Sunday, October 26, 2014

On Terrain and Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaaand now I want to go hiking.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why is it unexplored?

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Holy cow.  Ars Ludi linked to Trilemma yesterday, and this guy knows what's what.  Good posts I've read so far:
  • Useful Dungeon Descriptors accurately expresses my difficulties with random room contents tables, and takes a clear stance in favor of informed dungeoneering and informative dungeon design.  Monstrous Effects on Terrain applies the same ideas to the wilderness.
  • Non-Mechanical Difficulty Levels for Monstrous Threats, the post originally linked by Ars Ludi, provides a good explanation of why my players feared wyverns so terribly, as well as a good mental framework for making things scarier then their raw numbers would otherwise indicate (or less scary, I guess, but why would you want to do that?  Oh right so elephants aren't CR7 or whatever, and to explain why commoners can safely keep cats as pets).  Reminiscent of Traveller's per-species reaction roll tables.  This whole schema, and particularly Cohesion, seems perfect for differentiating the otherwise forgettably-similar low-level humanoid species.
  • Gameable Campaign Capital provides a useful taxonomy for understanding and perhaps encouraging player investment in exploration-driven campaigns.  As a concept, it may help explain the failure of the ACKS game when we introduced new players (too much reference buildup in the world and among the old guard, which held no 'currency' with the new players).
  • The whole Dirty Dungeon concept, which Trilemma mentions here and here, is intriguing.
  • How Far Can You See on a Hex Map? is useful for the obvious reasons, if fairly easily derivable.
Also, not exactly useful but entertaining: apparently the 2012 ACKS game had a lethality of somewhere between 100 and 125 milliWhacks for PCs (I figure somewhere between 16 and 20 total sessions and about 4.5 players on average), and somewhere closer to 250 milliWhacks for henchmen.  ACKS: About As Deadly As Fiasco, Unless You're a Henchman.

In any case, more fodder for wilderness campaigning and always good to find a vital blog to read.  Sort of a breath of fresh air from outside the OSR, really (disclaimer: this is not an attempt to define the OSR, but more a statement that I do not get the impression that Trilemma identifies as Of The OSR).  He seems very well-rounded, taking what is worth taking from both storygames and the Old School.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Traveller Pitch

I had a really long thing written out for this, but frankly it was overblown.  Here's the stripped down kernel:

Man begat thinking machine, and thinking machine begat jump drive.  For a time it was good, but good times never last.  The machines won and superweaponed the Sun, which has gone red and expanded out past Jupiter's orbit.  All that remains of the human empire is one decrepit space station in Pluto's shadow, two thousand foppish nobility and attending bureaurats who lack the hardware to repair the station's failing life support systems, and over a billion slumbering souls in cryostasis.  An anomaly was recently located inside a melting Kuiper Belt body - a ship of unfathomably ancient origin, but apparently compatible with human life and with a functioning jump drive and weapon systems.  Unfortunately, none of said nobles know how to operate such a ship, which is why you, O Daring Spacemen, have been thawed.  Go forth and begin the return of man to galactic prominence, by acquiring ships and technology from the Enemy, making contact with rebel groups and splinter factions, and perhaps securing transport for the frozen masses to a new homeworld!  Or maybe just bring back some fresh airlock seals and atmosfilters.  Soon, please?

Sources of inspiration:
  • Pirates of Drinax - Decrepit 'empire' with one high-tech relic ship in need of a crew for raiding.
  • Homeworld - The Endgame, and Suns of Gold has such rules for it too.
  • Titan AE - Humanity is very much a minor species, Earth a dead world.
  • AI War: Fleet Command - General balance of power, inattentive AI.
In terms of playstyle:
  • Sandbox with consequences and deadlines.  You can leave Terra and never look back, but then humanity dies, you lose your base of operations, and the game probably gets rather more difficult.  C'est la vie.
  • Substantial exploratory element - you're not really sure what's in the next system over, and getting that data out of the AI is likely difficult.  Other minor alien factions are likely more helpful in this regard.
  • Higher-continuity than anything I've run in a long time.  Species-critical personnel don't usually just appear and disappear at random.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Jedi Ruin Everything

I was reading a Stars Without Number supplement the other day, and there was a martial arts fighting style that basically let you do jedi things, like block lasers with swords.  Granted, it was explained as precognition, which is a hell of a lot better than Star Wars tends to explain it, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.  Why, oh why, do science fiction games feel the need to have space-wizards?

What I want to see in a science fiction game is this: people doing sort-of-plausible-with-years-of-training things with their brains.  Dune's mentat are a good example, with perfect calculation and exceptional ability to process and correlate data, to infer, to draw conclusions.  Stranger in a Strange Land's perfect witnesses are another, with perfect recall and ability to observe things as they are.  One of my favorites is Zygmunt Molotch, a villain from Abnett's Ravenor trilogy.  Molotch is not a sorcerer, or a cyborg, or a space marine; he is a normal man, deeply schooled in observing and manipulating people, with a lot of knowledge and devotion to back it up.  The sort of man who, when he comes into possession of one dose of deadly poison, can find just the right target and set of circumstances in which to apply it in order to destability an entire planetary economy.  On that basis, by cunning alone, he gives a strong-psychic inquisitor's warband a run for their money for three books.

So!  Where are our mentalists, our cold-readers, our lucid dreamers, our mathematical savants, our Sherlock Holmeses, our perfect-recallers, our lunatics who can read machine code like english and reach fluency in new natural languages in a week of immersion?  Don't give me that "nobody wants those skills because they're not useful while adventuring" line.  It's a lie, at least in most Travelleresque games.

The real reason, the embarrassing truth, is that telekinetic wizards (of either the space or garden variety) are easier to deal with as a DM than divination specialists.  I don't have a solution to that yet, other than to provide very clear-cut guidelines on what your braintalents can and cannot do; a perfect recaller can obviously only work with things he or she has seen.  A mentat can only infer given sufficient data, the acquisition of which might be an adventure in and of itself.  A cold-reader needs body language and tone of voice cues, and those are going to vary across species and possibly language.  A dreamer can only sleep on one problem at a time, and only for so long, and maybe doesn't get a choice of what problem his subconscious is working on (dreaming was how I made it through discrete math in college...).  And yeah you're probably right that nobody wants to play that guy whose superpower is knowing ten million digits of pi, but I could see something closer to a bayesian inferest, where you can figure the odds of things instantly, being workable and meshing nicely with game structures that already exist. Factoring really really large numbers in your head for cryptographic applications would be a neat trick, and I've met people who can do other similarly-'impossible' things like approximate really large factorials mentally, so it's not in the realm of the patently ridiculous.

So I dunno.  It seems workable.  Thoughts?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Traveller: Things I'd Change

Mongoose Traveller is a fine game, but it's still rooted in the assumptions of the 70s.  Things that could do with some updating:
  • The whole computer technology progression is charmingly quaint.  You never have enough RAM to run all the things you want to run.  VR goggles are like TL12 or something ridiculous.  You get the idea.
  • Cybernetics. As has been noted elsewhere, transdermal cybernetics are practically impossible to keep clean and free of sepsis.  Nope, cybernetics ought to be internal-only, wirelessly-charged (or glucose-driven at higher TLs), and communicating either via nerves or over a bluetooth-style wireless personal area network (careful around the Comms jammers...).
    • This model also has the convenient side effect of eliminating the ridiculous implanted weapons and wolverine claws and crap...  I guess you could still get claws as wetware, tailor-grown for your immune system and grafted at substantial expense, but less common is better.
  • Drones.  At the very least they ought to replace space fighters, since comms are a lot less massy than pilots and life support.  Gives the guy with Remote Ops something to do during starship combat, puts small, cheap, extra craft in the hands of PCs (don't need tens of MCr for a drone), and again some advantages to the Comms guys for jamming.  Miniaturized drones for planetside use are already in civilian hands IRL, too.  For all that Eclipse Phase does, this is one thing I don't recall seeing.  Shadowrun is moderately infamous for this; I suppose I ought to study its mistakes.  The first rule, I would guess, is that if the rigger thinks he's invincible hiding back in the ship or the getaway car, it's time for the customs inspectors or other unwelcome visitors to come a'knocking, or for signals to get traced by the local spectrum-allocation goons.  There may (almost certainly) be legal consequences for having killbots, which might limit the combat utility of a drone operator and push him back towards a utility / reconnaisance role.
  • Economics.  The Golden Pair is a persistent problem in travonomics.  Also, the trade system as it exists is fairly boring a lot of the time.  Needs work both from realism and gameplay experience sides.  Suns of Gold may be helpful in this respect.
  • Training.  Perpetual sticky in many craws.  L0 skills ought to be easy to pick up; they're basic familiarity.  L4 skills ought to be nearly-impossible to pick up; they're world-champion grade.  The training system does not do a good job of this.  It also seems that a possible balance point might be to alter the difficulty of learning new skills, so that rather than scaling with skills known, it scales with age.  This provides an incentive to stop character generation before the end of the 4th term (the traditional stopping point, when stat-aging kicks in), and would also prevent any one-term-Navy-PDev-only hacks that could otherwise learn an ungodly number of L0 skills very very rapidly (while still providing a reason to play younger PCs).  There is also the inconsistency of one point of a skill being about four years of experience; for character generation to be consistent with play as well as something that actually happens in the course of a regular game, we either need to drastically expand timescales (perhaps Pendragon-style, with large gaps between adventures, or ooh we could make jump take a really long time?  But you don't earn a whole lot of experience in cryostasis, or under relativistic time dilation), or change the assumptions about skill acquisition rate present in chargen.  One might argue that operating freelance brings more opportunities for learning and improvement, and I think that's sort of true but 1) shouldn't Drifters or other freelance backgrounds have a higher rate of skill acquisition during chargen then?, and 2) the opportunities to learn presented by freelancing seem typically circumstantial / of immediate necessity rather than directed, specialized training like one might encounter in a military or corporate setting.  I do not know the proper solution to this problem.
    • Lest anyone suggest it, I am fairly certain the proper solution is not reversion to SWN / D&D-style XP mechanics and levels.  Although a "skill point"-based XP system with varying time and point cost to boost a skill based on age and its rating might not be the worst of all evils, honestly.
  • Armor penetration continues to bug me.  Something like Classic Traveller's weapon vs armor tables would work, but they're clunky.
  • SOC continues to bug me.  I think Eclipse Phase got group standing right in this regard.  It's not quite a skill, and not quite an ability score.
  • Wafer Jacks / The Exocortex Problem.  How many people do you know who are basically incapable of navigating without a GPS?  (Certainly many people my age seem this way)  How many programmers rely heavily on stackoverflow to do their jobs?  (...  I don't know anyone like that.  No sir.  Actually though, but only because the stuff I'm doing is so bizarre that it isn't on SO yet, rather than for lack of googling)  Who remembers all of their appointments, deadlines, and scheduled phone calls anymore, or even their friends' birthdays?  I can barely spell without a computer anymore; it's embarrassing, really.  Traveller did not consider this outsourcing of brainpower to personal electronics and The ButtCloud.  There's some thought to be put into making this gameable.  The wafer jack is not a perfect solution (it's transdermal, for one thing!), but it's a start in the right direction maybe.  Also notable is that I don't need a wafer jack to look stuff up on WebMD and have it be way better than guessing blindly.  This is sort of true in Traveller as well, except expert programs live only on local machines, rather than being available on distant servers for public use.  On the flip side, variations in local custom regarding data is potentially a really interesting area to add to the law / government tables (along with drones).  Presumeably you're not running IP Over X-Boat, so you're going to have a lot of fragmented one-planet networks with their own rules (common protocol stacks if you're lucky...).
  • Speaking of which, Governments.  What is up with all these Feudal Technocracies, and what does that even mean?  This table needs reworked.
  • Psionics. Mind over matter and placebo are one thing, but these are another.
  • AI.  AI is hard for many reasons.  SWN did an OK job of it; perhaps I could borrow from there.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Boardgames 3

More board game reports!

We played more King of Tokyo; the first game I picked up for someone who had to take a phone call, and I/we did OK but not amazingly.  I managed to avoid getting killed, but lost on points.  The second game, I got murderized by a roll of five punches while in Tokyo pretty early on, and then relaxed for a while.

I then tried Pandemic, and everyone died.  We gave it a decent run, though, I guess; got cures for two of the diseases, and were really close on the other two, but ran out of outbreaks and were going to lose by running out of cards to draw on the next turn anyway.  Had fun, would play again.  I think I like cooperative games.

Following Pandemic, we had an arts and crafts interlude in which we manufactured a copy of the long-out-of-print King's Court from notecards.  Two games followed; during both, the last player in the order had really terrible rolls on the first two turns, which combined with buying out of cards by earlier players led to them being badly shafted.  Some discussion of balancing measures for last-in-order ensued.  There was also some debate over the relative merits of the Laborer and the Farmer, which might bear some math at a later date.  Overall it was interesting, but I think we reached a static spot in the buying metagame and I don't know where it would go from here.

More games to follow this evening, I think.
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