Saturday, April 13, 2019

ACKS: Stat Mulligans and Swaps

Something I've been kicking around in response to The Ability Score Are Too Damn High.

In most of our ACKS games, we have had players roll five sets of stats, choose one to play and hold two as replacement characters.  This tends to lead them to having the best of five.

An alternative I've been considering: roll a set of stats, 3d6 in order.  Accept it as your character or reject it and reroll up to (say) four times.  If your next set is better than what you rejected, too bad, and if you run out of mulligans, you play the last of the five.

I like this idea because it changes the problem from optimization (pick the best set of stats from the five) to satisficing (is this set of stats good enough?).  It introduces an element of gambling, that OSR pillar risk and reward, that self-determination of "what is your ambition?", and of incomplete information.  In the average case, I expect it would also accelerate the character-generation process; you probably aren't going to roll all five sets, and at while there are more decision-points, each decision is boolean (keep or reject).  Characters will also in expectation have somewhat lower stats, which is also an outcome that I am OK with.

In order to preserve some amount of choice of class, and as a replacement for offstat-drops, I think allowing a player to swap any two scores in the set is probably reasonable.  This preserves some input from the dice (for eg multi-primereq classes), but if you just want to play a wizard, fine, swap your highest into Int.  And if you already rolled something high in your main stat, then you can shuffle around two of your offstats to your preference.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Notes from a Hiking Seminar

Some of which are relevant to wilderness adventuring.

(But first - deep apologies for not replying to comments on my last post; I was offline for most of a week, and now it seems like something's going wrong with google accounts and I can't post comments anywhere, including here.  So...  everything I would comment is now going into posts, I guess.  Thank you DHBoggs for relaying some history on the development of the hex - I found it very interesting and am happy to hear that the day was originally a clear parallel time quantum to the turn in dungeoneering exploration)

Prep questions:
  • Where are you going?
  • Who are you going with?
    • Who's the least able?  Can they make it to where you're going?
  • What season is it?
  • What's the weather going to be like?
  • What passes or permits from governments do you need to go there?
  • When do you expect to be back?  Who are you going to tell that to so they can send rescue?
 Ten Essentials:
  • Extra clothing, layers for variations in weather and climate across trip
  • Extra water (or means to procure it, like LifeStraws, water filters, dowsing, and high-level clerics)
  • Extra food
  • First aid kit
  • Knife or multitool
  • Means of producing fire
  • Map and compass
  • Headlamp / hands-free light source
  • Sun protection
  • Emergency shelter (down to and including just a blanket or tarp)
As a rule of thumb, most packs can carry weight in pounds equal to their capacity in liters minus ten.  Not a problem if you're using stone as a combined unit.

If you find a leaf with a face chewed into it, you shouldn't take it home with you.  (This was actually the comment that led to this whole post - intended as a silly example of leave no trace, but my brain went "that would be wonderfully creepy in-game")

Place campfires in established rings, or else.

Avalanche and river-crossing dangers depend less on the weather right now than on the weather from the previous week or so.  Probably also true of trail conditions.  On the one hand, this complicates the problem of making weather systems for the wilderness game, because if you want high-fidelity simulation you have to track past state.  On the other hand, this also pushes towards other potential solution-spaces, which isn't a bad thing (maybe something like the Oriental Adventures events tables - you roll a big trend for this month's weather, which sets the trail, river, and avalanche conditions, and then roll daily weather within that big weather pattern's subtable).

Animals in popular hiking destinations steal enough food from peoples' bags to get enormous.

Black bears are basically just large housecats for morale purposes, unless cubs are involved.

Mountain lions are also basically large housecats for morale purposes, except they think you are a toy.

Local outfitter offers appointments to get your gear in order for a particular trip.  Quartermaster NPCs!  I'm pretty sure I've written a post about having a NPCs to organize mules and rations and all that stuff (as a script, of course), but I'll be arsed if I can find it.

Some good place-names.  "Ranger Station" is a phrase that translates wonderfully into D&D.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Wilderness as Dungeon Revisited

A lot of this is probably obvious; circling back around to typical ways of running the wilderness, but through the lens of dungeoneering.  Less a post about rules than about how to organize information.

Previously, I was thinking about 6-mile hexes as being like rooms in a dungeon.  Now I think maybe they're supposed to be more like a 10' square.  Hexes and squares are both the smallest unit of organization in mapping on their respective scales.  You can traverse multiple per unit-time (turn in dungeon, day in wilderness), but it takes a unit-time to search either.  They're also a unit of organization in your notes - you probably wouldn't have multiple encounters or multiple traps in a single 10' square in a dungeon, and you probably shouldn't in the wilderness either.  I think the difficulty of book-keeping involved in trying to cram multiple lairs into each hex is a big gripe of mine with ACKS' assumptions about wilderness density.  Yes, it makes sense in-the-world.  But it's bad UX.

So if a hex is like a 10' square, what implications does this have?

"Rooms" / "biomes" / "zones" / micro-regions of multiple 6-mi hexes sharing common terrain, common opposition, and isolated by surrounding hexes ("walls").  Possibly a single key entry in DM's notes - "Cradle Wood, hexes 0601, 0602, 0501, 0503, 0504.  Lush valley full of tall pine trees, ferns, stinging nettles, and moss.  Abundant small creeks with crayfish.  Three goblin villages (7, 5, 4 warbands) with wargs.  Chiefs Ugbu, Ordo, and Glum are all brothers."  And then you can vary random encounter tables by room - all demihuman encounters in Cradle Wood are goblins, or someaught.  Weather might also be particular to a particular "room" ("Ironvale, hexes ...  Valley in the hills where it rains most of the time.  Oak trees and mud.  Abundant iron and coal beneath the surface.  Dwarven vault built into the hillside has flooding problems.").  If naming "rooms" is too much hassle at scale, just number them like rooms on dungeon maps.

Vision - in the dungeon, the limit of your vision is by torchlight and measured in tens of feet.  In the wilderness, it's by height and blocking terrain, and measured in 6-mile hexes, with a default of two hexes on flat plains.  See also also Trilemma.

The function of walls in the dungeon, to block both movement and vision, is softened from boolean in the wilderness.  Most terrain that slows movement also blocks vision (hills, forests), but some doesn't (open water, tundra).  "Walls" in the wilderness are more like ridgelines.  They're probably their own "rooms", since you can enter them - it'll just be slow going.

Does it make sense to have "unroomed" hexes?  Sort of like hallways in dungeons, which are often unkeyed?  Unroomed / unkeyed hexes might work well for "walls" too.  Use default terrain random encounter tables to place dynamic lairs, assume low land-value relative to named and detailed areas.  Sort of like leaving parts of your megadungeon to be filled procedurally during play.

Random encounter distance is one place where the analogy breaks down a bit.  In the dungeon, a random encounter at book distances is unlikely to engage you for a turn or two.  In the wilderness, by-the-book distances put them on top of you in minutes, definitely not days.  I think it might be worthwhile to change random encounters to the "wandering monster / lurking threat" model, much like dungeon encounters - wargs picked up your trail and have been eating your leavings, elvish scouts have noticed your tree-cutting and are displeased, and so forth.  So extend the random encounter distance to 1d3-1 hexes or so; sometimes you do stumble right on top of them, and for some random encounters that's the only time they make sense (skeletons aren't going to follow you, probably).  My players have long complained about a lack of control over engagement in the wilderness, and having a little more advance warning might help.  Might also be worth stealing a page from DaW's book and having an opposed Strategic Ability roll to see which side gets advantageous terrain before a wilderness fight, and then use the book values for random encounter distance to figure out how far apart the forces are at the beginning of the fight.

If a hex is like a 10' square, then microsandboxes need to be reconsidered.  A 10 hex by 10 hex map is going to be very dense, without much room for rooms, much like a dungeon in a 10x10 grid, and my experiment with building such a tiny sandbox bears this impression out.  So the howling emptiness of early D&D follows naturally from this metaphor - empty hexes are OK-to-necessary when hexes are considered primarily in clusters rather than individually.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Simple Domains: Trade Routes and Tributaries

Central thrust: link wilderness-level travel and trade to domain trade income by establishing "routes", allowing some improvement to one's domain under Simple Domains without having to track population

One of the annoying things with Simple Domains is the urban population.  I'm also more interested in settings where city-states and tribes are the norm, rather than feudalism.  Consequently, different rules for and assumptions about organizing realms seem appropriate.

I don't really like ACKS' default population growth as a domain "advancement" mechanic because 1) it's boring (spend money or wait time, counter ticks up, spreadsheet recalculates), and 2) it's unreasonably fast (yeah, there's some justification about "time of upheavals and migrations", but that's not always reasonable).

It occurs to me that domain "advancement" might still be doable with static population numbers via mutable trade routes.  Opening a new trade route between two domains entails clearing it to some reasonable degree, and then leading a ship or caravan along it.   I've been thinking about "threat" primarily affecting edges of the trade graph; a threat closes the edge, then if left unaddressed might spread to more edges, and if it holds all the routes in to or out of a particular town, the town comes under its thumb as well.  So I'm not really talking clearing all the hexes on the route, just dealing with things big enough to threaten a caravan (bandits, orcs, griffons, dragons).  Once a route is cleared, maybe a seasonal encounter roll can bring monsters back to it.

Once the route between two settlements is safe and you demonstrate this by leading a ship or caravan across it, imitators follow and trade along the route becomes regular, allowing the rulers of each end to gather additional market taxes.  If the additional market revenue from trade get high enough, the market class improves.  This lets the trade mechanic fill in for the "extra urban families from vassals" problem that Simple Domains had before.  On the downside, allowing market classes to change like this opens up all sorts of weirdness if you use market class for anything (like trade range, or calculating how much trade income is generated), and could lead to undesirable positive feedback loops.

What I like about this idea is that it links the wilderness game to the domain game with travel.  Your players get to go see the rest of the campaign world in order to make their domain stronger, rather than grinding through hex-clearing.  My players often seem to want caravans and ships in the mid-levels anyway.  At low levels you play "caravan guards", at mid-levels "caravan leaders", and at high levels "that guy who sponsors caravans led by henchmen".  It also opens up structured interactions with diplomacy.  Going to war with a domain generally means closing of routes between the combatants, and you may attack trade routes they have with other domains as well to reduce their trade income.  This might anger their trade partners, leading to embargo or entering the fight against you.  Conversely, a small domain coerced by a larger one might not be willing to trade with their overseer's rivals due to the sword looming over their heads, unless you can make them assurances of protection.  A domain defeated in war might become a tributary state as a term of surrender, sending its trade income to the domain the subdued it.

The tricky part is getting the numbers right - big enough to be worth bothering with, small enough to not spiral out of control, consistent with ACKS' existing trade rules, and simple enough to not be a huge hassle (ie, "just treat it as a network of sources and sinks for various goods, and you're adding a new link, which changes traffic patterns and directs trade through certain nodes which changes the tax income for those nodes"...  like yeah, I could do that, programmatically, but I don't want to need a computer).

Another interesting question is interaction with all the other parts of ACKS.  Does trade with settlements of different culture, terrain, "tech level", etc generate more income?  Interaction with monopoly?  Thieves' guilds?  Our favorite class, the venturer?  Seasonal variation in trade income (less in winter, more in summer)?  How do trade volumes or revenues relate to infrastructure like roads?  (Can we spin this into a reason for players to build and maintain roads, which they also seem to often want to do?)

I don't know if this would actually be simpler in practice than population growth.  But I do think it might be more fun.

A third approach to "domain advancement", and one which players seem to for push historically, is building up local industries and institutions.  I think this is actually fairly easy to adjudicate under ACKS' core rules, but it's not very profitable, and it could stand to be quantized, Kingmaker or Fields of Blood style - drop 10kgp plus some monthly maintenance on a Shipyard, and now you can buy ships as if your market were one class bigger.  Domains have a limited number of Industry slots based on size.  This would certainly be philosophically consistent with Simple Domains, so maybe it warrants further development.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

A/X: Refuges

Central thrust: General class of partial-resource-restoration sites in the wilderness leading naturally to domains

I've been thinking about the resource game in the wilderness more, particularly as it related to mercenary casualties.  Domains at War provides us with the handy heuristic that half of troop casualties are slain or die on the field, and the other half are lightly wounded.  Looking at the Mortal Wounds table's better half, this means they probably need about a week of bed rest to be back in fighting shape (Domains at War glosses over this, but I think it could be useful for our purposes), provided that you have held the field and can retrieve your wounded.

The bar for bed rest in ACKS is something like "complete rest in reasonably sanitary conditions".  For a site to be useful for this purpose, 1) you need to be able to defend it without involving the wounded troops - it should be defensible and out of the weather, and 2) the basis of sanitation is access to clean water.  You need it for drinking, for cleaning injuries, and for keeping the site itself clean.  It's also just nice to have generally to ease logistics and refill.

So some examples of such sites might include:
  • Shallow cave complex with a natural spring near the entrance
  • Crumbling tower built by the men of the first age, with intact cistern
  • Caravanserai near an oasis
  • Rivendell, Beorn's homestead, Craster's Keep, and other features defensible by virtue of powerful friendlies. 
  • A palisaded beastman village with a well, whose inhabitants have been put to the sword
 All of these sites have limits to the number of people they can shelter - you can't fit a battalion into a tiny cave, and you can't fit one in Rivendell either, for risking Elrond's ire.  Having more men than a site can shelter means spilling your camp out into the field, at an increased risk of random encounters (or, perhaps, being under a shelter's capacity reduces the likelihood of a random encounter by 1 on the d6 below the terrain's baseline; being over capacity just pushes it back to normal).  Capacity also imposes a limit on how many mercs can be on bed-rest at a site at once.

So the system in play would look something like this: you're exploring a hex and you find a crumbling tower overlooking a stream, a refuge with a capacity of say 60 men.  Your thief scopes it out and by luck finds it empty, the door locked.  You make a note of it on your map and continue forward.  After a skirmish with some beastmen, your heavy infantry retinue squad is at half UHP, 3 of 6.  This represents about 1 dead and 2 wounded.  You hold the field, gather your wounded, and retreat to the refuge, where you put the 2 wounded on bed rest and the rest of the squad on guard.  You send your explorer and his light infantry squad out foraging for rations while the heavies heal up.  He gets into a random encounter or two, but by good fortune they're just animals and easily dealt with (and eaten).  Seven days of rest later, your heavy infantry squad is now at 5 out of 6 UHP and hungry for revenge.

So the tradeoffs here: if you're far from town, you can get some mercenary healing (and PC healing too actually, at 1d3 HP per day of bed rest, more with the Healing proficiency - only relevant if changing the resource model on spells in the wilderness from "per day" to "per adventure"), but you can't refill all the way back up, it'll cost you in rations, and you put yourself at some risk for further random encounters (but a reduced risk compared to going all the way back to town at one roll per hex).

This ties to domain play in a couple of ways:

First, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.  Refuges are very attractive sites for monster lairs, and in some cases you might have to "liberate" them from a monster lair to use them at all.  A refuge that sits empty is liable to be re-inhabited between expeditions, which might necessitate re-clearing it.  This creates an incentive to establish small garrisons, to hold refuges between expeditions.  Human presence is likely to keep most animals out of the way, but may not be a deterrent to beastman warbands.  A back-and-forth, where a refuge is taken by and re-taken from beastmen, is pretty plausible and good re-use, good for building up campaign capital in a site.  Heck, "we're in town and can see a smoke signal from the garrison, let's get all our cavalry together and go relieve them" sounds like a pretty good time.

When you have a garrison, you have to support it, not just by relieving it with cavalry, but also with food.  Generally you can only feed about one person per square mile on hunter-gathering (so say 30 men per 6-mile hex, for convenience) under good conditions (ie, not desert, glacier).  Conveniently, 30 is also about the size of a beastman warband, which presumably also forages and hunts for its rations (as opposed to a village, which is dense enough that they're probably doing slash-and-burn agriculture).  So if you want bigger garrisons that will have better odds against a warband, you need to either lay in supplies (entailing logistics, defending caravans - and with spoilage, this might not be viable at all), or you need on-site agriculture, ie peasants.  An amusing intermediate step might be livestock.  30 men eat 30 stone of food a week, provided water.  A 550lb cow from the Livestock table yields about 27 stone of meat, probably more total rations if you're willing to boil the bones and such.  A cow per platoon per week sounds very reasonable, and they don't spoil - if you want to supply a garrison for a month, give 'em a week of standard rations and three cows.  And then you have an incentive to clear predatory-animal lairs that would otherwise be of no interest (dang giant eagles eating your cows), and you can have goblin cattle-rustlers!

Extra rules for butchering livestock provoking random encounter rolls?  Herdsman hirelings?  Clearly this whole livestock angle is one that could use more detail.

Anyway, another way that refuges lead into domain play is through capacity restrictions.  You want to have a garrison strong enough to hold them, but you also want enough space for your retinues to heal.  So you're probably going to want to expand the capacity of the refuge.  Put up a palisade around your crumbling tower to increase the capacity.  Uncrumble it to increase the capacity.  Build and consecrate a little shrine so your cleric can get a bonus to RL&L rolls (and maybe even restore his 1st- and 2nd-level spells in the field).  A refuge is the raw materials for a base, and players like base-building; so give 'em base-building.  Whether this will actually work with ACKSonomics is another question - it's not that construction is hideously expensive in ACKS, it's that labor is hideously unproductive.  3gp/man-month on an unskilled laborer (like a mercenary being employed to build a palisade) means it would take a platoon 40 days to build 100ft of palisade.  I suppose if you have a platoon-sized garrison just sitting around that's not totally implausible?  Might need some notion of garrison activities - a garrison can be building structures, or hunting and foraging, or patrolling the hex, in addition to holding the refuge, with different risk profiles for each of these activities.

Finally, as a feature on a hex-map placed during stocking, how common should refuges be?  I feel like a power law is reasonable - squad- or party-scale refuges, with a capacity of maybe 12, should be pretty common.  Almost any lair of large predators, once cleared, can probably suffice.  Platoon-scale refuges in the 30-60 capacity range are probably less common, maybe one in every seven hexes (one within a one-hex radius of any point, in expectation).  Company-scale refuges you probably have to take from a tough lair like a beastman village, maybe one in 19 hexes (one within a two-hex radius of any point, in expectation).

Bonus: dealing with mercenary casualties as combat ineffectives who need shelter and bed rest also lends itself nicely to disease and exposure.  A "trap" in a swamp hex might have characters save to avoid catching disease - mercenary squads who fail their save take some amount of damage temporary damage which can be fixed by bed rest, but if they don't get that bed rest within a certain timeframe, the damage becomes permanent as people die of dysentery.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Abilities for the Wilderness Levels

Contents: more speculative proposals.  Would probably take several posts to hash out details.

Last post, I asked what spells in the mid-levels look like in a system that took that shift to wilderness very seriously.  This is really a special-case of a more general question:

What would wilderness-appropriate mid-level abilities look like for all classes in a system that took that shift seriously?

In the low levels in the dungeon, the fighter fights, the thief gathers intel, opens paths to treasure, and occasionally one-shots things with backstab, cleric spells make everything a little easier and interact with the resource game, and mage spells straight-solve problems.

If we went hard on wilderness, what sort of abilities would we want mid-level thieves and fighters to have?

Thieves are probably the easy one.  Gathering information about the environment without attracting random encounters is just as important in the wilderness as in the dungeon.  The explorer's mechanics for evading random encounters make sense, as well as extra stuff for exploring hexes more quickly and more efficiently, locating and evading "wilderness traps" like crevasses, mudslides, etc.  I've been thinking about walking back my position on "don't show them the map" - show them a little of the map.  Hexes that have been entered but aren't yet "explored" and mapped are slower and more dangerous to move through (and, if maintaining a map for the players, have their terrain shown but greyed out).  Exploration takes time and can discover lairs and features.  So then you tie thief abilities to that hex exploration mechanic.  On the "opening treasure" side of things, you might have mechanics like ACKS' treasure-hunting and smuggling hijinks - figuring out where treasure is located and getting more out of the treasure you find by evading taxes.

The fighter's in a funny position.  The +1 morale at 5th level sends a very clear message - the fighter's signature mid-level schtick is mercenaries.  But actually running wilderness combats where you have a bunch of mercs (especially the sort of ragtag "two crossbowmen, a slinger, three light infantry, two heavy infantry, and one light cavalryman" mercs you see at low wilderness level) is generally a rough experience.  Setting up reasonable, actionable outdoor terrain for a squad-scale fight between a goblin warband and a player warband in a way that seems fair to players and doesn't consume a huge amount of time is not an easy thing (and this perception of wilderness fights as high-risk and very susceptible to either short-notice variations in terrain or long-slog tactical combat is, I think, part of why my players historically dislike them).  So I'm wondering if that's the wrong way to go about it, whether loosely-zoned wilderness combat would serve better, with mercenary troops and demihuman gangs "pinning" each other (in much the way that combatants in personal combat become "engaged"), doing some simplified resolution on their fights, and going into finer detail on the actions of the PCs against enemy heroes (and PC-engaged gangs).  Slightly higher detail than the Domains at War: Campaigns battle system, but lower detail than the Domains at War: Battles one.  There's probably some combat system that fits these parameters in Axioms somewhere...

And then for those single-monster fights that mercenaries aren't really supposed to help you with (make trivial by sheer volume of crossbow fire), maybe an answer is a morale penalty when facing big monsters.  Wait, I'm repeating myself.  Fighter morale bonus then helps make mercenaries slightly more effective against monsters, but might not fully eliminate the penalty (-2 sounds like a good starting point).

Another reasonable wilderness-tier ability for fighters would be something that helps them recruit mercenaries more quickly.  Name-level's "free followers!" has the right idea, but it's too little too late.  I've been kicking around a more structured system for downtime, and something as simple as "roll one mercenary type per downtime (roughly two weeks) in a market, without having to pay recruiting costs or spend any actual time" would probably be a good start.  Literal free units ("companion cavalry" or "retinue") that replenish themselves are a nice option too, though.  And a barbarian "Call Horde" (or Paladin "Call for aid from knightly order", scaling up to "Call Crusade") ability is too much fun to dismiss, though maybe more of a name-level feature.  Manual of Arms to upgrade your mercs makes sense too - provided a simple way of tracking mercenary XP, maybe giving your mercs +10% would be nice.

...  maybe mercenary squads should compete for henchman slots.  You take the "spokesman" for the unit as an effective henchman, and then they're personal retinue, with maximum retinue unit size scaling with level, just as ability to command large units does (3rd level -> squad scale, 5th level -> platoon scale, 7th level -> company scale, and on up).  The spokesmerc is assumed to be running a hench-tree below himself, which is a full-time job.  He takes care of wrangling quartermasters and supplies and presents you with the bill, acts as a lieutenant in mass combat, and absolutely will not follow you into dungeons, no sir, he needs to keep these idiots from starting fights with the locals or poking the wildlife for fun.  Retinue squads will go with you on wilderness adventures (and earn XP, with bonuses from Manual of Arms), whereas non-retinue mercenaries can only be used on military campaign with a clear domain-scale target, or as garrison.  And then we can ban hench-trees outside of military command structures to simplify my life, and any recruiting bonus that fighters get helps refill the ranks of their retinues.  If you like, can send a henchman to a market to gather mercs and become a known-loyal spokesmerc and retinue leader.  Upgrading a retinue unit to the next size requires both sufficient level and time in market to expand its ranks.

(Probably some room for using henchman slots ("direct reports"?) for other classes' wilderness-level stuff too; thief gangs / cells, cleric congregations, wizard lab-rats, a pirate-assassin variant with ships' crews, and then in domain level stewards for one's domains.  Concern: CHA was already a good stat, does linking it to literally every class' wilderness-and-domain game make it just ridiculous?)

...  Heck, you could even relate retinues to domain-founding.  Build up a big retinue, clear some land, and then grant it to them / "settle" them there, ending up with about one family per mercenary (camp followers, the girl back home, relatives who hear they've got land now and migrate) and a trained militia.  And your spokesmerc becomes the steward.  I like having domains be mostly-static, but if I had to deal with domain founding, this seems like an interesting way to do it.  Similar economics to the "subject tribes" I discussed here.

Anyway, mercenaries as the fighter's central wilderness mechanic also suggests some ideas for cleric.  Spells to mitigate mercenary damage in mass combat make a lot of sense; attrition in the wilderness is often through mercenary bodycount, analogous to the fighter's HP being ground down.  I feel like morale-boosting spells or abilities also make sense for the cleric when used on troops of the same faith.  Divine spells providing improvements to exploration and evasion also follow naturally (much like Find Traps).  Some abilities in support of retinues of either holy warriors or fanatical peasants would also be entertaining (and makes sense with Fighting 1 - some fighting stuff, but not as much as Fighting 2).

As for the hybrid classes - assassin's wilderness game probably looks a lot like thief's.  Bladedancer is like cleric but more focused on offense; maybe they should get more of the +mercenary morale spells, while cleric focuses on keeping mercenaries patched up between fights?  Mass Swift Sword?  Bard's wilderness game probably looks a lot like the fighter's, but less Manual of Arms and more Inspire Courage.

Explorer is the tricky one, because the whole class is built around the wilderness game.  It does exploration the best, but also gets the fighter morale bonus.  Perhaps a reasonable compromise is to give them similar morale and recruiting abilities to fighters, but only for light troops (light infantry, archers, and light cavalry).  And then in comparison to the thief, they still don't have the treasure-related capabilities.  Assassin is the one who comes away with the short end of the stick under that proposal, and I'm not really sure what to do about that.  Abilities supporting plant-based poison use are a natural addition, I suppose.  I feel like assassin's core gameplay in wilderness levels should be "go find beastman chieftains, shamans, and witchdoctors, and murder them", and poison supports that.  So would something like Tracking or bonuses to interrogating captured beastmen; differentiating the assassin's "exploration" abilities from the thief's, by the focus on finding and killing things.  They achieve similar results (getting you to the lair), but with different flavors.  Likewise, could differentiate explorer and thief "exploration" abilities by giving explorer stuff focused on actually exploring and traversing hexes, with thief instead specializing in encounter evasion.

I have the nasty feeling I'm embarking down Fantasy Heartbreaker Lane.  Call it A/X, Adventurer / Hexplorer, with a design ethos of "take ACKS' core rules and add slick, usable abstractions for wilderness (and maybe eventually domain) level play, grounded in ACKS' economic assumptions but with more focus on gameplay than simulation."

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

On Balancing New Spells for Wilderness and Domain Play, Contra ACKS' Design Systems

Central questions: what does it mean for a spell to be balanced at a particular spell level, in the presence of shifts in play?  What would a spell list / system of casting that really took the notion of shifts in play to heart look like?  How would you have to change the resource model to balance it without breaking the world?

Contents: speculative proposals.

I've been kicking around a couple of projects lately.  Both would entail designing new spells and figuring out what it means for a spell to be level-appropriate.

First, Magic the ACKSening.  I would like to hit the old Arena-era feeling, with physical objects that a caster attunes to which let him cast a particular spell.  I think there's some room for interesting mechanics here (blue card draw?  Attune to a talisman in your possession temporarily.  Black discard?  Temporarily disrupt someone else's attunement).  Also makes copying spells between casters within the party harder, makes competition for spells between casters in party more prominent.  But, comes with a whole bunch of problems, like "how do you model the different colors?  What's your spell-slots / mana pool mechanic look like?  How does recharging work?  How do you not shaft multi-color casters (if they even exist)?"

The ACKSiest way to do this would be to use the custom magic system creation rules from Axioms, but that makes life very difficult for multi-color casters.  If red casting and white casting are two different magic systems, they track two different repertoires and sets of spell slots, and if you want to combine them in one class, that class is not going to be very good at either of them.  In effect, its spellcasting will not actually be "level-appropriate" (I hate to use that word, but it serves), in the same way that a nightblade who casts as a wizard of half his level isn't actually going to be a useful spellcaster outside of the first couple of levels, or a high-level venturer isn't going to be a useful spellcaster.  Neither has access to spells which are relevant in their current tier of play; they don't keep up with the subtle shifts.  That's a damn shame, particularly in ACKS where those subtle shifts are not so subtle and a big selling point.

(This is probably a little too harsh on nightblade - if you pitch it as "at low levels when thief is weak, you're most of a mage with d6 HD and leather armor, and at high levels when thief is strong, you're most of a thief but with d6 HD, free Acrobatics, and the ability to cast Invisibility on yourself", it's probably a reasonable class.  But my players sure don't use it)

I think this is fundamentally a problem with ACKS' design systems.  They are too quantitative and insufficiently qualitative.  For another example of this, consider fireball, which by ACKS' design rules should be a 5th-level spell.  As I argue in the linked post, fireball is fine at 3rd - provided that the "expands to volume" clause is relentlessly enforced, in which case it becomes an outdoor spell, providing a big hit against either a humanoid warband (where the area of effect is the important point) or a single tough monster (where the d6 per level is the important bit, to force a morale roll through half-HP damage).  It's much like sleep, which in the low levels provided the ability to either neutralize an encounter's worth of weak humanoids or to take out a single big monster like an ogre.  The parallel is striking.  I'm a little surprised that death spell doesn't have a single-target mode (which was split out into disintegrate), following that same pattern.

The second project I have been considering is a result of my travel to Taiwan for work last summer.  While there, I visited the shrine of the Xia-Hai City God of Taipei.  I was rather tickled by the notion of a City God.  I subsequently read Journey to the West, and enjoyed its portrayal of the Celestial Bureaucracy, with deities ranked.  So I'm considering attempting to model that sort of messily syncretic polytheism, with ancestor worship, immortal heroes, animal spirits, boddhisatvas, dragon kings, hearth gods, stable gods, all manner of gods being worshiped, preferably with a minimum of systematic complexity.  I'm considering keeping just one divine caster class.  Your first and maybe second level spells are from ancestors and commoner deities like the Kitchen God, your third and fourth from regional deities, and then your fifth level spells are from higher powers, picking (say) two of three patrons per spell level, which then determine your spells available at that level.  But in any case, would need (many) new spells for this as well, hence the interest in "balance" with existing divine options.

So there's the question - if I'm dubious of ACKS' numbers for producing really balanced, tier-appropriate spells, I need to get a better qualitative idea of what's appropriate for a spell of each type (arcane | divine) at each level.  I think I was on the right track here - generally arcane does just straight-up solve (or oversolve) a level-appropriate problem at low levels, while divine does tend to only half-solve problems, give a bonus, or something like that.  But there's more to it than that.  I'm interested in the relationship between eg Wizard Lock and Hold Portal, 2nd and 1st level arcane spells that do roughly the same thing at different degrees of thoroughness.  That might seem like a silly thing to care about, but I'm kicking around spells that fog whole hexes to solve fundamentally the same problem ("we are being pursued") at wilderness levels, because the wilderness is just a big megadungeon - so if your wizard can have a spell to solve the problem of pursuit in the dungeon, and now we're doing wilderness stuff, well sure, you should have spells to solve similar problems at this new level of play.  Flood Ford and Hold Mountain Pass as 3rd-level analogs of Hold Portal, maybe...  Light solves the problem of tracking consumable torches temporarily, Continual Light solves it more permanently - Create Food and Water solves consumable wilderness resources temporarily, Cornucopia solves it more permanently by imbuing an object and requires maintenance (the divine version, meanwhile, is more like Call Game Animals and gives you a bonus to hunting throws to find food.  Purify Food and Water / Preserve Food and Water are also more along the divine "partial-solve" lines, but rely on enforcing ration spoilage).

If wizards could straight-solve wilderness-level problems like they straight-solve dungeoneering problems, maybe wilderness play would be more fun.  Perhaps my players would be willing to take more risks if they felt they had some aces in the hole besides fireball.

Unfortunately, this [high-powered wilderness- and domain-grade spells] is in tension with ACKS' ethos of "let's tone wizards down a little so that we can still have conventional armies and historical-looking economics."  This is why ACKS' fireball only has a 10' radius instead of 20', for example.  A partial resolution to this is really enforcing the "spell slots only recovered by rest in safe, sanity conditions" rule - this means that yeah, that wizard is gonna wreck one unit, but then he has to get back to town to recharge.  This breaks down under siege conditions, providing a huge advantage to casters defending a town over those laying siege to it, and might have other unforeseen edge problems.  Maybe the right thing is really to vary the recharge time for spell slots by phase of play.  Dungeoneering-tier spells recharge every day, while a turn in the dungeon is ten minutes - a similar scheme would have wilderness-tier spells recharging maybe every month, against a "wilderness turn" of one day (...  or maybe every 3 months; 144 10-minute turns per day, and 144 days is 4.8 months, but that seems excessive), and domain spells...  I don't even know.  The upshot of boosting the recharge times is that you can go nuts with high-power spells that solve level-relevant problems but aren't really useful at lower tiers (does raise some questions like "how do they interact with Dispel Magic?").

Maybe it makes sense to move the bar for ritual spells down.  The nice thing about spell slots, though, is that they don't build up over time like ritual spell items do - lord help him who goes to war with the elven or lich wizard-lord who has had a couple of centuries to stockpile ritual items.  Maybe a limit on "sustainable" ritual spell items, just like on Continual Light?  Or you have a spell slot, but you have to do something like ritual research to recharge it?  The logical endpoint of this train of thought probably looks rather vancian...  I think I like longer recharge times better.

There is also the difficulty that most of the existing 5th-6th level spells are really more like high-level-dungeoneering spells than wilderness or domain spells.  Passwall, disintegrate, anti-magic shell, feeblemind, dimension door...  this stuff has domain applications (siege, fighting high-level NPCs and big monsters), but it's not for domains.  Passwall is for punching temporary shortcuts in dungeons; disintegrate's secondary function clearing a 10' cube is the same but more permanent, and probably wasn't designed or balanced with reducing fortresses in mind.  They're not designed around the shifts, and if your game doesn't include dungeons as a salient feature of high-level play, they're a bit out of place (especially if competing for repertoire space with eg a spell you can only cast every five years that summons 500 demons for a single mass combat).

Maybe tacking these high-level dungeoneering effects onto low-level spells when cast by high-level casters is a reasonable solution?  So say, knock can produce passwall if the caster is 9th+ level, much like bless can make holy water or magic missile scales up.  And then 1st-2nd level spells are your dungoneering and personal combat bread and butter, 3rd-4th are mostly wilderness or small mass-combat (haste, prayer, and other mass- spells fit here) with longer recharge times, and 5th-6th are for domains and big mass combats and have looong recharge times.

What a mess.

This is starting to sound suspiciously like Trailblazer's reforms to spells, grouping them into different recharge times even within the same level...  And I also adopted their solution to half-casters being bad.  Trailblazer was right about everything.  Well OK, maybe not action points, but a lot of things. Although even ACKS is headed in that direction with the Heroic Fantasy book...