Sunday, October 21, 2018

Figuring out Morrowind

When I was a kid playing Morrowind, I thought its leveling system was horribly slow and convoluted.  So I downloaded mods that changed how it worked and it was fine.

Returning to Morrowind via OpenMW as an adult, I re-downloaded and re-created a couple of simple mods that I had used, and played through the game.  When I finished, I was way overpowered and had a tremendous amount of cash.

I went and did other things for a month and came back to it.  I started a new game and one of the first things the first questgiver in the game does is give you some cash and tell you to get some training or gear.  I stopped and thought about that for a moment, and everything kind of clicked.

Training was the missing mechanic.

When I was a kid, coming from a 3.x background, Morrowind's economy made no sense.  There's hardly anything worth buying in terms of equipment - there are a few vendors in out-of-the-way places that carry high-quality items (the glass armor guy, the grandmaster alchemist), but all the good weapons can only be found by adventuring.  Spending money on leveling was immersion-breaking, incompatible with my 3.x-flavored understanding of fantasy worlds.  So I just accumulated money and ground out levels.

Having seen the OSR, this "money for XP" thing now makes total sense.  Morrowind's development began in the mid-90s, and its descent from AD&D is apparent in its training mechanics and the relationship between wilderness and city.  Go to wilderness, get money and magic items, return to city, spend money on training.

And the heavy use of training changes the way the whole rest of the game works.  It tames the worst parts of Morrowind's leveling system, where you can raise ability scores based on what skills you raised during the level.  If you're not using training, you really have to grind skill uses to get good ability score boosts, and you're likely to incidentally raise some skills and waste some multipliers.  But if most of your skill points are coming from training rather than skill use, you eliminate the grind, and reduce the window for uncontrolled skill increases to mess up your ability score increase plan.  If a couple of skills rise while you're out on an adventure, you have to take them into account when you're spending your money on post-adventure training, but it's pretty manageable.

Heavy use of training also changes the utility of guilds.  Guild rank increases how much guild members like you, and if they're trainers that means they charge you less.  Getting about halfway up the ranks in guilds also opens up a second set of trainers, who usually have higher skills (and can train you to higher levels) than the first tier of guild trainers.  So heavy use of trainers increases the utility of guilds, because they make trainers more available and doing quests makes training less expensive.  This is nice, because a lot of the guild quest rewards in Morrowind are rather lackluster.

Heavy use of training also changes the player's feeling about the Blades (imperial intelligence service) dramatically.  The Blades give out the first half of the quests in the main questline.  Without training, your interaction with the Blades is pretty much restricted to that one questgiver.  The Blades also have about six NPCs who are pretty decent early-game trainers (better than the entry-tier guild trainers, but worse than the second-tier guild trainers).  These trainers cover a wide range of skills, but not such a wide range that you can rely on them alone unless you have a pretty weird build.  Stealth is covered for thieves, but not short blades or marksmanship.  Long blades and shield use are covered for fighters, but not heavy armor.  Most of the magic skills are covered, but not alchemy, and the mage trainer who covers destruction magic is a bit out of the way.  It's really beautifully done; you can go a long way with the Blades trainers, but you're still probably going to have to join a guild to cover the gaps.  And when you seek these people out for training, and ask them about local rumors, they have unique (and interesting) responses because they're in the intelligence service.  It makes the Blades feel a lot more like an actual faction, rather than one inebriate spymaster with his one lonely operative.

At a certain point though, probably in the 60s-70s for your top skills, you're going to cap out on training from the guilds.  To make those last couple of ranks, you need to get a skill up to 80 or 90, which means finding the master trainers.  For each skill (except one), there is a master trainer who can raise it to the highest possible level.  They're mostly not in guilds; instead they're scattered over the continent.  Some of them are in ruins and you find them by adventuring; some of them are in taverns and you find them by frickin' roleplaying like you're some kind of human who occasionally unwinds by talking to people at the local watering hole instead of an unstoppable adventuring machine who only sleeps one hour a week when it's time to level.  I had no idea the utility of bars in Morrowind before, but it turns out they're full of trainers, most of whom are mediocre but some of whom are the best.

So if at low levels, the training system encouraged you to cycle quickly between local guild quests and training, at mid levels it sends you on the wanderjahr to find the trainers to raise your skills to their peak for guildmastery.  It's an interesting commentary on organizations, that you need insight from outside in order to rise to the top.  And when you do find a master trainer, they're about the biggest cash sink in the game besides the rare high-grade armor vendor.  If you have similar charisma and mercantile skills, it's plausible to drop 14000 gp to raise a skill from 60 to 80, and then another 18000 to go from 80 to 100.  For comparison, other big-ticket items in guild advancement are a stronghold and a wizard's staff, both of which are around 5000 gold.  This is a decent solution to the lategame problem of accumulating too much money, if you decide to master multiple skills.  Like all of Morrowind, it isn't too hard to break this (by boosting your charisma and mercantile skills), but you kind of have to try.

In conclusion: as with the OSR, the solutions to (some of) the game's problems are often already in the game.  It's the culture around playing the game that has forgotten about them, and subsequently mods its way to solutions.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Domains at War: Lizardmen

Someone in the ACKS discord was asking about expanded units for beastman races, most of which only have light and heavy infantry.  The mental image that got me interested was lizardmen with lizard chariots.  I've done this sort of thing before, so here we go again.

Lizardmen Overview

Lizardmen are right bastards in melee, with 2+1 HD, THAC0 8+, three natural attacks,  a +1 damage bonus, three points of natural armor, and +2 morale.  A company of 120 lizardmen is about a match for a dense phalanx of 240 human heavy infantry; the lizardmen have lower AC, but one and a half times as many HP, and a similar number of attacks with better to-hit.  So lizardman infantry is pretty great in a straight-up fight.

One curious bonus lizardmen have is their 120' swim speed, which is crazy fast.  The rules for lakes, rivers, and mud in Domains at War: Battles don't mention how amphibious infantry with swim speeds interact with these terrain features, but it seems totally reasonable to me for lizardmen to move through them without penalty.  Lizardmen also make fantastic marines - they're faster in the water than most ships, and can probably just jump off, chase them down, and climb the sides (like a cat climbing a tree with their claws).  Sailing ships only have 45' or 60' base speed; wind modifiers can double that, but that still only brings them up to parity.  Warships can mostly manage 120' to 150' under oars, so your lizardman galleys may still want to maneuver close before deploying the boarding parties into the water.

On the downside, on land, lizardman infantry is dog slow, at 60'.  They're beastmen, so all of their units are irregular.  They also have crappy low-tech equipment (javelins, spiked clubs, shields, and leather armor).  All of this combines to mean that their skirmishers / light infantry are pretty crap at actually skirmishing, and lizardman armies probably do badly against fast units with ranged attacks.
I feel like stone axes, maybe spears and shortbows or atlatls ought to be in scope too.
Finally, to top it all off, their extra lair stuff pretty lousy - they get no warbeasts or allied races, and their witchdoctors are only level 1d4, so no fireball.  At least their champions, subchieftains, and chieftains are pretty strong.  One lair of lizardmen is right about one company of lizardman infantry; at platoon-scale, would be easy to split it up into four or five platoons, one of champions led by the chieftain, three of heavy infantry, one of light infantry (Campaigns helpfully informs us that 75% of lizardmen quality for heavy infantry), with a subchieftain lieutenant per platoon.

Lizardman Champion Maneaters: 1/2/3 Irregular Foot, AC 5, HD 3+1, UHP 26, ML +3?, 6 claw/claw/bite 7+ or 4 dart 7+, BR ~11, TCO ~6.5kgp/mo

Lizardman Champion Immortals: 1/2/3 Irregular Foot, AC 8, HD 3+1, UHP 26, ML +3?, 5 club and shield 7+ or 5 javelin 7+, BR ~16 (club, shield, leather armor, 3 javelins), TCO ~11.75kgp/mo

(I figured these wages based on the doubling curves for henchman wages - just increasing wages by 12gp/mo for an extra hit die seemed wrong)

With stats like those, who needs post-Neolithic tech anyway?  Hell, with wages like that (veteran lizardman heavy infantry mercs estimated around 100gp/mo just in wages), maybe you just hire out as mercenaries.  A coastal, mercantile city state could tap into the local lizard tribes, drill and equip them, and integrate them as a warrior caste.  The humans work the contracting and logistics angles, and the lizards are the muscle.  As long as the lizardmen don't get too numerous, nothing could possibly go wrong...

There's even canonical art in the ACKS book for this

Lizardman Ironscale Pikes: 1/2/3 Formed Foot, AC 9, HD 2+1, UHP 18, ML +2, 5 polearm 8+ or 3 javelin 8+, BR ~23 (plate, polearm, 3 javelins), TCO ~6kgp/mo? (not taking training costs into account, just lizardman heavy infantry plus extra equipment cost)

But that's not what we're here for.  We're here for lizard-chariots.  Unfortunately, all the options under Lizard, Giant kind of suck - they're not very fast, and they don't have much carrying capacity.  Crocodiles have the carrying capacity, but they're even slower (except in water - canoe-chariots with lizardman archers, pulled by crocodiles in naval combat?).  I also considered crab chariots, because giant crabs have amazing carrying capacity, great AC and attacks, and fit the marsh aesthetic, but they are also quite slow.

Asking the hard questions

Fortunately, we lately have a new source for dinosaur stats, which I picked up through kickstarter but hadn't actually opened until just now.  In proper ACKS fashion, it includes carrying capacities, sizes, and trainability for a wide variety of dinosaurs.  I was hoping for deinonychus-chariots, but their carrying capacity is really low.  It looks like our best bet is the timurlengia, an aggressive theropod about the size of a horse that I had never heard of until just now (the more you know).  We're still going to have to bend the rules a little though - timurlengia's carrying capacity is only 12 stone, and we need 40 stone of capacity to pull a light chariot, but we're only supposed to have two steeds per light chariot.  Instead, we're going to have four timurlengia per light chariot and assume they've done something clever with the reins.  To make up for it, we'll only have 15 chariots per unit, as if they were heavy chariots (figuring the steeds take up most of the space in the formation).  We're also going to give our lizard-charioteers shortbows, lances, and leather armor because they've clearly had some technological development over the usual rocks-and-sticks.

Lizardman Raptor Chariots: 3/6/9 Irregular Mounted, AC 5, HD 24+2, UHP 26, 1 lance 8+ or 1 shortbow 8+, charge 7 bites 6+ and bonus lance damage, ML +2 Unpredictable, BR ~17, TCO ~12.5kgp/mo

This isn't really a unit of cavalry.  This is a device for delivering horse-sized raptors to the enemy flank in a semi-controlled fashion.  The fact that there are some lizardman archers clinging to these contraptions is just a bonus.

I considered building a unit of lizardman charioteers herding a pack of dienonychuses, but building mixed units of cavalry and infantry is haram, and it sounded complicated to fudge something together.  Such a unit would cover up the weakness of the raptor chariots post-charge, but would almost certainly lose the ranged attack.

So what else can we do with lizardman cavalry?  Maybe something that can still fight after the charge is done?

Lizardman Edmontosaurus Cavalry: 3/6/9 Irregular Mounted, AC 5, HD 8+2, UHP 11, 3 lance 8+ or 2 shortbow 8+, charge 1 trample 7+ and bonus lance damage, ML +1 Unpredictable, BR 4.5, TCO ~6.75 kgp/mo

Edmontosaurs are huge herbivores, and this unit is 20 of them, each with leather barding and two lizardmen in a war howdah on their back.  As lizardmen go, this is not a very impressive unit, because there are not very many lizardmen in it and the mounts are not very ferocious.  Squeezing four lizardmen into each war howdah might be a better move:

Packed Edmontosaurus Cavalry: 3/6/9 Irregular Mounted, AC 5, HD 13, UHP 17, 6 lance 12+ or 4 shortbow 12+, charge 1 trample 7+ and bonus lance damage, ML +1 Unpredictable, BR 12.25, TCO ~10.75 kgp/mo

That's starting to look more like typical lizardman performance - comparable to two or three units of human cavalry all stacked into one hex.  I like how their good THAC0 helps cancel out the packing penalty and puts them at about par with human THAC0.

Doing titanosaur behemoth cavalry would also be interesting, but as the monster description notes, they're not very good warbeasts.  A more interesting take, maybe, would be a whole lizardman village spread out across the backs of a herd of titanosaurs in yurt-howdahs.  At that point we're doing worldbuilding rather than unit design, though.

Well that's probably enough dinosaur cavalry.  What else would make sense?

Ah, here's a solution to the skirmisher problem.  For some reason I thought troglodytes were 3HD and slow.  Not so!  2HD, AC4, 120' speed, 5st carrying capacity, the chameleon surprise bonus, and "great barbed darts (treat as javelins with +3 to attack throws)".  Holy crap.

They're also stinky, which is alright I guess.

Troglodyte Skirmishers: 2/4/6 Irregular Foot, AC 4, HD 2, UHP 16, 4 bite and claw 9+, 2 great barbed darts 6+, ML +1, BR ~4 (before surprise and stink), TCO ~2.75 kgp/mo

Troglodytes can deploy in cover and remain hidden until an opposing unit either moves into contact or they are activated.  A unit engaged with a troglodyte unit in melee must save vs poison or take a -2 penalty to melee attacks against the trogs for as long as they remain engaged.

Trogs have carrying capacity of 5 stone, so we could even up-armor them and give them two-handed clubs.

Troglodyte Heavy Infantry: 2/4/6 Irregular Foot, AC 6, HD 2, UHP 16, 4 greatclub 9+, 2 great barbed darts 6+, ML +1, BR ~6, TCO~3kgp/mo

In conclusion, trogs are great.  But if I thought lizardman spellcasters were bad, trogs are even worse.

How can we get good spellcasters?  I was really hoping kobolds would have them, in the usual pattern of "weaker beastmen -> stronger spellcasters", but kobold spellcasters look on par with lizardman spellcasters.  We could still mount kobolds on pterodactyls, but I already did that with goblins and kobolds are just straight worse.

I guess the new Thrassian class from the Heroic Fantasy book would work (d8 HD, fighter attack progression, and spellsinging), but that would require me to figure out how spellsinging works.

I think we're just going to stick to Player's Companion shamans for now, half-assedly grafted onto a lizardman chassis.

Sslokas the Prehistoric, Lizardman Shaman
Lizardman Shaman 6, Str 9, Int 15, Wis 13, Dex 7, Con 9, Cha 14
Class proficiencies: Prophecy, Laying on Hands (Python totem)
General proficiencies: Naturalism, Healing, Military Strategy
Equipment: 3 javelins, potion of human control, Cloak of Protection +1, Leather Armor +3 (...  my frickin' dice, can't roll up one NPC without getting +3 armor)
Derived stats:
21 HP, 4+1 HD, AC11, init -1, THAC0 6+ for 1d3+2/1d3+2/1d8+2, or javelins 7+ for 1d6+3
Leadership 4, ZOC 2, Strategic Ability +1?, ML +1
1/2/3 Foot Hero,
Company scale: no attacks, not qualified
Platoon scale: 2 claw and bite 6+, qualified as commander or hero
1/day: Dispel Magic, Skinchange
1/day: Call Lightning, Winged Flight, Growth of Animals
2/day: Obscuring Cloud, Bless
2/day: Cure Light Wounds, Pass Without Trace

Sslokas has been around for a long time, due in large part to his suit of fine elvish leather armor.  Which is not to say that the armor was created by elves.  He's a reasonably well-rounded leader without any glaring weaknesses but with no real strengths either. He is competent to serve as an independent hero or commander on platoon scale.  Not amazing in a straight-up fight, but he has enough escape magic and AC that he might actually get out alive if his unit crumples.

Rushas the Repugnant, Lizardman Chieftain
Str 14, Int 11, Wis 10, Dex 10, Con 13, Cha 17
Class proficiencies: Combat Reflexes, Command, Fighting Style (bonus to hit)
General proficiencies: Leadership, Endurance
Equipment: Ring of Spell Turning (4 spell remaining), Hide Armor +2 (goddamnit), 3 javelins
Derived stats:
36 HP, 6+2 HD, AC 11, surprise and init +1, THAC0 2+ for 1d3+4/1d3+4/1d8+4 or javelins 4+ for 1d6+3
Leadership 6, ZOC 3, Strategic Ability -1, ML +5
1/2/3 Foot Hero
Company scale: 1 claw and bite 2+, qualified as commander
Platoon scale: 3 claw and bite, 2 javelin 4+, qualified as commander or hero

Rushas is renowned and beloved by his warriors for never declining a single combat, and also for horribly mutilating his challengers (and then eating them).  His tactics in mass combat are unsubtle and predictable, relying on brute force, but his followers are fanatical.  He qualifies as a commander at both company and platoon scales.  Technically he doesn't qualify as an independent hero at platoon scales (6+2 HD instead of 7HD), but I'd allow it.

Krrk Cold-Blooded, Lizardman Witch-Doctor
Lizardman witch-doctor 4, Str 14, Int 13, Wis 11, Dex 13, Con 12, Cha 16
Class proficiencies: Battle Magic
General proficiencies: Alchemy, Leadership
Equipment: Boots of Traveling and Springing, Leather Armor, 3 poisoned javelins (hellebore)
Derived stats:
17 HP, 3+1 HD, AC8, init +1 (+2 when casting), THAC0 6+ claw/claw/bite for 1d3+2/1d3+2/1d8+2, 6+ javelin 1d6+3
Leadership 6, ZOC3, Strategic Ability +0, ML +2
1/2/3 Foot Hero
Company scale: no attacks, not qualified
Platoon scale: 2 claw/bite 6+, lieutenant or hero
2/day: Stinking Cloud, Invisibility, Hypnotic Pattern
2/day: Sleep, Chameleon, Summon (Scaly) Berserkers

I was kinda hoping for Shield, Sharpness, and Ogre Power, but I am OK with these sneaky spell rolls.  Krrk qualifies as both a lieutenant and an independent hero at platoon scale, and does not qualify as anything at company scale.  His morale modifier makes him a pretty decent lieutenant, and if the division commander bites it, that high LD could come in handy.  He has ambitions to unseat Rushas as chieftain, but recognizes that he'll have to do it covertly and he'll lack legitimacy.  If only Rushas were to meet with some sort of unfortunate accident, at the hands of an adventuring party, perhaps...

I really, really wanted to do a hero with Beast Friendship riding a t-rex.  This is close enough I guess:

His Scaliness Ssrethen Dragon-spawned, Chieftain Among Chieftains, Bearer of the Black Spear, Lizard-Lord of the Marshes
52 HP, HD 11, AC12, init +0, speed 60', swim 120', fly 120'
THAC0 2+, claw/claw/bite 1d3x2+6/1d3x2+6/1d8x2+6
OR spear -1+, 1d8x2+10 and three negative levels if target is a mammal
Special attacks: breath weapon 1/day, 11d6 fire in 60' cone, save vs blast for half, throw boulders (200' range, 3d6 damage)
Special defenses: fire resistance x2 (+4 to save, -2 damage per die), potion of gaseous form, regeneration 3/day
SV F11 + Divine Blessing, ML +2

Potion of Gaseous Form
Ring of Fire Resistance
Girdle of Giant Strength
Spear +3 sentient, Hirkas the Death of Mammals -
Int 12, 3 detection powers, 1 spell-like ability, speech, read languages
Chaotic, 4 languages - Lizardman, Draconic, Elvish, Infernal
Ego 12, Willpower 25, Purpose: Destroy Mammals
Inflicts 3 levels of energy drain per hit on mammals
Detection, 3/day each: Evil, Good, Metals
Spell-like ability: Regeneration (3/day, healing effect, 1 HP/round for 15 rounds)

Mount: Hunger, Carnotaurus - 150' speed, AC 8, HD 7+1, HP 39, THAC0 3+, bite 2d10, huge scale barding and huge war howdah (+3 AC and +3 save vs blast to occupants), ML +0

Mass combat stuff:
LD 6, ZOC 3, Strat +2 (spear gives advice), ML +3
1/2/3 Foot Hero or 2/4/6 Flying Hero or 2/5/8 Mounted Hero
Qualifies as a commander on all scales, Hero on Battalion scale and lower
Platoon: 7 claw/bite 2+ or 9 spear -1+ (and energy drain for 3 points of bonus damage against mammals), on charge while mounted 3 bites 3+ and bonus spear damage, 5 thrown boulder ranged 2+
Company: 2 claw/bite 2+ or 2 spear -1+ (and energy drain for 3 points against mammals), on charge while mounted 1 bite 3+ and bonus spear damage, 1 thrown boulder ranged 2+
Battalion: 1 spear -1+ (and energy drain) by the narrowest of margins

Ssrethen is leading the Scaly Crusade, to exterminate all the mammals and reclaim the rightful realm of his ancestors.  He has the blessing of the lizard deities, reflected in his superior saving throws.  His master plan, revealed to him in a dream, is to use ritual magic to melt the ice caps, flood the human cities, and expand the marshes, and he is gathering troops, spellcasters, and artifacts before embarking by ship for the far north to put this plan into effect.

(Too soon?)

If you wanted to run him on clocks as a campaign villain, you could certainly do it in phases - he's doing his thing in the swamp, and at some point a series of clocks start:
  • Fever-dreaming
  • Quest for the Black Spear
  • Taming Hunger
  • Learning the rituals from a dragongeist in the dragon boneyard
    • I really considered giving him arcane spellcasting, but that was gonna get complicated.  Feel free to add it here if you like.
  • Uniting the tribes
  • Building the great fleet
    • Add some "get the Toenail of Eternal Flame" quests concurrently maybe
  • Journey to the North
  • Melting the ice-cap
  • Journey home
  • Invasion

Saturday, September 22, 2018

ACKS: The Ability Scores Are Too Damn High

(A Herman Cain meme?  What year is it?)

But seriously - the way we have historically generated stats contributes to several pathologies in play, because the stats generated are too high.  These pathologies include:
  • The imbalance between melee fighting styles
  • The inadequacy of the thief
  • The breakdown of the reaction roll mechanic
  • The long-term supremacy of first-generation PCs, and resulting party cohesion problems

How are ability scores generated?

ACKS' default character generation process is 3d6 in order, choose a class that you qualify for, and then you can trade down non-primereq stats to boost your prime req, at a rate of 2 points from one stat for 1 point of a prime req, down to a minimum of 9 in stats traded down.  There's also an optional rule, "Generating Multiple Characters", where each player rolls five sets of 3d6 in order and chooses one to play and two backups.  We've always played with this optional rule and it does what it says on the tin - "gives players a variety of characters to choose from."  It's also fun, if a little time-consuming.  As a side effect, though, it raises mean prime requisite a lot.

Consider: you're starting a new campaign.  Four players players show up and are rolling characters.  You are probably going to want a mage PC and a fighter PC, classes for which high prime requisites matter a lot.  If you each roll one set of stats, the best Int at the table will be (in expectation) right around 14 - enough to get +5% and one bonus spell known.  The best Str at the table will also be around 14, for +5% fighter XP and +1 to hit and damage.

For a single-prime-req class, there are five other stats, distributed independently, each of which has a 23% chance of being an 11 or 12 (which can be traded down without reducing a bonus).  So we should expect 1.2 points of obvious / no-real-cost prime req boosting via trading down.  So the best PC fighter in an "average" party will have a Str of 15 and a +1 bonus in one other stat that he might trade down to bring it up to a 16 for +2 to hit and damage and 10% XP (and, incidentally, among his other four stats, probably 2-3 +0s and 1-2 -1s).

In the case where the optional Generating Multiple Characters rule is in effect, each player rolls five sets of stats, for 20 sets total.  In expectation, the maximum strength rolled is something around 16.3, before any tradeoffs are made.  There is a 9% chance that the highest Str statset has an 18, and 23% chance that the highest statset has a 17.  If tradeoffs are in effect, there's around a 33% chance that the highest Str set can be made into an 18 without having to compromise any other bonuses.  If you're willing to compromise other bonuses, you have about at 86% chance of a 15 or better, which you can probably turn into an 18.

OK, fine, rolling more stat sets gets you higher scores.  Nothing surprising there.  The trouble is that really high peak stats mess some parts of the game up.

Melee Fighting Styles

Previously, I did some analysis of the comparative power of the three melee fighting styles: sword-and-shield, two-handed weapon, and two-weapon fighting in ACKS.  The results supported my players' general impression that sword-and-board is superior under most circumstances across the entire level range.  Two-weapon fighting has better cleaving through masses of weak opponents at high levels, and two-handed weapons have a better chance to one-shot and be able to cleave through 2HD foes at low levels, but the superlinear utility of increased AC outstrips these benefits most of the time.

That analysis was conducted under the assumption of 16 Strength for the fighters.  With 18 Str, shields are even more dominant by that set of metrics.  Increasing strength is an effective increase in fighter level (since the main benefits of leveling under consideration are increased to-hit and damage), which tends to favor shields because the marginal utility of a point of damage decreases as you get more of them.  At 16 Str, going from 1d6+3 damage to 1d10+3 damage increases your hobgoblins-per-round from 0.34 to 0.44; 10 percentage points and about 33%.  At 18 Str, going from 1d6+4 to 1d10+4 only increases your hobgoblins-per-round from 0.44 to 0.5, 6 percentage points or 13%.  These numbers are before cleaving is taken into account, but look pretty similar - the gain in killing power with cleave from the d10 weapon is still around half as good with 18 Str as with 16 Str.

While running these analyses, I discovered a magical place at the other end of the Strength scale, where sword-and-board and two-hander are almost perfectly balanced.  That place is Str 10 against orcs, with a +1 Fighter Damage Bonus.  Two-weapon fighting still doesn't hold up.

Reducing maximum prime reqs solves a limited subset of the Fighting Style problem, at low levels.  At high levels, fighter damage bonus and magic weapons fill the role of 18 Str in minimizing the benefit of two-handed weapons compared to shields (which also get better with level due to magic).


Why do thieves suck?  Who ever thought this class design was a good idea?

My understanding is that, under OD&D rules, thieves were not that much worse in melee offense than fighters.  At that point in the development of the game, Str did not give you a bonus to hit and damage - it served as the prime requisite for fighters, for an XP bonus, and did little else.  With no fighter damage bonus and no Str bonus to damage, the thief was inferior to the fighter in melee offense only by dint of a slightly weaker THAC0 progression, which was partly made up for by backstab's to-hit bonus (and both could use magic swords for slowly-scaling damage bonuses, which put them ahead of clerics in offense).  The relationship between the OD&D thief and the OD&D fighter was much closer to the relationship between ACKS' assassin and ACKS' fighter.

But with fighter damage bonus and Str to hit and damage and PC fighters able to trade down other stats for higher Str, ACKS' thieves are left in a pretty marginal position for melee.  The higher the available Strength scores, the bigger that gap becomes.  As with fighting styles, fighter damage bonus is also partly to blame here.

Reaction Rolls

The reaction roll system is pretty easy to break in ACKS.  A 1st-level bard who puts his tradeoff points into Cha can take Diplomacy as his 1st level general proficiency, Mystic Aura as his first class proficiency, and probably pull +6 or +7 on most reaction rolls, at which point almost any intelligent creature encountered in the dungeon will be at worst indifferent.  Problems of this form are well-known on the ACKS forums, and have led to a wide variety of proposals, including switching to 2d10 for the roll, codifying per-monster reaction roll modifiers so that monsters that are "supposed to" be hostile are more likely to be, enormous tables of situational modifiers, and so forth.

But you know, 2d6 would be fine if 1) 18 Cha were rarer, and 2) the proficiency bonuses were maybe +1 instead of +2 and didn't stack.  Fundamentally this is the same problem as ability score generation with tradeoffs - we're taking a gaussian-esque distribution and adding a constant to it, resulting in a shifted distribution where extreme results are much more common than desired.  The solution is to reduce the impact of the constants being added (either by increasing the impact of randomness through bigger dice, or by reducing the constants themselves).

First-Gen Supremacy

These methods of stat generation provide a big edge for first-generation characters over later-generation characters, and also for rolled characters over henchmen who might be promoted to PC status.

What happens when a new player joins a game where the party generated stats using the "multiple characters" method?  He rolls five sets.  Among those five sets, the highest Strength will in expectation be only 14.5.  The same is true of Intelligence.  After trading down 11s, he may have a 16.  Regardless of which prime req you choose, in expectation yours will be lower than the highest one in the existing party, and you're stuck playing second fiddle (for classes whose prime req matters, ie everyone but clerics).  This analysis does make the assumption of efficient allocation of high stats by the Old Party (ie, you didn't roll all your high stats on one set, and not one player rolled all the high stats), but in practice that seems to happen.  The exponential structure of the XP curve is designed to help replacement or new characters catch up with the rest of the party, but you're stuck with the lower ability scores for the entire life of the character.  The situation is very similar with replacement PCs; if you rolled five sets, used the best one for your first PC, and got killed, your replacement sets are going to be weaker, and you're going to be behind on more than XP.

While rolled replacement characters are penalized by the "generating multiple characters" option, using henchmen as replacement characters is penalized by the trading-down rule.  To get a henchman with an 18 Str, you need (in expectation) to survey about 216 henchmen.  For campaigns in smaller markets, that is more potential henchmen than you will see over the course of the campaign.  The prevalence of 18s in characters generated in a large group with trading down is just dramatically higher than the baseline.  You are going to have a difficult time finding henchmen with comparable stats to replace them when they die, and most of the time using a henchman as a replacement for a first-gen PC will be a step down in terms of stats.

My players perceived this at a gut level before I did.  This feeling further contributed to their love of shields and plate, because they recognized that a first-gen 18 Str fighter was unlikely to be replaceable.  This supremacy of first-gen characters may also contribute to their intense love of Restore Life and Limb, which at least one of my players has commented negatively on ("People never stay dead, it's like friggin' superheroes.").


Roll three sets instead of five per player, maybe (maybe even just two sets per player).  For a four-player party, three sets each gives you 12 sets, which puts expected max for any given stat just shy of 16.  Then also get rid of the trading down rule and you should stop seeing too many 18s and the big first-gen advantage (15-16 Str is very doable for a henchman without trade-down).  Maybe given new players joining an existing party more sets of stat rolls?

You're still going to see 16 Str fighters, where shield is superior, unfortunately.  Maybe provide extra damage and to-hit bonuses to TWF / 2H with level?  Maybe reduce fighter damage bonus to +1 at 1st, +2 at 5th, +3 around 9th.  Maybe give thieves comparable damage bonuses, maybe get rid of both Thief and Assassin and build a Fighting 1.5 / HD 0 / Thief 2.5-ish class somewhere in the middle. 

Cut the reaction roll proficiencies in half; Diplomacy as a general for +2 is just ridiculous.  Do we really need five different proficiencies (Diplomacy, Intimidation, Seduction, Mystic Aura, and Bribery) for improving reaction rolls anyway?  Get rid of all of them and make a monolithic Diplomacy prof that gives you +1 with no situational caveats and can only be taken once, like Leadership, and you're 90% of the way to fixing reaction roll exploits (...  well, maybe we can keep Seduction; we are here for entertainment after all).

One thing that seems obviously tempting but that would be precisely wrong: Fighter Defense Bonus.  If you give fighters a bonus to AC, that means you don't need the shield as much and 2H / TWF are more viable, right?  No!  The more AC you have, the more valuable each extra point of AC is.  If anything, the right way to make shields weaker is to go full Viking Age and get rid of plate.  Limiting magic armor and shields to +2 would help too.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Random Encounters and Space Hulk's Blips

Blindsight got me thinking about Space Hulk, which got me thinking about the blips.  Space Hulk has a mechanic where the alien player conceals his forces and moves them as "blips" on the human player's radar until they come into line of sight of a human unit.  It's a nice way to handle information asymmetry and partially hidden movement.  I think something like it might solve one of the issues with random encounters as they are played.

The way a random encounter in the dungeon goes in D&D (certainly in my games, at least) is usually something like this:
  • Party is doing stuff
  • DM rolls d6, 6 for random encounter
  • DM generates wandering monsters
  • Surprise roll
  • Reaction roll
  • Initiative roll
  • Combat 
  • Return to exploration loop
What's missing here is tension.  The encounter happens, it is resolved, it probably doesn't really link to anything else in the dungeon because it was just generated.  Resource costs are applied and then life goes on; there is no qualitative change unless the random encounter was on the way out while the party was already resource-exhausted.  It's almost like Bad Trap Syndrome, but with a combat intead.

The other thing missing here is that a rule has been ignored - the random encounter distance rule, another roll between generation and surprise.  Nominally should be 2d6 * 10 feet in the dungeon, in ACKS at least.  That's a long way (in expectation).  That's outside torch radius on average (30' of bright light, 20 more feet of shadowy illumination).  It's also outside of average monster infravision radius (60').  If you, like me, tend to not have 70' hallways, generally that's going to be around multiple corners or through multiple doors.  This is not typically a "the monsters come around the corner or through the doorway, roll for surprise" situation.

The reason this rule is ignored is straightforward - tracking runtime-generated state outside of PC line of sight is a hassle.  If you're using a graphpaper map, there isn't a good way to track groups of monsters moving through the dungeon.  Digital tools could probably handle this better.

But if you're willing to pay the price to track these 'blips' outside of PC detection range, the atmospheric and gameplay benefits are, I suspect, significant.  They turn random encounters from "fire and forget" into lingering threat, things just outside your vision, eyes reflecting your torchlight.  Waiting in the dark for you to make a mistake, stalking you, looking for an opportunity to pounce (or maybe just to eat your dead).  A heavily-armored party might not even be able to close with and engage such groups due to speed differences.  I suspect these lingering random encounters might encourage the use of thieves in the shadowed zone (where they can quickly pin down or drive off such enemies; pickets) and other "lightweight" play.  Multiple random encounters might lead to multiple groups of uncommitted creatures - morlocks ahead, morlocks behind, nowhere to run.  Depending on the monsters and the ecology of the dungeon, multiple "open" random encounters might fight among themselves (presenting an opportunity to players) or join forces.  Players might detect them with listening or detect evil...  blips on the paladin-scanner.

These things in the dark become a source of tension, a source of potential energy for the dungeon.  The other shoe, ready to drop.

On reflection, this difference in use is reflected in the old naming - "wandering monster" instead of "random encounter".

Thursday, August 30, 2018


Been almost a year since I read any recent (written, say, post-1400) fiction.  Lucked into a recommendations thread of "modern metahorror" though, and I've been... enjoying? it so far.  Lovecraftian themes (man is a blind and tiny thing, unable to perceive/process the true nature of the universe and the things in it), but reframed for a secular age.  Man vs nature in the limit, not man vs man or man vs evil.  The Antimemetics Division was a good opener (the first story arc anyway - second was OK, definitely skip the third).  Now on to Watt's Blindsight.  Excellent job conveying protagonist's disorientation to the reader via fractured structure and unfriendliness in naming / reference (and maybe weird variations in font size?).  The reader is left to guess a lot and it works for the theme of the piece.

But that's not what compelled me to post.  This is:

Light from below.


You'd think that would have made it easier. Our kind has always feared the dark; for millions of years we huddled in caves and burrows while unseen things snuffled and growled—or just waited, silent and undetectable—in the night beyond. You'd think that any light, no matter how meager, might strip away some of the shadows, leave fewer holes for the mind to fill with worst imaginings.
You'd think.
We followed the grunt [combat drone] down into a dim soupy glow like blood-curdled milk. At first it seemed as though the atmosphere itself was alight, a luminous fog that obscured anything more than ten meters distant. An illusion, as it turned out; the tunnel we emerged into was about three meters wide and lit by rows of raised glowing dashes—the size and approximate shape of dismembered human fingers—wound in a loose triple helix around the walls. We'd recorded similar ridges at the first site, although the breaks had not been so pronounced and the ridges had been anything but luminous.
"Stronger in the near-infrared," Bates reported, flashing the spectrum to our HUDs. The air would have been transparent to pit vipers. It was transparent to sonar: the lead grunt sprayed the fog with click trains and discovered that the tunnel widened into some kind of chamber seventeen meters further along. Squinting in that direction I could just make out subterranean outlines through the mist. I could just make out jawed things, pulling back out of sight.
"Let's go," Bates said.
We plugged in the grunts, left one guarding the way out. Each of us took another as a guardian angel on point. The machines spoke to our HUDs via laser link; they spoke to each other along stiffened lengths of shielded fiberop that unspooled from the hub trailing in our wake. It was the best available compromise in an environment without any optima. Our tethered bodyguards would keep us all in touch during lone excursions around corners or down dead ends.
Yeah. Lone excursions. Forced to either split the group or cover less ground, we were to split the group. We were speed-cartographers panning for gold.
Now that's how you open an old-school, high-bodycount future-dungeon-crawl on a Big Dumb Object.  Man.

I really should've used fog in my dungeons.  Good way to limit vision after the party has magical solutions to darkness, provides a use for gust of wind during exploration.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Long Haul, Microsandboxes, and Three-Shots

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

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

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

Some other interesting angles and possibilities:

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

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Morrowind, Starcraft, Drafts

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

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