Friday, November 21, 2014

Tuning the ACKS

The three main complaints my past players have had with ACKS are that mortality is too high, levelling is too slow, and domains are unsatisfying.  I hope that they will correct me if I am wrong.  I will be blunt - my intent is to make ACKS somewhat more forgiving.  Not as forgiving as 3.x, but a healthy compromise.

Mortality is tricky.  ACKS is pretty good about making the consequences of death sort-of-mitigatable, but my understanding of the concern is that sometimes you roll some really bad news on the RL&L table and then you pretty much have to retire.  Certain results are vary wildly in their punitiveness based on the receiver's class, like the move-silently-is-impossible and the reduced divine spells per day.  The Invisible Stalker is widely regarded as an infinite re-death sentence, and the blindness and reduced con/wis results are also considered retireable.  One solution, I suppose, would be to give a global bonus to RL&L and mortal wounds rolls - one option proposed on the forums was +5 to mortal wounds and -5 to RL&L for a gritty, Iron Heroes-esque campaign.  I could see giving a bonus, maybe +3, to rolls on both tables.  This would push you up half a category on average, making the really miserable results less likely but not impossible, while opening some of the 21-25 results as more possible.  Add in point-patches to the invisible stalker (maybe it's willing to bargain) and the move silently and we might be in business.

Another option would be to allow some movement between the d6 and the d20 results; maybe you can subtract 2 points from the d20 to add one to the d6 or subtract 1 from the d6 to add 2 to the d20.  This would actually give players some choice in the matter and lead to some lesser-of-n-evils type decisions, as well as permitting them to choose afflictions most in keeping with their conception of their PC's nature.

Ultimately the problem with the death and dismemberment / tampering with mortality tables is that they, like critical hits, hurt the players a hell of a lot more than the monsters.

Moving on to levelling.  One option, as I have mentioned previously, is to increase treasure yield.  I still think this is a good one.  Part of the allure of the OSR for me as a DM was that I could give out so much loot the party would need to bring shovels and mules to get it out of the dungeon.  The tables, however, have had other ideas.  Magic gear is also how you incrementally get new abilities outside of the quantized levelling structure, so more treasure helps there as well.

Other options: global percentage bonuses to XP like prime reqs (but then you can't afford to domain when you get there), inter-season breaks where people acquire gold and XP off-screen.  Smaller parties wouldn't hurt either.  One thing I have been considering regarding domain XP specifically is dividing your GP threshold for the purposes of some income by the number of people you're splitting that income with in order to make shared domains more reasonable (ie, 5-man party gets a domain and divides its incomes.  Normally nobody gets any XP.  In this case if your XP threshold were 40000 GP, you'd treat it as 8000 GP for the purposes of income from that domain, because you're splitting it five ways).

The domain problem is under ongoing investigation, both through reverse engineering and reading other sources, as discussed elsewhere.  More to follow in further posts.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Fields of Blood

It's funny that, looking back at my original post about ACKS, I was interested in it as an alternative / "for comparison with" Fields of Blood, but I never got around to writing such a comparison.

Fields of Blood is an old 3.x supplement that basically did the Domain Game.  Looking back, it did some things well and some things poorly, and there are definitely lessons to be learned and good ideas to be stolen from it.

A systematic review:

The introduction is unusually long at three pages, providing a glossary, a simple example of the core combat mechanics, and a brief rundown of the contents of the following chapters.  I think this is clever; you may not fully grok the meaning of each term without context, but skimming them here "loads" them for later comprehension and memory.

Realms are discussed next.  Realms have a species, a sort of "tech level" ranging from Nomadic to Civilized, and a government style.  These aren't particularly well-considered or historically justified; they're at a similar level of accuracy to civilization and government traits in the Civ games (which is to say "minimal / inspired by").  Nomads in particular are beautifully overpowered, and the government types are really amusing to read, but they're sort of fun to play around with.  Next up is terrain; hexes are 12 miles across and each is classified into one of eight terrain types.  Mixed-terrain provinces are permitted, but basically just give the owner their choice of which to use.  The production of each province is determined by the race occupying it and the size of the province's settlement; no distinction is made between rural and urban incomes, with the settlement size taken to be representative of the whole population of the area.  While the economics of the game are frankly rather broken, going beyond 3.x's usual lack of concern and out into the realms of "buggy in play" / potential exploits, I think this merger of domain and settlement is an abstraction worth stealing for ease of use, as well as elimination of tracking population down on the level of individual families.

There is a list of improvements you can build in your settlements, including temples, thieves' guilds, wizards' guilds, economic improvements like irrigation systems and marketplaces, and of course fortifications.  The presentation of the fortifications is notably superior to ACKS', in that it includes cost and combat statistics both on one table.  They also use the same toughness/wounds damage abstraction for structures as they do for units, whereas ACKS has distinct structural hit points.  More generally, I believe that these sort of upgrade-structures would do well in ACKS.  ACKS' economic model is consistent enough that we can do the math and figure out how much it would cost to assemble and retain an Alchemist's Guild to produce Greek fire at scale, for example.  It's just a matter of taking the economic numbers and turning them into easier-to-use quantized "upgrades" that alter the availability of goods in the market so you don't have to figure out how much it costs to commission a hundred kilolitres of military oil every time you need to burn a city to the ground.

Chapter the third covers the process of realm play.  Realm actions happen on the scale of seasons, while military actions happen on the scale of weeks.  Taxes, upkeep, and random events occur per season, with season-specific event tables.  You get two regent actions and two realm actions per season (presented in 3.x's standard vs free action nomenclature).  Regent actions are diplomatic or heroic things like annexing land, casting ritual magic, declaring war or peace, ordering espionage operations, and training troops.  Realm actions are mostly building and upgrading settlements, improvements, roads, and so forth.  Martial actions (orders to units) are then issued on a weekly basis throughout the season.  I think making growth paperwork and income a per-season event is not a bad idea; it encourages the pace of play to slow down a bit and makes the work somewhat less onerous.

Their espionage rules may provide some inspiration for fixes to hijinks.  The available espionage operations are spying (reveals information about an enemy province), infiltrating an enemy guild (temporarily reduce an enemy guild's level), and disrupting trade (temporarily reduce's an enemy province's income).  Each operation requires two d20 rolls; one determines the effectiveness of the action, while the other determines that the ruler of the target province learns about the operation (unaware, aware but isn't sure who did it, and knows instigator).  Thieves' guilds cost money to maintain, and can offer bonuses to defense against espionage as well as bonuses to performing espionage operations.  This is more what I would like to see in hijinks; there's a chance to be unmasked while still succeeding at the operation, and they achieve utilitarian effects-in-the-world instead of just being magical economy-breaking goldfountains.

One thing that bugs me about both of ACKS and FoB is that domain growth is very much a function of the ruler's actions / reinvestment.  I'm not sure this makes sense; I suspect most growth historically has been a result of benign neglect rather than active management.  Lay off the taxes, leave enough surplus for the common folk to have and feed some extra kids and 20 years down the line they'll be working more land and producing more for your heir.  Would be interesting to make growth a per-season or per year percentile roll to see if the domain's settlement has upgraded itself to the next size category, with accompanying increase in rural population and income, rather than primarily a function of dumping gold into the economy.

Chapter four covers unit construction.  In classic 3.x style, it's complicated, with unit subtypes and feats and careful weapon selection for all your mans.  Domains at War wins for simplicity here.  The Shock Modifier is an interesting mechanic, in that it models units which are scary but maybe don't do all that much damage; one might expect the common spearman to be somewhat disheartened by fighting the undead, even if he's giving as good as he's getting.  Mostly unit stats are based around 3.x's combat mechanics; AC and to-hit are unchanged, while damage is rolled into Power, Toughness, and Wounds.  After you hit, you roll power against their toughness and if that hits too, they take a wound.  Morale and command modifiers are present, but they're mostly small and rolled on a d20, so the dice dominate.

Chapter five is the mass combat rules.  Nothing horribly insightful to steal from here.  No command-and-control rules, morale is an all-or-nothing save-vs-flee-at-top-speed.  Units get to-hit and power bonuses from having a PC leader attached in addition to morale and command.  Their terrain rules are handled in paragraphs rather than as a trio of booleans, and there's a whole list of 3.x-style conditions for units.  The siege rules are reasonablish.  There's also a quick combat section closer to DaW: Campaigns' battle rules.

Chapter six is magics.  Couple of feats, some conversion rules for personal-scale spells to battle scale, costs for realm-ritual magic.  Regular units who come under magic fire only have to check morale if they fail save, elite units never have to for magic.

Chapter seven is heroes.  Noble Birth is a feat.  Some of the other feats are vaguely entertaining as well.  The prestige classes are, well...  prestige classes.  Rogues sort of get the short end of the stick with these.  Living Legion is hilarious (the premise being that you're one guy who specializes in fighting 100 guys at a time).  A couple of the leadery prestige classes (Dreadlord, Hordemaster) might have things worth stealing

Chapter eight is on actually running the game.  Includes guidelines for turning your map into a hex map, assigning government types, starting standing armies (40% of realm income by default; ACKS is closer to 25% by default).  *shrug*

Appendices: converted spells to battle scale (Man I haven't seen Evard's Black Tentacles in ages!  That was a hilarious spell; I used it once and then never again), new battle-scale spells, realm spells, most of the Monster Manual monsters converted to battle scale.  Some of the realm and battle-scale spells would make decent rituals in ACKS; encircling an entire domain with a ring of fire or a bubble-shield for a full season is pretty rad.

Other things: the art is black and white and generally pretty good; I'm fond of it.  There are some short fiction blurs at the beginnings of the chapters; about a half-page each.  They tell an ongoing story of a ruler who inherited a domain and could've done a better job running it.  I've read worse.  The editing of the whole book is alright, though not amazing.

In conclusion!  The economics are completely made-up, the unit creation is overcomplicated, and in general there's a lot of 3.x philosophy showing through.  Realm/regent actions are a clear compromise between playability and realism.  But their level of granularity is very gameable.  Population is expressed as a ten-item enumeration of settlement types rather than as an integral number of families residing on the land, income from domains is in units of 100gp rather than individual GP, military units are hired as a whole rather than being constituted piecemeal from mercenaries hired individually, and realm paperwork happens once a season rather than once a month.  These are things maybe worth stealing for ACKS.

Monday, November 17, 2014

ACKS: Domain Growth II, Leveling Rates, Mid-Level Play

From a discussion on the ACKS forums regarding some complaints about the domain system, and its spreadsheet-nature:
Personally I handle "the math" of domains in all of my campaigns and simply presented my players with the inputs and outputs they control. (And I had similar complaints from my players about building their 3.5 characters, which also took a spreadsheet in their opinion, and adopted a similar solution.) - Alexander Macris, ACKS Author
This is the sort of advice that should go in the DM's section of the book :(

This is also problematic solution, however, because when I am DMing ACKS I already have entirely too much stuff on my plate.  I could automate domains, sure, but that's just spreadsheeting taken to the next level.

I guess the lazier solution would be to just nullify domain growth over the timescales most of my games last.  You want a better domain?  Go and take it.  I'm a little dubious that you could reasonably civilize an uninhabited patch of wilderness in five years in mythoclassical conditions anyway.  Civilization takes lifetimes, conquest takes a season, and pillaging away lifetimes of civilization takes a weekend.  Nixing domain growth would provide a player-comprehensible reason for civilized humans to go to war with each other, rather than just building up to prosperity.

Which brings us nicely to today's topic.  Previously I have considered growth rates derived solely from reinvested income; this neglects the players' primary source of income, namely adventuring.

To get a fighter from 1st to 9th level takes 250kXP.  By ACKS' 80% rule, this means he will have earned in total around 200kGP.  Some of this will have been lost as resurrections, reserve XP, and henchman wages and such, but let's assume a fiscally responsible party for the sake of easy math.  During this time, each of the other members of the (stereotypically) 4-man party has also earned 250kXP, so the party's total assets are around 800kGP.  An enormous citadel sufficient to secure a 24-mile hex of wilderness costs 480kGP (30kGP per 6-mile hex * 16 hexes), and direct agricultural investments to bring the population up to borderlands cost around 270kGP, for a total of 750kGP.

So hypothetically a near-domain-level party who was really good at saving money could just show up and plunk down a castle and a bunch of irrigation ditches and manage two years of domain growth in a season, but it would take almost all of the money they accumulated during their entire careers.

There is, however, the question of "how long does it take to actually amass 200kGP and hit name level?"  Exponential growth is a pain when it's in your way.  Previously I postulated that the path to levelling was expeditionary wilderness play, where you follow treasure maps to high-value treasures, but I'm reconsidering that.  Treasure map max value is something like 30kGP (plus a couple magic items; more on those shortly).  When you're dividing things four or more ways, that's doesn't go very far; you need 25 of them to amass 750kGP, and most maps won't be that valuable (you can do better with Treasurehunting hijink maps since those scale as a function of your thief's level, but they're still not going to pass 30kGP on average until 9th level.  The thief does hit 9th earlier than anyone else though, and the treasurehunting map value is pretty swingy so you could follow up on high rolls and ignore low rolls).

Consider also the dragon-hunting strategy.  A mid-level party can probably deal with adult dragons, who have treasure type Q+N.  Q+N is in expectation about 31kGP, so this is somewhat more efficient than pursuing treasure maps, though also riskier because dragons are guaranteed to be involved, and ACKS' dragonbreath pretty much vaporizes people.  You're still looking at 25 adventures to get from 4th or 5th to 9th, though, if you can even find a sufficient supply of dragons (or other high-yield but killable monsters).

Ultimately this is not unreasonable but the problem with wilderness expeditions is that there is typically substantial logistics and travel involved, maybe a random encounter or two, a big fight, treasure, and then more travel and logistics and random encounters.  One expedition per session is not unusual in our experience; at one session per week, this puts the mid-levels at around six months of realtime.  This roughly matches our experience; Tim's fighter started at 1st and was around 7th after six months of play, and still had a good way to go to get to 9th.

...  you know, I should just go full Monty Haul and double treasure in future ACKS games.  Treasure is good for levelling rate and good for player morale.  Nothing but TPKs is so morale-crushing as bleeding your way through a dungeon without finding any treasure, though booby prizes like trade goods and copper pieces are arguably worse.  Monster treasure isn't (as far as I can tell) strongly linked to the rest of the economic system anyway.  More thoughts on this later.

Another option which we did not consider, and which I am not sure the expected values on the treasure tables take into account rigorously, is the selling of magic items.  We have been drowning in swords +1 in previous ACKS games, each of which is in theory salable for 5kGP and 5kXP.  That adds up.

Finally, mid- or high-level dungeons could present gametime-denser sources of treasure than dragon lairs and treasuremap caches.  Building dungeons is a heavy DM-side time investment, though, and suffers from a boom-and-bust cycle, where the players extract most of the easily-found treasure in a couple of high-yield early expeditions, then get frustrated in following low-yield expeditions.  This requires either really aggressive restocking of monster lairs or continual generation of new dungeons.  By comparison, hunting dragons or following maps seems like it should yield more consistent treasure; the only reason to fail to get the treasure on such an expedition is defeat or failure, rather than lack of intel.  I also think high-level dungeons generally make less sense even than low-level dungeons, which serve as shelters for small groups of weak monsters.  I suppose a sensible reason for a high-level dungeon to exist and not be dominated by a single entity or group would be the existence of a powerful magic resource (Midnight-style power nexes) or a gate to hell or some such thing which attracts or generates powerful critters, generating an unstable-enough situation that it doesn't just turn into a big lair for one most-powerful group of monsters.

In conclusion: getting to 9th level might provide you with the resources to build a flourishing domain out of nothing, but it also takes a long damn time and is not as amenable to fast-forwarding as the reinvestment approach.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

On the Overspecialist

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. - Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
 ...  I suppose that does make it rather clear where I fall on this.

This post sort of follows some thoughts I've had a result of conversation with Somok over on his blog regarding the correct deployment of irritating monsters like golems.

This is a tricky subject.  It is a problem with systems, a problem with players, and a problem with DMs.

The argument goes that golems are an unfair and unfun monster because the casters can't damage them directly, and because they negate the rogue's sneak attack.  There is some basis to these complaints; I recall my first encounter with a flesh golem.  I promptly hit it with a lightning bolt, which is precisely the wrong thing to do.  We made it through but it wasn't pretty (and then there was a bodak in the next room!  We all made all of our saves and had no idea the sort of peril we'd been in until later).  So yes, for the unprepared caster, golems are a bad time.

The only excuse for a mid-level 3.x arcanist to be unprepared for such an eventuality, however, is ignorance.  Even a specialist wizard still has access to most of the schools, and there are plenty of spells available from a variety of schools that work in a fight with a golem - displacement, haste, fly, sleet storm, and summon monster spring to mind immediately, just from the 3rd level list (and this is saying nothing of direct-damage SR-ignorers like acid arrow or the elemental orbs).  Even if you don't want to learn and prepare spells for such an infrequent occurrence, scrolls are inexpensive and a good way to prepare for odd contingencies like golems.  Nobody was tracking encumbrance anyway...

(Likewise, the rogue who takes some ranks in Use Magic Device can employ cheap, quarter-charged wands of low-level spells like Grease and Web to good effect.  Lets you quit begging invisibility off of the wizard, too.  This is one of the rogue's coolest abilities, but I don't think I've seen anyone use it in years)

So... why the frustration with golems, again?

Because players like to overspecialize.  They (we) like to formulate their (our) tactics during character creation and pick abilities that support those tactics, often at the expense of any versatility and with full disregard for the maxim that "No plan survives contact with the enemy."  When thrust into a situation where those tactics do not work, one of two things tends to happen: they either attempt to keep using them, to little effect, or sit on their hands and hope the situation changes.  Either outcome is liable to lead to frustration.

This is the player part of the problem.

One of the system parts of the problem is that 3.x's buildiness encourages this.  One of my favorite examples is the fighter and his feat chains.  When was the last time you saw a 3.x fighter without Weapon Focus and Weapon Specialization?  Spec is (considered) so good that it behooves you to specialize.  If you've ever wondered why random treasure tables died out, Weapon Specialization certainly contributed.  The two-weapon fighter has to sink a ton of feats into TWF, as well as picking ability scores to support those.  There is a widespread belief that if you haven't taken Precise Shot, you shouldn't bother carrying a ranged weapon.  That one particularly grinds my gears.  My family has two sayings; from my mother, "No task is beneath you," and from my father, "Do what you have to do before what you want to do."  Do you have proficiency with a ranged weapon?  (Yes.  Even monks get javelins, and druids get slings and Produce Flame.)  It doesn't matter how bad your Dex or how low your BaB, sometimes there is a flying monster that needs shot down and today might just be your lucky day.  This is a thing that you can do that improves the party's odds of winning - you should not hesitate to do it!  It's alright to specialize, to be a master of one weapon, but it shouldn't stop you from using another when circumstances require it.  Use what is useful, do what you can, rule out no avenue to victory.

All in all, though, the Player's Handbook material isn't that bad.  Arcanist specialization is pretty lax, because specialist wizards don't lose all that much and Spell Focus' bonus isn't that big.  Clerics come pre-specialized, which is unfortunate but at least you know what you're getting into and it's hard to restrict yourself much further.  Overspecialization is mostly a fighter problem in Core/PHB, although the depth of the feat trees also bleeds into other mundane combatant classes.

Prestige classes are where it gets really bad, and possibly (I think) where the Overspecialist Syndrome began (my case of it at least; I claim no immunity.  I also quite expect some AD&D grog to show up and comment about the Player's Option supplements and the kung-fu subsystem from Oriental Adventures).  The whole notion of the prestige class, that you can sacrifice general capability in exchange for super-focused abilities, plays right to the overspecialist, and they're available for every class, in great heaping piles of splatbooks!  The prestige class contributed, I think, to the commonly-held sentiment that every character should be a beautiful, mechanically-unique snowflake.  With so many classes to choose from, there's no reason to ever play the same thing twice, or anything anyone else in your group has ever played before!

(Pathfinder, incidentally, has taken this past art and science to the realm of the mechanical process.  When you start multiplying backgrounds/traits and all the wizard and sorcerer bloodlines and barbarian rage abilities and the new base classes they're pumping out, you don't even need prestige classes to be playing a unique, super-specialized character every campaign.  Truly, they know their market.)

Of course, when we/I came down off the supplement high, this sentiment did not die despite the immediate dearth of prestige classes (God is dead but his shadows linger).  So we brought it back to Tim's Trailblazer game, and there was discontent, because try as we might the Core rules didn't let us specialize as effectively as we were used to!  It went pretty well for all that, and part of the reason for this, I think, was that Tim just wasn't pushing us that hard most of the time; it was OK to not be hyper-optimized, except inasmuch as you were competing with the rest of the party.  There were certainly some nasty fights, but he did a good job of providing plenty of easier ones too, and wasn't out for blood (things I have been guilty of...).  (Aside: Trailblazer almost got Weapon Specialization right by changing Focus, Spec, and ImpCrit to apply to a damage category (ie, Weapon Focus(Melee Piercing)), but then they went and screwed it all up with the fighter's Expert Weapon Proficiencies)

Prestige classes may have created the overspecialist, but it is the DM who keeps it alive.  The DM part of the problem is observing the overspecialist's discontent and reformulating fights to avoid it rather than addressing it via communication.  An entire campaign where most fights go according to the plan the PCs came up with three months ago is fundamentally boring as hell.  Talk to the players, tell them that golems and flying monsters and paralyzers and charm/dominators and blinders and ambushers and really-high DR critters and incorporeals and fast monsters and lots of little monsters and really big monsters and enemy spellcasters are all on the table (and, hypothetically, maybe that save-or-die or gear destroyers like rust monsters aren't).  Get them on board with it; discuss their motivations for overspecialization if you have to.  "What're you really trying to achieve by playing a half-naga with four prestige classes who can only cast divination spells?  If it's just an experiment, does that mean we can expect you to want to change characters when you get bored with it?  If not, can we address your motivation in a way which is more useful to the party?"  Make it an explicit social contract that if they build a character who can do exactly one thing, or play a character in a way that dramatically and unnecessarily limits their options, loss of fun is not a great and terrible injustice and is, in fact, sort of a personal problem, much like losing a chess match because you decided to only use knights.  If part of the DM's job is to make sure everyone is having fun, then establishing realistic expectations regarding character usefulness necessarily follows.

Mechanically, let them prepare for a broad variety of threats.  Don't restrict the availability of magical consumables for purchase.  Let them shuffle their feats around.  Whatever.  Then just play the game and use enemies that make sense.  If they're raiding the dwarven burial ground, any dwarf can tell them about the guardian golems and the dorfghouls.  If they're travelling overland, any caravaneer can tell them about the manticores.  Players in the generalist state of mind will usually find a way to deal with reasonably level-appropriateish things, especially if they're forewarned that these threats exist.  The trick is showing them that playing without overspecializing can actually be fun, and that hyperspecialized character optimization is not typically necessary to fun or survival (or even conducive to either, in diverse environments).

(There's also, on further reflection, a group structure component to the problem - playing with large groups enables and encourages overspecialists, playing with small groups encourages generalists)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Domain Growth I: Peace and Prosperity

I've been playing with ACKS' domain growth math recently.  The random +1d10-1d10 families per month cancels out in expectation.  The adventuring bonus is only 1% per month for domains of any reasonable size, which helps but won't take you from wilderness to civilization in your lifetime (12.7% per year will take you 10 years of adventuring every month to bring a freshly-secured 24-mile hex of cleared wilderness domain up to borderlands, and another 15 years to population-capped civilized).  The only other ways to increase population are investment, at the rate of 5.5 families on average per kilogoldpiece invested, and high morale, yielding potentially another 2.2% average growth per month.

A family in an average domain generates 12 gp/mo of gross revenue, and has expenses costing 7gp/mo.  A new ruler could drop taxes to 0 (+2 to morale rolls) and hire an extra 3gp/mo/family of garrison (+3 to morale rolls) without taking a monthly net loss.  With +5 to morale rolls, every season there is a 1/12 chance of dropping towards apathetic, a 1/3 chance of gaining one level of morale, and a 7/12 chance of gaining two levels of morale (in expectation, +1.4 levels of morale per season; better if you have a positive Charisma modifier).  This should converge to Stalwart (maximum) morale in 2-3 seasons, at which point income per family rises to 14 gp/mo gross, and you also get a growth bonus of 2.2% per month.  Combined with the adventuring bonus, this would yield ~3% growth per month, which would allow wilderness to borderlands in about three and a half years with no costs to the domainholder besides building and maintaining the castle.

Similar results could be achieved by sinking all of one's domain income back into agricultural investments; at 5gp net per family, every 200 families yields 1000gp/mo, or another 5.5 families per month, for a 2.75% monthly growth rate.  This does leave one without the secondary benefits of a happy populace and the strong garrison that the morale approach provides.  It also suggests an improvement to the morale approach; if we sink the 2gp/family/mo from being Stalwart back into agricultural investment, can get another 5.5 families per five hundred (+1.1%/mo), additive with the Stalwart bonus, for a 3.3% monthly growth rate; with active adventuring, this is 4.3% per month.

Of course, any growth rate above 5% per season also provides us with a +2 bonus to morale rolls.  5% per season is only 1.63% per month, which should be achievable by any of these means.  The extra 2gp/mo you can then extract in taxes while maintaining stable Stalwart morale yield another 1.1%/mo growth via investment (additive with other morale and investment increases), for 5.4%/month growth with active adventuring.

(Also, if you have access to ritual magic and >125 families total in your domain, Harvest is a net win.  When cast on larger domains and reinvested, it approximates +1.1% growth per month for a year.)

Even with that sort of all-in reinvestment strategy (ignoring Harvest), growth from wilderness to borderlands takes 24 months.  Growth from borderlands to civilized takes another 13 months, and then civilized to capped-out civilized takes 19 months.  Meanwhile, during the first fiveish years of your rulership, you have effectively extracted a princely sum of 0 GP from your domain!  (Less if you count the cost of your fortress and its maintenance, though you might've earned some XP for money that you reinvested in agriculture and voluntary overgarrison, depending on your level and your DM)  On the plus side, you're way over-garrisoned (which is to say, secure), the peasants love you, and after the population has capped out you can raise taxes and drop the garrison, at which point your lands will yield 62000 GP/mo, which is above the domain XP threshold for all but 13th and 14th level characters.

I've ignored urban centers here, because their gross per family is much lower than rural peasants (7gp/mo/family vs 12) with similar monthly costs per family.  They're basically money-sinks.  You want one for a market, but expect to pay for it out of adventuring revenues, because it will not be both growing and profitable, and possibly neither.  Note that I have ignored hijinks here, because hijinks are hax in their current form.  I guess I haven't done the math on granting yourself local monopolies on all goods either; it looks like you can make on average a 20% spread on arbitrary goods by buying them in your town with the monopoly bonus, then selling them without moving them a month later ("Hello, I'm John and I have a system abuse problem."), or 40% spread with bargaining, but it would take some seed money and is very limited by the number of merchants available.  It could add up over time, but I don't think it would be even remotely near enough to feedback into urban growth.

The obvious problem with the Land of Tax-Free Prosperity approach is that most campaigns do not last five years of game-time (plus time spent clearing or otherwise acquiring the domain in the first place).  Even if you slow the rate of adventuring down to the adventure per month needed to keep your growth rate up, sixty adventures is minimally 30 sessions is most of a year of weekly games.  Hell, the two years from wilderness to borderlands are liable to take the entire lifespan of an average college campaign.  We hardly made it through a a game-year in six months of playing weekly (and sometimes more often than that). 

At the end of the day, offscreen time is cheap in terms of realtime, and adventuring time is very expensive.  It seems to me that if you actually want to see really substantial domain growth in the time it takes to play a campaign, you need to hold down the fast-forward button a bit.  With full reinvestment in a Stalwart domain, you can make it from Wilderness to capped Civilized in 6 years without adventuring rather than 5 while adventuring monthly.  This sounds a lot more doable, and gives the PCs time to relax with their feet on their desks, do some spell research (though with funds limited by infrequent adventuring), start raising a family and some heirs, soak up some domain XP, and maybe earn some aging penalties between annual or biannual adventures in the Pendragon model.  Gives you a nice sort of interbellum Golden Age between the bloody business of clearing the hexes and dealing with domain-level crises like the Mongol Horde or the succession war following the death of the Wise Old King to whom you swore fealty or suchlike.

Another way to do this might be to place seasonal restrictions on things.  Adventuring and war are strictly summer activities; mercantile activity is resolved with the autumn harvest, the winter is spent intriguing in court, and the spring is for tournaments and weddings.  Rather foreign to our modern sensibilities, but might make for a useful game framework for domain play.  At some point, things are stable-ish, your reign is secure, and it makes sense for the pace to drop.

I suppose the other option is to continue adventuring at the normal rate and assume that almost all growth comes from adventuring revenues invested in agriculture.  This is...  a subject for next post, because this is already long.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Balancing Starmada

A follow-up to last post's thoughts on applying Colonial Battlefleet's tech rules to Starmada: Admiralty Edition.

At the end of the day, what are we really looking for here?  Perfectly balanced combat (ie, pick any two fleets designed with these parameters and run by perfect players and each will come out with a 50% win rate) obviously isn't happening - even if we did figure out how to design ships this way, it wouldn't be any fun.  On the flip side, a 100%-0% split between two fleets is probably also unacceptably unfun.  Is 75-25 good enough?  66-33?  Where do we draw the line (and how do we draw it without a combinatorial volume of playtesting, given also that familiarity with how to use a particular fleet effectively follows with time playing it)?

One (probably simplest) solution follows from the ancient principle that battles are almost only fought when both sides believe they have a chance of victory.  If, after reading the enemy fleet designs, you honestly believe that you have zero or negligible chance of victory, say so!  Yield preemptively, thereby denying your opponent the satisfaction of crushing you, or request a fleet swap at a handicap (ie, "your ships are so much better than mine that if I were to play yours and you mine, I could beat you at a 30% handicap in fleet points".  If your opponent agrees with your assessment, no battle need be fought.  If your opponent disagrees correctly, then they can have the satisfaction of handing you your ass with your own fleet.  If your opponent disagrees incorrectly or dishonestly, then they suffer on the receiving end of their own cheese).

This does rely on knowledge of the enemy fleet.  I argue that this is representative of a functioning naval intelligence apparatus in a post-first-contact scenario.  It is not, however, traditionally the way we have played, and it also does not scale well up to larger numbers of players.

Another thought might be to establish some sort of tier rules for the construction of fleets, much like Magic the Gathering does for decks.  This would allow us to classify certain traits, abilities, or combinations of traits into tiers.  Starmada is ultimately a toolkit game; it makes sense that we should select subsets of the game to use for different purposes. I think it makes sense to have two scales: shipbuilding complexity (cheese) and tactical complexity.  Consider the following a request for comments:
  • Basic (Cheese 0, Tactics 0):
    • Max hull 15
    • Default movement: Naval
    • Max range 12 if Naval movement is in use, 15 with vector
    • Max engines 8 with naval movement, ??? with vector movement
    • Discontiguous firing arcs are not permitted.
    • The only options permitted from Appendix B are Armor Plating, Countermeasures, Fire Control, Point Defense, and Hyperdrive.
    • The only options permitted from Appendix C are (list of weapon traits generally regarded as simple, non-problematic, uniformly effective, and/or easily mathematically verified).  I would suggest for this list:
      • Anti-Fighter (situational but non-problematic)
      • Area Effect (situational but non-problematic)
      • Double Damage (easy math)
      • Extra Hull Damage (easy math)
      • No Hull Damage (non-problematic)
      • Non-Piercing (non-problematic)
      • Slow-Firing (non-problematic)
      • Variable RoF/Imp/Dmg (easy math...  though actually I have my doubts about relative balance among the Var* traits)
      • Notable omissions: range-based traits (extremely situational), Piercing (strongly situational based on opponent fleet build).  Extended Arcs and Extended Accuracies are right out.
    • The only options permitted from Appendix D are Naval and Basic movement modes, which are recommended for ease of use.  Sequential Movement is permissible by agreement of all players.
    • From Appendix E, only Explosions are enabled.
    • The only option permitted from Appendix F is customized fighter flights.  However, only numerical customization of fighters is permitted, not fighter traits.  The following limits apply to fighters:
      • Flight size: 4 to 8
      • Speed: 8 to 12
      • To-hit: 4+, 5+, or 6+
      • Defense: <= 2
    • From Appendix G, planets, asteroids, and asteroid fields are permitted.
    • Cheese level: Monty Pythonesque; no cheese in stock.
  • Extended (Cheese 1):
    • Max hull 20
    • Max range 15
    • Max engines ???
    • Discontiguous firing arcs are not permitted.
    • All options from Appendix B except Stealth, Tech Levels, and Flotillas are permitted.
    • All weapon traits from the Core book except for Continuing Damage, Inverted Range-Based traits, Increased Hits, Increased Impact, and Repeating are permitted.  Anti-Fighter and Catastrophic from the supplements are permitted.  No more than one range-based trait per weapon is permitted.  Extended Accuracies, Ranges, and Firing Arcs not permitted.
    • All customization options available for fighters under rule F.1 of the Core rules may be used, except that fighter defense is capped at 4.  No other rules from Appendix F are enabled by default.
    • Cheese level: Burrito.  There may be some cheese here, but it will hopefully be tasty rather than unpleasant
    • Expected metagame: Not sure.
  • Advanced (Cheese 2 - More or less where we ended last cycle, with a few extra patches):
    • No max hull
    • Max range 24
    • Max engines ??? / all ships with engines must carry at least one weapon.
    • Discontiguous firing arcs are not permitted.
    • All options from Appendix B except Flotillas are permitted.
    • All weapon traits from the Core book are permitted.  
      • Repeating and Increased Hits weapons firing at 2+ do not repeat on results of 2, and count extra hits from 3 rather than 2.
      • All weapon traits from the supplements except for Starship-Exclusive, Piercing +3, and Ignores Shields are permitted.
      • Increased Impact weapons may not generate more than six points of impact per die (as might happen if combined with Piercing +2 and Halves Shields...). 
      • Multiple range-based traits are permitted, but no more than three total traits per weapon.  
      • Extended Firing Arcs are permitted, but 2+ Accuracy is not.
      • Spinal Weapon Rule: Maximum 1 G-arc weapon, which must be in its own battery and is not reparable by damage control.
    • All fighter customization options available under rule F.1 in Core and supplements are permitted.  Independent fighters are also permitted.
    • Cheese level: Limburger. Possibly too cheesy.
  • Complete (Cheese 3 - stuff we banned last time):
    • Nothing is forbidden, all is permitted.  Notably the following should be restricted to Complete:
      • Flotillas
      • Ammo
      • Strikers / Seekers
      • Starship-Exclusive, Ignores Shields, Piercing +3
    • Cheese level: Casu Marzu.  Dear god why.
Running semi-orthogonal to the Cheese Axis is the Tactics Axis.  This mostly deals with the movement type, sensors, optional orders, and such, as well as a few shipbuilding options which contribute strongly to tactical complexity
  • Simple (Tactics 0):
    •  Movement: Naval or Basic
    • All other options from appendices D and E are disabled, except for Explosions and optionally Sequential Movement.
    • From Appendix G, only planets, asteroids, and asteroid fields are permitted.
  • Less Simple (Tactics 1 - this is about where we were last time):
    • Movement: Naval or Basic
    • From Appendix B, Cloaking Devices and Mines are enabled.
    • From Appendix C, the Slow-Firing trait and Dual-Mode Weapons are enabled.  The Carronade trait is enabled, but may only be used on one mode per dual-mode weapon, and not at all on single-mode weapons (As much as I love my Range 15 Carronade "Long 9s", this, I am told, was its intended function, and so this is what it is most likely balanced for).
    • From Appendix D, Emergency Thrust and Evasive Action are enabled.
    • From Appendix E, Damage Control, Directed Damage, and Shield Reinforcement are enabled (Shield Reinforcement, incidentally, seems potentially helpful for short-range ships trying to close the gap with long-range ships).
    • From Appendix F, Combat Interception, Dogfighting, and Launch and Recovery are enabled.  Launch Tubes are permitted during shipbuilding.
    • From Appendix G, all terrain except Black Holes are permitted.
  • Less Complicated (Tactics 2):
    • As Less Simple, but with the addition of Newtonian Movement, Screens, Critical Damage, Sensor Modes?, and Breachers
  • Complicated (Tactics 3):
    • As Less Complicated, with the addition of Pivots, Rolls, Sideslips, Delayed Turns, and Overthrusters
    • Searchlights may be used to model even more active sensor management.
It might also be worthwhile to backport some of Starmada Nova's more tactical features.  Flares (deployable temporary cover), escort ships (ships that block line of sight/fire for enemy ships), and their seeker implementation (normal weapon that doesn't hit until the turn after it is fired, shots in transit can be fired at and destroyed) were all promising.  I'm vaguely tempted to permit weak AE-style seekers somewhere up the Tactical chain, since seekers actually do pose a lot of interesting choices and lack a lot of the swarmy board-control features of strikers, but all direct-fire expendables to date have shown themselves to be problematic so I'm filing that away under "Cheez-Whiz: May or may not be cheesy."

In any case, the way I see this working is that regular players maintain a handful of fleets at varying cheese levels, so that when a new player shows up and it makes sense to play Cheese 0 / Tactics 1, we actually have sane ships around to do it with rather than throwing them into the deep end with Ammo and Flotillas and suchlike.  This approach scales better than trying to build a tech tree with every trait or suggesting that we read each others' fleet lists before games.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Boardgames: Iron Dragon, Sentinels, Reflections on Starmada

Some folks from out of town were around this weekend, and so a gathering was had and games were played!

First we played Iron Dragon.  I am told it is a long game, but frankly it broke my time-sense and I could not tell you how long it took.  My initial allocation of cards caused me to allocate my effort in the south-east at the two magically-joined cities and up the coast of the Olde Worlde.  This worked fine in the early game, but sorta screwed me in the late game.  I'm not sure how else I'd've played it given the cards I had, though.  As Jared commented, being able to trade cargo loads or contracts would make the game much more interesting, but probably slow it down even further.  It would also be interesting to build an index of possible opening moves (with your 60 starting cash to build) based on available foremen, drawn cards, and desired margin of safety to cover things like floods destroying your tracks.

After Iron Dragon we played three games of Sentinels last night, and another this afternoon.  The three games last night were not super-notable; played some new heroes, fought some new villains, won two games and lost one.  It turns out you can stab Satan to death, and La Capitaine is not, as I had assumed, a French supersoldier set on rebuilding Napoleon's empire, but is instead a time-travelling pirate.  The game this afternoon was interesting, in that everyone else died and we pulled off a victory with me as the "last best hope".  It took a long time, and my fellow players were less than excited because, while Sentinels does give you some support abilities when you are dead, they aid players who are still alive, which places you somewhat at their disposal.  Inexperienced player that I am, I was perhaps not ideal for making suggestions regarding support abilities.  It worked out against all odds, though, which was kind of neat.  Looong game, though.

There was also some reminiscing about Starmada, both how much fun it was and the process of the decay of the metagame.  Pre-generated fleets were suggested as a countermeasure, and while they could work, I think you/we would need to design the inter-fleet meta as a cohesive whole in order to achieve balance this way.  This is certainly possible (and is the standard solution for most games, like Firestorm Armada and Battlefleet Gothic), but would be substantial work.  I also suspect this process of coordination would take a lot of the fun out of Starmada, since we do so enjoy designing ships.  I still think Colonial Battlefleet's tech system might be a solution, in that it would let you build fleets whose access to powerful capabilities like long ranges, strikers, and catastrophics weapons were all similarly restricted, and would also let you cut out certain broken combinations entirely.  The problem, of course, is that there are a lot more 'techs' in Starmada than there are in CBF, and it seems unlikely that we will predict and eliminate all potentially cheesy combinations in designing a tech system.  I suspect another flaw of a CBF-style tech system for Starmada is that similar traits in Starmada are generally better when used with other, similar traits (Increased Hits + Repeating + Variable RoF all one one weapon), while in CBF you don't really see these sort of self-similar synergies.  Further thought is required.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Unpleasant Weather

I am dissatisfied with existing weather-generation systems for RPGs of D&D's ilk.  So I built one!  Note that I am not a meteorologist; this is intended to be a simple system which generates 'close enough' results for gaming purposes, not a high-fidelity weather simulator.

In any given day, the weather is in one of three states: high pressure, low pressure, or in flux.  High pressure is clear, unseasonably cold, and dry; low pressure is unseasonably warm, wet, and cloudy, sometimes with light rain or snow, or afternoon thunderstorms in the summer.  Flux occurs during the transition between the two and is stormy and windy, with heavy clouds.

On day 0, roll a d6.  One through three, the weather begins as high pressure; four through six, it begins as low pressure.

Each day of normal weather, roll a d8.  On a 2-8, the state remains the same; if it was high pressure today, it is high pressure tomorrow, and if low pressure today, low pressure tomorrow.  On a 1, a front rolls in tomorrow and the state changes to flux.  The front is detectable some hours in advance, as winds pick up and clouds are visible moving rapidly from the horizon.  After 1d3 days of stormy flux, the pressure switches; if it was high pressure when the one was rolled, it is low pressure after the flux, and if it was low pressure, it becomes high pressure.

Weather typically blows in from the west on worlds where the sun rises in the east (at least in my experience), unless there are mountains in the way.

This satisfies several design goals.  First, it is more-or-less consistent with real-world experience in several ways.  If the weather was cool and dry today, it probably will be tomorrow, but sometimes you get violent storms and things change.  Weather is also in expectation stable for about a week, which is more-or-less accurate for the microclimate in which I find myself living.  Things average out to moderate weather, but the result is never just "lukewarm and boring" ("Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.").  Second, it does not require a table lookup or percentile roll, nevermind several.  Third, it does not go into unnecessary detail; three states are easy enough to remember and sufficiently different for gameplay purposes.  Fourth, it is easy to tweak to suit local conditions.  You could vary the die size rolled based on stability of various types of air masses (ie, maybe during a high pressure you roll a d10 but during a low pressure you roll a d6, so warm air is less common and marked by more frequent storms).  You could make a 2 through 4 on the d8 "precipitation and no change in dominant pressure" during a low pressure.  You could vary the pressure change probability seasonally, so during summer you use a d12 instead of a d8, leading to less frequent storms and better adventuring weather.  You could change flux duration, add minimum times between fluxes, or any number of other minor tweaks.  Much as one might build a random encounter table for the Valley of Storms, so one might alter the weather parameters.  None of that extra complexity is necessary to using the core of the system, however.

By contrast, 3.x's weather system fails in all of these regards.  It fails to make weather today relevant to weather tomorrow; the only consistency comes from the fact that "normal" (ie, no-op) weather is probabilistically dominant.  It requires a percentile roll and table lookup, sometimes followed by another percentile roll.  It expresses its temperatures and wind speeds in terms of degrees and miles per hour, which are hardly practical units for adventurers to measure in the field - one might argue that the intent is to use the temperature categories, but when you start adding things like Heat Wave and "temperature drops x degrees at night", it becomes fairly clear that you're supposed to be tracking it numerically.  Finally, its ultimate sin (and a telling reflection on 3.x's design philosophy) is that the effects of the weather are expressed purely in terms of combat (and perceptiony skill checks, but those are almost inevitably just a precursor to combat).

Sure, weather does effect combat, sometimes in unexpected ways.  The English won the Battle of Crecy in part because the French (well, Genoese mercenary in service to the French) crossbowmen had wet crossbowstrings due to an earlier downpour; while the English longbowmen had unstrung their bows, the crossbowmen had not (perhaps were not able to due to the construction of their crossbows), and so were unable to offer more then desultory fire.  Alright, in lousy or just humid weather crossbows take a -4 to hit, bows a -2, and thrown no penalty (assuming visible targets otherwise within range).  Shorten encounter distance during precipitation or fog by a small constant integer factor.  If the ground's muddy or snowy, speed is reduced and attempts to knock people down are easier.  Alright, done with effects of weather on combat. 

On to the fun stuff!  Effects of weather on exploration.

During a high pressure, seeing distant smoke is relatively easy, while during a low pressure it is more difficult because the humidity keeps the smoke down.  During flux, spotting smoke is nearly impossible due to wind dispersion and precipitation, and building a fire in the first place is going to be difficult.  Cloudy or stormy weather may make identifying one's mountaintop reference points more difficult if the peaks are above the clouds.  The party's mercenaries are probably none too happy about the extra maintenance they will need to do on their gear, and cold, soggy (or worse, moldy) rations add insult to injury - while hardly a calamity, a penalty to any morale roll provoked during wet weather may be in order.  Speaking of which, wet weather might render some rations inedible, forcing a reevaluation of the supply situation (likewise in hot weather, the water supply becomes less stable).  The effects of heavy rain on the wizard's spellbook are potentially punitive; also true for the party mapper.  Heavily-burdened mounts, pack animals, and especially carts may become hopelessly mired in mud or deep snow, and in general overland movement rate will suffer.  Precipitation can wash away or obscure tracks while it is falling, but after it stops the mud and snow take and hold tracks, making tracking easier.  If you like, say that mud persists for one day per day of rain.  If some sort of endurance system is in place (next post, perhaps), wet weather makes it harder to keep warm, both because you get soaked and because there is little dry fuel for fires.

In other words, adventuring in persistent rain is not a good time.  Probably the only good reason to do so with all other things being equal is a situation in which you are operating at a disadvantage in an area occupied by strong and coordinated resistance, where the shortened encounter distance means you can close with and defeat in detail enemy detachments before help can arrive.  Flying predators (eg wyverns) might also be effectively grounded by a powerful storm, or impeded by low-visibility conditions like fog.  Ambush predators might have their lairs flooded out or otherwise damaged by storms and be forced out into the open (conversely, flooded streams and rivers might be effectively impassable; sufficiently powerful floods might alter the flows for some time, or carve new watercourses, rendering maps out of date).  Humanoids are likely to try to stay in shelter during storms, while some monsters may prefer to hunt in the rain.

And this is all saying nothing of freak weather like lightning storms or tornados or blizzards!  This is bog-standard mundane weather that anyone hiking in the woods (or to and from class) in temperate climes will get to deal with sooner or later, and yet it already introduces quite a few things for PCs to consider during their forays into the wilderness (especially if the wandering monster table varies with weather).

And now I'm off to go bicycling in the cold drizzle...