Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On Stars Without Number

I've been reading the Stars Without Number Core in varying passes to varying degrees of detail and just finally managed to put my finger on what was bugging me about it.

This is not a simulationist game.  At all.  It has neither the engineering grunge nor history-simulating character generation of Traveller, nor does it go into the sort of economic considerations that ACKS does (which would, admittedly, be a lot harder in a science fiction setting).

Does it look like a fine, fun, fast-paced, deadly fusion of TSR D&D and Traveller?  Certainly.  But it is OSR of the Golden Age, rather than the Silver Age which I favor.

There are some rough edges on the merger, too.  I'm not really sure how I feel about ascending D&D-style HP in science fiction, for example, and I don't think I like what a strong skill system like the one SWN borrows from Traveller does to the assumed "permitted unless implausible / apply gear, solve problem" competence of the OSR D&D character (as exemplified by the application of the 10' pole to the trapfinding problem - this does come up in the GMing chapter, but I'd rather it be front and center in Using Skills).  I also quite dislike the max-skill-value-by-level rules, which mean that you can't have low-level "civilian" masters of a skill unless you're willing to have NPCs play by different rules from PCs (which is a valid approach, but not one I favor because inevitably they're going to recruit the guy who breaks the rules as a henchman and then someone will die and try to play him as a PC and then things can get messy.  I prefer for PC-species to be more consistently modeled).

Other thoughts:
  • Interesting psi system.  The psi healing rules in particular lend themselves nicely to long adventuring days interspersed infrequently among weeks of downtime, which is a nice inversion of the standard approach to resource management.  The ability to master powers for unlimited use at the cost of versatility also handily differentiates this system from traditional magic systems, as does the "one spell per school per level" thing, which limits psychic versatility.  Well done.
  • Gear - conveniently straightforward encumbrance system.  Descending AC, though, of which I am not the biggest fan.  Firearm vs. melee damage is always a fun topic, especially with abstract HP.  Sniper rifle save-or-dies.  Revenant Wiring is rad.  Starship construction is very straightforward - pick hull, apply upgrades (which cost money, tonnage, power, and hardpoints), apply modifiers to stat-line, sum costs, done.  None of this "distributed hull or semi-streamlined?" business.  Starship weapons are a bit more exotic than Traveller's ("Reaper Battery" vs "Particle Beam") and the general feel from the gear lists is a bit softer sci-fi.  Sandcasters no longer useful for scattering lasers - just anti-fighter weapons.
  • Systems / Combat - PC exceptionalism in initiative betrays the narrative focus of the system.  I kinda like the saving throw categories, though - clearer cut than OD&D's.  Radiation is not as permanent as in Traveller, though xenoallergies are a nice touch.  I would totally graft ACKS' death and dismemberment chart onto these injury rules, rather than "dead at 0".  Natural healing is pretty quick.  Has the "reroll total HD at each level and take best of previous HP or newly-rolled HP" rule, which means you're not going to have the fighter whose primary character trait is "glassjaw" unless he's got bad Con.  Starship detection rules look pretty good, though I'm not sure we've ever actually played Traveller's sensors by rules-as-written.  SWN treats starship ranges much less mathematically than Trav.
  • GMing - Fairly good but relatively basic sandboxing advice.  Also good advice on handling a skill system in the OSR style, though I'd've rather seen it up nearer the skill section, in the player chapters - part of the problem with skill systems, from my point of view, is that players whose characters have skills on their character sheet tend to use them as their first resort, rather than seeking clever ideas.  No economic system to speak of in the core book; put off to Suns of Gold.
  • World Generation - all of the rolls for atmo and temperature and whatnot are unlinked, rather than linked like Trav's.  I do like having a biosphere roll, though, as well as a chance of an alien population rather than humans.  No government roll, which saves the lookup on the Table of Curiously Quaint Future Governments That I Can Never Remember.  World tags serve the same purpose as the Cultural Differences table in MongTrav, but better (you're going to get more / better adventure seeds, and less Unusual Customs, which can be entertaining).
  • Factions - I skimmed this chapter on the most recent pass.  The rules seem reasonable, but they're not really something I feel like I need.  If I'm just trying to generate news bullets, I can get away with less, and if my PCs are leading the Rebel Alliance against the Empire, I'd rather use something closer to ACKS' degree of detail.  My players, of course, might disagree, and therein I expect this subsystem might find its intended use.  Campaign-style wargames aren't everyone's cup of tea, I suppose.  I guess the takeaway here is that these are domains designed to keep the focus tighly on the PCs even into high levels, whereas in ACKS the individual PC becomes less mechanically significant relative to his domain as level increases (there's been some discussion on the fora to the effect that "at really high levels, mass combat-relevant proficiencies (feats) are probably the most influential mechanical bits of PCs.  When you're fighting at legion-scale, your class or spellcasting abilities don't matter much.").  I expect I'd find much the same 'tightly-PC-focused domains' in An Echo Resounding.
  • Adventure Creation - mostly skipped.  Average rewards per adventure and a Calibrating Combat sidebar again show narrativist leanings.  Good d% table of hooks, in a mad-lib form similar to the adventure templates in Suns of Gold, though.
  • Aliens - I very much like the lenses here; I think it nicely captures Nivenesque alien psychology.  I also like how "Party-Butchering Hell Beast" is an entry on the alien critter base chasis table.  Much less ecologically interested than Traveller, though - more like Star Wars-style wildlife.  I am also amused that the planet Kant orbits around star Schopenhauer, but I suppose Kantian Javelin Lizard rolls off the tongue better than Schopenhauerian anything, really.  Pirate captains are only 4HD?
  • Robots and Mechs - the AI rules look like they'd make for rather playable PCs!  It's basically point-buy for mental ability scores, skills, save and to-hit progression, and ability to use various hulls, ranging from a box equipped with a speaker up to a 4m tall four-armed killbot with an anti-vehicle laser.  Unfortunately, no rules for ship's AIs.  The mech rules seem reasonablish for a mech-centric game, but as with starship construction the rules are not very engineery.
  • Societies - I enjoyed this chapter, and would steal from it for fantasy games.  The structure of "founded for X reason, had Y government which was altered by catastrophy or time to Z government, two or three interesting traits A, B, and C, and now there's internal social conflict D" seems like a good one-paragraph need-to-know actionable summary.
  • Design Notes - Accurate documentation of design decisions; good insights into other chapters.  Some of my notes are derived from them.  Wish we saw more chapters like this one in other RPGs.  Would also have done well nearer the beginning of the book - design decisions up front!
  • GM Resources - good name tables, may steal.  The corporation name generation's entertaining too.  Could see borrowing the Quick Heresies stuff for Midnight.
Verdict: Would consider using for a game like 40k, particularly since Darkness Visible is basically the Inquisition Sourcebook (for some reason the notion of using fuzzy rules for cults and secret societies sits better with me than for governments).  The ascending HP (and level in general) provides for a degree of "larger than life"ness that just don't see happening in Traveller, but which is characteristic of inquisitor-type 40k characters.  I think Traveller will likely remain my general-purpose sci-fi game of choice, however - I like the chargen and the fiddly ship design and the ecology and such.  I can play Traveller without ever actually playing Traveller; I think I would have difficulty doing the same with SWN (though the society generation rules are close, and factions could probably work well for that).  I could definitely see pillaging the tables, society generation, and alien psych bits from SWN for use in Traveller, though.

(Introspective moment - why do I prefer simulationism to narrativism so strongly, anyway?  A topic for another post at a more reasonable hour, methinks)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Review: Suns of Gold

Following my reading of Red Tide and favorable impression thereof, I realized that I had a bunch of other Sine Nomine material on my hard drive that I hadn't read yet!  I recall skimming the Stars Without Number Core at some point past, but I do not remember the details.  I was reasonably excited about Suns of Gold, so I decided to read it first and see how much I could infer about SWN from the sourcebook, and keeping its status as a competitor primarily with Traveller in mind throughout (I've read CT's Book 7 - Merchant Prince, but I don't have Mongoose's version).

Chapter 1: Five pages of introductory material and history.  I dig the Exchange of Light and particularly their Context Assassins.  This chapter sets up some very different expectations from those in most Traveller sectors - things are pretty rough, civilization is trying to pull itself out of a dark age kicking and screaming, and the locals would love nothing more than to off yon far trader and steal his ship and cargo.  Establishes the grand context, the place in history, of the far trader after the Scream.  I can work with this.

Chapter 2: Eight pages outlining the obstacles confronting the far trader and the realities of doing business.  Discussion of factors, currency, customs, and some initial advice for setting up a campaign.  Elaborates on difficulties mentioned in chapter 1 while narrowing the scope down to "how's this trading thing play out in practice?".

Chapter 3: Eighteen pages of trade rules.  We're in to the meat of it here.  A couple of things stand out in contrast with Traveller's approach.  First, friction and trouble mechanics model losses from bribes, taxes, theft, and mishaps, but can be circumvented via appropriate adventures.  This reinforces the gritty themes of the setting, but more importantly it ties trading to adventuring.  While Traveller's trade system in our experience is largely a bookkeeping exercise used to fund other endeavours but not particularly entertaining in its own right, this inverts the formula and makes trade a cause of adventures and a source of fun.  The goods tables have less variance per ton than do the Traveller tables, with rare and exotic pre-fall maltech immortality devices capping out at 400kCr per load (compare with Traveller's Radioactives at 1MCr / ton).  The world-type trade good tables are simpler to use than generating available cargos for a world in Traveller, though the trouble tables are disappointingly uniform in their effects (varying primarily in degree).  While these rules fail to address the Golden Pair problem just as most Traveller rulesets do, this is perfectly justifiable within the post-apocalyptic setting outlined in Chapter 1.  The Holdings rules felt slightly out-of-place in this chapter, inasmuch as some holdings that influenced Morale or Supply were confusing without knowing that colonization rules were coming.  That said, the holding rules are neat and something I haven't seen in Traveller outside of maybe the Mercenary supplements, where their effects haven't been particularly memorable (I suppose Dynasty probably has something similar, but probably at a higher degree of abstraction).  They also sort of set up the possibility of Great Ambitions - why yes, as a matter of fact, I would like a Fleet Command and some space-battleships.  Maybe I'll read Skyward Steel next...

Chapter 4: Fourteen pages, mostly of world-tags.  These don't actually influence the trade mechanics (though attaching a handful of purchase/sale modifiers to each might produce some interesting variety), but do provide good ideas for authority figures, antagonists, places, and objects for use in adventures on said worlds.  Again, without having used it, the tag system looks like it should be a useful prep / organizational tool.  There are also some sample worlds in this chapter, some of which are entertaining (I liked Axiom, Boreline, and Inget Station) and almost all of which are wonderfully cynical in one way or another. 

Chapter 5: Fourteen pages on running trading adventures.  The first major chunk of this chapter is a set of adventure-templates.  These are sort of similar to Traveller patrons, but about two steps further abstracted; I think the closest thing I've seen in another RPG product were the adventure templates in WHFRP's Renegade Crowns (another supplement from which I have derived utility despite not playing the system it was written for).  You start with a general objective - Establish Holding, Kill Target, or Do A Favor, for example.  Each of these has a d6 table of mad-libbed plots, with blanks reading Antagonist, Authority, Thing, Place, Hostiles, Thief, and so forth, and subsequent supporting tables with random hostiles and conflicts and such.  I'd be a little concerned with some of these table results becoming expected or par for the course, but I think this is probably avoidable, and this looks like a useful tool.  These are followed by a section on running mercantile campaigns, which has at least two things I could see stealing for any sandbox game (the A Pattern for Inquiries sidebar and the Goal Pyramid structure), as well as a good verbalization / concretization of an unspoken difference in style in trading campaigns, between the "Space Truckers" style and the "Merchant Princes" style, and suggested rules variations for each.  Some of my prior thoughts on Traveller are relevant only to the Space Trucker style, while my prior play experiences have mostly been of the Merchant Prince variety.  Nice of Crawford to give me terms with which to express this dichotomy.

Chapter 6: Eight pages on founding colony worlds.  Now some of the holdings make much more sense!  Again, a wonderful example of a Grand Ambition for a Merchant Prince-style campaign.  These rules look eminently usable, and are rather economically-informed ("You're allowed to hyperinflate your colony's currency...  but it's quite bad for morale, and after a month prices have adjusted for it.").  Again, we have a Trouble Table that serves as a source of adventures.  Also, he named the sample colony Bastiat.  I approve.

Chapter 7: Six pages of gear, ships, and ship fittings.  I will admit that I skimmed this one.  Gotta love having nuclear dampers and weapons for sale to PCs, though, and the Exodus Ship warms the cold, Homeworldy parts of my heart.

Chapter 8: Tables, maps, stats for likely hostiles, a world trade record sheet.  Useful GM things, and closing with a very stripped-down index that nevertheless seems to hit the sort of things one would likely look for in play (gear, adventure templates, the quick-reference pages for buying and selling cargo, &c).

Other considerations: The art is sparse, but pretty good, in a black-and-white pencil style which reinforces the themes of the setting.  None of the art made me go "WTF", and where the art was clearly supposed to be representing a person or thing, it did a good job (the factor on page 10 and the rival trader on page 7 look appropriately supportive/friendly and ominous, from their body language, for example).  The editing was superb - I did not notice any significant typos, though there were some instances of odd diction (while I've never used "confect" to describe building an adventure, as used on page 45 it is entirely appopriate).  From his diction, attention to editing, comprehension of economics, and references to Bastiat, Heinlein, and other authors, I get the impression that the author is well-read (probably better than I).  I like that.  The style is not that of the commercial writer, churning out word-count for a paycheck; it is that of the enthusiast, with extensive knowledge and deep love of both the genre and the RPG form, who wants to share these with others to the best of his ability.

So, in conclusion: at two-thirds the price and 77% of the pagecount, Suns of Gold absolutely blows away any of Mongoose's Traveller supplements that I've yet read.  The subsystems are well-thought-out, varied, and inspiring of player ambition, there are sandbox GMing tips and structures that are liable to be useful in even fantasy games, the editing is excellent, and there is no glut of either player options (careers, gear) or of repeated minor variations on subsystems.  The only accusation I would consider levelling against it is that the trade is somewhat derivative of Traveller's, but this is readily forgivable given that the changes made to Traveller's trade, while small, are significant in their changes to the structure of play, well-thought-out, and sensibly implemented.  It might even be seen as convenient that it is so close to Traveller's trade, since this makes back-porting it to Traveller very possible.

Well done, Mr. Crawford and Sine Nomine.  Maybe I ought to go read the core book...

Monday, March 31, 2014

Red Tide Review Lite

I'm still alive (and even doing science, occasionally).

I picked up Red Tide through the Worldbuilding Bundle of Holding a while back and got around to reading it tonight while my internet was out.  I'd like to thank Comcast for providing me with such an opportunity, because it was quite good (even though it did derail tonight's Traveller game).  Red Tide does a number of things cleverly or well:
  • The edge of the sandbox-as-survivable-at-reasonable-levels is clearly established by the Tide.  Limited scope is clearly established, which makes it a lot more approachable of a setting than say the Wilderlands.
  • Likewise, the endgame enemy, the Existential Threat as we like to call it in my group, is obvious from the start.  This provides a reasonable initial motivating force for players in a sandbox.
    • I guess my point here is this: It's OK to keep the BBEG a secret on an adventure path, because you can guarantee a reveal at a suitable time.  If you're going to have an existential threat in a sandbox game, it's a lot harder to get the timing on the reveal right, because your players might never explore that facet of the world, or they might not realize the scope of the threat, or when you do pull the reveal they go "aw man that's no fun at all, I could've cooked up an awesome character background and interesting motivations if I'd known that was coming".
    • Further, in addition to having a distant, slow-burn existential threat, there's plenty of not-easily-resolvable internal conflict with the Shogunate, the Shou, and Xian to prevent easy unification against that threat and keep things interesting in the mid-levels.  This is another Existential Threat Antipattern I've seen in sandboxes - PCs tunnelvision on gathering personal power and magic resources to combat the ExiThreat while ignoring everything else, including local politics.  This approach is particularly likely when local leaders are weak-willed and easily swayed to PC causes.  The lack of clear time pressure from the Tide, combined with the power and agenda held by say the Shogun, makes easy unification very unlikely.  In short: powerful and unreasonable NPCs make for more interesting Existential Threat Sandboxes.
  • Very reasonable explanation for putting a broad mix of cultures (Chinese-derived, Japanesque, Germanic, Norse, tribal, and necromantic-decadent) all into one small part of a setting.  Setting is believable within premise.
  • Interesting take on elves.
  • Tide Cults remind me strongly of Sixth House from Morrowind.  There's something about subtle, corrupting, dreaming, waiting evil that appeals to me as a DM.
  • Giant pile of sandbox DM material, including both good advice ("Don’t prepare it unless it is fun to make it or you expect to need it for the next session.") and many tags.  Had not seen tags before, but I like their minimalist way of attaching potential elements (of strictly useful types) to a site.  I didn't get a chance to read all of this, but it looks like something I should put more time into a second-pass reading of.
I'm slightly less a fan of the cosmology, the source of the Tide and the nature of the Shou, but that's easily changed.  One thing Eberron got right with the Mourning was leaving the source and ultimate consequences up to the individual DM, but providing lots of good options.

Anyway, pretty good book, especially for bundle price, would consider ACKSing.  The city-states and Shou in close proximity and ready availability of Westermark borderlands would make for a great domain/DaW game without getting up into the empire tier of complexity.

Verdict: if you like running fantasy sandboxes, or reading a cleverly-designed one, you will probably like this and find it useful.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


One charming trait of the denizens of the Autarch fora is their historical tendencies.  Kiero suggested Xenophon's Anabasis as a source of inspiration for a campaign which starts the PCs off as leaders of a force of foreign mercenaries stuck deep in foreign territory after the untimely death of their employer.  Turns out it's actually quite a pleasant read!  Notes so far:
  • Eulogies - Xenophon doesn't characterize people when they're still alive, but instead provides eulogies (or kakologies?  malology sounds good, but it's mixing Latin and Greek) for people after their death.  Book I, chapter 9 is a eulogy for Cyrus, while book II, chapter 6 is a eulogy for Clearchus and Proxenus and a kakology for Menon the Thessalian.  These characters have their natures hinted at in their actions previously, but they were not characterized directly until after their deaths.  I would argue that this is a nice form for OSR play - show me how your character behaves, rather than telling me, and when he dies, the party bard or chronicler will compose a verse summarizing his life and behavior.
  • Pursuit - Xenophon stresses several times so far that the Greeks, being all infantry with no cavalry, can't really win a decisive battle against the Persian cavalry.  Should they win the field, they will be unable to chase down and kill the routed enemy and thereby break his strength, and should they lose the field, they will be unable to avoid capture or slaughter.  Domains at War's pursuit phase models this pretty well.
  • Morale - I found it interesting that at the battle where Cyrus died, the Persian light infantry broke before even making contact with the Hellenes.  Also found it interesting that the Hellenes seem to have a high morale, and that Cyrus could go three months without paying them before they got uppity.
  • Great stock is placed in omens before battle, and in not angering the gods via breaking oaths.  If anything the Vagaries of War tables at the end of DaW:C do not go far enough.  Would be sort of cool to give the Fate spell from ACKSPC an extra use as explicitly reading omens before a battle, for a morale bonus (or penalty) or other modifiers.
More to follow.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

GM's Day Sale DCC RPG Reviewish

Picked up the DCC RPG last week on rpgnow's GM's Day Sale, and have been slowly working through it.  I have fond memories of some of the DCC modules for 3.x, and the eminently respectable Raven Crowking recommended it as his system of choice, so it seemed worth a look.  Seeing as it's been out for quite a while now, this is less of a chapter-by-chapter review than my normal, and more a set of random notes.

  • The Luck mechanic is fantastic.  You roll your character's luck as an ability score, it modifies a few things based on your class and a roll on the "Auspicious or Inauspicious Birth" table, and you can permanently burn points of it to get a bonus to any roll (except for thieves and halflings, whose luck regenerates).  At first I was skeptical of luck-as-a-stat, and it does seem sort of weird to be sitting at a table rolling dice for the luck of a character, but the more I read the clearer it got - this is action points done nearly-associatively.  Even better, luck can be altered by offending or serving deities, Nethack-style.  Low-luck characters are targeted preferentially by traps and unintelligent monsters - there are incentives both for holding on to luck and for spending it, unlike with most action point schemes where there's no reason to hold on to them except that you think you might need them later.  Lots of fun details like that.
  • Spellcasting is Iron Heroes-style (honestly if I were to compare DCCRPG to any other RPG, I'd call it Iron Heroes with OSR's lethality, randomness, and general rules simplicity).  I like how clerics can offend their deity, prayers per day aren't fixed, wizards can have patrons, spells can backfire, spellburn,  corruption ensues, &c.  Mercurial magic is a really cool idea but seems like it would be a paperwork hassle (each caster gets random side-effects regarding each spell; d% table roll modified by...  luck!), but I guess when a max level wizard only knows 16 spells it's not that bad.  Couldn't bring myself to read all 180ish pages of spell descriptions, though.
  • It is not often that I can say that I liked the art in an RPG book.  This is, however, an exception.  The art is grotesque, cartoony, and frequently humorous.  The skeleton chides the farmer stabbing it with a pitchfork.  The party wizard fumbles a spell and accidentally turns the fighter's head into a chicken while the umber hulk closes; the elf is nonplussed.  Severed heads, ugly PCs, eight-pointed stars of chaos, and derpy monsters abound.  Small comics are interspersed.  The tone, overall, is appropriate - it tells the players "don't take the game, and particularly the fate of your character, too seriously.  If (when) you die, laugh it off."  The one place it bugs me is in the table of contents, where I feel the embellishment hinders the functionality.  Also I would not want to print this pdf.
  • The critical hit rules serve much the same function as ACKS' mortal wounds, but in some ways they present a superior user experience (as it were).  You get a broad variety of death and dismemberment from both, but the thing with mortal wounds is that you never see the mortal wounds you put on critters you don't bother performing first aid on.  This means that the vast majority of observed mortal wounds are suffered by the players, unless they make a regular practice of checking each enemy humanoid to find one still in good enough shape to interrogate (as they should but never do).  The flip side of this, of course, is that time is saved by not rolling mortal wounds for monsters nobody cares about.  In contrast, as DCC fighters get an increased crit threat range, it seems like PCs should be scoring crits on monsters with a frequency comparable to that at which crits are scored against them.  This is likely more satisfying than accumulating maimings for most players.
  • The d7 and d14 stuff is terribly annoying.  I can work with d3, d5, d16, and d24 without needing to conditionally reroll any dice or buy any more dice, but come on man.  Relatedly, the dice chain mechanic (works a lot like Savage Worlds' or Stargrunt's) has a small bug where upgrading to a d24 action die from a d20 reduces the likelihood that you'll score a crit.
  • The much-discussed zero-level funnel seems to serve much the same statistical function as ACKS' "roll 5 sets, pick one to play and two as backups", but with characterization.  On the minus side, you have to play an adventure with a giant pack of L0s, and the one you wanted might not survive.  Not sure I'm sold on running this the hard way.
  • One page of rules for skills.  I approve.
  • I like the Elder and Primal notions for monsters ('templates', if you will), but think the incidence (1 in 100) is probably a bit high.
  • Some of the 3.x hold-overs I think are mistakes.  I don't mind cutting it down to three saves or switching to 10+x AC, but ascending save DCs (which outpace save bonuses) and subexponential XP to level seem less than ideal, since PC death is almost certainly going to result in split-level parties.  I guess I'm less concerned about ascending save DCs than I would be in ACKS since casters are always risking soul and sanity when they cast, but it should still mean that lethality continues to be high even for high-level characters (which is great if that's what you're going for, I suppose).
  • DCC addresses the fighter's perceived boringness with Might Deeds of Arms (covers all your typical tripping and bull rushing and other combat maneuvers, occurs frequently as a side-effect of successfully attacking) and crits, where ACKS addressed it with fighter damage bonus and cleaving.  I feel like DCC wins on style, while ACKS wins on needing fewer table lookups and d7s.
  • Making hobbits dedicated specialist two-weapon fighters seems stupid to me.  There, I said it.
  • Worldbuilding - DCC advocates a small world of insular hamlets, with wilderness travel being dangerous business, information from distant places being rare, and the castles of local lords serving in place of traditional inns.  While it is aimed at a Medieval setting rather than ACKS' Late Antiquity, I could certainly steal some of these (the castle thing's a great idea, and dangerous travel is already a thing I do).
  • Worldbuilding II - Extraplanar influences are recommended even at low levels.  Food for thought.
  • Magic items - rare, only form of reliable magic, come with a luck penalty for hubris, for claiming the creative power of gods.  Awesome.
  • Monsters - I like some of the random variation tables for humanoids and undead.  But, there's a line in the section on treasure that basically sums up a theme I dislike here: "a core concept of the DCC RPG is lack of predictability in the nature of foes encountered, both in their combat abilities and the treasure that is rewarded."  I would argue that it isn't just the foes that are unpredictable here, but also magic and combat in general (between the crit and fumble tables and how magic works).  I like the notion that players can and should be able to gather reliable intelligence on how the world and the monsters inhabiting it work - if they kill a dragon and the treasure is good, they should be justified in drawing the inference that dragonslaying is potentially a good business model.  I guess making monsters unreliable within a single species is a good way to force players to do their intelligence-gathering ahead of time each adventure, rather than assuming that past inferences will see them through (though this ties back to DCC's liking for unique monsters - if there's only one minotaur, where are you going to draw inferences from anyway?).  That said, I think my players, who aren't particularly motivated by coinage-treasure and who don't typically draw explicit inferences regarding monster treasure types would be OK with this.
  • The Quests and Journeys chapter is very mythologically grounded and could make for some fun gaming.
  • Did not read the sample adventures.
  • Table of random names in the back of the book will probably see some use.

 So, the verdict.  I would play this game, as a one-to-three shot or a convention game definitely.  I could also see running it on that sort of scale.  I think it'd be a pretty good game for introducing new players - a lot of the complexity is hidden until runtime in the critical, fumble, and spells tables, while the build-time complexity is lower even than ACKS except for maybe rolling mercurial magic for every spell.  I think ACKS will remain my preference for long-long-form campaign play, though, because it does provide rules for a saner, consistent operating world-context and change of tiers from dungeon-crawling to ruling realms; DCC seems to be purely adventuring-focused up through its maximum level.  The list of things I would steal for ACKS:
  • Luck, maybe.  I guess the simple thing would be "you have a luck score, its modifier applies to all your saves as well as games of chance, and you can burn it permanently for bonuses to a roll.  Thieves regenerate luck over time, other classes do not (replace thief prime req with luck?).  Pious acts can earn you luck, impious acts can cost you luck, bad rolls on Tampering With Mortality can cost you luck, certain in-world superstitious may alter your luck."
  • Give mages the option to have a supernatural patron rather than a master.  This would provide them an opportunity to learn a "theme" of spells preferentially, while also not requiring them to go visit a master in a particular place for training upon levelling.  Some sacrifices may be required, of course...
    • I guess this was basically what I did with the lich-skull.
  • The magic system could probably be lifted wholesale (and honestly about half the book is the magic system).  I like the ideas here, that magic is unreliable and not expressed in spells per day and has a lot of weirdness to it, but I don't know if I would want to port it in its entirity or if it would actually be fun in play.  One problem with alternate magic systems in ACKS is figuring XP values for your modifier wizard...  But random and riskier magic is definitely something I should think about.
  • Castles instead of inns is happening.  Extraplanar influence is definitely something I'd like to see more of in my games (potentially approaching even a Magic the Gathering level of extraplanarity), but ACKS doesn't really support it natively, so there's some work to be done there.
  • Elder and primal monsters might get borrowed.
  • Big Table O'Names is getting borrowed.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Patience, Grasshopper (Or, Why My ACKS Players Play Fighters)

One of the lost arts of old school D&D is that of waiting.

Consider the 1st-level wizard, with his one sleep per day.  In most combats which aren't going horribly wrong, if he can't think of something clever to do, he waits.

Consider the everyone else while the thief is scouting ahead for traps.  If they cannot think of something clever to do, he waits.  They could risk HP and possible death by scouting ahead personally, but that's hazardous and not really in the party's best interests.

Consider the front-line fighter in a combat against undead, where the cleric is winning via turning, or where an oil wall is up.  He doesn't charge in, though he might want to; instead, he waits and advances only when it is opportune, when risks have been mitigated and enemies weakened, or switches to a ranged weapon, or comes up with something else clever to do.

Consider the thief in a combat where the party has formed the Dungeon Phalanx in a hallway against a group of powerful foes.  He waits in the rear and harasses the enemy with arrows or thrown fire, because even though his class abilities and his player's desire would have him in the enemy rear, he's very liable to be killed there, and that would weaken the party as a whole.

 There's a lot of waiting and going "This one is yours to win.  I'll support as needed, but really it's all you, buddy," to someone else at the table.  This is a result of individual classes being able to win certain encounters or types of encounters single-handedly, combined with permanent deleterious consequences for taking unnecessary risks (PC death, level drain, TPK, ...).

Are there times in new-school games when an obstacle is one character's to overcome while everyone else relaxes?  Sure.  The canonical example is waiting for the thief working on traps, and it comes up with wizards solving wizard-puzzles sometimes.  But this is often seen as poor form, for any player to be sitting idly for any significant length of time while someone else has the spotlight.  One need look no further than the forum posts about how someone feels useless in certain types of combats to realize that this is not a solved problem in the new school.

They've made some attempts, though.  Arguably skills exist to circumvent the "unless you can think of something clever" clause.  The alterations to the resource expenditure paradigm in late 3e and 4e are designed so that casters no longer need to wait and choose their time to strike.  The skill challenges system is designed so that everyone can participate in non-combat encounters, even if it sometimes mandates that they do so in nonsensical ways.  The idealized combat-as-sport combat is characterized by each PC playing to his strengths concurrently in a single encounter.

It's teamwork, but of a different sort than that present in the TSR Waiting Game.  If a combat in the new school is easy, players compete to do the most damage or kill the most enemies or land the killing blow, and those who perform poorly get sad at their lack of effectiveness.  If a combat in the new school is difficult, underperformers are the recipients of blame and frustration at their ineffectiveness.  In both cases, social pressures exist towards optimization.

Contrast with the old school.  If you're up against undead, and you're a cleric, your stats don't matter.  Your build doesn't matter.  All that matters is that you're the guy who can turn undead and oh god please save us from these wights.  We have a problem, you have the solution, and right now that's all anyone cares about.  We're outnumbered 3:1 by orcs and you've got the sleep.  There's a trapped corridor that we've already lost a henchman to and you've got the thieves' tools.  And so forth.

The exception, of course, is the fighter.  The fighter rarely waits; he's involved in most combats to some degree, being the tip of the spear and the shield of the squishies, but only ever gets the spotlight by default, when nobody else is using it - when the combat isn't serious enough to warrant arcane intervention, when it isn't undead, and after the thieves have already done their tradecraft (exception - single combat against enemy leaders.  But that's fairly rare).

And I think that's why my group likes fighters in ACKS so much.  Not just because plate and d8 HP make for wonderful survivability, but because they don't usually have to wait.  The mechanics of the fighter most closely approximate those of new-school combat, among all of the ACKS classes, and so the play experience is familiar to my players, and they seem to enjoy it.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Fimbulwinter Saga - Vikings of Midnight

The Last Age is ending.  The last of the dwarven holds has fallen, and the surviving dwarves enslaved.  The nights grow long, and the days short.  The dead walk, white wolves howl across the North, and the ravens grow so numerous that they resort to cannibalism and predation of halflings.  The orcish hosts march on the last bastion of light, the elven woods.

The Witch Queen goes forth to meet them.  Alone.  Should've been a warning sign, really.

Of course, she cheats.  They meet in the fields of Eris Aman, the orcs thick as ants to the horizon and the Queen atop a white horse on a hill.  "You shall not pass," the Queen cries, and sings a song that tears the land asunder as she shatters her staff over her saddle and Jahzir closes to strike her down personally.  The strength of the North is drowned at Eris Aman, beneath a crushing wall of water, as an immense furrow is dug from the foothills of the Highhorns to the Sea of Pelluria.  A second such cataclysm affects the Aruun, separating it from Sarcosa by a roiling and turbulent channel.  Earthquakes are felt across the continent, and even Theros Obsidia trembles.

What such magic might have cost her, no man can say.  She has not been seen since, and the elves mourn her passing.  But her last act has greatly impeded the war effort, both by drowning orcs beyond count and by placing a miles-wide channel full of unknown obstacles and treacherous currents between the shattered Isles of Avalon (as they come to be known) and the lands of the Shadow.

The orcs are not known for their seamanship, and develop a superstitious dread of the channel in any case.  The legates turn to the Dorns to map the channel and mount raids against the elves in exchange for freedom of armament and travel while the orcish armies are reinforced and trained for an amphibious invasion.  Rumor has it that the Pirate Princes were offered amnesty in exchange for their services, but whether they took this bargain is unknown.  Regardless, sellswords and brigands from across the North flock to the new coastline, there to build longships in the manner of their forefathers and raise the Raven Banners for plunder.  Clans long since dispersed are united, and althings held once more.  Oaths are sworn, boasts made, swords forged, and blood feuds begun in the wooden towns attending the longship havens.  It is an time of energy, if not unity, among the long-downtrodden Dorns.

Some among the Legates are concerned by this, and reasonably so.  Who knows what treachery a clever captain might manage on elven shores?  And should a chieftain emerge so well-respected as to unite the clans under one ruler, a great deal of trouble could be had.  Such Legates keep these concerns to themselves, of course, instead preferring to show faith in Izrador's ultimate victory, but dispatch collaborators, spies, and minions to join the raiders and keep an eye on the Dorns nevertheless...

Enter the PCs, as dornsvikings, their bondsmen, dwarven and halflings slaves, heretic legates, mercenaries, secretive warlocks, and assassins and scions from the courts of the Traitor Princes, all set on having their glorious deeds recorded in the final Fimbulwinter Saga, that when the world ends, the last man dies, and the Veil is broken, their names might be read from the standing stones and earn their restless spirits entry into Valhalla...

Rivals: Other viking captains, orcish warband leaders, elven pirate captains, Dornish mercenary companies
Patrons: Legates, Dornish chieftains, elven officers?
Unholy Terrors: the Night Kings (some of whom may have been killed in the Flood and subsequently replaced), demons of the Aruun released during the Second Sundering, hungry aquatic Fell
PC classes:
  • Available at start:  Barbarian, Fighter, Explorer, Assassin, Thief, Venturer (with some -magic +fighting tweaks; Vikingier merchant), Skald (Bard)
  • Available at start, but consider the consequences: 
    • Evil, may impede double-crossing: Cleric of Izrador, Priest of Izrador, Anti-Paladin, Warlock in service of Ardherin, Black Iron Dwarf Fury, Vaultguard, Craftpriest of Izrador, or Machinist
    • Magic users, short life expectancy, especially in party with Evil member: Runespeaker (Mage), Seithr (Warlock)
    • Nonhuman, limited liberty: Enslaved Dwarven Fury or Vaultguard, Enslaved Halfling Cook/Thief
  • Available exclusively via recruiting on Avalon: High Elven Spellsword, High Elven Nightblade, Wood Elven Ranger, Wood Elven Whisper Adept, Wood Elven Savage
  • Not sure yet: Witch, Valkyrie (both fit thematically, but the divine magic is a problem), Orc (fits setting, but outclasses human fighters, evil, pack animal, and doesn't like boats), Ruinguard (fits thematically, but might require some reworking of the race)
Musical Genre: Power Metal
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