Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mongoose Traveller: In Defense of Ironman Chargen

Tim's launching a Traveller campaign, and we got together last week for a character generation session.  Tim opted to use the Ironman variant, where if you fail a survival roll during a background term, you die.  No ifs, ands, buts, injuries, being cryofrozen for a couple years, being kicked out of the career, or any of that nonsense.  Toast.

Tim's reasoning for this decision was that it would let him remove term caps by balancing the potential for high skills and lots of starting perks with the increasing risk of death.  Without Ironman, our experience is that most people will go straight for whatever term limit you impose, but here there was definitely much deliberation about whether or not to continue.

From the player's perspective, though, I was a fan of it for another reason - it lets you dispose of really terrible sets of ability scores.  Rolled a set with two 2s and nothing over a 7?  Join the Marines, see the universe, get yourself killed during boot camp.  Oops.  Guess you better roll another (better) set.  Nobody in our group ended up playing the first set they rolled, and Drew went though I think four or five casualties before finally getting a survivor.  The ability score distribution of the characters who did make it are uniformly above average, with only a pair of -1 stats between the four of us.  I think this will help with one of the issues we observed previously in Mongoose Traveller, namely the wide disparity in capability between characters, which I believe wide disparities in ability scores contributed to significantly.

I guess the modern equivalent mechanic would be DCC's character funnel?  Haven't played DCC, but it sounds like it serves a similar purpose, of weeding out terrible sets but putting the good sets at (fairly significant) risk too.

Monday, February 25, 2013

An Alternative ACKS Diplomacy

One thing that bothered me just a little during ACKS was how awesome the +reaction roll proficiencies were.  A 1st level bard with 16 Cha who takes Diplomacy as his general and Mystic Aura as your class proficiency, you can be pulling +6 on reaction rolls from 1st level.  Since reactions are rolled on 2d6, that's a hell of a modifier, bumping even snake eyes up to a "neutral, uncertain" reaction from kill-on-sight, and anything higher than unfriendly up to helpful.  I really don't think the reaction roll mechanism was built to handle modifiers larger than +3 or so, so I was kind of thinking about capping modifiers or eliminating stacking, but upon further thought, I think I've reached at least a more interesting solution. 

I don't mind Mystic Aura so much because it's a class prof only, and Intimidate carries its own restrictions, but Diplomacy as it stands was a remarkably common choice as a general proficiency.  Diplomacy to my mind involves a lot of smoothing things over, stomping on your companions' toes when they're about to say something stupid, and so forth.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.  I'm curious, then to change Diplomacy to something resembling the following:

Diplomacy (G): The character is smooth-tongued and familiar with protocol.  When attempting to parley, the character learns the outcome of the reaction roll and chooses whether or not to intervene.  Should he intervene, a second reaction roll is made with the same modifiers, and the diplomat makes a proficiency throw of 11+.  If he succeeds, the higher of the two reaction rolls is used; should he fail, he has further angered the other party, and the lower of the two rolls is used.

These changes produce a version of diplomacy which does not raise the maximum result of reaction rolls, but which can still be used to ameliorate the effects of poor rolls.  It also turns a flat-bonus proficiency into something which is rolled by the players reactively, and it adds a little bit of strategy into the reaction roll in terms of risk management ("Hmm, well they came off Neutral, should be try to persuade them to our cause but risk a failure?"), creating a sort of 'double or nothing' mechanic.  Thoughts?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Homework Hiatus

brb have to write a Russian History paper.  No blogging or reddit until it's done; posts should resume Monday.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Golden Pair and ACKS Trade

I went back through and read the ACKS world generation rules today, both because I'm kind of thinking about converting the Wilderlands to ACKS, and because I've been thinking about writing some code to handle the generation of settlement trade numbers.  I still haven't figured out a good input format (since we probably want to take a list of settlements, their terrains and ages, and some encoding of their relative distances and connections with other settlements), but I did notice something very interesting in the generation rules which addresses an age-old complaint about Traveller economics.

In Traveller, from Classic to present iterations (with the notable exclusion of Free Trader and a few other editions I think?), there is a phenomenon known as the Golden Pair.  The Golden Pair is a pair of worlds in close proximity which have inverse market modifiers on several goods, such that you can buy A low on the first planet, jump once, sell A high on the second planet, buy B low on the second planet, jump once, sell B high on the first planet, and wash, rinse, repeat.  They're called a Golden Pair because they're a pair of worlds that you can exploit to coat everything you own in gold.  They don't make any sense in a setting where there are ostensibly megacorporations with bulk freighters moving these cargos in much larger quantities, which should tend to equalize prices across the two planets.

ACKS, interestingly enough, has taken measures to prevent Golden Pair situations from arising.  This, I believe, is the purpose of the Trade Route rules on page 233, which indicate that nearby settlements with a road or river connection have their demand modifiers shifted towards each other by 2 (where 10% * demand modifier is applied as an increase to prices).  The radius of 'nearby' depends on the size of the markets, but is minimally 24 miles for a pair of class VI markets connected by roads and just goes up from there (which seems reasonable; that's a day or two's journey by road).  By comparison, a pair of class I markets could be connected at up to 480 miles by water, which is a very sizable distance.  The essential takeaway from these is that if you don't want to have a damper put on your profit by competition / arbitrage forces, you need to be trading between either fairly distant pairs of small settlements, or you need to be hauling your goods between settlements which are isolated from each other by lack of roads or coastline.  In the first case, your profit is limited by the sizes of the markets involved, since market size directly affected number of merchants available and the amount of cargo they're interested in selling.  In the second, you're trading risk for potential reward, since you can get larger demand differentials on larger markets in closer proximity, but you're having to journey through trackless wilderness to get the goods there.  I love a good strategic risk/reward tradeoff...

Unfortunately, the simplified market rules we were using did not generate this tradeoff.  Under the simplified rules, trade along an established route tended to be more reliable and in expectation more profitable than trade off-route.  This made it possible to trade along routes at greater profits than originally intended, I believe (my mistake, did not take the land value modifiers into account correctly.  Credit for correction to Thomas Weigel).  Reliable, maximally profitable, and safe made route trading the preferred strategy of our venturer, whereas normally it would be something quite possible avoided as "not particularly profitable."

This got me to thinking, though, about whether there was a mechanism by which a merchant could bring route trading's profitability back up to that of off-route trading.  I'm fairly sure this is the intent of the monopoly rules, since a character with a monopoly on a good at both ends of a route can effectively create the extra 20% differential that would exist if there were no route.  There's some potential weirdness with 'convincing merchants to sell you goods'; do all caravans carry large volumes of all cargos equally, so that they can be convinced to sell them?  I guess I'm willing to chalk the whole reaction roll to convince merchants to sell you something up to "only some fraction of them have it, and the rest honestly don't."  Hard to see how charisma enters into that, or why you'd want to sell to a monopoly rather than holding onto your goods and transporting them further, but hey, this is the dark ages and not everything has to make perfect sense.  In any case, it got me thinking that a monopoly on a low-value good in a particular town or other small domain might be a nice mid-level reward to kick PCs into trade (and the wilderness adventuring that goes along with it) for service to a local minor noble, and it might also be a cool way to let the venturer maintain relevance into domain play (ie, the fighter grants the venturer monopolies within his domains on all goods.  Centralized, state-managed economy ensues, at massive profit to the kleptocrats party).

Anyway, I'd like to try the full demand modifier system next time I run ACKS, so I guess I'd better get cracking on that script...  ideally with a feature that lets you save the base (rolled+terrain) demand modifiers so that when the PCs build roads connecting settlements or upgrade a settlement in market class, it's possible to efficiently recalculate the demand modifiers for all other settlements Speaking of which - hilariously, if the party had finished the road between Ironbridge and Opportunity, the full system would tell us that the potential for profit along that route would have gone down, as other merchants started traveling it and equalizing prices.  Their urban revenue would not have risen as a result of increased merchant presence in their city, either.  Perverse incentives much?  I guess the main benefit they would have derived would be increase troop mobility, had they eventually chosen to annex Ironbridge by force...

Monday, February 18, 2013

Venturer Domains and the Domain Ecology

One subject of complaint about the Venturer class was the nature of its domain.  Our venturer player was keeping things very much on the level, legally speaking, and was frustrated that the only domain-level future for him seemed to lie in crime (or in taking his venturer followers and sticking them on trading ships and DDoSing the DM with mercantile ventures, which I was not going to let happen if at all possible).  What makes the venturer syndicate even more problematic is that despite being mostly-a-thief, the venturer class gets only one hijink-driving skill, Hear Noises, which is useful only for the weakest of the hijinks, Carousing.  This meant that it made little sense financially for a venturer of name level to employ his newfound followers at hijinks, because frankly they're not very good at them.  And so we're back to the trade DDoS...

An alternate proposal was floated at one point to give the venturer a fortified trading outpost or kasbah as a stronghold / fighter-style domain under the same restrictions that the explorer's domain suffers, but upon some reflection on the structure of domain-level play, I don't think this is a good solution.  Looking at the rules, our experiences, and the Grim Fist's logs, I'm starting to think that domain play is best understood cooperatively, and certain classes (and domain types) perform certain niche functions in the domain ecology.  Of the main class types, arcanists are unlikely to establish a domain first because they level slowly and have a tendency to spend lots of cash on research, libraries, and dungeons, which yield no monetary return.  Fighters and clerics operate similarly, with clerics reaching name level first and getting a discount on fortresses and followers, which gives them a leg up in the early domain game, though the fighter's +morale for mercenaries is useful too.  Basically I see a party with a fighter and a cleric ending up with either "the cleric rules the domain but the fighter is the commander of the armies and first in line for a fief" or "the fighter has the domain and the cleric is patriarch, using the populace's divine power to make magic items at low cost, and is liable to build the Vatican inside the fighter's domain given the chance."  Might swing on the charisma scores of the characters involved.  Thieves level fastest and don't need cash for much, but they can't build a proper domain, and so rely on the fighter or cleric's town as a source of revenue where the law is relatively friendly.

Once domains are gotten, and even during their construction, we can classify the types of domains as cash-sinks, cash-sources, or cash-neutral.  Building fortresses is expensive, so in the early domain game fighter and cleric domains are distinctly cash sinks (though they later stabilize), while the wizard seems to be a cash sink across all levels if he's doing a lot of research (but this converts cash into various fun forms of utility).  Where are these hundreds of thousands of gold pieces to come from?  Sure, it might be possible to extract them as treasure from extremely lucrative adventures...  but a thief domain makes it a lot easier, since (as we saw) it can definitely generate five figures of profit per month if managed well.  Thus, just as at low levels he opened traps and picked locks to reduce casualties and access more treasure, and at mid-levels he provided treasure maps to high-value locations, a domain-level thief plays something of a support role to the other classes by generating the cash necessary for them to perform more of their domain-level functions (he also has a surgical strike capability across levels, starting with backstab and then expanding to assassination at 9th, and an intelligence gathering capability starting with hide / move silently and expanding to carousing and spying, but the support role really takes off at domain level).  I think the fact that this support role is emphasized strongly in ACKS at mid-to-high levels plays very nicely with Roger's theories on the thief's role in the party dynamic as "advocates for the selfish and immediate interests of the party".  He can get you the cash you need to raise that army now...  but it might cost you later or make you a few enemies.

But, returning to the venturer.  The reason that a fortified outpost domain is somewhat unsatisfying for the venturer is because the venturer is all about making money, and thief domains make money hand-over-fist compared (in our experience) with traditional domains.  The venturer is already a financial support class, so a financial support domain makes a lot of sense.  Likewise, there's already a fair bit of competition in a standard party for a fighter/cleric-style landed domain, and adding the venturer to this competition will not help things much, especially in a party like ours with an abundance of fighters and a dearth of thieves.

The trick then, remains finding a cash-support domain structure which 1) is not necessarily illegal, 2) utilizes venturer followers to something regarding their fullest potential, and 3) isn't a huge headache for everyone involved.  I'm curious to take something like Alex's proposed Business Investment rules, add a little more detail, and provide venturer-managed businesses with a bonus for their monetary acumen as a potential solution.  Thoughts?

Friday, February 15, 2013

New ACKS Spells 3 - Summons

Three summons - one silly, one risky, and one I should've written some six or so months ago.

Summon Minions
Arcane 3
Range: 10'
Duration: Permanent until dispelled
This spell summons several weak humanoids, who appear within 10' of the caster and subsequently begin cowering and swearing loyalty.  One chaotic humanoid per caster level may be summoned, and no summoned humanoid may have greater than 1 HD or more than one special ability.  A favorite of evil casters with a high rate of minion attrition or in need of crossbreeding subjects, the minions so summoned serve loyally and permanently.  Casters with beastman domains and sufficient spell slots may even use this spell to expand their populace rapidly (but woe betide them when someone brings a ritual-grade Disjunction against their realm...).
(Maths: Summon, HD = caster level (75), up to 1 HD per creature (x0.15), general type (humanoids) (x1), range 10' (x1), duration indefinite (x2.5) = 28.2)

Call the Worm
Arcane 3
Range: 60'
Duration: 1 turn
This spell calls a purple worm from deep in the bowels of the earth to serve the caster.  The worm erupts from the ground beneath the caster's enemies at a range of up to 60', and obeys the caster's mental commands for one turn.  However, during this period, the caster must concentrate to keep control of the worm; should he take damage or otherwise have his concentration broken, the worm will escape his control and proceed to go on an indiscriminate rampage for the rest of the spell's duration.  Should the caster's enemies all be slain before the spell's duration ends, he is advised to continue controlling the worm, for it cannot be dismissed and does not disappear until either it is slain or the spell ends.  Known variants of this spell include Call the Remorhaz in frozen regions, Call Giant Crocodile in jungles and swamps, and Release the Kraken at sea.
(Maths: Summon, one creature (65), up to 18 HD (x1.33), two special abilities (x1.66), specific type of creature (x0.7), concentrate to control (x0.5), range 60 (x1.15), duration one turn (x0.5) = 28.8)

Summon Legendary Ancestor
Valkyrie 4
Range: 10'
Duration: 12 turns
This spell calls a powerful viking spirit down from Valhalla to fight alongside the valkyrie.   The legendary ancestor fights as a 10th-level Jutland barbarian warchief with a 16 Str, 10 Int, 10 Wis, 13 Dex, 16 Con, 10 Cha and the Alertness proficiency.  He is armed with a battle-axe +1, shield, and chainmail, for the following statistics:  AC 6, MV 90', HP 65, 1+ to hit, damage 1d6+7, SV F10, ML 12, AL N, +2 init, +2 surprise.  Once called, he fights alongside the valkyrie for twelve turns, or until dispelled or slain.  Reverence for the ancestor and tradition forbid summoning him more than once per day.  If called a second time in one day without regard for this tradition, the summoned ancestor will arrive very drunk and belligerent, sans any weapons, armor, or pants.  If the summoner is lucky, the ancestor will pass out on the floor or maunder on about the lack of respect today's youth exhibit for their elders before disappearing back to Valhalla.  If not, he may  stick around and cause trouble as only a drunk viking chieftain can until the summoning expires.  In either case, he is unlikely to be useful in combat.
(Maths: Summon, one creature (65), up to 10 HD (x0.8), specific type of creature (x0.7), once per day (x0.9), divine (x1.2) = 39.3)

I should do Plague of Cats and Summon Trusty Steed (summons horse with 8-hour duration for wilderness travel), but bleh.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

New ACKS Spells 2 - Utility

Today I've got an upgrade of an old standby, as well as two (slightly silly) mount-related utility spells:

Deep Slumber (Ench)
Arcane 3
Range 120'
Duration: 4d4 turns
A more powerful version of the common Sleep spell, Deep Slumber causes up to 24 HD worth of living creatures within range to save or fall asleep for the duration (the save may be vs Death or Spells, as the judge's discretion).  There is no HD cap per creature, and the caster may select the order in which he desires to effect targets, subtracting them from his HD budget.  Affected creatures may be awakened as per the Sleep spell.
(Maths: Enchantment, target asleep (15), 24 HD of creatures (x3), only living targets (x0.75), range 120' (x1.1), duration 4d4 turns (x1.2), save avoids (x0.5) = 29.7)

Estenmar's Equine Enhancer
Arcane 2
Range: Touch
Duration: 8 hours
This spell doubles the movement rate of one willing creature touched for eight hours.  Typically used by the originator on his horse for long overland journeys, the spell is equally effective on one's travelling companions or oneself while fleeing a dungeon in a pinch.  Whether unintelligent animals are 'willing' is an open question; they might be willing recipients of benign magics, or they may need special training.  Ask your DM if Estenmar's Equine Enhancer is right for you.
(Maths: Movement, double speed (5), one willing creature with normal carrying capacity (x0.8), range touch (x1), duration 8 hours (x4), beneficial effect (x1) = 16)

Pegastasize (Transmog)
Arcane 4
Range: Touch
Duration: Permanent until dispelled
Pegastasize is a specialized spell developed by a wizard who was trying to turn horses into pegasi with Polymorph Other, but who then had to deal with the complete training wipe that ensued from inheriting their mental characteristics.  Pegastasize avoids this problem, transforming a horse into a pegasus without altering its mental characteristics.  If used on a pegasus, pegastize causes its wings to retract, yielding a normal horse.  In both cases, the subject receives a saving throw vs spells, and if the target is unwilling, the caster may have to roll to hit in order to successfully touch them with the spell.
(Maths: Transmog, Total transform of living creature with physical characteristics and attacks (55), limited type to transform to (x0.75), limited type of subject (x0.75), HD limited to caster level and 2x target level (x0.75), range touch (x0.6), attack throw required vs unwilling target (x0.75), indefinite duration (x3.5) = 36.54)

Monday, February 11, 2013

New ACKS Spells 1 - Direct-Fire Combat

I broke out the spell construction rules when I was looking at Dismember earlier, and it turns out they're a lot of fun to fiddle with, much like Traveller starship design.  So, some new spells, part one of several - blasts and death:

Missile Storm (Elemental)
Arcane 2
Range: 240'
Duration: Instantaneous
This spell creates a hail of magic missiles which rain down from on high with unerring accuracy, dealing 1d6+1 damage to up to one creature per caster level within a 30' diameter area.
(Maths: Blast spell, 1d6+1 / caster level (33), cap of 1 die of damage (x0.1), one target per level in a 30' diameter (x5), 240' radius (x1.2) = 19.8)

Conflagration (Elemental)
Arcane 3
Range: 120'
Duration: 1 round per caster level
This spell, developed as an early version of fireball, causes the air in a 20' diameter sphere to ignite and burn for 1 round per level of the caster.  Each round on the caster's initiative, each creature in the affected area takes 1d8 points of damage from the fire, no save.  A cold version of this spell is also known to exist, called Dead of Winter.
(Maths: Blast, 1d8 / caster level (35), cap of 1 die of damage (x0.1), 20' diameter sphere (x2), 1 round per level (x4) = 28 points)

Wrack (Necro)
Arcane 3
Range 90'
Duration: Instantaneous
This spell induces terrible phantom pain in up to 4d8 HD of creatures, all of whom must be within a 30' diameter area.  As the evil spirits summoned for this purpose prey on the weak, those with the lowest HD in the area are affected first, and no creature of greater than 8 HD may be affected.  Affected creatures suffer only 1d4 damage from the ordeal but, on a failed save versus death, they become convinced that they have suffered a terrible injury and the spirits make it so, causing a roll on the mortal wounds table modified only by their Con score and not subject to shock or blood loss (as Dismember).
(Maths: Death, 1d4 / level (27) * cap of 1 die (x0.1) = 2.7 plus mortal wound (60) * save negates (x0.5), subtotal 32.7.  32.7 * 4d8 HD within 30' diameter (x3) * fewest HD first (x0.5) * no targets over 8 HD (x0.75) * range 90 (x0.8) = 29.42)

Friday, February 8, 2013

In Praise of the Dwarven Delver

The other day, Beedo wrote a defense of the halfling on mechanical grounds, arguing that with its superior skills, HP, and saves, it filled a vital role as a durable scout that a standard thief does not have the survivability for.  After some consideration, I realized that the Dwarven Delver from the Player's Companion essentially fills the same role - higher skills, higher saves, and more HP than a normal thief, at the cost of leveling rate and variety of skills.

After actually looking at the Delver class for a good while, though, I realized that it is almost everything I want in a stealthy class.  It's durable enough that I think it might actually survive, but it also levels at the same rate as a fighter.  Varied leveling rates are all well and good, but as others have noted before, having the thief be "a crappy class whose main strength is rapid leveling" is not particularly good design.  The delver's skill selection covers the main bases of thieving, and there is one omission I especially like.  The delver can find traps on a 14+ at 1st level, and gets better at it over time...  but he does not have access to Remove Traps as a skill.  This meshes beautifully with the way I like to run traps; realizing that there is a trap on something is a game of intuition and clues, and I'm fine with having skill rolls to realize that there's definitely a trap.  I prefer to run the disarming or circumvention of traps in a more creative fashion, sans skill rolls.  If your thieves have Remove Traps as a skill, they get unhappy when you don't really want to let them disarm traps via die roll.  But, if you have a delver instead of a thief, there is no problem.

I have a few very minor nits to pick with the class, but they're not all that bad.  Lack of Open Lock is pretty annoying; I get that it fits with the class' flavor, but Open Lock is a neat mechanic because when you find a locked chest in the dungeon, you have a quiet way to try to get it open.  Lacking Open Lock means that you're going to have to resort either to bashing, which is loud and brings down the wandering monsters, or to carrying the chest out of the dungeon, which may not be feasible due to encumbrance constraints.  I therefore feel like Open Lock is one of the thief's essential functions and, left to my own devices, would probably replace Climb Walls with it on the Delver, mess with the flavor text a little, and add the Climbing proficiency to their class list (maybe in place of Mapping).

The other place where the Delver has a potential problem compared to the thief is in weapon selection.  Missiles, plus hammers, axes, picks, and flails.  Notably absent from this list is that prince of weapons, the spear, which normal thieves receive access to.  Part of the problem with this is that I'm fairly sure that at low levels, the best way for a thief to survive to 2nd or 3rd level is with a spear in the second row, while the fighter and cleric take point until traps are suspected.  If you can pick up a fighter henchmen with Combat Trickery (Knock down), you can sit in the second row and backstab prone opponents from behind the shield wall, too.

The delver, however, lacks the access to reach weapons required to pull this off safely from the second row, so he's stuck either in the front row with low AC, or in the rear with a missile weapon and Precise Shooting's penalty to hit.  He does get Combat Trickery (Knockdown), so he could try to generate his own backstabs, but a design solution (again drifting from the original concept of the class) would be to drop Caving and shift that 'custom power' back into broad weapon proficiencies, which is where I'm pretty sure it came from during class design.

In any case, though, I'm still convinced that the Delver is fairly close to what I'd want in a thief class, and that with a few tweaks to 'make it my own', it would be something that both I and my players would seriously consider during class selection, rather than relegating it to "NPC status" like the core thief.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Of Iron Heroes and Art

Alex ran an Iron Heroes game this last weekend, so I've went back through the IH player's book working on a berserker.  One thing that jumped out at me this time was the art.  It's seriously grungy, black-and-white-and-lots-of-grey stuff with skulls everywhere.  The monsters are grotesque and the weapons look like things you'd catch Pathfinder's goblins using. 

Top, second from left: the Ugly Stick

The PCs look not like chivalrous and upstanding citizens who you'd run to for help; they look like people you'd be afraid of if you ran into them in a bar.  Most of them are festooned with knives, their clothes are tattered, and almost fully half of them are wearing either skull emblems or literal skulls on their person (berserker has a skull flail and bear skull cloak with one eye still in the socket, executioner a skull pendant, man-at-arms a skull belt buckle, thief a skull cloak pin, and arcanist hanging skull censer-looking things).  They're a very motley bunch; some of my favorite touches include the armiger's jagged shield, the hunter's lashed-together axe, the man-at-arms' bare-midriff armor (on a male, lampshading trope).  And that's just in the character classes chapter. 

He's a good guy.  Honest.  Don't mind the skulls.

The NPCs that appear in the combat chapter mostly look like what I'd expect chaos cultists to look like in Warhammer Fantasy; spiky bits abound on the bad guys, while facial pox and warts and floppy leather hats are common among 'townsfolk'. 

Snakes for the snake god!  Skulls for the skull pyramid!

The buildings in the town art look closely-built, the streets uneven, narrow, and guttered, the signs just symbols, telling that no-one is literate.

Home, sweet home...

The art throughout the book just does a fantastic job of showing us the default setting of IH.  It's not bad at depicting the game, either.  This piece:

says to us "This is a game about standing shirtless and mohawked on the fallen corpses of your misbegotten enemies and howling your defiance to a Mad-Maxian world."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I play berserkers, every now and then when I get the chance.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Of Reliability and House-Rules

You should not have a favorite weapon, or any other exaggerated preference for that matter. To become overly attached to one weapon is as bad as not knowing it sufficiently well. You should not imitate others, but use those weapons which suit you, and which you can handle properly. It is bad for both commanders and troopers to entertain likes and dislikes. Pragmatic thinking is essential. These are things you must learn thoroughly.
- Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

This post was originally a comment in response to tyflec's comment on my post on spell selection and reliability (reproduced below for ease of use).  It got a little long, though, so I decided it warranted its own post.
I feel like gravitating towards perfect reliability spells is sort of what you get for going combat-as-war. If everything is going to do its level best to kill us, and we don't have some kind of guarantee that they'll be on an even footing with us, then we as players simply can't afford to use spells that aren't reliable. Now, if you wanted to make a status-effect spell worthwhile, why not make it save-partial as opposed to save-negates? Like Blindness, say. If Blindness always blinded someone for at least one round, with a save determining whether they were permanently blind or not, it would be much more useful. Or, you could make it save-ends with a minimum duration of one round. That would solve the problem of perma-blindness instantly ending a fight, which is also not very fun. Although a minimum-one-round spell does lend itself to chain-casting to keep the creature blind for as many rounds as you have wizards... 
I disagree that desire for perfect reliability is a symptom of combat-as-war; I think it is more of a problem of general human risk-aversion.  Humans dislike failing more than they like succeeding, as a rule.  Perfect reliability means no failures, which is awesome, and something we'd expect most any reasonable human to pursue.  Further, I think that there is a case to be made for unreliable single-target spells in a combat-as-war game like ACKS.  If you're up against a 20 HD dragon and you've got one round to cast a spell, you're a damn sight better off casting Charm Monster than Fireball, because it absolutely will survive the fireball, but it might roll a 1 on its save against the Charm Monster, and then you will survive (and have a useful new ally).  An unreliable chance of success is sometimes better than an reliable certainty of failure.  Of course, an even better plan would be to run away, or, if playing combat as war, to not have gotten yourself in that position in the first place...

I think a better counter-argument for "reliability focus follows from combat-as-war" manifests itself when we look at 3.x character design (say for Tim's campaigns) and unreliable mechanics.  When we design 3.x characters, we usually design towards a specific concept or purpose, and then our satisfaction with the game is strongly correlated with how well we fulfill our intended function in combat (I'm a little bit this way, and it seems very true of my conversations with Alex; what with Shin Yao and Torrison I think you (tyflec) may be of somewhat the same mind).  When the mechanic we want to build around is unreliable because of the way the system implements it (save-or-suck casters, maneuver fighters, crit-fighters), we end up disappointed because we feel like we're not fulfilling our Aim In Playing, the successful application of the chosen mechanic, frequently enough for the game to be worth it.  Hence the push we see from you and Tim and others to make these mechanics more reliable; you want to build around them, but they are sufficiently unreliable as to be unsatisfying if you make their application your sole aim.  Thus, even in a combat-as-sport setting we still see this reliability problem within our group.

Getting from reliability to your second point about status effects, I'm not really concerned with making status effects 'worthwhile'.  At this point I'm of the mind that parts of the game are tools for different purposes, and my aim is to figure out how to play it well, to learn which tools are good for which tasks, and to build characters with a broad enough array of tools to meet a wide variety of challenges successfully.  If you want to play a dedicated save-or-suck caster, go for it...  but pick your targets and know their weak saves, bring a wand of magic missiles for mindless undead foes and a crossbow for golems, and don't complain when a reliable damage caster one-ups you most of the time.  Save-or-sucks are a good way to dispose of a weak foe or two quietly and with high reliability, in situations where bloodstains, fire, and screaming aren't going to work (eg, infiltrating a castle, hold-personing sentries), or to try for a lucky knockout-punch against a big foe.  Why are we trying to make them something else?  If you're a save-or-suck specialist, then yeah nice packaged level-appropriate encounters against foes with good saves are going to be frustrating, because the guy with the fireballs is going to be effective all the time and you're only going to be sometimes.  Take it as a challenge; what're you going to do about it?  The easy way out is to not play specialists!  Use the right weapon for the right fight.  If you must be a specialist, seek out situations where you can leverage your specialty (knock-down, drag-out fights probably aren't those, for this sort of specialist).  Play smarter, hop the railroad tracks, and tell the DM where he can stuff his balanced encounters as you Charm Person Warduke's family rather than the baddy himself.

Mostly I'm kind of tired of a trend I've been seeing in this group for a while.  xk says it well:

Our first reaction to issues in a game is usually to start proposing rules changes and stealing rules from other systems.  Rarely are we willing to admit "I chose a dumb thing to specialize in" or "I applied this tactic in a situation where it was clearly a dumb idea."  Tactically, we're idiots, a lot of the time, and we absolutely do not pay attention to what the system is telling us about how it wants to be played.  We adapt slowly and infrequently, and we just keep doing the same thing that our characters were 'built' for, even when it is an awful plan.  But instead of admitting that we're bad, we shift the blame to the rules, and decide to go mucking around with those.  Rather than having our characters adapt and diversify like people in a 'real'-esque world would, we bend the laws of physics because it saves face.  And then hey, we get to look fancy because we're doing Game Design and out-thinking the professionals!  Feels good, man.

But the game never gets better, because some guy (possibly me) will eventually choose to super-specialize his character in touch-range-only necromancy or fighting with two shields or some other Clearly Stupid But Mechanically Vaguely Plausible Idea, so we keep contorting the system to make that viable, and (more often) houserules cause cascades of unintended consequences and then we have to patch those...  It's even better if you add supplements and other peoples' houserules from the internet.  Been down Houserule Road, burned several home games over the years.  Sorry dad; I think I might've finally learned my lesson.

At this point, I'm all for clarifying and interpreting places where the rules are unclear, or for altering the rules to better conform to the intended setting, but changing the rules for the sake of 'making the game better' is not currently of any interest to me.  The fact that the few alterations I made to ACKS were arguably causal for some of the terminal issues with the campaign leaves me very leery of altering things without fully understanding them and properly considering the implications of the changes I'm making.  The flaws of a game, in my experience, are often with how the rules are being applied, with the way it is being played, rather than with the rules themselves.

If a class or strategy 'sucks,' the interesting solution isn't to patch it; it's to either not play it, or to figure out a way to play it which makes it not suck, and to diversify your strategy so that you're still useful in some way when you come up against a hard counter to your standard plan of engagement.  When I say "Dismember is a bad spell for PCs, the thief is an awful class, and 3.x archers are terrible", there's an implicit "but I challenge you to prove me wrong in action, using the tools present in the system-as-written."  When Dan's TB rogue sucked, the general opinion within the group became "TB rogues suck," and I responded by building Asmir and running him in a way which did not suck.  I'm actually seriously considering running a thief for Drew's ACKS game for just this purpose; the group is convinced that thieves are bad, and for every time I try it and end up dead, the victory when I do finally crack it and play a successful thief will be all the sweeter.

In sum: I'm tired of asking and being asked, "What about removing action points, or adding inherent bonuses in place of magic items, or banning certain feats or classes, or making guilds available to non-thieves, or building custom trade hijinks for non-criminal venturers, or making domains available to sub-9th characters, or improving sunder and save-or-suck?"  I want to play the game, really play it, adaptively and with a chance of defeat, rather than playing with the game.

...  but if you absolutely must make new save-or-suck spells that are Save Partial and strictly better than the current versions, at least make them higher level and give them new names, for god's sake :(

Monday, February 4, 2013

PC Spells vs DM Spells

While responding to Alex's comments on my review of the ACKS Player's Companion, I was reminded of a position I've held on spell selection for a while now.  Alex argued that Dismember and Choking Grip are both awesome spells, and was surprised that my players, despite having access to them, had fallen back to the old standbys of Fireball and Sleep.  I discussed this with the rest of the group, and I think we reached something of an agreement on why Dismember in particular didn't see much use.

The primary concerns which motivated our players during combat spell selection were reliability (How often will this spell actually work?), versatility (How often will this spell be useful?), and raw power (When I get to use it and it works, how awesome will this spell's effects be?).  A spell which allows a save, requires an attack roll, or has a variable duration is unreliable, while a spell which can only target one opponent, or which has its effectiveness reduced against certain classes of opponents (eg, undead immune to sleep) lacks versatility in terms of the sort of combats where it can be used to its fullest potential.  Unreliability and inflexibility can be outweighed if the payoff on success is very high, which is where raw power comes in, but that's a hard sell.

Dismember is pretty unreliable; a save negates all of its effects.  It's also single-target, which reduces its versatility somewhat.  Worse still is that the single targets you're going to want to burn a 3rd-level spell slot against are probably enemy chieftains and spellcasters, who have relatively good saves.  While mortal wounds are scary, the death and dismemberment table introduces another level of unreliability into the spell; while you could sever both of their arms or break their spine, scoring an immediate knock-out, you've got a similar probability of knocking out a few of their teeth or inflicting minor scarring, which is probably not a relevant contribution to most combats.  3d6 damage is nice, but that's on par with fireball successful-save damage to a single target, and only occurs on a failed save.  Fireball, by comparison, deals damage (more reliable than negative effects across types of opponent) to a potentially-large number of targets (versatile), and while it gives a save, it's a save for half (more reliable).

Choking Grip is a slightly different case from Dismember.  It has the advantage of preventing an enemy from casting while under its effects, in addition to dealing damage which under good conditions outstrips that inflicted by magic missile or other 1st-level damage dealers (though those conditions are unreliable, and the targets you really want to deal that much damage to have many HD, hence probably higher saves and more likely to end the effect sooner).  It can also be cast by a 1st-level wizard henchman, and doesn't scale with caster level.  This means that if you're (say) clearing hexes and have reason to believe the weaselmen might have a witch-doctor, it absolutely pays to have your low-level wizard henches learn Choking Grip to lock down superior enemy firepower.  Also useful for winning wizard-duels if you're short on spell slots, or for killing your master to take his tower and spellbooks.  Arguably useful for preventing dragonbreath, since a choke closes the windpipe (as opposed to a strangle, which just closes blood vessels), but good luck getting a dragon to fail those saves for any length of time.  Less than useful for killing massed humanoids than sleep, though, and that was what we tended to be doing.  Also no use at all against undead, which were another mainstay of our adventuring diet, and where magic missile saw a fair bit of use instead of sleep.

This is not to say, of course, that Dismember is a bad spell.  It is, however, what I classify as a "DM spell", and it is the division of spells into PC and DM spells which is my main thrust here.  This category of spells is generally characterized by long-duration negative side effects (which aren't typically useful against monsters due to their generally short life expectancy), single-target nature, and saving throws.  Other examples include Blindness, Bestow Curse, and Phantasmal Killer in 3.x (notable for the fact that the target gets two saves to avoid; normally DM Spells aren't save-or-die, but this one is sufficiently unreliable that I've never met a PC who used it, even dedicated illusionists with Spell Focus to boost the DCs).  I claim that spells like these are not all that useful against monsters compared to other spells of their level (Web, Wall of Fire, Charm Monster), but they are very scary when you're a PC and they're aimed at you, because you will have to deal with the nasty side effects for quite a while.  Thus, while they don't see wide use by PCs, they make excellent spells for NPCs to use against players.  Hence, DM spells.  Players are often underwhelmed when they select a DM spell for its cool factor, use it a few times, and see their opponents make the saves and suffer no effect, but the DM can go through as many casters and slots as he needs to, and isn't out to murder the PCs to the maximum extent of his abilities anyways.  By contrast, players tend to respond well to spells which are reliable and versatile, because they pay a fairly heavy premium for switching out spells and will be confronted with a wide variety of situations with a single set of spells known, and when an unreliable spell fails they've burned an important resource which they may not get a chance to recharge for some time.  Hence my criteria for a PC spell, above; it all boils down to risk management and resource management, and DM spells are a risky way to spend the limited resource of repertoire slots.

On the other hand, this spell selection philosophy grew out of playing 3.5, where monsters never lived more than 10 rounds, the bodak that almost TPK'd us was retconned to being an illusion, and even high-mobility dragons refused to flee from combats they were clearly losing.  In old-school play, it's very possible to engage a monster or group of monsters several times when one group or the other retreats, in which case a long-to-permanent-duration crippling spell against an enemy powerhouse could be very useful.  Maybe there is a strong PC use-case for such spells in ACKS revolving around hit-and-run tactics.  But my players are very...  direct and true to their 3.5 roots in their tactics, and their spell selection preferences reflect this, with a strong preponderance of short-duration negative effects and direct damage instead.  If I wanted to design a spell to fill the '3rd-level single-target offense' niche that Dismember is in, and I wanted to build something my players would love and use regularly, I would go for something like a single-target 1d8 damage per level blast, uncapped, no save, no attack roll, 90' range, which works out to 28 points under the spell construction rules, and hence a 3rd-level spell.  Is this something which I would actually put in my game?  Probably not, except maybe as treasure for killing a wizard who had it and was able to use it against the PCs first.  And if some clever PC wizard decided to research it, I would likely have a rival steal his notes and use it against the party, because that there is a deadly weapon for the killing of dragons, kings, PCs, and other hard targets.  There's a reason most damaging spells offer either an attack roll or a save for half; perfect reliability is both boring and powerful (especially when combined with uncapped scaling).  Perhaps unfortunately, we seem to tend to gravitate towards it anyways...

(A more reasonable construction along similar lines might be a 3rd-level blast or death spell dealing 2d4 / caster level capped at 10d4, range 90', no save, no attack.  25ish damage is enough to put a really good dent in most targets, but it doesn't scale up indefinitely)

Friday, February 1, 2013

Dynamic Lairs

Re-reading through the ACKS book to see if there were any other things like morale that I missed details on, I came across the dynamic lair rules.  When I read them during my initial preparation of the ACKS region, I kind of went "Well, that's an interesting idea, but I don't particularly see building a pile of these lairs when I'm expecting to do mostly dungeon play," so I ignored it.  Upon this most recent re-read, I realized that this is a wonderful tool for low-prep resource extraction wilderness play, which could be used to 'fill in' a rolled random lair without lagging up play for treasure generation.  Probably not useful for generating the targets of treasure maps, but it could be used for that too.

In retrospect, I should've been preparing a bunch of dynamic lairs and treasure map targets over the holidays (or possibly even before that, once it became clear that the PCs were wilderness-capable), rather than trying to fully stock hexes.  This would have been both a lot less work, and would not have so encouraged my players to try to clear hexes.  I love it when the reason part of the system is there suddenly makes sense (the fact that such realizations usually follow bungling closely is somewhat unfortunate, but so it goes).

Of course, it would have been even less work to use SkyFullofDust's lairs when possible, and to pick up where he left off by posting more lairs after my PCs had sacked them...  Next campaign.