magical place at the other end of the Strength scale, where sword-and-board and two-hander are almost perfectly balanced.  That place is Str 10 against orcs, with a +1 Fighter Damage Bonus.  Two-weapon fighting still doesn't hold up.

Reducing maximum prime reqs solves a limited subset of the Fighting Style problem, at low levels.  At high levels, fighter damage bonus and magic weapons fill the role of 18 Str in minimizing the benefit of two-handed weapons compared to shields (which also get better with level due to magic).

Thieves

Why do thieves suck?  Who ever thought this class design was a good idea?

My understanding is that, under OD&D rules, thieves were not that much worse in melee offense than fighters.  At that point in the development of the game, Str did not give you a bonus to hit and damage - it served as the prime requisite for fighters, for an XP bonus, and did little else.  With no fighter damage bonus and no Str bonus to damage, the thief was inferior to the fighter in melee offense only by dint of a slightly weaker THAC0 progression, which was partly made up for by backstab's to-hit bonus (and both could use magic swords for slowly-scaling damage bonuses, which put them ahead of clerics in offense).  The relationship between the OD&D thief and the OD&D fighter was much closer to the relationship between ACKS' assassin and ACKS' fighter.

But with fighter damage bonus and Str to hit and damage and PC fighters able to trade down other stats for higher Str, ACKS' thieves are left in a pretty marginal position for melee.  The higher the available Strength scores, the bigger that gap becomes.  As with fighting styles, fighter damage bonus is also partly to blame here.

Reaction Rolls

The reaction roll system is pretty easy to break in ACKS.  A 1st-level bard who puts his tradeoff points into Cha can take Diplomacy as his 1st level general proficiency, Mystic Aura as his first class proficiency, and probably pull +6 or +7 on most reaction rolls, at which point almost any intelligent creature encountered in the dungeon will be at worst indifferent.  Problems of this form are well-known on the ACKS forums, and have led to a wide variety of proposals, including switching to 2d10 for the roll, codifying per-monster reaction roll modifiers so that monsters that are "supposed to" be hostile are more likely to be, enormous tables of situational modifiers, and so forth.

But you know, 2d6 would be fine if 1) 18 Cha were rarer, and 2) the proficiency bonuses were maybe +1 instead of +2 and didn't stack.  Fundamentally this is the same problem as ability score generation with tradeoffs - we're taking a gaussian-esque distribution and adding a constant to it, resulting in a shifted distribution where extreme results are much more common than desired.  The solution is to reduce the impact of the constants being added (either by increasing the impact of randomness through bigger dice, or by reducing the constants themselves).

First-Gen Supremacy

These methods of stat generation provide a big edge for first-generation characters over later-generation characters, and also for rolled characters over henchmen who might be promoted to PC status.

What happens when a new player joins a game where the party generated stats using the "multiple characters" method?  He rolls five sets.  Among those five sets, the highest Strength will in expectation be only 14.5.  The same is true of Intelligence.  After trading down 11s, he may have a 16.  Regardless of which prime req you choose, in expectation yours will be lower than the highest one in the existing party, and you're stuck playing second fiddle (for classes whose prime req matters, ie everyone but clerics).  This analysis does make the assumption of efficient allocation of high stats by the Old Party (ie, you didn't roll all your high stats on one set, and not one player rolled all the high stats), but in practice that seems to happen.  The exponential structure of the XP curve is designed to help replacement or new characters catch up with the rest of the party, but you're stuck with the lower ability scores for the entire life of the character.  The situation is very similar with replacement PCs; if you rolled five sets, used the best one for your first PC, and got killed, your replacement sets are going to be weaker, and you're going to be behind on more than XP.

While rolled replacement characters are penalized by the "generating multiple characters" option, using henchmen as replacement characters is penalized by the trading-down rule.  To get a henchman with an 18 Str, you need (in expectation) to survey about 216 henchmen.  For campaigns in smaller markets, that is more potential henchmen than you will see over the course of the campaign.  The prevalence of 18s in characters generated in a large group with trading down is just dramatically higher than the baseline.  You are going to have a difficult time finding henchmen with comparable stats to replace them when they die, and most of the time using a henchman as a replacement for a first-gen PC will be a step down in terms of stats.

My players perceived this at a gut level before I did.  This feeling further contributed to their love of shields and plate, because they recognized that a first-gen 18 Str fighter was unlikely to be replaceable.  This supremacy of first-gen characters may also contribute to their intense love of Restore Life and Limb, which at least one of my players has commented negatively on ("People never stay dead, it's like friggin' superheroes.").

Solutions

Roll three sets instead of five per player, maybe (maybe even just two sets per player).  For a four-player party, three sets each gives you 12 sets, which puts expected max for any given stat just shy of 16.  Then also get rid of the trading down rule and you should stop seeing too many 18s and the big first-gen advantage (15-16 Str is very doable for a henchman without trade-down).  Maybe given new players joining an existing party more sets of stat rolls?

You're still going to see 16 Str fighters, where shield is superior, unfortunately.  Maybe provide extra damage and to-hit bonuses to TWF / 2H with level?  Maybe reduce fighter damage bonus to +1 at 1st, +2 at 5th, +3 around 9th.  Maybe give thieves comparable damage bonuses, maybe get rid of both Thief and Assassin and build a Fighting 1.5 / HD 0 / Thief 2.5-ish class somewhere in the middle. 

Cut the reaction roll proficiencies in half; Diplomacy as a general for +2 is just ridiculous.  Do we really need five different proficiencies (Diplomacy, Intimidation, Seduction, Mystic Aura, and Bribery) for improving reaction rolls anyway?  Get rid of all of them and make a monolithic Diplomacy prof that gives you +1 with no situational caveats and can only be taken once, like Leadership, and you're 90% of the way to fixing reaction roll exploits (...  well, maybe we can keep Seduction; we are here for entertainment after all).

One thing that seems obviously tempting but that would be precisely wrong: Fighter Defense Bonus.  If you give fighters a bonus to AC, that means you don't need the shield as much and 2H / TWF are more viable, right?  No!  The more AC you have, the more valuable each extra point of AC is.  If anything, the right way to make shields weaker is to go full Viking Age and get rid of plate.  Limiting magic armor and shields to +2 would help too.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Random Encounters and Space Hulk's Blips

Blindsight got me thinking about Space Hulk, which got me thinking about the blips.  Space Hulk has a mechanic where the alien player conceals his forces and moves them as "blips" on the human player's radar until they come into line of sight of a human unit.  It's a nice way to handle information asymmetry and partially hidden movement.  I think something like it might solve one of the issues with random encounters as they are played.

The way a random encounter in the dungeon goes in D&D (certainly in my games, at least) is usually something like this:
  • Party is doing stuff
  • DM rolls d6, 6 for random encounter
  • DM generates wandering monsters
  • Surprise roll
  • Reaction roll
  • Initiative roll
  • Combat 
  • Return to exploration loop
What's missing here is tension.  The encounter happens, it is resolved, it probably doesn't really link to anything else in the dungeon because it was just generated.  Resource costs are applied and then life goes on; there is no qualitative change unless the random encounter was on the way out while the party was already resource-exhausted.  It's almost like Bad Trap Syndrome, but with a combat intead.

The other thing missing here is that a rule has been ignored - the random encounter distance rule, another roll between generation and surprise.  Nominally should be 2d6 * 10 feet in the dungeon, in ACKS at least.  That's a long way (in expectation).  That's outside torch radius on average (30' of bright light, 20 more feet of shadowy illumination).  It's also outside of average monster infravision radius (60').  If you, like me, tend to not have 70' hallways, generally that's going to be around multiple corners or through multiple doors.  This is not typically a "the monsters come around the corner or through the doorway, roll for surprise" situation.

The reason this rule is ignored is straightforward - tracking runtime-generated state outside of PC line of sight is a hassle.  If you're using a graphpaper map, there isn't a good way to track groups of monsters moving through the dungeon.  Digital tools could probably handle this better.

But if you're willing to pay the price to track these 'blips' outside of PC detection range, the atmospheric and gameplay benefits are, I suspect, significant.  They turn random encounters from "fire and forget" into lingering threat, things just outside your vision, eyes reflecting your torchlight.  Waiting in the dark for you to make a mistake, stalking you, looking for an opportunity to pounce (or maybe just to eat your dead).  A heavily-armored party might not even be able to close with and engage such groups due to speed differences.  I suspect these lingering random encounters might encourage the use of thieves in the shadowed zone (where they can quickly pin down or drive off such enemies; pickets) and other "lightweight" play.  Multiple random encounters might lead to multiple groups of uncommitted creatures - morlocks ahead, morlocks behind, nowhere to run.  Depending on the monsters and the ecology of the dungeon, multiple "open" random encounters might fight among themselves (presenting an opportunity to players) or join forces.  Players might detect them with listening or detect evil...  blips on the paladin-scanner.

These things in the dark become a source of tension, a source of potential energy for the dungeon.  The other shoe, ready to drop.

On reflection, this difference in use is reflected in the old naming - "wandering monster" instead of "random encounter".