Sunday, January 21, 2018

Dwarf Fortress a la ACKS

"Study your successes, not your failures.  If you study your successes, you learn how to succeed.  If your study your failures, you learn how to fail." - Richard Hamming, You and Your Research.

I'm not actually proposing to run another ACKS campaign.  This is more like a thought-experiment derived from the previous (relative) success of the Bjornaborg campaign, after which my players remarked positively on their relative ownership of the world and their dwarven engineers.

Part of the issue with ACKS is that I never want to map a dungeon ever again so long as I live.  So the question - can I get players to do it for me?  The answer, I suspect, is yes.  Previously I've had several players take great pleasure in designing and mapping their castles in ACKS.  "Reverse dungeon" is already a thing, with the players running defense.  This would look a lot like that, but with some base-building aspects on top of it.  Coming at it from the ACKS side, it's extremely granular but benefits from single-domain-for-entire-party, which should be good for cohesion (if you can get buy-in on the idea at all).  This is like, domains for third-level characters.

You get a population of dwarves.  Cut it up into pools of anonymous Laborers, Craftsdwarves, and Soldiery, with a small number of named NPCs (eg, veterans / heroes, master craftsdwarves, sages).  Each laborer can produce 10gp/mo of food (provided space to grow it), construction, or mining.  Craftsdwarves can supervise construction as engineers, produce goods for export or use, or build traps and siege weapons at about 20gp/mo.  Soldiers, of course, train, patrol, and fight (or labor).

Let's do some math.  We're going to assume Absolutist Survivalist Autarchy Juche Dworth Korea economics with no useless children as our baseline, from each according to their ability, to each according to the whims of the player characters.  I'm also going to take a few gross liberties with ACKS' math.

Farming - one laborer produces 10gp/mo (9 really, per the Labor proficiency, but 10 for ease of use).  Per Campaigns, supply costs for infantry are 0.5gp/wk/individual, so one farmer supports himself plus four others.  Great.  The really interesting question is "how much land do you need to do that?"  This is something that Dwarf Fortress is really bad about; farmland is rarely a problem except in the early game in certain embarks (glacier, salt water, &c), because productivity per unit of farmland is very high.  I'm sure ACKS has the answer to this question, and that answer is almost certainly "even with mushroom crops, there's no way in hell you're going to manually dig a farm large enough to support anybody".  So you're probably left with surface farming or cavern farming, and those are both areas you're going to need to secure by force and fortification.  Looking at the Axioms Peasant Economics issue (goddamnit) they have 30 acres of land producing ~160gp/year of food (but with more labor), so ~5gp/acre/year, so if you're producing 10gp/mo you're looking at like 22 acres.  An acre is ~44000 square feet, or a 210' x 210' area.  So...  yeah, if you want to farm underground, you're going to need to do a lot of digging.  You could probably get into some decent surface-world Civ-type gaming if you had the right hexmap scale; a half-mile hex contains 24 farms, a quarter-mile hex contains 6, so somewhere in that range is probably about right.  A nice feature of operating at this scale is that rapid response is possible; if goblins are burning the outlying farms a mile from the fortress, it takes news 10 minutes to arrive at a run, a few minutes to reach the PCs in the fortress, and then 10 minutes at a run to get to the action...  which means some peasants might still be alive.  That is, if you have roads and bridges, of course.  Maybe faster if you have lookout towers and soldiers on duty; because hey, you can see smoke from a long way away!  So the PC choice structure / play loop here looks like "choose which hexes to farm, where to build logistics and fortifications so we can defend them, defending them when they get attacked, tracking the attackers back to their lair, and clearing it."  Depending on how complicated you want to get, you could also get into like, building huts for your peasants and clearing woods for raw materials.  Might also make sense to have no surface farm production during winter, so you want to shift mining labor to farming in the summer / fall, stock up food, and then shift farming labor to mining in the winter.

Right, the other option is farming caverns.  I'm going to assume comparable land productivity between surface and caverns for ease of us (actually a terrible assumption, because power per square foot on the surface is way higher due to sunlight, which is why there isn't a whole lot of biomass density in caverns IRL).  Unlike the surface, caverns are mostly closed, so instead of a hex map it might make sense to just use a graph of connected nodes, each of which has some size in arable land, and each edge of which has some distance for travel purposes.  In the spirit of jayquaying, throw in a smattering of surface-cavern links; very reasonable places to build fortifications.  Could also very easily do multiple layers / depths of caverns, underground rivers, &c.  PCs explore caverns, locate monster lairs and desirable special features, choose which caverns to clear and secure via fortifications, and play reactive defense.

Mining - Mostly we're interested in mining for space, although mining for raw resources is also worth thinking about.  ACKS has somewhat conflicting numbers for mining for space; in Core, a 10x10x10 section of dungeon hallway costs 500gp, which is 50 dwarf-months of labor.  Ouch.  In DaW: Campaigns, though, the cost of siege-mining is 1gp per 20 cubic feet, or 50gp for the same volume, a mere 5 dwarf-months.  I guess the important difference here is the flagstone floor you get in the dungeon hallway.  Let's go with the 50gp/cube estimate.  So if you have, say, 25 laborers, you can allocate 5 to farming a quarter-mile hex (producing 50gp/mo of food, which supports 25 dwarves) and the other 20 to mining, and dig four 10x10x10 cubes in your fortress per month.  If you happen to have an ore vein, this can also produce raw materials of value (would probably steal a note from How to Host a Dungeon here, and figure out ore vein locations by dropping dice on graph paper).  Given that it takes about 5 dwarves to dig a cube, and about 5 dwarves to farm a quarter-mile hex, five dwarves producing 50gp/mo might just be the right size to track labor in.

Labor is probably going to be a limiting factor of construction, generally.  Given the presence of surface-cavern links, it might make sense to secure that initial cavern and fortify all the links out, even if those fortifications are just wooden palisades, because then you don't need to dig out living space (huts-in-a-cavern are cheaper, but less defensible, than excavation).

Craftsdwarves - assuming a mix of apprentices and journeymen, I'm willing to call it 20gp/mo of production per craftsdwarf for ease of use.  That production can be finished goods for export (cut gems, enameled beer steins, whatever), weapons and armor, siege weapons and ammunition, traps (per Player's Companion...  though traps are crazy-expensive), or "Specialist" support for military, which is a cost of about 1gp/soldier/month.  Craftsdwarves are scarcer than laborers and more productive, so you probably want to house them in or near the fortress.  They may or may not need workshops and tools, depending on the detail you want.  Again, very nice to manage in groups of 5, for 100gp/mo production.

TODO seasonal or annual check to see if a craftsdwarf turns into a named master craftsdwarf.  Might involve Fell Mood, PC quest for unusual materials.  Not that it would be worth the hassle, because master craftsdwarves don't improve production that much...  unless you make them grandmasters from the Heroic book and let them start making masterwork / semi-magic items.  That it might be worth worrying about.

Soldiers - this is kinda the easy one, since there's so much material already in Domains at War about them.  Comes in two flavors, heavy infantry and crossbow (and maybe furies).  Need both food / supply from labor and specialist upkeep from craftsdwarves.  Station them in fortifications or watchtowers, send them on a regular patrol route through certain hexes, keep them close at hand so they can support PC actions, whatever.  Probably can't have more than a third of the militia or so on watch / available at the drop of a hat, but should be able to bring the whole force to bear with a day's notice.  Nice to group into 6-dwarf squads (for fighting in 10x10 squares) or 30-dwarf platoons.  Combat against beastmen (goblins and orcs) is probably going to be on warband / platoon or even squad scale.

TODO occasional check to see if a soldier turns into a named / classed hero, subsequently available for henching; might only happen through combat.  Heroes can train laborers to be soldiers, per Campaigns (and then you use craftsdwarf labor to equip them).

TODO priests?  Sacrificing food and goods for blessings.  Prevent disease and undead?  Praise be unto Armok!

TODO morale, consuming excess production for a morale bonus.  In the case of excess food, this is a festival; in case of excess crafts, it's gift-giving and private property.

Caravans - every season except winter, a caravan arrives and you can trade them stuff; useless tchotchkes, excess food, goblin prisoners, smoked chimera meat, whatever, and purchase weapons or food, or hire labor from them, in return.  Since we don't pay anyone wages, arguably the "fair" / ACKSonomically sound thing to do would be to convert excess production into migrants at slave-labor rates, of 33 times their monthly wage.  Since we have to produce the goods we're using to pay that price, we can take three months of production and use that to pay for a migrant, so for every 11 dwarves allocated just to exports for an entire season we could get a new dwarf.  That's kinda harsh; I expect casualties would outpace population growth.  Another option is that you export some goods and then the amount you export earns you a certain number of rolls on the Migrant Table...  as well as on the Monsters Table, with results including goblins and dragons, of course.  Fame for production is a double-edged sword.

So that's all pretty straightforward.  The real remaining trouble is PCs.  What do they do?  How do they earn XP?  Why do they care about this hole in the ground full of dwarves?  We've broken the core adventuring heist "get the money and get out" gameplay loop of ACKS by making the game largely defensive.  Could award XP for fortress / domain production, consumption, or exportation, plus cash earned from fighting and killing monsters I guess.  In terms of class mix, Vaultguard, Fury, Craftpriest, and Delver are all very reasonable classes.  A dwarf surface-explorer counterpart to the Delver's underground exploration might be reasonable.  A dwarf ceremonialist from the Heroic book might be reasonable too, to get some effects that you can't with divine magic.  Human bards, mercenaries, scholars, and monster hunters are not unusual long-term guests, and there's even precedent for elves leading dwarf fortresses.  So maybe party composition is not that big a deal.

In terms of adventuring activities, there's actually a mix of reactive and proactive possibilities.  Reactive adventures include stopping monsters from killing all your peasants and seeking out rare materials for fell moods.  Proactive adventures include cavern exploration, treasure maps?, and clearing out monster lairs that have raided you previously.  Probably a reasonable place for clocks - if you defeat a raid, it's only a matter of time until there's a stronger follow-up.  Likewise, over time Monster Table results build up, and those lairs may merge.  So a proactive policy of taking care of threats before they get worse is probably wise...

Oh yeah, and the endgame - fortress falls to darkness, and a new party gets to explore / loot it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

ACKS: Beot

I haven't actually read the current / near-finished (?) ACKS Heroic Companion draft yet, but one thing we really enjoyed from a previous draft many moons ago was the Warrior Code rule.  Warrior Code provided a bonus to XP earned for obeying certain virtuous restrictions, modeled after the old pagan virtues (things like bravery, hospitality, and loyalty...  not so much mercy).  This was a great rule (though the honesty condition did have the awkward effect of making some henchman the Party Liar, so that everyone else could avoid the stain on their honor and the loss of their precious XP).  In a similar vein, of "turning old-school pagan-appropriate behavior into XP bonuses", I think a rule for beot could be a lot of fun.  Make a boast of a suitable Mighty Deed you will personally accomplish this adventure; if you succeed, +10% XP for the adventure!  If you fail, -10% XP for the adventure.  Maybe just -5%, to encourage people to actually use the option.  Bonus points for multiple party members with the same boast who have to compete for it.

Friday, December 22, 2017


In the ACKS repo, I'm working on a branch to change the way downtime works.  One of my issues with ACKS is that it doesn't really support open-table play well outside of low levels.  Domain XP slows down (or stops) level convergence within the party, and characters with domains tend to monopolize out-of-adventuring time and DM attention.  My intentions with these changes include:

  • Give everyone across the level range useful things to do during downtime.
  • Reduce overhead / level of detail / granularity in tracking downtime (two-week "downtime turns")
  • Create a structure / cycle of play around downtime, such that it happens in regular, predictable chunks alternating with adventures rather than "OK, Mr. Mage needs three months to make his item and we dare not go adventuring without him, so we're all gonna sit on our butts for three months."
    • As a side effect, reduce the variance of magic research by cutting it into multiple downtime actions and allowing partial progress
      • TODO: standardize monetary outlay between spell research and magic item creation
  • Add some mechanics which accelerate the convergence of low-level characters to the party mean (mentorship bonus)
  • Throw some bones to players who miss sessions (extra downtime actions)
  • Mix up the general proficiencies metagame.  Currently, a handful of general proficiencies (Healing, Alchemy, Bargaining, and Diplomacy/Intimidation initially, then Navigation and Riding in wilderness, then Military Strategy and Leadership when mass combat starts happening) typically dominate discourse and use in play in my groups.  Unsurprisingly, these are the general proficiencies that actually do useful things.  The trick, then, is adding really utile uses to some of the job-type general proficiencies.  So far, this has mostly been by increasing effective market class for goods related to the proficiency practiced, or by adding ability to find henchmen of certain classes (and possibly outside the typical henchman recruiting level range).
    • Relatedly, reduce the pain of operating in small markets and deprecate/distribute the Venturer / Varangian's core ability.
    • TODO Art - ???
    • TODO Labor, especially Mining - bonus to detect traps underground (probably only +2, smaller than dwarf bonus or Alertness), high-risk-high-reward downtime activity, ability to recruit dwarf henchmen.
    • TODO Profession, especially Lawyer - bonus to rolls on sentencing table
  • TODO: make sufficient quantities of carousing a downtime action, make the carousing table canon (that table was a regular source of fun in the first campaign)
  • TODO: rework mercenary hiring, rather like this.  Mercenary wages, henchman wages, and cost of living need some thought in open-table mode.
  • TODO: integration with Apocalypse World-style clock system, for easy running of living worlds.  I don't need to know a whole lot of details, just that this disgruntled NPC is going to try to come after the PCs in N sessions.  I'll fill in the rest when things get closer.
  • TODO: fix / redesign hijinks to provide adventure hooks and intel on running clocks.  Spying actually makes sense when people worth spying on are doing secret things in the background.
  • TODO: simplify domains.  Starting for now by taking this and working it into the Campaigns chapter, and by removing domain XP (mass combat XP can stay - that's combat.  XP from sacking domains can stay - that's treasure earned adventuring).  I have some vague notions for some Lords of Waterdeep-style mechanics, where domains and guilds provide you with anonymous, disposable "adventurer" resources that you can send on quests to delay clocks, but I'm not sure how to make it mesh with ACKS-as-it-is, nor how I really want it to look at the end of the day, so I'm going to put that one off.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

ACKS SRD forked on github

Once upon a time, I wrote a post about all the things I'd want to change in Traveller if I were to run it again.  The other day (...  or month), I started to draft a similar post for ACKS, in part in response to the ACKS 2e proposal that was floated on the Patreon.  In general, I dislike the direction ACKS seems to be headed; as I said a year and a half ago - "ACKS' continued development seems to be away from its slick, usably-abstracted B/X roots and off into what the forums jokingly call Advanced Adventurer Conqueror King, with more detail and more rules.".  The 2e draft reinforces that perception.

I considered digging through the pile of retroclones to find something that better suits my desires, but I find my patience for reading rulebooks has fallen over time, particularly with all the duplication that you tend to see in retroclones.  I found myself wishing that retroclones were just published as changelogs, as patchnotes, or in proper version control systems.

And then I remembered caphiend's ACKS SRD on github, and went "what the hell, somebody has to start this."  So here we are - a version of the ACKS SRD with a growing selection of our group's conventions, houserules (or proposed houserules), and clarifications integrated into it.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Viking Midnight Redux - After Ragnarok

I was reflecting on one of the better campaigns I've run in the past couple of years, the Bjornaborg "Midnight but with vikings" game.  I think if I were to do it again, I'd go further from the Midnight source.  I've been reading the Eddas lately, and there're some interesting bits in the Voluspa and Vafthruthnismol about what happens after Ragnarok - Thor's sons and Odin's brothers survive and rebuild the realm of the gods, and the dragon Nidhogg rises against them, but the poem is cut short before that matter is concluded.

But it got me thinking - there's room after Ragnarok.  Taking Norse mythology as a loose base and playing Ragnarok as even less of a victory for the Aesir, you end up in more typical OSR post-apocalypse territory.  The giants set themselves up as petty kings over men, the dark elves of Niflheim gather slaves, the scaled spawn of Jormungandr and Nidhogg exact tribute, and the dead of Hel feast on the living.  Where men gather, they are preyed upon.  The old gods are dead, but in the hills their children hide among mortals, gathering worshipers and strength, prophecies and artifacts in preparation for a second day of reckoning.  And unlike in Midnight proper, here such a thing is plausible, and perhaps foretold.

Upsides over Midnight: hope, no wizard-hunters, no orcs.
Downsides against Midnight: what do you fight at low levels if not orcs?, subtler pitch than "Tolkien but Sauron won".

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Pareto Principle and the OSR

I've been spending a lot of time on wikipedia recently.  The other day I was reading about power laws, allometry, and the Pareto Principle, and it struck me as both a useful rule of thumb for the lazy simulationist and a convenient explanatory factor for some pieces of OSR weirdness.  Phrased simply, the Pareto Principle states that in general, 20% of causes account for / lead to 80% of effects.  Typical examples include aggregation of wealth / property (where in most countries, 20% of the population controls 80% of the land / wealth) and software bugs (where 80% of bugs spring from 20% of root causes, such that if you fix the most-common 20% of bugs, you also resolve roughly the next 60% incidentally).

One OSR peculiarity made believable by this observation is the lair / nonlair distinction.  Roughly 20% of encounters (lairs) have the vast majority of the treasure (certainly treasure-from-monsters) in any given dungeon level.  From the perspective of even, predictable progression this is a dubious choice, but from a simulation perspective, with monsters aggregating treasure or paying tribute off-screen, it seems solidly justifiable.

The Pareto Principle may also have applications in constructing believable causal / narrative structures from randomness.  You roll a result on a random table, and you're not sure why it's true.  Pareto suggests that there's an 80% chance it follows from one of the Big Causes of your world.  Roll a d10, on 3+ link it back to something already known, on 1-2 add a new minor causal agent unfamiliar to your players.  You could go even further with self-similarity on that 80% and balancing the sizes of your sets of big and small causes, but for a first cut that minimizes effort, tends to conserve campaign capital, and introduces occasional surprises, this is probably a reasonable solution.

If I were feeling extremely motivated, it might be interesting to look at Pareto as it applies to ACKS' economics / XP model.  But I am not; they're probably already reasonable consistent, given Autarch's economics background.

Other plausible correlates in gaming, absolutely unsupported by data but plausible to my eye - 20% of the bloggers get 80% of the pageviews, 20% of the systems get 80% of the playtime, 20% of the campaigns get 80% of the sessions, 20% of the gamers run 80% of the games.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Further Obvious Thoughts on Wilderness

My prep for Dungeons and Discourse continues.  Also, I had lunch with one of my ACKS stalwarts a week or two ago, and have been re-reading some old posts (particularly this one) and some thoughts came up.

Topology - Jayquaying is considered important in dungeons, but not something you hear about much in the wilderness.  This is because the wilderness is "open" by default - you don't have to take any particular measures to provide multiple paths through it.  On the other hand, this abundance of paths can also be boring.  An inverse of jayquaying for the wilderness to restrict available paths probably makes sense.  Quayjaying, if you will.  Hard quayjaying is limiting available paths by impassable obstacles, soft quayjaying is limiting it by obstacles which are expensive to traverse.

Traps - Thinking about the resource game in dungeons, it's true that zap traps and trivial encounters aren't interactive or particularly exciting, but they perform an important function - putting chip damage on the party to keep them under resource pressure.  Seems workable in wilderness too - as simple as "if you sleep in the mountains above the treeline, all party-members take 1d3 points of damage from exposure unless you can find a cave", "every time you traverse a glacier hex, there's a 1 in x chance a crevasse opens beneath a random 1d4 party members, save vs paralysis or take 3d6 falling damage", or "if you sleep in a swamp, there's a 1 in n chance that your rations spoil".  In addition to grinding down party resources and providing tension, this helps make Land Surveying actually useful.

Specials - If you look at the dungeon-stocking guidelines, 25% of rooms have a "unique" or special contents.  Like traps, this is something I've largely neglected in my wildernesses to date, despite having quite a few ideas for this sort of thing.  25% may be high for a sensible wilderness, particularly a large one - 25% means that every hex has like 1.5 "unique" neighbors, which is very dense.  14-16% would mean that on average every hex would have a "unique" neighbor, which is still high but probably more reasonable.

Treasure - One persistent complaint about wilderness adventuring is "there's not enough treasure per game-time compared to dungeoneering."  Fair enough.  One way to boost this somewhat is unguarded treasure.  30% of trapped rooms have treasure in a dungeon; a reasonable parallel would be for a "trap" hex like crevassing glacier to have treasure at the bottom of a crevasse.  Likewise, 15% of "empty" dungeon rooms have treasure; no reason empty wilderness shouldn't, either.  Maybe it's a natural resource like rare wood or exposed metal ore; maybe it's actual treasure buried in a barrow mound that isn't haunted for once.  I expect you'd have to search a hex to find it, but that's OK - creates a resource tradeoff, time and rations for a chance of treasure.  This also provides endpoints for treasure maps.

Dungeons - Sometimes I think about abandoning the quest to figure out the wilderness game and just run dungeons all the way up.  Generally I don't like using dungeons at high levels because giants need a lot of calories and it stops making any sort of sense, but supernatural monsters are a reasonable solution to this objection (and wards can also explain why they're not out terrorizing the countryside).  Matt noted that dungeons do get old, and that he thinks this is not a great solution.  Reflecting further on this, the correct solution is fairly obvious - I need to put dungeons in my wilderness.  This is, of course, exactly what the damn manual suggests, but I've been too lazy for it in the past, in large part because the wilderness prep effort has been heavy as a result of large wildernesses with very dense lairs.  But, having figured those out, prep effort declines.  Dungeons provide high-treasure targets out in the wilderness, as well as a break from worrying about rations and overland movement and such.  Looking at page 235 of ACKS core, it suggests 3 large dungeons (6-10 sessions each), 10 small dungeons (1-2 sessions each), and 17 lairs for a 30x40-hex wilderness.  For a 10x10 wilderness, that's about a 25% chance of a large dungeon, an 84% chance of a small dungeon, and 1.5 lairs; lower density than I really want.  Given that historically I've gotten 6-8 sessions out of most of my 3-level, 60ish-room dungeons, I assume that what I'm building is on the low end of "large".  I could probably get 1-2 sessions out of a single-level 20-30 room dungeon, and could comfortably put three of those in a 10x10 microsandbox in about six hours of prep effort.  Then you drop rumors and these become places that players have to go find (as Alexis says - if you tell the players precisely where something is, they will go directly there.  If you tell them vaguely where it is, they will go everywhere.  And I want them to go everywhere if at all possible, because that's efficient use of my prep effort).

Homesteads - I was skimming Renegade Crowns the other day, and its system generates quite a few homesteads out in the wilderness.  Think Beorn and Craster.  These present a great, ambiguous opportunity.  If your players meet orcs, the first instinct is to fight them.  But if they meet hillfolk, it's hard to tell whether they're normal and friendly or cannibal cultists until you agree to join them for dinner.  If it works out, they're potentially great allies against beastmen, and at the very least a "safe and sanitary" place to rest and recover resources.  Homesteads might fall under a more general category of "oasis" features where replenishment of certain resources is possible; Rivendell's another example.

Level range - An observation I mentioned to Matt is that just as 1st level, 2nd level, and post-3rd level dungeoncrawling are all very different, it's possible that 5th, 6th, and 7th+ level wilderness adventuring are very different, with lower levels being much more resource-constrained and dangerous.  Got me wondering if maybe launching a wilderness game closer to 7th wouldn't be a bad idea.

On further reflection, I think that even if I executed successfully on all of these ideas, in an unmapped borderlands microsandbox with limited lair density, some route-blocking topology, "trap" hexes, unguarded treasure, an abundance of special features, three dungeons, and a smattering of homesteads, that would still be somewhat unsatisfactory.  Better than my previous wilderness efforts, and pretty close to my first ACKS dungeon, but still merely an open world rather than a living world.  The folks I've been talking to here seem big into Dungeon World and fronts and clocks lately, but I think something more up my alley would be "build a big list of NPCs who might do something that the players might care about, along with some Renegade Crowns-style internal conflicts between NPCs.  Every session, roll on the list, think about what resources they have at their disposal and what they want, and then something happens."  Might be NPC-vs-NPC violence in the background, might be something aimed at the PCs if they're on that NPC's shit-list, might be a job offer from that NPC.  But something happens, because somebody wanted something in the world and they've finally gotten around to acting on it.