Monday, April 20, 2015

Mechmusics, OGRE, Morale

If I were going for postcount, this could probably be multiple (unrelated: initially typo'd "multiple" to "mule pile")

Point the first: some decent background music for SF ground combat.  Gave me the "tech-heavy military SF" itch again.

Which OGRE sort of fills but also sort of doesn't.  The only design is in defense force composition, which while still an open problem is a very different animal from Starmada, Battletech, or Traveller-type design.  One thing I will say for OGRE though is that it handles attrition nicely - as soon as one side can't take an action, the game is over.  The nature of the battle between implacable machine and humans making a last stand mean that morale is immaterial, so you have neither forced actions ("failed morale, must retreat towards map edge") nor denied actions ("pinned, can't fire this turn").  In this way, it avoids complexity.

Admittedly, a lot of wargames ignore morale effects, but it's nice to have a reasonable excuse.  Should find more wargames with war machines and slavering aliens born to die ("this for the swarm!"), and I guess human troops either heroic, desperate, or hopped up on combat stimulants.  Maybe that's part of why 40k is popular; they have morale rules, but they're not nearly as central to gameplay as in (say) Stargrunt, and plenty of things basically ignore them.

Also wargames are problematic because of scalability (often hard for 4-5 players at once to play with quick turn lengths), tendency to minmax in competitive environments, and somebody always loses.  These are things which RPGs handle relatively well.  Do people play wargames in the 3+ vs 1 "coalition of players and a referee in non-competitive campaign" mode?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Kickstarters

Two kickstarters launched this week which I found of interest; perhaps you will too.

Autarch launched for The Sinister Stone of Sakkara.  I've been saying ACKS could use a good low-level introductory adventure for a while now, and along comes a chance for me to put my money where my mouth is.  The sample texts I've seen so far look a bit verbose for my tastes, but we'll see.

Howard Taylor of (Archive Warning!  Do not click if you have anything to do today!) Schlock Mercenary launched The Planet Mercenary RPG.  It sounds from the notes like it's going to be a fairly straightforward game, and the book is going to contain a lot of new details about the Schlockiverse.  As much as I love the universe notes that Taylor occasionally puts beneath his comics, I'm not sure I want to shell out $20 for a book of them (I don't think I know enough other Schlock fans to actually assemble a group to play the game, so it seems most likely that I'd end up reading primarily for fandom's sake).  I'm also, as a pdf gamer, somewhat put off by the use of custom cards as a game mechanic.  So I think I'm going to give this one a pass, despite the fact that it looks entertaining.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Board Games IV: OGRE, Lords of Waterdeep, Alchemists

Was at the Gamerhaus yesterday for a playtest of an RPG combat system some friends are working on, and ended up also playing videogames and OGRE and then coming back today.

OGRE: Matt played defense again, this time with three howitzers clustered in the rear-center and six heavy tanks spread out in front of them, with infantry in front of them.  I considered attacking straight down the centerline, but shifted to attack from the left when I reached howitzer range, and was engaged first by three of the tanks and supporting infantry.  I burned my missiles to disable two of the tanks, and lost my main gun to the first round of stacked fire.  I overran probably three tanks in the next two turns and surrounded three hexes from the howitzercluster at 31 tread units (ie, the least possible number of treads with which I could reach and overrun them in one move).  Matt had some horrible luck attacking my treads that turn, and so I did succeed in overrunning one howitzer and destroying the other two with my secondary weapons, leaving three tanks and some infantry on the field.  The tanks did a number on my secondary batteries, but because they had to be at range 2 to fire I was able to chase them down and ram them.  The infantry then succumbed to antipersonnel fire.  At the end of the game I think I had one secondary cannon and seven AP weapons left, and was probably at 25ish tread units.  A much better showing for the defense than last time; heavy tanks mean business.  I think three potential mistakes were not engaging and doing tread damage before I was in howitzer range, not moving the right-side group sooner (which let me engage the two groups not-exactly separately but also did not force me to ever engage his entire force at once) and clustering the howitzers so tightly that if I got one of them I was going to get all of them.

Today, we played Lords of Waterdeep, Sentinels, Niagara, and Alchemists.

Lords of Waterdeep: This was my first time playing.  I enjoyed this game; it was slightly work-replacement-y, and felt sort of like a cross between Manhattan Project and Colosseum, in that the worker allocation model was similar to Manhattan Project and the many-resources allocation model for completing quests felt somewhat similar to Colosseum's resource allocation to shows.  My Lord gave bonuses for commerce and warfare, but I drew a thief-engine plot quest in my opening pair and so ended up doing a lot of skullduggery instead, which ended up hurting me a little; I had a good lead in the midgame, but after lord bonuses were factored in I tied for 2nd/3rd of four players, with 1st place winning via completing a pair of 25-point quests in the last two turns.  Honestly saving up adventurers and then nabbing a pair of good quests near the end, rather than completing lots of small quests, is probably not a bad strategy.  The game also left me with some food-for-thought regarding the ACKS domain game, namely that a simplified subsystem for resolving "we hire some adventurers to take care of X for us" would be pretty handy.  I also sort of wish I'd taken the time to read the flavor text and have a chuckle at the emergent narrative (of, for example, the City Watch building a thief engine), but it was a long enough game as it was.

Sentinels: We got wrecked by villain board-clear after a fairly promising start and due in part to lack of board-clear or healing of our own.  Happens.

Niagara: First time playing this as well, and was not a fan.  Felt very treadmilly; oh I'm down at the top of the falls again, maybe I'll actually make it one tile upriver this turn...  nope.

Alchemists: A relatively new game, and a pretty hilarious simulation of academia.  The conference deadlines are always one turn too close, and the results you end up publishing to meet them are usually wrong, but the grant committee doesn't care.  I'm not a huge fan of the reliance on a smartphone / mobile app, but the "information hidden from all players, which they must actually deduce for themselves" element that it made possible was really good.  It was the first real game for all of us, and Mistakes Were Made - Drew used the wrong two ingredients for something, Matt misrecorded an experimental result early in the game and ended up with some incorrect deducations later, I misunderstood the rules for debunking an incorrect published result...  but these things happen.  I was behind all game because I was focused on correctness over meeting conference deadlines, and was pleased to discover that this actually worked out alright at the end of the game, when my fewer-but-correct publications were worth more than inaccurate publications that were produced early for grant points, and so I came back to second place by a point (it was a very tight spread overall, with third and fourth only a few points behind me).  Would play again.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Further Thoughts from Transformation of War

I keep not finishing this book, because suddenly it's midnight and I have to sleep.

Most recent observations:
  • Van Creveld's notes on the differences between Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim traditions of holy war are pretty interesting.
    • The Hebrew Old Testament holy war came in two flavors - one was ordered by God and commanded the utter destruction of an enemy tribe and all of their possessions, livestock, and buildings, lest the righteous be tempted by the works of the unclean.  The other was undertaken against an enemy (heathen) tribe without divine command, and involved killing all of their males and taking their women and possessions.
    • Christian holy war originally resembled Hebrew holy war (being inspired by the Old Testament) though with a different organizational structure (army rather than tribe), and softened rapidly during the crusades from being wars of extermination to being wars of subjugation.
    • Muslim holy war was originally a perpetual struggle between the House of Submission and the House of the Sword, and expected to end with either the death or conversion of pretty much everyone.  In practice, the whole multiple-caliphates thing has complicated this a bit, and the policy has tended to soften over time towards subjugation without necessarily conversion.
    • Heh, that'd be a fun mechanic - bonus reserve XP for getting proper last rites and burial, and lots of bonus reserve XP for dying on a mission from the church.  Or Iron Heroes-style glory points that let you interfere from beyond the grave and get canonized...
  • VC's distinction between existential war and rational war was very interesting to me.  He argues that rational war is that carried out with the rational interests of a government or organization in mind and a calculus of gain and loss used to measure the effectiveness of operations, while existential war is what occurs when a people is faced with oppression or extermination and resolves to "sell their lives dearly", with no regard for their own safety or the rules of war.  He notes a number of circumstances in which technologically-and-organizationally inferior groups have defeated rational forces through existential warfare (albeit at typically at tremendous bodycounts), and also notes that any sufficiently-long rational war tends to eventually become an existential war as the combatants' resources are stretched thin and the war's political justifications cease to adequately justify the bodycount and personal sacrifices involved.  This supports my long-held notion that in war and many other endeavours, those who are willing to sacrifice everything for their ends tend to be the most likely to triumph, but are also usually left wondering if it was worth it.  This "by any means necessary" theme is one which I have explored with several characters, and which I occasionally exercise in board/wargaming as well.  I have also witnessed the rational dungeoncrawl rapidly become the irrational, existential dungeoncrawl of extermination ("They killed Monty!").   So this seems a useful distinction to me in understanding strategy and the conduct of war and life in general.
  • Some of the historical mentions of cultural circumstances which made the conduct of war very different from our own would make for quality gaming.  Most notable:
    • In Greece, the city-states each claimed divine origin, and so to destroy or found a city-state would be to act against the gods.  Hence, war was largely confined to the borders and to trade interests.
    • The "just war" notions of the Roman and Medieval periods occasionally caused leaders to eschew certain advantages (fortifications, river crossings, ranged weapons) during battles, to prove that they actually had the moral high ground.
    • Likewise, just-war considerations led to small-unit battles deciding the fate of provinces by agreement between both concerned rulers.  This would make a lot of sense for adventuring parties...
  • Unfortunately, the end of this chapter, which attempts to counter the notion that every war is based on the community or nation's "rational interest" by arguing that interest is too broad a term to be useful, is largely sophistry bordering on philosophy.  Disappointing; sufficient evidence was laid out earlier that the conduct of war is often too disjointed to be rational.  No need to beat a dead horse with a featherduster for five pages, as is done here - it just makes the author look a bit silly in my estimation.
  • The chapter following, on why individuals fight, isn't much better.  A lot of philosophizing on the nature of man and woman and why folks risk their lives.  There were a few insights buried in there, though:
    • Honorable combat, as opposed to murder, massacre, and other crimes, is distinguished by rough parity of forces and risk of death for everyone involved.  The greater the risk, the greater the honor. 
      • This is particularly interesting because it was written before the beginning of the Drone Wars, which are the ultimate in combat without risk for the combatant. 
      • This is also particularly relevant to RPG gaming, where we see a lot of combats with utter disparity of forces and little risk of death for one side.
    • A weak force needs a great deal of morale to initiate war against a strong force, but every victory it earns (and even some defeats) serve to boost that morale.  A strong force fighting a weak force loses a lot of morale if defeated, and may even lose morale from dissatisfying victories which look more like massacres than proper battles.
    • In conducting anti-insurgency operations, it behooves a conventional force to try to avoid atrocities by imposing onerous regulations on the troops in the field.  If obeyed, these impede combat effectiveness and hurt morale ("We can't return fire until we've checked the regs and called battalion HQ...").  If disobeyed, discipline suffers, atrocities crop up, and scandals ensue.
    • There was a really hilarious two-paragraph note about automation in warfare and artificial intelligence, to the effect that computers are unsuitable for battlefield operations due to their inflexibility, and that if we can reduce war to equations soluble by computer, that form of war will come to an end because it won't be worth fighting.  On some level this did reflect our experience with Starmada - we took apart its equations and solved them and then there was no game.  On the other hand, I think if we really wanted to build deeply, truly scary autonomous systems, the binary nature of the transistor would not stand in our way.
  • The last chapter was pretty good, but with a fair bit of rehash from Rise and Decline of the State.  His hypotheses on the return of assassination and other "beheading the snake" sorts of operations seem to have come to pass, though I am, in the networked age, less optimistic about their effectiveness at destroying guerilla organizations than MvC was at the time of this writing.  It is also interesting that he argued that a new set of rules of war were likely to emerge, but I haven't heard of that happening yet.  Could just be a while in the making.
  • He also makes the point that religious warfare is coming back, and that Islam is attractive to pragmatic rebels because it does not shun violence like modern Christianity does.  One prediction he makes is that secular ideals will be fought and bled for and acquire religious overtones as a result.  This is something I hear on the internet from time to time, that liberal atheistic humanism needs to militarize (compromising its principles) because The Believers Are Coming For Us.  I am very curious to see how this plays out.
  • Professional soldiers may be hindered relative to their guerilla opponents by rules disallowing them to loot, which reduces their incentives to fight.  Interesting perspective. 
Anyway, that's enough Van Creveld.  Next book on my agenda is utterly unrelatable to gaming, so I...  guess it's probably going to get a bit quiet here.  Quieter than it's been, even.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Simplest Dungeoncrawl

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

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

But maybe it isn't.  Then what?

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 23, 2015

Of Strategy in RPGs (Also: Simplify)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Pandemic, 5e Multiclassing, OGRE

Last night there were games!  And it was good.

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

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

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

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

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

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