Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Natural Language and Causality

Does it strike anyone else as strange that all natural languages (that I have met so far) are built around cause, effect, and intentionality?  The whole separation of subjects, verbs, and objects necessarily injects causal inference into every statement - verb happened to object as a consequence of subject's nature.

Contrast this with the nature of raw experience, where causal relations are never explicit in any single action, and can only be extracted from prolonged observation.  The causal information density of language is much higher than that of sensory experience, but at the expense of accuracy and nuance.

Contract this also with the mathematical formalism of the function, where we relate a 'cause' and an 'effect' through enumeration of all causes and all effects which follow from a certain 'law', and none of which are really actions.  Here there is no inference - only truth, of a sort.

What does this have to do with RPGs?  Not sure.  Am tired.  Maybe relevant to players forming causal inferences about sandbox settings, and the value of providing NPC adventureres and rumors to inform them of some of the details of the universe's operation (like "Wait, you killed a bunch of wyverns out in the wilderness?  I bet they had a lair and it's full of unguarded treasure...").  Causal information density there is evidently much higher than traipsing around in the woods for a couple of months...  and the mathematical formalism corresponds to letting them read the encounter tables.

Maybe also relevant to learning new games, which is a topic I have been considering lately (coworkers desire one-shot).

I suspect that this will not be the last philosophical, maybe-but-probably-not-relevant-to-gaming post in the queue.

Reflections on Playing via Internet

This post brought to you by Microsoft!  Disimproving skype since 2011 (seriously, new version for linux dropped yesterday, and they removed support for ALSA.  WTF, guys.  It's the first release in over a year, and it's still 32-bit only.  Since I use Alsa, I guess I had better find another voice/video-over-internet solution...).

Which, of course, will only make already-lacklustre gaming-over-IP experiences less good.  So far, I think an accurate summary of our existing problems follows:
  • Voice-channel multiplexing failure.  We don't have transcontinental latency low enough for video to work, and as a result, we have a very hard time telling when someone is done speaking.  This results in substantial dead time on the wire after anyone says anything, as everyone else waits to see if they have anything else to say.  The opposite problem, of interruption / simultaneous starts, is also prevalent, which causes further backoff delays.
    • Potential solution: push-to-talk-like voice chat, with some manner of quiet indicator (either visual or a beep or background noise that cuts out) that someone is in or has exited talk mode.
  • Too many players.  Since we're on the internet already, let's invite everyone from everywhere, and their family and significant others!  I don't think this is necessarily a problem on the campaign-scale, depending on structure, but six-player sessions with already bad communications latency are just rough.  Consensus is basically impossible to establish, nevermind in a timely fashion.
    • Solution: picarqesue-style games, with small (<=4) player groups pulled from a potentially much larger pool of irregularly available players.  This has its own advancement and group cohesion problems, but that's true of any game in this style.
  • Distraction.  "Hold on guys, my pizza just got here," or worse yet, "brb I need to go cook for 20 minutes."  In a face-to-face game, there's one period of food-distraction for everyone, during which misc discussion occurs.  Here there're a bunch of them, unsynchronized, and they do not help the Too Many Players or Multiplexing problems.
  • Lack of out-of-game planning and discussion.  In college, the gamer crew was also a social circle which met and discussed outside of the game itself.  This is much less true post-diaspora, and also with isolated subgraphs like family members of one player.  Great games, I think, are driven by the external discussion, speculation, and musing surrounding them.  Ultimately, this may be a symptom of loss of cohesion as a social circle rather than anything gaming-specific.
    • Unfortunately, I don't think there's really a single digital center-of-interaction which is in regular use by all of the group, which is a major contributing factor.  I know Alex, my father, and I aren't really facebook users, for example, which is probably the closest thing.  While everyone is on obsidian portal, it's hindered by the forum structure (I like old-style forums, but I get the feeling others do not), crappy UI, and infrequency of checking.  It would probably be straightforward to get an IRC channel somewhere, which would also enable logging in a way that voice comms do not...
  • As mentioned in a previous post, scheduling has been fun, and unreliable attendance and tardiness are high.  This problem is only likely to get worse as sleep cycles diverge further; if I'm getting up at 0600 EST (if sun is up, cat is up.  If cat is up, I'm going to be awake whether I like it or not) and Drew is getting up at 1100 PST, opportunities for 4-6 hours of overlapping free time are going to be hard to come by.
  • DM burnout.  That's my excuse, at least, and my understanding from discussions with Alex drew a somewhat similar impression (setting burnout for him).  It's just been so long since I actually ran a decent game that it's rather discouraging.  Maybe you West Coasties and Yinzers have more fun things to do out there, but if one of y'all would be willing to assume the mantle, I for one would not be ungrateful.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bundle of Holding: Paranoia!

Damnit, BoH, now I'm halfway through both the Pendragon and Eclipse Phase core books and you're tempting me with more cheap, delicious games in support of good causes (EFF and Human Rights Watch this time). 

And my coworkers have requested that I run Paranoia.  This has been problematic in the past due to lack of Paranoia (well, in written / manual form, at least).  But now it is remedied.

So much for having a monthly gaming budget...  and next week is Steam Summer Sale, and this last week Civ5 came out for linux...

And good times were had by all.

Related: Eclipse Phase is a beautiful setting, and one which I think Jared and Matt at least would be moderate fans of.  I'm a little concerned that with the body-switching and virtual reality and mind-bendy nanobots, things could get into Bodak Territory pretty easily, but it also feels like it would suit my style quite well.
  • Immortalish demons with magic beyond mortal kenning - TITANs, exsurgent virus, exsurgent nanoswarms.  Hell, they even have skull-taker bots that behead you for forced uploading to unknown purpose...
  • Cults within cults, wheels within wheels - Shadow war between Firewall and TITAN cults (or other things that I just haven't read up to yet).  Conspiracy abounds.
  • PC death - A regular occurrence, but softened by re-downloading into a fresh "sleeve".  Sanity loss is what permakills you (much like in ACKS, it's the resurrection side-effects that get you).
  • The Dungeoncrawl / Hulkcrawl - Plenty of rightly-abandoned derelict habitats in orbit over Earth.  Mind the killbots.
  • Non-aversion to divination - Useful here, since there's pervasive surveillance (sousveillance via nanite) and any half-sensible PC will probably just check the meshnet as their first source.  Not a good setting for murder mysteries (though resleeving makes me really want to run a murder mystery game, where the PCs are both the victims and the investigators.  But if you really want to assassinate someone in EP, you take out the backups first...).

Reddit would have me believe that one significant problem with the game is that you can stack too much armor, and then nothing is a threat.  This is something that I would probably have to address, since backup/restore operations are sort of supposed to be a thing.  I have also read that chargen is rather complex - am now curious if there's a good way to merge Trav-simplicity onto EP-setting.  But that is a project for after I have properly read and evaluated EP's mechanics as-is.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

ACKS News: DaW pdfs out to backers, ACKS SRD up

Domains at War is out to backers finally, with a public release date of 4 July!  I've been looking at building a Battles server to automate the table lookups and legal move enumeration and suchlike, but have yet to settle on anything conclusive.  The problem is complicated by magic - when wish is on the table, you basically need an interpreter for a full-blown programming language in order to be able to handle high-power PCs.  And then there are security hazards... (what do you mean, can't we just hand them eval()? :P).

This requirement for a domain-specific language (man that's sort of a terrible pun in this context) and limited ability to inflict collateral damage on the server with said language has me considering Haskell (after all, even if you do get eval...  you probably don't know enough Haskell to cause great damage).  Also, my desire to actually build a reasonable-sized project in Haskell in order to cement my learning of it.  In practice, I expect that if I do get around to it, it'll probably be in Python and just not handle a lot of the crazy magic edge-cases, unfortunately.  The good-enough is the enemy of the perfect :\


That name looks rather familiar!  It is in my nature to report typos, but nobody's felt like giving me an editor credit for it before.  Thanks Autarchs!

Finally, caphiend has more-or-less finished producing an ACKS SRD by removing the closed content from the ACKS manuals.  Go take a look at !

(Man, these sort of posts are really easy to write!  No wonder Tenkar does it so frequently d:  I have nothing but respect for Tenkar, for the record, but he does post a lot of news.  I hope someone finds this post as useful as I have found his).

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Bundle of Holding: Pendragon Review

I read the introduction, and was enthused.  My take-away from the front matter was "Oh, this is going to be like Legend of the Five Rings, but with names I can pronounce, no weird animu wizards, and dynastic character replacement!  And nobody's going to expect me to fall on my sword if (when) I fuck up.  Awesome!"

As I work my way through the rest of the book, my enthusiasm is waning a little (at this point I'm about halfway through).  There are definitely some things going on that I'm not the biggest fan of.  First off, the organization is pretty bad.  Like, Stargrunt bad, at least.  They don't actually explain the core action-resolution mechanic until 90 pages into the 240-page book.  The entire skills section comes before it, and references various degrees of success repeatedly, as well as providing modifiers.  Reading the skills, I was almost entirely lost.  Just how bad is a -6 penalty?  Your guess is as good as mine. There have definitely been other counter-intuitive forward-references, like using Evasion to disengage in chapter five, while Evasion is only defined near the end of chapter six.  I wasn't sure if Evasion was a skill whose description I skipped, or something else entirely.  I'm sure I'll find more things like this as I go along.

The editing is also pretty bad, which I find amusing for such a literary-styled game.  I think my favorite errors so far have been in the title descriptions:
"A king must support himself and his family, and must
provide for the wellbeing of his vassals and maintain the
health and prosperity of his kingdom. The king himself
must live as a Superlative knight.
A king has no lord, and thus owes duty to no one, or
else owes fealty to Arthur Pendragon.
Player Responsibilities: As the player of a baron, but the
king’s player must take on the role of Gamemaster for a hunt,
a feast, and a session of court when asked, and must hold a
Regional or Regal Tournament at least once annually.
Come again?  There's a lot wrong with that sentence, if you can call it that.  There are other, more minor issues too.  "Born" vs "borne" bugged me.  I haven't been tracking these diligently.  It's not as bad as a late-era Mongoose Traveller splatbook, but it is annoying.

Moving on to gameplay concerns.  The personality trait and passion system is an interesting idea.  I think it could work very well for the right group of players, but man, I could see having a PC be forced to act in a particular way based on bad luck going over poorly, especially when the bar for "having to check a Passion frequently" is at 16.  Most player knights start with like four passions at 15 (Hospitality, Loyalty to Lord, Family, and Honor).  If any of those hit 16, you're in danger of having to make frequent rolls against it.  Frequent passion rolls are liable to drive you mad (although you can get some sweet lunatic-strength out of 'em first through inspiration, hopefully).  Hazardous!

The authors do not understand conditional probability, as evidenced by the sidebar on page 121.  Rolling exactly equal to your skill is always a critical success, while rolling under your skill is just a normal success.  As a result, a guy with skill 1 always scores critical successes when he succeeds.  Which is...  weird.  As they note, a critical success only happens 5% of the time, and it happens at that rate for anyone (well, anyone with a skill under 20).  But what they fail to perceive is that the conditional probability of critical success given success is all screwed up; a guy with skill 3 is five times as likely to score a crit, given that he scored a success, than a guy with skill 15.  It's just statitistically sort of unreasonable, you know?

Fumbles operate much the same way.  sigh.  What more can be said of fumbles, in any system?

Glory allocation looks pretty arbitrary.  It's a very fuzzy-wuzzy "when the GM feels like it" sort of business, which is troubling since it scales on orders of magnitude (ie, an Ordinary glory award is 10 glory, while a Heroic one is 100 and an Extraordinary one is 1000) and also basically operates as XP (in that your progression in abilities is derived from it).

Things seem very focused on recreating and playing through the Arthurian myths, rather than on borrowing the milieu and assumptions of Arthurian legend without actually going and statting up Merlin (Merlin and Uther's stats on pages 11-12 were when I started to get sad).  Basically always a faux pas, to stat up mythological figures that probably aren't for killing.

I just realized that they reused art between chapters one and six.  I don't think I mind this that much, though - it's a nice piece.

With all that out of the way - on to the good!

First off - everyone is fighters.  Guess which class my players like to play?  Yeah.  Fighters.  And the whole psychological modelling thing makes more sense in this light - everybody's going to be fairly similar in terms of skills and talents, so you do need an extra dimension to mix characters up.

Chargen is point-buy, but family generation is more Traveller-style.  Kinda neat.  Also ready source of replacement characters.

And you may well need replacement characters.  Combat looks pretty straightforward and also reasonably deadly.  Once you actually manage to read all the relevant rules, spread out over several sections, it turns out almost everything is d20, roll under your skill.  Modifiers aren't little +1s and +2s, they're big fat +5s and -10s and such, which is nice!  Circumstance modifiers dominate luck.  Natural healing is slow, it's possible to die of infection, and you can also further injure yourself if you're badly wounded and insist on continuing to fight.  Or ride a horse, or dance, or "romance", for that matter (yes, romance is a thing, because that family has to come from somewhere.  Turns out you also get a bunch of glory points for getting married, too).

I love that Pagan knights are an option.  I can have "Generous, Energetic, Honest, Lustful, and Proud" as my religious virtues?  Sign me up!  None of this Chastity and Modesty and Forgiveness crap...  These are virtues I can work with!  "Tell me, Sir Conan (actually a Breton-ish name - Conan II de Rennes was a duke of Brittany, and a rival of William the Conqueror), what is best in life?"  "To crush your enemies without delay or trickery, to provide well for their widows and make love to their daughters, and to have your victories immortalized in ballad and song!"  Devout pagan knights also get a +2 bonus to healing rate, which is excellent (Devout British Christian knights get +2 damage and +3 HP, Roman Catholic knights get +6 HP.  But a typical starter knight has 27 HP and does 4d6 damage, and only has a healing rate of 3 HP/week!  So +2 healing per week is pretty serious - when detioriation due to unsanitary conditions is a d6 of damage per week, 3 healing is a death sentence while 5 is a probable recovery).

Related: what I have seen so far suggests that religion is a moderately-serious topic, but it's handled more through actions than words.  You get the "religious knight" bonuses not for having a high Piety trait (which is a thing), but for having high scores in your religion's favored virtues (necessarily acquired through behaving in accordance with those virtues throughout play), of which Piety is not one!  It's about living the creed while getting out there and stabbing some Saxons and Picts in the face - religion for the vital warrior-nobility.  And certainly not flame strikes and cure light wounds...

This game is extremely well-structured for episodic play (in keeping with its sources!).  Knights spend most of their time patrolling their lord's lands and administering uninteresting justice.  You only have free time to go on about one real group adventure a year, plus maybe one solo adventure, and then you handle XP, aging, domain income, courtly intrigue, wooing unmarried noblewomen, wooing married noblewomen, and such over the winter.  The scope is sufficient that you could conceivably play the whole reign of Arthur and three generations of PC knights in a year or so of weekly sessions, if I have things figured right.  And if somebody misses a session, it's not a huge deal - you just make it up as a solo adventure at some point, or let them have an uneventful year managing their fief.  They can still earn glory from their incomes and sire children to further the line, and yeah they might age a little, but they also didn't run the risk of dying or being driven insane.  They didn't miss out on the magic sword or the wish-gold (probably), and everyone else is aging out too so it's not like in D&D where if you fall behind a level you're screwed (skill progression being much more organic - a point here, a point there).  I think this would work itself out, up to a point (especially since as knights die, you're stuck playing the unlanded nephews and illegitimate sons until your heir proper comes of age.  Young characters lack skill, old characters suffer aging.  A perpetually "mixed-level" party seems likely after the initial group of young starter knights ablates a bit).

Finally, I could not help but think that this would make a very reasonable system for a Game of Thrones-ier game, with characters who are actually a little bit crazy.  Also, fighters.  I do not think most of my players would go straight for Maester in such a situation.  No, it's all about the fighters.  (Also, a courtier-style knight with high Deceitfulness, Appearance, and Courtesy would be highly entertaining).

Aaaaaah god damn you bundle of holding an Eclipse Phase bundle?  I haven't even gotten through the core rulebook of the last bundle!  And it's going to EFF?  Welp, guess I better support a cause I care about while also getting a thing I already wanted for less than I wanted to pay for it...

This, ladies and gentlemen, is post-scarcity economics in action.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Book of ACKSalted Deeds II: Design Decisions

Having laid out the intended structure of my religion revision, I now find myself at the tricky bit - implementation.  I have a few concerns that I definitely need to keep in mind throughout this process.
    • How difficult should it be to work minor miracles?  And at what cost should they usually come?  On the high end, what can a character with an 18 Piety and a bunch of vows make happen, and how often?  On the low end, can a character with 3 Piety even have a chance of successful prayer without vows?  Does prayer's efficacy or scope scale with level?  What should the probability distribution on success look like?  
      • 2d6, reaction roll style?  Problem: small modifiers rapidly dominate the die-randomness.
      • Or d20xd6, RL&L-table style?  Problem: need lots of table entries, d20 split into groups of 5 is not very granular and is also dominated by die-randomness.  That might be desirable for pentulant Classical-type deities, though.  What goes on the d6 edge of things, though?
      • Something else, like 2d10?  Gives a bit more modifier-space than 2d6, without the extreme swinginess of a d20.  Strongly tends to the mean, though.  d12+d8 flattens the middle range, but doesn't change much beyond that.  I dunno man, coming up with good probability distributions is hard when you're not exactly sure what you're looking for.
    • Prayer Spam, particularly as it interacts with henchmen and domains.  If you're the guy with 3 Piety, but you have a henchman with 18 Piety, can you get him to pray in your stead?  What about at 14th level, when he's basically the pope?  Should prayer frequency be a per-player resource, as it is assumed that henchman prayers are ultimately for the player's benefit?
    • How does the Divine Power subsystem interact with the new system?  What about item creation?
      • Divine power can be burned to provide a bonus to prayer rolls, or just to increase the scope of the results?  I actually sort of like the idea that divine power is the only significant way to scale up miracles - it makes conversion / expansion and temple-building a priority for anyone planning to make regular use of prayer.  Also provides an explanation for heresies and rivalries within a church - priests compete with each other for influence over the flock, and heresies tend to bring the doctrine closer in-line with what the flock wants to believe in order to win them over.
        • And as long as you keep your vows, heresy's A-OK in the deity's book.
      • Divine item creation is superseded by receiving magic items as gifts from deity as a result of high prayer roll?  (Athena's shield, Hades' helm, and Hermes' shoes, Nethack granting spellbooks on prayer, ...)
    • Sacrifice quantities.  I desire to make sacrifice difficult to game, in that a major / high-effectiveness sacrifice should actually cost the PC something fairly dear.  Fortunately, deities know things and can avoid accepting gamed sacrifices, but it's a hard thing to nail down and provide guidelines to players.  Maybe use the Standards of Living table and the bribery rules as a starting point?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Book of ACKSalted Deeds I: Overview

I've been meaning to write this (series of) post(s) for a while.  I have, in fact, false-started on it twice already.  Perhaps this time it will run its full course.

I am dissatisfied with religion in D&D.  Clerics are boring and don't exist in an adventuring capacity in sword and sorcery or western myth or medieval literature (with the exception of that one guy on the Bayeaux tapestry and maybe Joan of Arc) or most of the other relevant sources for D&D's tropes except the Old Testament and post-D&D works which were influenced by the game in the first place.

So, says I, let's burn 'em down and start over.  Let us consider a more Greco-Nethack model of religion (yes, you read that right).
  • Wisdom is changed to Piety, and explicitly models the character's ability to propitiate powerful spirits, much as Charisma models his ability to relate to other mortal beings.  Wisdom / Piety continues to modify saves vs spells and RL&L rolls, as a measure of passive protection provided by the character's spirituality.  Piety also modifies saves to avoid or mitigate divine retribution.
  • Piety modifies prayer rolls.  Anyone can pray for deliverance, but some characters are better at it than others.  A successful prayer roll may duplicate a divine spell or provide another boon to the praying PC as appropriate for the deity and the circumstances; a reasonably high roll may provide the requested aid, but at future cost (failure to pay is at the supplicant's peril).  A bad roll may anger the deity and bring about a curse or smiting, or it might just have no effect.
    • Prayers typically fall into about-four categories:
      • Deliverance from immediate peril ("Thor save us from these ghouls!  Please!").  Typically manifests as minor miracles if successful.  Turning undead is a lower-difficulty special case.
      • Protection from an anticipated danger ("Thor, please accept these burnt goats in exchange for not capsizing our galley in a thunderstorm during our next expedition.").  May manifest as blanket de-facto plot protection, or re-rolls on saves, or a bonus on saves, or a re-roll on encounter tables, or...
      • Good fortune in a planned endeavour ("Thor, grant us strength in battle and bolster our courage during our raid against the orcs two islands over.").  Probably primarily a limited re-roll mechanic within deity's sphere of influence.
      • Guidance (Thor is probably not the best deity to pray to for guidance, but "Loki, grant us gold-wisdom in our pillaging" might work).  Answers questions or bestows prophecies or what-not.
    • Other circumstantial modifiers for prayer rolls are dependant on the deity in question - a jealous deity may grant a penalty if you have prayed to another deity recently, a sacrifice before the prayer may grant a bonus, and requesting aid too frequently is likely to result in some deific ire (once per week per character without penalty sounds sort of reasonable).  A corrupting deity may grant a bonus in exchange for abandoning the worship of another deity.  Some deities favor certain races, while others look kindly on those who follow certain codes of conduct.  Which brings us to...
  • Vows and taboos are codes of conduct, accepted voluntarily as part of a religious ritual.  While a vow is observed, the supplicant gains a small bonus to prayer rolls for certain deities and may gain a small proficiency-like bonus or other minor boon (like a single, set low-level divine spell per day).  Additionally, the vower may gain some measure of social standing within the church (bonus to reaction rolls of other worshippers).  If a vow is broken, a forgiving deity may give a character an opportunity to do penance, while an unforgiving deity may make with the smiting.  In either case, a vow-breaker is likely to suffer considerable social stigma within the community of worshippers of his deity.
  • Oaths are similar to vows, except that while vows are mainly negative ("Thou shall not...") or routine ("Keep the sabbath holy..."), an oath is more of the form "I swear with Crom as my witness that this fortress shall not fall while I yet draw breath.".  An oath compels the swearer to heroic or exceptional action.  Successful completion of an oath may result in a boon (like a 10% bonus to XP earned over the course of its completion), while failure is liable to lead to smiting, cursing, or shaming by the church community.  Swearing an oath which the deity finds unagreeable or rules-lawyerly is likewise cause for negative consequences.  A character who dies with an oath unfulfilled may attempt prayer to be permitted to return to life or haunting undeath - otherwise, he is tormented in the afterlife for his failure.
  • Quests and crusades are subsets of oaths, typically caused either by a mediocre prayer roll and required as payment by the deity, or requested by divine revelation.  A quest typically requires the retrieval of a holy object and its return to the church, while a crusade usually requires the conquest of a holy land or city.  Embarking on a quest may grant probationary membership of a holy military order, if any exist for the deity in question, while completion thereof is likely to result in full membership or promotion.  Leading and winning a crusade may result in the crusader being proclaimed a Defender of the Faith, Hammer of Deityname, or otherwise exalted far and wide, and is also likely to result in an expansion of the victor's domains.  In either case, substantial improvements in church standing result, and vows can sometimes be bent while on a quest or crusade without risking divine retribution.
So.  I think this would be an interesting* alternate take on religion in D&D.  A serious-ass take, that might require DMs to actually think about their deities/cosmologies and players to actually interact meaningfully with those cosmologies.  Come on, players, you weren't playing clerics anyway...

Thursday, June 5, 2014


I have noticed a trend of late - I start a post, get halfway through, and then never finish it.  So far:
  • Post(s) of ACKSalted Deeds - In which I attempt to replace clerics with a NetHackian prayer system (also piety scores, vows, oaths, quests, curses, and smiting).
  • Remaining threads, surviving enemies, and explanations of things left open at the end of the Shieldlands campaign
  • Variant cleric spells
I also have unstarted posts on:
In any case, still alive, been mostly programming and playing on Steam in free time instead of actual gaming.  Games coming to linux is the best and worst thing that has happened in a while :\