Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Long Haul, Microsandboxes, and Three-Shots

Against the Wicked City had a good post on the passage of time in D&D, which ticked a number of my boxes, including Pendragon, expeditions with a basecamp, and change over long periods of time (I suppose RuneQuest has this model by default too).  It has me thinking of a maybe-sane structure for running wilderness in semi-ACKS.

Cut the long-running campaign into seasons.  The players travel to a microsandbox (6x6 hexes maybe?) at the beginning of a season.  The microsandbox has a basecamp, garrison, fishing village, or other small, limited market.  The players adventure in the microsandbox for three or four sessions (hence the three-shot), probably some combination of exploring to find dungeons and then working on those dungeons.  At the end of that "adventuring season", the microsandbox closes for the rest of the year (monsoons, harsh winter, harsh summer in desert, annual wildfires, ghoul season, whatever), and the PCs return to civilization proper, where they can restock from an effectively-unlimited market, work on long-term projects, &c.  This also gives the campaign a natural point for re-evaluation, player feedback, and correcting issues (in the design of the region (too big?  too small?  not enough loot?  not enough dungeons?  couldn't find dungeons?), party composition, players with 14 AC, discontent due to boredom or expectation mismatch...).  Players decide if they want to return to that region again next adventuring season (maybe slightly expanded), or to a new one.  DM restocks region (with six to nine months of game time, a lot can change) or builds a new one.

Has some nice properties.  Incremental development approach for the DM with limited initial investment (provides nice opportunity to iterate on mapping techniques), explicit player-feedback cycle, ability to change theme / setting dramatically without straining the structure, makes use of market limits in the place where they make sense without making them a constant pain, provides a natural place to slot in replacement domain-type systems (the "resting in civilization" phase), might ease logistics in play compared to long-distance wilderness adventures (in a 6x6 sandbox, nothing is more than six hexes away from anything else...).

Some other interesting angles and possibilities:

  • Transport costs to and from regions, at a higher level of abstraction than the ones in ACKS' campaign chapter.  "5kgp to charter a ship to the Isle of Dread, able to carry up to 10 characters plus gear (characters with Seafaring ride free), 1d3 sea random encounters in transit, returning to pick you up at the end of the season".  Safer regions are probably closer and less expensive to travel to and from, lower risk.  Also a reasonable in-game-world way to impose party-size limits (or at least create costs - you could hire another ship to bring another 10 characters if you wanted).
  • Exotic trade goods as treasure: might work better under this structure.  You capture (or gather) stuff in the microsandbox, and bring it back to civilization with you at the end of the season, where you can sell it at a mark-up for being "from distant lands".  Maybe abstract away the whole "rolling for sale price" too, because you have six months sitting in civilization and can presumably get a fair one.
    • This also provides a nice lump sum of income+XP at the end of the season that might mechanically make it a likely place to level, which makes sense structurally / narratively in terms of "home, time to train and reflect on experiences".
  • Domains - possibly worth splitting into two sets of mechanics.  Domains back in civilization (fiefs?) probably operate more like Pendragon's; low/no growth, passive income with a roll once per season.  Clearing and conquering wilderness out in the microsandboxes would work more like ACKS' defaults, if people cared to do it.
    • On the other hand, passive income is dangerous in ACKS, because it provides XP and therefore can lead to level divergence instead of convergence.  Honestly this might be reason enough to ditch XP for domain / campaign activities entirely.
  • Organizational interests - one idea I liked from Pathfinder Society is the secret societies, each of which have extra objectives during adventures.  Given a set of organizations back in civilization, each probably has some set of interests in the microsandbox (some of which may be mutually exclusive), which PC members might accomplish.  If you're headed to the desert, the mage's guild will pay high prices for the Spice, there's a branch of the assassin's guild that has gone rogue and needs cleaned up, the thieves' guild boss has a map to the Cave of Jeweled Eggs but wants a cut of any that you bring back, the imperial legion wants an up-to-date map of the oases in the region for logistical planning, and the church would like to recover the Nose of Saint Omar, which is lost but believed to be held by infidels.  So those seed the region with adventure hooks if the PCs are members, and not all of them are probably going to be completed within the season (after which they refresh / evolve, as the situation in the region changes).  Completion gives rewards, which might include eg status, civilized fiefs, end-of-season cash and XP, magic items, monopoly on particular goods, troops, ... ?  And there is some gameable choice and allocation of limited resources, given partial information both about the objectives and the rewards for completion.
    • For a more civilization-politics focused game, would certainly be possible to do with individuals too; the Duke of Wheresuch has an interest in these things, the Earl of Therewith in these others...  But something I have found is that generally modern players are more comfortable with bureaucratic organizations than personal feudalism.
  • Limited access to new / weird races and classes - the market in the microsandbox is small, but what henchmen there are may be of races and classes not available back in civilization (or in other microsandboxes).  Also true of friendly / recruitable NPCs.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Morrowind, Starcraft, Drafts

Been a while.  Currently procrastinating on writing binary patching tools for a big hacking competition coming up.  Gaming-relevant things I've been up to in the last...  oh dear, quarter I guess:

  • Replayed Morrowind using OpenMW and the GoG version of Morrowind's data files.  OpenMW is a straight upgrade on the original engine and worked beautifully.  Looking at it now, the game suffers some pacing issues and the wilderness gameplay is pretty boring (hey, like my campaigns!), but by and large I still think it compared favorably to Skyrim outside of polish / graphics.  The learning curve is steeper, but there's actually complexity there to master.  I had fun.
  • Got Starcraft 2 working in Wine, played through most of Wings of Liberty and the whole of the Heart of the Swarm campaign.
    • Wings of Liberty was OK.  There was sufficient freedom in choosing the order of missions that the plot (such as it was) got kinda incoherent in the middle of the campaign.  I'm a little sad their portrayal of the strategic part of guerrilla warfare / revolt wasn't better, but this is forgivable because ultimately the campaign layer is a wrapper around a series of games of the RTS mode.  In comparison to the SC1 campaigns, it felt like there was less use of heroic units, and less...  emotionally-impactful events (worlds falling and being destroyed, betrayals and deaths of notable NPCs, things like that).  Many of the missions felt pretty gamey / had silly gimmicks.
    • Heart of the Swarm was disappointing.  I did like that they reduced the freedom of mission choice, which allowed sort of coherent subplots to be carried out in close proximity / sequence.  It was, however, shorter than WoL, some of the same gimmicks were repeated, Kerrigan was way over-powered, and at the end of the day it just didn't feel very...  zerg.  Also I dislike the supernatural direction of things, with this prophecy and resurrected xelnaga business - psionics is always annoying to me in science fiction, excusable in small doses, but this is just turning into fantasy.  I have no intention to play the Protoss campaign.
      • Did get me thinking about zerg / tyranids / bugs for Dirtside, though - worms for deep-striking, winged locust infantry, burrowed hidden units in attack/defense scenarios, there're just a lot of interesting thing they could do that mix things up.  Then again, given how well my last conversion attempt of bugs to a Ground Zero game went...  meh.  On the upside, morale is much less important in Dirtside, so that might simplify things a little.
  • Woke up absurdly well-rested this morning, "as if I'd stolen sleep from whatever supernatural entity is responsible for its allocation."  Which would be an amusing adventure idea; characters cursed with nightmares, lucid-dreaming funhouse dungeon to kill or steal something to break the curse, and if you die you wake up (exhausted) and can try again the next night.  Reminds me of the 3.0 Manual of the Planes' dream-planes.
  • Apparently one of our summer interns plays 5e.
  • Re-read Dune.  Meh.  For a book so thematically concerned with ecology, they sure do neglect to explain what the worms are eating to grow to 200 meters / how they sustain the sort of energy expenditures observed.  It's a cool visual, but ultimately sort of dumb - swimming through sand is a lot harder than swimming through water.  Did find it somewhat interesting that most chapters (at least early) were structured around a single conversation between two characters.  Also interesting as an index for how much stuff I've forgotten over the last ten years (measured answer: most of it).
    • I suppose one interesting, gameable note from Dune was that both of the mentioned mentats (Piter and Thufir) were also their respective lord's master of assassins.  Interesting ties to Strategic Thief?
  • Titles of draft posts from the last couple of months that I haven't actually finished or published:

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Wilderness Lords and Symbolic Hexclearing

I'm not on the Autarch fora much anymore, but I dropped by recently and something interesting came up.

Quoth Tywyll:
As to the Domain game, I'm using the assumption of another system which is that at level 9+ you don't build your own castle but reclaim one from an evil or chaotic lord.
To which I replied:
I like this idea a lot; what system is it from, if you don't mind my asking?  I could even see replacing clearing hexes with overthrowing a natural / monstrous "wilderness lord" (think Oberon, Arawn, &c) to reclaim a realm for man and Law. 
Apparently it is from Blood and Treasure, which I have not read, but which looks like sort of an interesting 3.x / OSR hybrid, with a lot of material backported from the 3.x SRD.

I want to elaborate on this a little.  Problems with traditional ACKS hex-clearing include that it is undramatic, with lots of time spent on boring crap fights with crap treasure against dumb beasts, and that it requires a lot of book-keeping.  We can reduce these problems by giving Wilderness a face, a name, a voice, a sentience.  The wilderness lord and his cronies are the biggest, baddest things in this particular patch of wilderness, strong and smart enough to keep everything else in check, supernatural and aloof from the conventions of man.  To depose or conquer them is to symbolically "tame" the wilderness that they rule, to bring it under the Law.  The remainder of the monsters in their territory are liable to recognize when the party is over and either emigrate or offer tribute in exchange for permission to remain, while human peasants acknowledge the new ruler and begin immigrating.

We might even construct a parallel hierarchy, of savage dukes and wild kings...

The real point of this post was to kick around some ideas for these things.  Going to see a lot of overlap with the "men and monsters" part of the dungeon random encounter table.

  • Elves / fey, possibly with leveled spellswords but those are complicated
  • Dragon is another easy one
  • Ents of Fangorn
  • The Ur-Wolf rules the Great Pack of the steppe
    • Crow, Coyote, the Lion of Narnia, the Tiger Burning Bright, and other sentient, conversant animal-spirits generally
    • Ysengrin
    • The Frog God
  • Leviathan, Dragon Turtle, or Kraken
  • I don't know what exactly the Mountain King is, but...  that.  The biggest, baddest, 12HD morlock you ever did see, maybe.
  • Steading of the Hill Giant Chieftain?  Sounds like a stronghold to me...
  • The Mushroom Brains of the Grim Fist
  • Vampire, lich, and death knight are classics
  • Continuing that gothic theme, werewolf/lycanthrope could certainly work
    • Demon Boar would make a fine wilderness lord with an orc/pig army
  • Wendigo
  • The Green Man / Green Knight / Maro
  • The simplest case, really, is the human outlaw - Robin Hood, the Khan, druids, Radagast the Brown (yeah yeah he was Maiar, can it), whatever, as long as they let the wilderness do its thing and remain inimical to settled, agrarian, civilized life.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

What's the Point?

This is, ultimately, the question I've been wrestling with for the last year or so.  Why play D&D?  Especially OSR/TSR D&D, with encumbrance, logistics, prime requisites, and PC death.

This is an attempt at an answer.  It's only about half-coherent, and I can't tell whether it's obvious or just obviously wrong.  I don't love it, and I don't expect you to, but I figured I'd get a rough draft out.  I guess my new bar for 2018 is a post a month; maintenance doses.

D&D is an artifice for character-building for the participants (traditionally, poorly-socialized young men).  Success in OSR D&D requires a number of properties which are useful in real life, which may be worth taking the time and energy to develop (and to encourage one's acquaintances to develop) in low-risk environments.

What are the lessons that various antiquated features of OSR D&D are aimed at teaching?

  • Stats in order - Play the hand you're dealt.  As Hamming said, "I will do the best I can with what I got."  
  • Prime reqs - In terms of class selection, you can fight your rolled "nature", but you'll get a lot further faster if you play to your high stats.  Different classes demand different virtues of their players; thieves need risk-tolerance and faith in the rest of the party to come rescue them, wizards need patience, caution, and careful spell-timing, fighters need courage, persistence, and willingness to sacrifice themselves, and clerics need humility, the ability to accept that sometimes you're not the star of the show.  Prime reqs push you towards classes that you don't usually play, and situations that test virtues you might not be so good at.
  • Mixed-level parties, characters with very different stat distributions - Life isn't fair.  If you're on the weak end, resenting the strong won't get you very far; work with them for mutual gain.  If you're on the strong end, treat those weaker than you well, because you might have a reversal of fortune at any time and end up back at the bottom of the heap.
  • Monoclassing, minimal build - You are not special by default; you are Joe Fighter by default.  If you want to be somebody that people will tell stories about years later, it's on you to do something notable.
  • Mapping, encumbrance, rations, Vancian magic - Come prepared, plan ahead, pay attention to the details.  Neglecting them can get you killed.
  • PC death - Memento mori.  Some day, you will die.  Yes you, dear reader.  You can run from it, or you can accept it, figure out what you want, and go get it or die trying.  It's important, I think, that unlike eg Call of Cthulhu or Paranoia, death is not short-term inevitable in OSR D&D.  You need players to get attached to their characters, and that doesn't happen when death is too frequent.
  • TPK / Near-TPK situations - How panic-prone are you?  If other players are panicking, do you keep your head, or do you catch the panic?  Can you calm others?  Watching panic spread through a group of players is really remarkable.  When you get crushed, do you ragequit, or reflect calmly on your mistakes and try again?  The reason PCs don't make morale rolls is that their players are dealing with their own, very real, morale.
  • Levels / fully-quantitative and exponentially-scaling advancement - If you want to get ahead, you have to be willing to take some risks.  After the first couple levels, it doesn't just happen anymore with any sort of regularity.  You need to say "I want to level", to choose it.  And then you need to put in the work, take the risks, and probably get a little lucky.  And that's true of life too.  I'm hitting this point with my career, where I've done well but the organization I'm at is just small.  I find myself with a choice between slow, pretty-safe advancement over the course of years, or choosing to prioritize advancement and doing the work to make that happen, either somewhere else or via personal projects in my free time.  Since I'm here writing blog posts, you can guess how well that's going.
  • Tiers of play (dungeon / wilderness / domain) - Advancement has side effects, most of which involve new challenges, more responsibility, more patience, and more paperwork.  This is what happens to conventionally-successful people.  You can't have your cake and eat it too; you can stay in the dungeon forever, but you're not going to get over 6th level if you do.
  • Old-School Wish - Be careful what you wish for.  Someone was once very surprised when I mentioned that I gave out wishes in my games; she said "But wishes destroy campaigns!"  And I laughed.  No, wishes are temptation.
  • Rulings, not rules - Negotiate for things that you want.  Don't appeal to authority; convince me.  Whine, bullshit, do math, resort to bribery, whatever, these are valid approaches and you should learn them all.
In conclusion: I really do think OSR D&D presents its players with challenges which are well-suited to the development of mindset / personality traits which are adaptive, and rewards them for performing those virtues, not merely playing someone with those virtues.  Other games foster different virtues; 3.x rewards you for reading rulebooks, finding loopholes, and doing math, which are very useful skills.  Traveller...  rewards you for automating the trade system, which is something, I guess.

What place does Fun have in this conception of D&D?  I agree with Tao that Fun Is Not The Point.  Fun is, however, a necessity.  If your game is not fun, your players will leave before learning the lessons the game is intended to teach them.  So strive to make your games Fun Enough (probably Type 2 Fun); there's a balance.  Unfortunately there may be a race to the bottom with fun; games which are more-fun tend to outcompete games with are less-fun in the marketplace for players.  These games which are more-fun also tend to lack the features which promote controlled but real adversity, and consequently growth.  I do not know how to resolve this problem yet.

What place does Narrative have in this conception of D&D?  Likewise, narrative is a device.  Humans like it, and therefore you can exploit their preference for it to make your game more appealing, and consequently more effective at cultivating virtue.  I have been wrong about narrative.  There might even be some aspirational "play the sort of person you'd like to be" upside to dealing with characters and stories, but that's not something I would know anything about.  Classes are a very Jungian structure to begin with...

What place does Simulation have in this conception of D&D?  If you seek to prepare your players for Real Life, making your game reasonably realistic (at least to the level of "actions have consequences, which you can predict by analogy with real life, except when noted by the rulebook") is sensible.  Simulated details provide a hook for Attention to Detail, and can also factor into Convince Me.  But I have probably over-invested in simulation in the past (but it's fun for me, so not a total waste I guess).

What place does Game have in this conception of D&D?  The game element, of luck and challenge and risk and reward, is pretty central.  But I suspect one of the lessons to be learned from OSR D&D is that yes, you can play the game well, and you can win it, but it's sort of hollow and the reward of power is tempered with paperwork, as opposed to setting out to do your own thing and winning on your own terms.

What is the role of the DM in this conception of D&D?  Courtney hit the nail on the head with "shaman leading the group's collective vision-quest."  You are here to help them become what they could be; to point out their flaws, to put them under eustress, and to congratulate them when they grow.  And in this light, the ritual character of the D&D game which I found so disturbing seems perfectly natural.

I apologize, DMs, for adding "spiritual guidance" to your prep burdens (using a loose, materialist definition of "spiritual", as in "of or related to the human spirit; ie, morale, emotion, and character").  I certainly do not consider myself qualified in that department.

All this still doesn't answer the essential question of "is it worth it?"  If you're spending 12 hours a week on prep+game for four people, you're looking at effectively three hours each of time investment per week, for a very ill-defined return.  Could you do better by just...  unstructured socializing with these people for the same amount of time, and talking about their problems?  I think maybe no - the game and the ritual provide a context where failure and self-examination is tolerable, where we can get at hard truths precisely because we're all lying.

The ultimate measure of the game, from this perspective, might be "do people outgrow your games, and go on to live happy lives?"  I spoke with one of my old players recently, and he mentioned that he has come to see RPGs / storygames as a form of "group therapy."  I don't know that I'd go that far, but I think it aligns with my meaning.


I don't mean to say that TSR D&D was intentionally designed as a training program.  I think training is a welcome, desirable side effect which can justify the activity.  Norbert Wiener, in The Human Use of Human Beings (one of the seminal texts of cybernetics), discusses the function of play, and argues that generally, play is training in vertebrate species, who come into the world with much more plasticity than eg invertebrates; you will never see an ant play.  We humans play as well, and for the same reasons: training and pack-bonding, in preparation for the difficulties of life.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Scarcity, Traveller, and Starcraft

Several things happened recently which reminded me of Traveller.

My father flies cargo around the Pacific, and it came up in conversation with him that much of what he carries is hazardous or generally "does not play well with other cargoes".  Oxidizers, corrosives, fertilizer, livestock...  and when you put these on a big container ship, there are more things for them to interact violently with if something goes wrong.  So instead they travel alone in a cargo plane.  Seems to me that this provides a potential out for one of the core problems of Traveller economics - why is anyone hiring this tramp freighter to move their goods when there are enormous shipping lines who have economies of scale?  Because there are some things that are more hassle than they're worth to the big players.  This is already supported, technically, but it's a shift from "hazardous cargoes exist" to "hazardous cargoes are the default."  This also adds an extra layer of potential excitement to cargo operations, especially since cargo is on the table of "things that can be hit in space combat."

I also tested for a ham radio license, and all the finicky details of talking to satellites got me thinking about how we abstracted away communications (between, say, ship and ground) completely.  Even outside of dealing with doppler shift and the ship only being in line of sight a fraction of the time, ground-to-ground communication might be complicated by alien atmospheres (in this case, it looks like Mars' ionosphere is sufficiently lower and thinner than Earth's that practical range for single-bounce ground-to-ground RF comms is about 600 miles instead of 2500+ miles you can get on Earth).  This seems like the sort of thing the old Traveller nerds, with their planet-to-planet time tables based off of acceleration, would've enjoyed thinking about.

Finally, I read this post of Charles Stross'.  His bit about economics got me thinking about post-scarcity, and I came to the conclusion that I'm extremely critical of the notion.  Hanson articulates a reasonable critique here.  So I was reminded of Niven and Traveller's belters (grungy, working-class subsistence futures) and also generally that populations expand to fill their carrying capacities - biological replicators.

Between radios, future-scarcity, jobs, and replicators, I got to thinking about Starcraft, in its grungy, space-Australia-western-full-of-ugly-assholes-but-oh-god-what-are-these-bugs-aiiieeee flavor that I enjoyed at the beginning of the first campaign (it is, of course, hardly great science fiction, but so be it).  I realized that I had never actually caught up on the plot of Starcraft II, so I set about fixing that.  In so doing, I found this little gem (just the next ~30s after the linked time).  A hell of a Traveller campaign that would make: a posse of destitute space hicks - miners, drone operators, mechanics, welders, hydroponic farmers, meth cooks...  probably two or three terms, one or two military or criminal and one civilian - living dirtside and working day jobs to afford ammunition, stimulants, and explosives to go zerg hunting in the desert on the weekends, and selling the body parts for mad science...  or barbeque ("Infestation?  Naw son, you just gotta cook it real good.").  It's just another bug hunt until you wake up something you shouldn't've...  and then the fun really starts ("Worlds will burn.").

This also starts to get into some more typical OSR territory; it could turn into a rather dungeon-crawly (tunnels), resource-managementy (cash and consumables), and probably high-body-count way to play (might want to find a way to accelerate character generation...).  Taken from that perspective, starship deckplans start to look rather dungeonesque too, after you have some transport, vacc suits, and a reputation as crazy bastards who will go into infested holes for fun and money (enjoy your zero-G melee...).  Maybe Stars Without Number would do it better, since it supports mechanical advancement and building capital ships as a PC activity.

NPC palette:

  • Patrons:
    • Scientist wants samples (or to radio-tag some live specimens, or to test some attractant / repellent, or...)
    • Tourist on zerg-hunting safari seeks guides
    • Company-town mine foreman needs a mine cleared of bugs, willing to look the other way if you use weapons normally forbidden by town charter as long as you don't do too much collateral damage
    • Crashlanded bush pilot or starship crew in infested zone needs rescued (practically traditional at this point)
    • Crime boss needs something retrieved from infested zone or something transported through it, can hook you up with good (illegal) gear
    • Prospectors / colonists seek protection and guides while looking for site to mine or settle
    • Separatists looking for a few good men to help liberate the armory of the local military base
  • Rivals:
    • Other posses of zerg-hunting rurals
    • Confederate marshal concerned about heavily-armed civilians
    • Confederate troops using hunting area as a training ground
  • Enemies:
    • The bugs
    • Old buddy that you left behind back in your criminal days

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

No Clerics, D&D as Wargame

Delta wrote a post recently about the early history of removing clerics from D&D, which has some interesting discussion in the comments.  Since I can't get commenting to work (probably related to PrivacyBadger), I guess I'm responding here.
I do also think that they can be interesting as sort of combat medics, acting as a tougher support class to the front line fighters. Essentially second line "shaft of the spear" battle logistics. But maybe that's more apropos to a wargame than rpg/dungeon exploration.
That right there is the crux of the issue for me.  As far as I'm concerned, D&D is a wargame (I refer to [TO]SR D&D here and following).  Storygamers sometimes say that derisively, but over the last couple of years I've come to terms with owning it.

And clerics are a damn handy unit.

Among wargames, D&D has some interesting properties.  D&D is refereed; this is true of some (Stargrunt and Dirtside, for example, recommend a ref), but not most wargames.  D&D is highly asymmetric, in terms of information asymmetry between referee forces and PC forces, force composition / capabilities (classed and leveled characters versus monster HD and special abilities, often numerical asymmetries), and structure of play (PCs typically proactive, on offense, and logistically-bound).  D&D is typically played cooperatively, with a group of players and a referee, extending that asymmetry into the processing-power domain (one DM cannot out-think four typical players) but adding a group dynamic which must be carefully managed for optimal play (at the party-scale).  Finally and obviously, D&D is campaign-focused to an extraordinary degree; the campaign rules, for adding units to your party and for units gaining new abilities, probably outweigh the combat rules (not that this stops anyone from running one-off battles / "one-shots").

The only wargame-qua-wargame that I know of with similar properties is Charlie Company, which I have not acquired.  Space Hulk hits some of those properties (highly asymmetric, similar indoor environments, often played many-versus-one and in campaigns) but is pretty much never refereed, and their campaigns lack the continuity and advancement of D&D campaigns (due in part to tremendous casualty rates / poor human win ratio).

A couple of questions naturally follow.  What are the consequences of viewing D&D as a wargame?  Is D&D a good wargame?  How do I run a sensible science-fiction campaign wargame along similar lines?  I have partial answers to consequences, probably in a future post.  I'm not sure what makes a good wargame, particularly for such a weird combination of attributes.  And I really haven't thought about the third question yet.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

ACKS: Orc Chieftain Abilities

As I've mentioned before, Shadow of Mordor is kind of a terrible game.  But one thing it does do well is that its orcish captains have character and variety.  So let's steal the good parts, shall we?

Orcish subchieftains get two rolls on abilities and one on weaknesses; orcish chieftains get three abilities and one weakness.  You could give champions one ability, but there are too many champions.  A warband's champions will usually be equipped in the same way as their subchieftain and are often assembled as a bodyguard (to match PC action economy).

Orcish abilities:
  1. Mad Dog: Berserkergang, Fighting Style (Two-Handed), two-handed weapon
  2. Impaler: x2 damage on charge, Fighting Style (Polearm), polearm
  3. Whirlwind: Fighting Style (Two Weapons), Running, Swift Sword 1/day, two weapons
  4. Ironhide: +2 AC, -1 damage per die from nonmagical weapons
  5. Scarred: +2 AC, Savage Resilience
  6. Strong: +2 to hit and melee damage
  7. Ogreborn: Giant Strength 1/day
  8. Trollkin: Regenerate 1HP/round, can only be killed with fire or acid
  9. Deadeye: Precise Shooting x3, arbalest
  10. Warpig: Dire boar mount, Riding, lance
  11. Duelist: +1 to hit, damage, and AC, Combat Trickery (Disarm), Combat Reflexes, challenges PCs to single combat
  12. Crustacean: Plate, shield, Fighting Style (Shield)
  13. Packmaster: Beast Friendship, 2d4 wolves
  14. Firebrand: 6 flasks military oil, torch, Fighting Style (Missile), Resistance to Fire continual effect
  15. Chosen: Divine Blessing, Protection from Good, Prayer 1/day
  16. Evil Eye: Bestow Curse 3/day
  17. Howler: Fear 1/day (deaf targets unaffected)
  18. Ambusher: Ambushing, Naturally Stealthy (-1 to opponent surprise rolls), Sniping, arbalest
  19. Rhymer: Inspire Courage, Military Strategy, Leadership, might even be literate
  20. Second Sight: See Invisible constant effect, Alertness, Combat Reflexes
  21. Pestilence: Divine Health, unarmed melee attacks do 1d4 damage and save vs death or contract disease (as reversed Cure Disease)
  22. Leaper: Acrobatics, Jump constant effect, Skirmishing
  23. Arrow-Catcher: Protection from Normal Missiles when not flat-footed / surprised / unconscious
  24. Manhunter: Tracking, Land Surveying, Endurance
  25. Elf-Eater: Arcane Dabbling, Sensing Power, Elven Bloodline
  26. Leech-Keeper: Healing 3, healing herbs
  27. Nightstalker: +30' infravision, Silent Step constant effect, Ambushing, attacks at night when possible
  28. Poisoner: Alchemy 2, Naturalism, 3 doses of hellebore poison
  29. Treacherous: Always behaves as if friendly, regardless of reaction roll, until opportunity arises.  Ambushing.
  30. Cannibal: Black Lore, ghoul claw/claw/bite and paralysis, slain opponents rise as ghouls
Looking at that list, I figure most of those average to about half a * each for XP purposes.  There are some that are closer to a *, and some that are much weaker, and I'm OK with that.

Weaknesses:  Come in sort of three flavors - exploitable personality flaws, old injuries, and phobias.  Injuries work just like permanent wounds from the mortal wounds table, and have a 75% chance of having been inflicted by some other (still living) orc subchieftain or chieftain in the region, who the injured orc holds a grudge against.  Phobias cause an immediate morale roll at -2 when the orc is exposed to them.
  1. One-eye: Missing eye (-2 to missile attack throws), may have grudge
  2. One-ear: Severed ear (-1 to hear noise and surprise throws), may have grudge
  3. Mute: Severed tongue (cannot speak, -4 to reaction rolls; if was Rhymer, becomes Howler), may hold grudge
  4. Limper: Lamed leg (-30' speed; if was Leaper, becomes Warpig), may hold grudge
  5. Meathook: Severed hand, replaced with hook, may hold grudge
  6. Fear of fire: checks morale at -2 when takes fire damage
  7. Fear of spiders: checks morale at -2 when confronted with giant spiders
  8. Fear of eagles: checks morale at -2 when confronted with giant birds
  9. Fear of elves: checks morale at -2 when confronted with elves
  10. Fear of magic: checks morale at -2 when is the target of a spell
  11. Fear of undead: checks morale at -2 when confronted with undead
  12. Fear of riders: checks morale at -2 when confronted with cavalry
  13. Contemptuous: never takes or interrogates prisoners, just leaves enemy wounded on field of battle
  14. Sadistic: after battle, sets up camp and spends one day per wounded prisoner torturing (max 1 week) rather than pursuing
  15. Vengeful: always pursues retreating parties when possible
  16. Greedy: all PCs may use Bribery against this orc, who may be tempted to do stupid things by promise of wealth
  17. Simple: not very smart, even for an orc; -2 Strategic Ability, tends to take others at their word
  18. Old: -1 to hit and damage, +1 Strategic Ability, easy to convince other orcs to challenge for dominance
  19. Sot: always up for a drink; often hungover, easy to poison.
  20. Addict: has a craving for that dank halfling pipeweed, will go to great lengths to get it.

So what does this look like in practice?

Let's take two camps each of 5 warbands and see what we get.

Village 1:
Chieftain: Gorgum Nightstalker - Strong, Nightstalker, Leech, Vengeful
  • Naftar the Tongueless - Howler, Second Sight, Mute, not inflicted by an orc in this region
  • Urmok Trollkin - Trollkin, Poisoner, Fear of Undead
  • Kragog the Old - Trollkin, Ironhide, Old
  • Snagog One-Eye - Arrow-Catcher, Evil Eye, One-Eye, inflicted by another orc in the region
  • Mugrik the Tower - Crustacean, Arrow-Catcher, Fear of Fire
Village 2:
Chieftain: Drugak the Dog - Packmaster, Pestilence, Ogreborn, Simple
  • Lamush the Loud - Howler, Scarred, Sot
  • Mugrish the Mighty - Strong, Ogreborn, One-Ear, inflicted by another orc in the region
  • Lagrat the Limper - Impaler, Rhymer, Limper, inflicted by another orc in the region
  • Gnarosh the Foul - Pestilence, Whirlwind, Fear of Magic
  • Chugash the Chosen - Chosen, Scarred, Contemptuous
  • Enok Elf-Eater - Elf-Eater, Arrow-Catcher, Meathook (inflicted by elves, of course)
Rolling some d12s, we find that Snagog One-Eye lost his eye to Mugrish the Mighty, who in turn lost his ear to Kragog the Old, sowing the seeds of some good inter-village enmity.  Lagrat the Limper, however, had his injury inflicted by Enok Elf-Eater, of his own village - wonderfully exploitable by PCs.  Another thing, looking at those villages, is that Drugak and Mugrish are both Ogreborn and might be related; likewise Urmok and Kragog with Trollkin.  I am a little sad that I didn't roll any Mad Dog, Firebrand, or Warpig; oh well.

Guess I really ought to write a name-generation table too; wouldn't be too bad, you basically have a list of valid first syllables and a list of valid second syllables.

One possible issue with this approach is that orc subchieftains rapidly stop being serious individual threats by like 4th level; I feel like giving them another hit die or two (4HD is a hero, after all) and expanding their threat range into the midlevels would keep all this work rolling abilities relevant for longer.  On the upside, there are some abilities that stay relevant into mass combat (like Howler and Prayer) even if the subchieftains themselves are pretty weak.