Friday, June 29, 2012

ACKS Player's Companion - Summoning Spells

The Kickstarter for the ACKSPC released what is basically a final draft of the text pre-formatting and artwork today.  Some of the new spells are pretty neat; Burning Hands is a reasonably competitive 1st-level offering for elementalist mages, there's a nice 4th-level multi-target healing-over-time spell for the priestess class, and bladedancers got Swift Sword (two attacks per round for a short duration, which is really really nice), but the summoning spells take the cake.  The standouts here are Summon Berserkers (calls four berserkers from the afterlife to fight and die for you), Summon Fantastical Creature (summons any one of a wide variety of wyverns, gryphons, unicorns, and so forth), and Summon Hero (which summons a 4nd-level fighter with good stats for a short duration).

I think what I like about these is that, in addition to seeming 'powerful but reasonable', they're very Magic the Gathering-esque.  You're summoning things you might plausibly meet in the game world, rather than celestial dire badgers or other extraplanar weirdness.  Technically, the things these spells summon are extraplanar in origin as well, but...  they're normal.  Which implies that other planes are reasonably normal (beyond the usual hell and heaven-type planes).  This is a refreshing break from the hidebound, alignment-enforced planar weirdness that 3.x inherited from Planescape.  It encourages GMs to create their own cosmologies, and also to cross-pollinate between settings; if I want to steal Tim's chromata, for example, the excuse of 'they fell into this world from another in ancient days' is very, very compatible with this cosmology (not so much with the Great Wheel).  Finally, it helps explain why the endgame in ACKS is setting yourself up as a world emperor rather than extraplanar adventuring; if other planes are pretty similar to this one, then (in general), why bother going there?  This is not to say that other planes shouldn't be exotic, but setting up a power base on one's home plane rather than gallivanting through the multiverse is much more reasonable if there are high level foes locally and not a whole lot to gain 'out there'.

One final touch that pleases me is their use of the term 'spheres' instead of planes.  I might have to steal that, for a little distance and breathing room from Planescape's cosmology and concepts.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On Combat Maneuvers

I spoke with a skilled arnisadore on Monday, and the topic of disarms came up.  Back when I did a fair bit of arnis, we trained a lot of locks and disarms, but this gentleman (who had considerably more applied experience than we) was less a fan.  To paraphase:
"Locks and disarms both work very well against opponents of inferior size, strength, speed, and skill than you, but against an opponent who is your equal in these areas, you will almost never succeed.  There is a police officer who trains here sometimes, who is over six feet and has biceps the size of my head.  If I try to put him in a stick lock, he laughs and flexes, and my cane bends.  So once I asked him "Well, what if I hit you in the head with a stick instead?"  And he answered that that would be much more effective.  Striking is almost always more effective.  Don't mess around with fancy tricks; hit him instead.  My disarm is hitting the opponent's hand."
Interesting to see that in this area, 3.x and its relatives are quite accurate.

Monday, June 25, 2012

O, For Sci-Fi...

Disclaimer: ACKS is fun.  I'm enjoying running it, and I think that my players probably don't hate it either (quoth Tim - "I want to try running an old-school 3.5 game in the fall.  Wait no, ACKS is more fun.").

But sometimes, you just want to go all-out with the kind of shit we pulled in Starmada two springs ago.  To find a crunchy, buildy wargame and go to town with it.  Also because tanks and mechs and lasers and tech is just fun sometimes.

Basically, I've got two itches that I want to scratch:

1 - Gritty, nasty man-vs-aliens dungeoncrawling.  Could be Space Hulk with expansions (namely: thunder hammers, autocannons, and the force bidding rules), could be a Star*ACKS one-shot with whole platoons of L1 marines-at-arms.  Deathwatch is built for this, but it's too heavy for me.  StarGrunt could work too, but it's lacking strongly in the aliens department, and our previous attempts at them...  well, maybe could be tweaked into a workable shape.  It also doesn't seem well-suited to indoor combat, though indoor games would be short and fast since close assault is where casualties really happen in SGII.  SG also, of all of these candidates, has the least hidden information (though their artillery mechanic is a beautiful exception).

2 - Crunchy, heavy mechanized warfare.  OGREs and other supertanks, mechs, guided missiles, attack helicopters (or antigrav equivalent), tactical nuclear weapons, ideally some form of campaign system, the whole shebang.  BattleTech seems to be the most popular option for this in this part of the country, but what it possesses in wonderful construction rules it makes up for with a painful damage resolution system and a model of futuristic warfare inconsistent with modern facts (BT cannon ranges top out at under half a mile (~2400 feet), compared to modern cannons with effective ranges of upwards of two miles) and sometimes physics (melee mechs make me sad).  BT's Operational Campaign system from Tactical Handbook is pretty sweet, though.  Wardogs inherits a lot of BT's problems, and while generally lighter, is not well written and rather confusing.  Dirtside would probably be great, since it has a construction system and seems relatively lightweight, but the randomization using chits is just...  arg.  There is also here the persistent problem of lack of models.  Dirtside has more hidden information built in by default than most of the games in this category, though, between its beautiful objectives system and decent artillery rules.  Epic suffers a similar miniatures problem, but does at the very least not use chits.  You do have to deal with the default (crazy) assumptions of the 40k 'verse, though, and the rules are hard to find these days since the Specialist Games page was taken down.  CAV could work too, but I'm pretty much unfamiliar with it except for a few reports from Sergeant Crunch.  It does seem to be lacking in the construction system department, but the damage model is really simple and reminds me of Starmada Nova's to some extent.  Guess I could hack together a S:NE ground project like I was looking at doing with Admiralty...  Certainly the new Seekers rule would work nicely for guided missiles.

Anyway, I think part of this speculation and grumbling is that running ACKS twice a week means I'm prepping all the time.  Switching one game a week to something more wargamey would mean that I could have a few days off to come up with ideas, rather than strictly reacting to my players.  Variety being the spice of inspiration and all that.  Or, if I can't convince people to switch to one RPG night and one wargame night a week, I might have to do something dangerous, like throwing Expedition to the Barrier Peaks into my ACKS world (though with the average Int score of this party, particularly Drew's henchman brigade, that would be absolutely hilarious.  Hmmmm....).

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Priests of the Assassin God

A couple sessions ago Tom sent one of his L0 henchmen with high Wisdom off to train at the local temple in Opportunity.  That temple wasn't dedicated to one of those fuzzy light-and-healing-and-smiting-the-undead gods; Opportunity's not that kind of town.  No, this was the temple to Harmakhis, the god of deals and sacrifices, who happens to have a militant arm with a rather more covert approach than the standard cleric.  At first I was just going to alter their spell selection, but then I took a look at the ACKSPC's custom class rules and decided to use them as a baseline.  So here's what we came up with:
  • HD, to-hit, saves, and spellcasting progress as a standard cleric, though spellcasting uses an alternate list, below.
  • No ability to turn undead.  Harmakhis is the shadow between law and chaos, fulfilling chaotic ends in exchange for lawful currency,  and has no particular power over the creatures of the night.
  • At first level, Harmakhan clerics gain the Ambushing proficiency.  They're good at stabbing people in the back, whacking people on the back of the head, and breaking knees.
  • At first level, Harmakhan clerics also gain the ability to disappear when standing still, as the Explorer class ability.  Harmakhis is a patient deity, and his hunters are likewise, favoring prepared ambush over stalking.
  • Harmakhan clerics do not have access to Beast Friendship, Righteous Turning, Leadership, and Sensing Evil as class proficiencies, but do have access to Alertness, Bargaining, Bribery, and Climbing.
  • Finally, Harmakhan clerics focus on stealth over defense, training only in leather and lighter armor and with shields.  However, they are also trained in the use of bladed weapons, spears, and all missile weapons, and can fight with a weapon and shield or with two weapons.
  • Harmakhan clerics level at the same rate as do normal clerics, and their prime requisite remains Wisdom.
I'm only going to do first and second level spells for now.  Spells from Player's Companion are in italics, while reversible spells are asterisked.

  1. Command Word
  2. Cure Light Wounds*
  3. Detect Magic
  4. Detect Poison
  5. Fellowship
  6. Light*
  7. Pass Without Trace
  8. Resist Cold
  9. Remove Fear*
  10. Sanctuary
  1. Augury
  2. Bless*
  3. Chameleon
  4. Delay Poison
  5. Find Traps 
  6. Hold Person
  7. Resist Fire
  8. Sleep
  9. Sharpness
  10. Silent Step

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Twenty More Questions of Interest to My Players

These are more rules-oriented by way of Untimately, and originated as a response to the flavor-oriented questions that I answered previously.

Ability scores generation method?

3d6 in-order five times; one set of your choosing becomes a PC, two are saved to become backup PCs, and two are given to me the DM.  You can also add to your prime requisite by removing points from other scores at a 1:2 ratio, but no score may be lowered below 9 in this fashion, and you cannot raise scores other than your prime requisite.

How are death and dying handled?

Per the ACKS Mortal Wounds table, except that in general I roll the d6 for hit location when you are reduced to 0.  See my previous post on this topic.

What about raising the dead?

 This one is pretty much ACKS-standard; raising the dead can be accomplished by hiring a high-level cleric to cast Restore Life and Limb on the corpse.  There are almost always side effects, but I'm open to bargaining about the exact details depending on the wound. 

How are replacement PCs handled?

Replacement PCs can either be promoted henchmen, or can be created using the backup PC stats rolled during initial character generation.  You may spend some, all, or none of any reserve XP you have available to give this new character XP.  Generally replacement PCs enter play with 80% of their XP value as gold, or 3d6*10 gp if they have little-to-no XP.  Replacement PCs do not generally enter play during the middle of an expedition, but are found in town upon return from the dungeon.

Initiative: individual, group, or something else?

Generally individual for PCs, but if you have too many henchmen I may make you all act on one count for simplicity's sake (you meaning one PC + all of that PC's henchmen).  Each entire group of monsters usually acts on the same initiative count.

Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work?

Not really, no.  If you take the Weapon Focus proficiency, you do double damage on a natural 20; that's as close to a crit as you're going to get.  If you roll a 1 when throwing flaming oil, you light yourself on fire.  It's also possible for damaged or scavenged weapons or armor to break when you roll a natural 1 while using them.

Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet?

Most armor is assumed to come with a helmet.  There is also the option of the Heavy Helmet in the Player's Companion, but I haven't released that for player consumption yet.

Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly?

Probably.  This one is subject to bargaining.

Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything?

Running is good exercise, and running adventurers are well-known by orcish nutritionists to provide meat low in fat and other undesirable chemicals.  On the other hand, some running adventurers may survive to reach levels where they're dangerous, or may be canny enough to have laid traps along the route of their retreat, and so adventurers who run should definitely be pursued with caution.

Level-draining monsters: yes or no?

No.  Monsters that would normally drain levels instead age you.  

Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death?

There have been, there are, and there will be.  If you're making a save, something has gone wrong already, and you have one last chance to redeem yourself.  

How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked?

Reasonably; I haven't done an encumbrance audit, but if you don't have torches or iron spikes on your sheet, you don't have torches or iron spikes when you end up in a random section of the dungeon.  

What's required when my PC gains a level? Training? Do I get new spells automatically? Can it happen in the middle of an adventure, or do I have to wait for down time?

Generally you need to return to town to level.  There is no training cost, however.  Technically we've been playing spell acquisition slightly wrong; there are no arcane masters available, and so my mages should be scrounging even more desperately for scrolls rather than rolling for new spells randomly when they level.  However, it is established that this is how things work for the time being; perhaps that only works for spells of up to 2nd-3rd level.  Beyond that, it's tough to find local wizards who have access to spells of that grade and are willing to loan you a book.  Arcanists are really the speed limiter on levelling, since learning new spells in this manner can take weeks (meanwhile, everyone else sits around and waits for the next crop of henchmen and military oil).

What do I get experience for?

Nominally, about 80% of your XP should come from treasure recovered from the dungeon, while the other 20% comes from monsters slain or otherwise neutralized.  In practice this ratio may shift around a bit, but the important thing is "Treasure good, monsters bad."

How are traps located? Description, dice rolling, or some combination?

Anyone can find a trap by searching a 10'x10' area for 10 minutes and rolling an 18+ on a d20.  Thieves are slightly better at it than most.  However, the best way to find traps is common sense and caution; if you go "Gee, if I lived here I would've trapped this," that means there's probably a trap and it's time to go poking around and finding it via description. 

Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work?

Retainers are very handy for staying alive and having backup PCs, but are available only in limited supplies, so my current players are somewhat competitive over them.  Morale is on 2d6 with modifiers for pay, employer charisma, and so forth. 

How do I identify magic items?

There are a couple of ways.  The Alchemy proficiency can be used to identify potions on 11+ (though historically alchemy is really hard in this campaign because apparently my dice hate alchemists), while Magical Engineering can do that plus identification of 'common' magic items.  If those both fail, things can be identified using the magical research rules, but that takes lots of time and lots of money.  

Can I buy magic items? Oh, come on: how about just potions?

Yes and no.  Magic items are available for sale...  in large cities with good markets.  Out in the Territories, you're lucky to find a single potion of healing available per month in any given town.  

Can I create magic items? When and how?

Magic items can be created by PCs.  I believe primary casters can start making scrolls and potions around 5th level, and fun stuff like swords and staves around 9th.  Half-casters like Nightblades start somewhat later.  Creating items takes a lot of time, a lot of money, monster parts, and a swanky (read: expensive) lab. 

What about splitting the party?

Oh, feel free to split the party.  You should ask the Stalwarts what happened the last time they did that, though (and they will tell you "Only half the party died!  It was a great idea!").

Monday, June 18, 2012

Of Scheduling and Henchmen

Well, we began the first expedition to the Bleak Academy today, with our normal roster supplemented by Jason and Andrew.  We started late because I was on a hike that ran waaay overtime (we ended up on the 2-mile 2500-foot climb rather than the easy trail we had intended), though this did give Andrew and Jason time to build characters.  We began around 8ish and ran until Drew decided to leave around 10:15; I was surprised that we ended that early, but I guess it is Sunday and there is work tomorrow morning.  During that time, the PCs managed to get a marching order together, get to the Academy, burn down the front gate, search the gatehouses, briefly survey most of the grounds, explore the main hallway of the dormitory building, fight the vulture-men inhabiting the refectory, driving them off after slaying their leader, recovering their treasure, and poking around a bit in some of the looted dorm rooms.  Unfortunately, Tim's character grabbed a gem which teleported her deep into the second level of the dungeon.  The rest of the party was rather resourceful about this, though - while Tormond explored an alchemical lab and fought zombies with fire, Tom's wizard used Locate Object on Tormond's shield, and they were able to make contact with noise through the ceiling.  Whether the commotion will generate a random encounter remains to be seen...  but we ended on a cliffhanger, with the rest of the party resolved to pass through the gem to rescue Tormond.  I'm fairly surprised by the level of heroism here; rather than cutting her loose and leaving her for dead, they're actually going in after her.  I guess it's because of her record with those morlocks; if they didn't go after her, she'd make it out alive somehow and there'd be hell to pay.  She's done it before, she'll do it again.

So we're scheduled to game again Tuesday night.  This pleases me, because it is shifting towards that wonderful rolling flexible game which I'm aiming to try.  There were a few issues we ran into, though.  The party engaged a huge mass of skeletons in the garden at the beginning, and I ended up running things just based on one pool of HP for the entire mob if you will.  I suspect this is how old-school refs have been doing encounters against large numbers of monsters since before I was born, but part of me does like rolling HP for individual monsters.  This also blurs the cleaving mechanic slightly, but I think it worked out OK.

As problematic as numbers on the enemy side were numbers on the player side.  Drew brought...  4 henchmen, I think, while Tim and Tom had 2 and 1 respectively.  This, coupled with 5 players, brought us up to 12 friendlies in the dungeon itself, plus a force of mercenaries and a guide loitering outside.  It was fortunate that Drew's two L0 normal men were both downed by the skeletons in the first fight; this sped up the combat against the vulturemen considerably.  The wide disparity in retinue size also meant that Drew was taking a lot of time in combat, at least at th beginning.  This is dissatisfying, and I'm considering imposing a limit of 2 henchmen/dogs per PC in the dungeon.  Ideally the shares system would accomplish this for me but...  I guess it hasn't yet?  This rule also encouraged people to leave extra henchmen outside the dungeon entrance with the mercenaries; then if a hench goes down, you can get back up to your allotted two by returning to the gates and getting another, rather than returning back to town to completely alter the loadout by hiring new ones.

On the plus side, Jason had never gamed before and seemed to completely get it.  He ended up with a spellsword; arguably one of the more complex classes, since he had both spells and melee capability.  But, in general, he had little trouble keeping up with the vets (and while they may have suckered him into being the one to poke the skeletons with the ten-foot pole, at least he did make it out alive and more-or-less unharmed).  Andrew likewise picked up things quickly, though he has a bit more experience with Baldur's Gate and a little 4e (though again, my trollish veterans got him to open the trapped chest "because he had the best saves"...  Really hoping they cover the cost of that Remove Curse for him).   Conclusions - ACKS with a group that knows what they're doing is pretty easy to pick up.  This pleases me.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Travel Is Dangerous

(Thanks to Mogwai by way of Elizabeth for the title)

Ran a session of ACKS last night, wherein the party decided to move their base of operations from Deal to Opportunity in order to explore the ruined Bleak Academy of Necromancy.  We discovered that, per the title, overland travel in ACKS is dangerous for lowish-level parties, though they did have the good sense to bring along a fair cohort of a dozen or so mercenaries.  On the first day it was unfriendly baboons, who Tim distracted with a large volume of rations.  The second day was uneventful, but on the third they were attacked by griffons.  They were all for standing and fighting, until they realized that it wasn't one or two griffons, but fourteen, fully half the size of their company, and each as strong as at least four fighters.  They sacrificed their horses to the beasts and ran for their lives.  More troubling was the loss of the mules, who were carrying the water supply; several PCs were reduced to drinking marsh water, which may have consequences later.

It was also on the third day that, in the aftermath of the griffon debacle, the party's rangers led them astray into marshy terrain.  There they were beset by giant biting flies, which slew three of their mercenaries and tore one of their henchmen's arms off before being driven away.  They managed to find the trail again, and were relieved to see smoke from the hearths of Opportunity...  until it turned out to be from the campfires of an orcish horde laying siege to the town in search of vengeance for the slaughter of one of their villages by the town's resident master assassin.  I was pleasantly surprised that they dealt with this situation diplomatically, and in the end broke the siege, brought both the assassin and the orcish chief to ruin, and gained the favor of the (new) most prominent guild in the town of thieves known as Opportunity.

But I don't think they're going to chance the wilderness again anytime soon...  the griffons are still out there.  Waiting.  And hungry for horse-flesh, or lacking that, man-flesh.  More generally, "Large groups of very dangerous monsters are out there, and we don't have the power to deal with them yet."  This pleases me, for it is well in keeping with the tradition of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy - there's a reason everything is city-states rather than nations, and that reason is that the wilderness between them is full of monsters, not peasants.

Also on the agenda for the next week or so:
  • Mapping and stocking the Academy.  I did a draft of the first level, and it's...  unaccceptably lethal.  Even for ACKS.  So that stuff is getting shifted lower, and the first level stocked a little more mercifully.
  • Alternate spell lists for clerics of Harmakhis, the god of trade and assassins.  One of the PCs sent their L0 henchman with 18 Wis off to the only seminary in Opportunity, and I'd like to tweak them a little for flavor and variety.
  • Rules for henchmen that stay in town; Drew's bard is pushing his six henchman limit, and wants to leave some behind so that 1) there are guaranteed survivors, and 2) fewer shares and people crowding the halls in the dungeon.
  • Oh yeah - get more sleep.  I've never fallen asleep behind the screen before...  but I got pretty close while they were hiring henchmen and whatnot at the end of the session.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

DM Shortage

Well, it turns out there are a bunch of other interns (and even some full-timers) at my current place of employment who want to game, and while I'm not the only DM in town by quite a way, I am the only one advertising "seeking 1-2 more players".  To the point where I now have about 10 potential players, and only one of me.  So I've been considering a few options:
  • Fork a splinter group.  Take on 1-2 more players, and get one of my current players (maybe?) to DM a second game at some other time for the rest.  Problem: convincing someone else to DM.  A similar approach would be co-DMing, but the same problem presents itself (along with a host of new ones unique to two people having full authorial license on the same world).
  • Blow some of them off.  Problem: people don't get to play, and I might not get to play with some fun and clever people worth gaming with.  I remember being rather intimidated when Jared joined us for Traveller last spring, but that all worked out quite well.  This is related to the selection problem; given six candidates, who do you take?  We could spend half the summer running test games with people before we had enough data to choose...  I guess the proper old-school approach would be to let the dice decide, right?
  • Rotating death.  When you die, you go on the end of the queue of waiting players.  When someone else dies, if you're at the head of the queue you come in with your backup character per standard henchman or reserve XP rules.  For this to work, I think two sessions per week would have to be the norm (minimally), and I might have to crank up lethality.  Clever play would then shaft all those waiting, though, and it would badly screw my current players who didn't sign up for that.
  • Trial by combat, with the last five players standing winning the right to game.  Problem: I have little confidence that my current players would make the cut, and I kind of like them.  Also there might be legal issues with this approach.
  • The Western Marches or cloud approach.  I've really wanted to try this one for a while, and never had either the playerbase or the free time to support it properly.  Now I do...  but I'm not sure how well it would work out in a partially-civilized setting like the Shieldlands.  Then there are issues with how to handle my current three 'core' players; they seem unlikely to take being downgraded well (though they do have certain advantages like the +3 shield, and having cornered the henchman market of Deal...).  There's also the question of "just how much time do I want to spend doing prep work per week, and how many nights a week do I want to eat pizza?"  I guess I could provide when I'm available, set a max party size and a rule of max of one or two sessions per week per player, and see what they come up with, as well as a party-shuffling rule like that used in WM to keep things from settling into me running two games for disjoint sets of players.
Pleh.  In Ben Robbins' words, "Fear the social monster" indeed.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Asymmetric Hidden Information

King of asymmetric hidden information

So I got to thinking about Space Hulk while overseas (as often happens), particularly in light of this post at Solo Nexus (there's more to be said about this particular post, but Space Hulk first).  Many competitive games feature hidden information; in Magic and other card games, you have the hand.  In Starmada, you have plotted movement orders.  In D&D, you have "what's in the next room".  But in most cases, these sources of hidden information are the same for both players; in Magic, neither player knows the other's hand.  In Starmada, neither knows the other's movement orders.  D&D's an odd case, naturally, being many-and-one and an RPG and whatnot.

But Space Hulk's unusual here, in that there are two sources of hidden information, each of which is hidden only from one player.  For those unfamiliar, Space Hulk is a 'dungeon crawler'-type boardgame with a squad or two of space marines trying to achieve their objectives in the face of a horde of fast, angry, and deadly aliens.  The marines can attack at range and act during the alien turn, but are slow, few in number, very weak in melee, and almost always on the losing end of things.  Thus, Space Hulk is already a strongly asymmetric game, even before you start adding elements of hidden information.

The marine player has access to a limited pool of off-turn actions, called Command Points.  The size of this pool is determined at random each turn, and is kept hidden until the end of the alien player's following turn when it is re-rolled.  Thus, the alien player never knows for sure if the marine has one last reaction left (until he's spent the maximum possible number that he could've drawn).  The alien, however, has a much larger store of hidden information.  In most scenarios, the alien starts with few forces on the board, but has them enter over time from the edges.  Rather than having actual units enter, though, he instead draws 'blip markers', each of which has a number on the backside denoting how many aliens it's actually worth, which could be anywhere between 0 and 3 (or more with the expansions).  He then deploys these face down; thus, his actual strength is hidden from the marine player, who is left to guess and speculate the strength of each marker until it is revealed (either voluntarily by the alien player so that he can attack with it, or when it comes into line of sight of a marine unit).  The inclusion of zero-value markers is particularly worthwhile, I think - these pose a challenge for the alien player, since he has to bluff with them.  There's a final, doubly-hidden form of information in the expansions by way of ambush counters, but I don't particularly want to go into those just now.

Why am I bothering to discuss this?  Well, first and most personally, I'd kind of like to play more Space Hulk (perhaps with all kinds of crazy tweaks), but it's kind of a hard sell.  Second, I think hidden information is part of why I'm supremely unmotivated to play Starmada: Nova.  There is no hidden information in it; gone are movement orders, allocation of screens, and cloaking.  About the only thing left is pre-declaring dual mode weapon mode for the turn, and that's...  not enough for me.  Third, I think this kind of asymmetric hidden information (and general lack of balance between sides) is something we could stand to see more of in games in general.

Friday, June 8, 2012


No, not that Star*Axe.  Well, not necessarily.

I was thinking recently about ACKS in space.  About the kind of game it would be.  For me, the elements which define ACKS as different from other games that I have played previously are a combination of simplicity and lethality, along with a focus at low levels on resource management and exploratory play, with high levels characterized by realm-building and 'other stuff'.

Sounds like a perfect system for grimdark sci-fi mercenary bughunters, a la Alien and Space Hulk meets Schlock Mercenary (especially the diamond razor beetles storyline, which began here).  At low levels, you're a grunt squad tasked with the exploration of derelict ships, abandoned ground stations, sewer systems, and similar with the objectives of "kill the bugs, get the goods, don't die."  Replace torches with hours of life support and rest turns with gear checks, and ACKS' dungeoncrawling practically converts itself.  At higher levels you get into the running of the company and setting yourself up as planetary generalissimo, crime lord, merchant magnate, or similar.  Again, should be a pretty straightforward conversion of the domain and hijink rules.

Classes are where it gets tricky.  Fighters stay pretty much unchanged, as usual.  Thieves kinda get shafted in the ranged era, so I'm not sure how to handle that.  Clerics and mages could either stick around via a psionic explanation, or I could also see spinning off variant fighters to fill their roles with specialized proficiency lists, restricted weapons and armor, and lower HP (a medic class with +healing proficiencies, a demolitions or pyro class with spike damage, and an engineer-y class riffing off of Dwarven Machinist for utility effects, or maybe as the thief replacement).  These would all run on equipment / encumbrance and money as a limiting factor, rather than hard-limit spell slots, I think.  Fortunately, the Player's Companion has classbuilding rules.  Those would make such a class conversion much, much easier.

Finally, henchmen would make excellent squadmates (making bards basically officer material), and the cleave mechanic + varying rates of fire for weapons could simulate automatic fire pretty nicely.  But now it is bedtime.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

ACKS' Attack Rolls - Doing It Right

There's been much complaining about how ACKS' attack roll and AC system is bad.  I was kind of tempted to agree for a while, but we eventually stumbled upon a good way to handle things.

  1. Get your class' to-hit number from the appropriate table based on your level (say 9+ for a 2nd-level fighter).
  2. Subtract all of your bonuses from strength, magic items, dex, and so forth.  This gets you for example 7+ for our 2nd-level fighter with a 16 Strength.
  3. When you go to attack, roll the d20 and subtract your modified to-hit number.  Let's say our fighter rolled a 13; he reports to the DM in Traveller parlance that he got effect 6 on his attack roll, or "hit by 6", or something of that sort.
  4. The DM compares that margin of success to the monster's AC.  If it's greater than or equal to the AC, it's a hit.  Else, it's a miss.
When you run it this way, it's actually pretty nice.  One thing I like it that it keeps all the numbers small; because it's all subtractive, you're almost never going to deal with anything over 20, and most numbers will be single-digit, which makes the math easy for normal humans.

But yeah, we had quite a time before we switched from subtracting AC from the attack to using it as a target number.  I could see where the complaints were coming from, and should maybe send this procedure to Autarch as a "Hey, if you do it this way it's really fast and convenient" type thing.

Monday, June 4, 2012

5e Playtest, Codex Martialis, and ACKS

There's been much to-do lately about the 5e playtest materials.  I have been neglectful / busy, and as a result have not examined them.  However, one thing that people keep going on about is their advantage / disadvantage mechanics, where if you have a significant advantage like flanking, you take the best of 2d20, and if you have a significant hindrance like being blinded, you take the worst of 2d20.  While the application of this notion to skills is interesting, what it does most is remind me of an obscure little 3.x variant by the name of Codex Martialis.

Codex was probably the second system I read which favored an older-school grade of lethality (the first being Warheart), and it also was impressively well-researched historically.  Hence, it springs to mind that there is some similarity here with ACKS, and I'm kind of wondering if they'd play well together.  Handing out martial pool dice as a function of to-hit / save increases, much like class proficiencies, would work pretty well.  Codex's weapon range system would also play nicely with the narrative style of combat ACKS seems geared towards.  Finally, die pool allocation between attack and defense is very much in keeping with the calculated risks and resource management mentalities inherent in old-school dungeoncrawling.

That said, while such rules would be a fun experiment, for once I actually feel like not going through with it.  ACKS' combat is gloriously fast and, while occasionally frustrating ("You miss the spider.  The spider misses you.  Repeat."), I think the constant fear of sudden death helps a lot.  I'm actually starting to think that the "roll initiative every turn" rule is there to keep things unpredictable and dicey; random re-ordering every turn keeps people on the edge of their seat.  Codex combat, on the other hand, makes things a bit more predictable, actually - the whole use of the dice pool is to remove uncertainty by either attacking many times, boosting your defenses, or going for one big surefire hit.  In that sense, it runs counter to ACKS combat.  Then there's the complexity factor, which would cause individual player turns to take longer, thereby making those turns where nobody hits that much worse.

Conclusions: Overall, ACKS and Codex would be a decent match if we were seeking somewhat more complex combat with similar lethality.  However, for the time being, I think it'll remain a thought experiment.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

It's Not Really a TPK...

... if all the henchmen escape.


Honestly, though, I'm really pleased with how the wholesale slaughter of PCs came to pass.  The predicament in which they found themselves was very clearly a result of the choices they had made.  This wasn't a "random encounter table result: bodak.  Everyone dies"-type TPK.  Additionally, there was a light of improbable herosim at the very end which was something of a redeeming factor.

And so, without further ado, the tale of the ill-fated Sixth Expedition into the Dwarven Fortress of Sandygates:

The three leaders of the expedition were Gallivan the paladin of Iana, Erggumun the elven nightblade, and Scarth the thief.  In Gallivan's service were Tormond the scarred hammermaiden and Verimyr the healer, while Erggumun led Durgrim the berserker dwarf and his faithful war-hound Monty.  Scarth was accompanied by the agile spearman Aldric.  The stated intent of this expedition was to explore the newly-discovered fourth level of the dungeon, map the unmapped areas of the second level, and bring a barrel of ale to the troglodyte champion K'rrk in exchange for knowledge of the location of treasure.  They couldn't get the barrel in through the arrow slits (after five expeditions, they've figured out how to open the front gate, but they left the key in the dungeon while fleeing from green slime previously), so they decided to head down to the second level first.  There they recovered a little treasure from some ancient bedrooms, and left a large bathroom more-or-less unexplored (after the green slime on the bathroom ceiling previously, and K'rrk's warning about the Beast In The Pipes, they were rather leery) before being attacked by a swarm of skeletal ferrets.  These wounded many members of the party, and Aldric was badly hurt.

While the ferrets were being dealt with, the ghostly shade of Lasai, Scarth's former henchman who he had killed and left in the dungeon, appeared seeking revenge upon her murderer.  She aged him significantly before being driven off by holy water and enchanted blades.  Tormond, Galladin, and Verimyr all recognized her and questioned Scarth briefly, to no avail.  Galladin laid hands on Scarth and they continued to the north stairwell to go to the fourth level.

Upon opening the door to the fourth level, they found a large open space with what appeared to be metalworking equipment and mechanisms full of blind cave humanoids, including their women and children.  Errgumun cast sleep into the mass, felling a few, but then they fled into the darkness beyond the light emitted by Galladin's sword.  Scarth threw a torch into the room, revealing a group of archers assembling just beyond the edge of the light (biological note - they may be blind, but apparently they can sense light.  Perhaps an analog to the parietal eye), while spearmen moved around the edges toward the stairwell.  Errgumun attempted to put the archers to sleep, but it was clear from the noises in the room that more of the creatures were gathering around the sides of the stairwell to flank if the party charged the archers, so they staged a fighting retreat up the stairs with Scarth pouring oil as they went.

They chose the crypts on the second level as the location to defend, since they came in that way and knew it to be clear (good thinking).  When they finally lit the stairs, many of the enemy burned to death, but the few that made it through managed to injure Tormond and slay Monty, over whose death Errgumun was greatly dismayed, though he put down the surviving creatures his final sleep spell before they could injure anyone else.  They also discovered that the creatures had smeared their blades with feces, and there was much fear of disease.  Galladin used the last of his laying on hands on Tormond and they decided to go back down to avenge Monty and wipe them out once and for all, with the hopes that  the enemy's strength had been broken in the fire trap.

And that's about where everything started to go really wrong.  Galladin took the lead, magic shield in hand, and opened the door at the bottom of the stairs to a fusillade of arrows.  He avoided all but one which caught him in the shoulder and reduced him to 4 HP; he fell back, handing the shield off to Tormond, while the party's archers (Verimyr, Scarth, and Errgumun) advanced to behind Tormond and began firing into the enemy, winnowing their ranks.  When only one, an armored sergeant, remained, Tormond charged him, leaving a gap in the front line, while Errgumun moved out to the side of the stairwell.

The enemy's reserve of axemen, waiting in the darkness, took this as their opening and charged the door to the stairwell.  They felled Scarth instantly, and injured both Verimyr and Errgumun.  They also cut off Errgumun and Tormond from escaping up the stairs.  Galladin held them off long enough for Verimyr to escape, taking the injured Aldric and rearguard Durgrim with him, before being struck down at the foot of the stairs.  Errgumun managed to slip silently away from his pursuers, and Tormond found herself surrounded.  She maneuvered about, seeking an advantageous position and moving towards the stairwell, but Errgumun grew impatient and made a break for it while she had them distracted, lighting the oil in Scarth's pack afire as he went.  Three creatures split from fighting Tormond and pursued him; two were slain by the fire, but the last cut him down halfway up the stairs.

And so Tormond found herself in the lair of the enemy, her mentor and lover Galladin incinerated by an ally, with a roaring wall of flames between her and the only known exit.  So she did what any right-thinking warrior woman would do - slew her foes to a man, sustaining only minor injuries, sacked their lair, discovered their terrible deity, desecrated their vile altars, looted the bodies of her fallen allies, stripped Galladin's corpse of his armor, put the body in a sack, and began the long, slow trek back up the stairs (where, incidentally, she killed the creature that had slain and was now eating Errgumun).  She encountered no resistance on her way out of the dungeon.

Durgrim's group was only marginally less fortunate; they were accosted by Lasai's wraith, who demanded a proper burial for her body.  With no magic weapons to resist her, they agreed, and were lucky enough to meet no further enemies on the way out.  She was buried in the sand outside the dungeon with a marker made from the shattered planks of the ale barrel.

Upon reconvening, all present agreed never to set foot in that accursed dungeon ever again, going so far as to sell the map to a merchant company specializing in dwarven antiquities.  Durgrim retired to parts unknown, while Verimyr went back to hunting and trapping in the marshes.  Aldric disappeared quietly, and Tormond paid to have Galladin resurrected...  but he came back female, thereby complicating things greatly.  As a paladin of Iana, returning as a female opened up advancement for him among the amazons, and he (er, she) set out to the north for Myrmidia, leaving Tormond alone with her scars, the magic shield, and the only knowledge of both the location of the chest of buried treasure and the terrible thing imprisoned beneath Sandygates...

Starmada Sunday Retrospective: Starmada as War

After responding to a comment on my last post about Admiralty Edition, I spent a little time reflecting on our Starmada experience and realized that, in the latter days of Admiralty, we achieved Combat as War.  We managed to do sufficient planning in design that we had ameliorated the impact of both tactics and luck.  We (and by we I mean mostly Jared, Matt, and I) were indeed out to win the battle before it began, rather than going for a 'fair fight'.  The only thing we needed, which we tried to achieve but repeatedly failed at, was resource management between battles (because that's how you make iterated Combat as War interesting).

Friday, June 1, 2012

Resolving ACKS' Quantum Death

One complaint with ACKS voiced by the Rpgist is the problem of 'quantum death' which results from the way the Mortal Wounds table works.  When you're reduced to 0 HP, you wait until you receive treatment to see just how badly injured you are.  This means that people may burn Cure spells or actions on someone who's very likely splattered everywhere, which is both a waste of resources and kind of silly.  I will be honest in saying that I don't address this part of the problem directly; however, there is a secondary problem, that of description, to which I have something of a solution.  This issue is that when someone goes down with a mortal wound, you as the DM can't very well describe where or how they've been hit until they're treated and the injury is rolled; if you say they got hit in the head and they instead lose an arm, that's no good.  My solution to this is as follows:

Roll the d6 when the person takes the wound, and the d20 for severity when treated.  The columns of the chart, corresponding to the results of the d6, are well-correlated with different hit locations.  Hence, if someone rolls a 6 on their d6 for hit location, you can safely say "Bob's been hit in the head with a spear."  5 is face, 4 is legs, 3 is arms, 2 is lower torso, and 1 is upper torso.

I tested this idea briefly when Joe fell into the 'cube last week.  He went below 0 while being pulled out, so I ruled that it was a mortal wound to the legs and that rather than rolling a d6, he got a 4.  Seemed to work.