Tuesday, December 29, 2015

On Hobbits

It is sometimes said that the whole point of hobbits as protagonists, for Tolkein, was that they were never meant to go adventuring in the first place.  They were weak, soft, sedentary creatures, with copious appetites and a great love for civilized niceties.

This doesn't really fit into the standard model for OSR classes, where you have a prime requisite, and for demihumans in ACKS at least also a minimum stat in order to qualify for your race.  However, rolling 3d6 in order does occasionally generate a set of stats which is literally unplayable; the simplest case would be something like a set where all stats were less than 9, though it would also be possible to do with a high Con and possibly a higher Cha, since there's no Cha-only class in Core.

And that's where hobbits should come from: the stat sets that don't qualify for any other class.  Give them a racial maximum stats instead of minimum stats, and maybe an inverse prime req bonus, where the more horrible your stats are, the more XP you get.  I'm only about half-joking.

I don't really know what else to give them - probably not great fighting, some sneaking, decent HD (they do not seem to die as often as one might expect...), tendency towards ridiculous circumstances...  But at the end of the day, playing a hobbit should be less like playing a ranger than playing a tourist who, despite his absolute unfitness for adventuring, makes do with a surfeit of either blind luck or divine providence.

Really good saves, I guess.

Saturday, December 26, 2015


One of ACKS' default assumptions, which I've commented on before, is that of the "failing empire", with barbarians at the borders and corruption within.  Another of ACKS' standard assumptions it the inland sea, typically modeled after the Mediterranean in Antiquity.  But there's another perfectly good inland sea in Europe that gets a lot less attention: the Baltic.

Which, it turns out, is probably a fine model area-of-operations for a DaneACKS campaign.  Much more so than the North Sea, with its super-long travel distances and terrible weather.  The water-area of the Baltic is about 330 24-mile hexes, which is about a quarter of a 30x40 24-mile hex mapsheet, leaving plenty of room for surrounding lands.

One problem(?) with the Baltic as an ACKS setting is that Scandinavia and environs are, historically, not particularly well-populated.  At all.  In 1570, already somewhat after our target era, the population density of Sweden was only about 5.2 people per square mile, while that of Finland in 1550 was a mere 2.3 people per square mile.  At 300,000 people in an area of 130,666 square miles, you're looking at 60,000 families spread over (roughly) 4 30x40 mapsheets of 6-mile hexes.  In 1150, estimates (since at that time there was certainly no census, nor a centralized state to conduct one) place the total population of Finland between 20,000 and 40,000 people, or at most 8,000 families, giving a population density of about 0.3 people per square mile, which in ACKS terms suggests a handful of class VI markets over that entire area.  Which is...  rough, for adventuring and supply.  The rest of the Baltic isn't much better; Gdansk in the 1100s had a population somewhere between 1000 and 2000, which is a class V market.  Many of the population centers currently on the Baltic map above weren't even founded until Christianization hit, and population records for pre-Christian settlements (like Forsigtuna, the pre-Christian capital of Sweden) are basically nonexistent.  So...  I guess there'd be room for some "creative license".  On the plus side, such a setting does play very nicely with tribes as the autonomous domain unit, which would be fun.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

ACKS: Orcish Assassins

Because sometimes you just need to kill some PCs.

Or maybe I just found an inspiring piece of art.  Nothing to worry about, players.  (riiight)
I've been avoiding the issue of Orcs With Class for a while now, because if I make them, then my players will want to employ them or play them.  On the other hand, standard-issue orcs are no longer much of a threat (except in hordes ten thousand strong, clad all in sable armor and bristling with swords and spears), and there are rumorings of the Troll Lord having a secret police of assassiny types.


I'm not going to be consistent with building an orc race.  Not gonna happen.  Orc classes probably get +HD or +Fighting values, as appropriate, and some infravisiony stuff, on a class-by-class basis (that's right, folks - assassins with infravision.  Ruh roh).

Orcish assassins are a Fighting 3 / HD 2 / Thief 1 class build.
Prime Reqs: Str and Dex
Requirements: Con 9+
HD: 1d8
Maximum Level: 11

Orcish assassins are sneaky bastards who will kill your PCs.  They advance in attack throws at a rate of 1 per level, gain a damage bonus as a fighter of their level, and may cleave once per level per round.  They are proficient with all weapons and armor, and may fight with two-handed weapons or a weapon in each hand.  They save as fighters of their level, and may use all magic items usable by fighters.

When wearing leather or lighter armor, orcish assassins may Hide in Shadows, Move Silently, and Backstab as an assassin of their class level.

Additionally, orcish assassins are well-versed in the arts of looming, quietly menacing, and other forms of intimidation.

At 9th level orcish assassins can establish terrible orcish murdercults.

Class proficiencies: As Assassin, but remove Intimidation, add Goblin-Slaying, Man-Slaying (as Kin-Slaying...  that to-hit bonus is gonna be handy), and Combat Trickery (Knock Down).

XPMath: Racial (2 racial powers - infravision 60' (2), -1 *40 rounded to nearest multiple of 25) -> 50, Fighting 3 with 1 fighting style tradeoff -> 1650, Thievery 1 -> 200, HD 2 -> 1000 -> 2900 XP to 2nd, and weird races do weird stuff above 8th but I don't care.

Expect to see more orc classes soon.  Orc fighters are pretty straightforward (fighting 3 with no tradeoffs, HD 2, 50 racial XP for infravision -> 2550 XP to 2nd, max level 12, add Mountaineering and Hard to Kill to class prof list).  Orc legates are where this is going to get really exciting (fighting 2 / HD 2 / divine 2, maybe?), and orcsplorers (fighting 3 / HD 2 / thievery 1) should be pretty potent as well.

Friday, December 18, 2015

ACKS: Custom Magic Types

So there's a Patreon for new and interesting ACKS content, and their first release was today - rules for constructing new flavors of magic (ie, Divine, Arcane, Fae, what-have-you).  It doesn't quite go so far as letting you build True Sorcery, but there are still some interesting things I could see people doing with it.
  • Psionics are an obvious first candidate (if you're in to that sort of thing, which I'm not particularly).
  • Rather than a generic "Divine" magic source with the same effect-type multipliers for all deities, break it down further.  Shouldn't Thor's clerics be better at Blast spells than, say, Freya's?
    • Though I still ought to finish the Book of ACKSalted Deeds at some point.
  • Ooold-school Magic the Gathering (like, Arena-old), with each color having its own set of multipliers on different effects.
  • Corny wire-fu martial arts, with touch-range blast and death spells (Poisoned Buddha's Palm, Dim Mak), personal transfiguration (Giant Strength all over the place), protection (Shimmer, Iron Shirt), movement (Air Walk, Swift Sword?  Or should we say, Flurry of Blows, or A Thousand Fists?), and healing, optional enchantment (the old Ninja of the Crescent Moon hypnotic pattern) and detection.  Spell slots?  I think you mean ki points.
    • Heck, the sort of 'mythical China' you see in films like Iron Monkey or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon actually checks out pretty well against ACKS' thematic assumptions - empire, threatened by corruption from within (and, less frequently, invaders from without).  You just have a few more certified bureaucrats and a few fewer feudal warlords (though depending on the time period...).

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

ACKS: Wilderness Movement Points (Also: Snow, Weasels)

The current "you have n miles of move, times m for terrain, and you can go that far in a day" wilderness movement system works great in homogeneous terrain.  In heterogeneous terrain, however, it becomes a pain in the ass.  Hence, a simplifying abstraction!

A lovely, grassy, flat 1.5 mile hex of plains or farmland costs one movement point to traverse.

A party in the wilderness has 4 MP/day per 30' of movement speed.
  • 30' -> 4 MP
  • 60' -> 8 MP
  • 90' -> 12 MP
  • 120' -> 16 MP
And so forth for mounted parties.  Forced March increases the MP available in a given day by 50%.

The following terrain types have the the following costs to traverse in movement points:
  • Grassland hills, flat forests: 3/2 (Three per two)
  • Wooded hills, barren mountains, swamps: 2
  • Forested mountains, icy mountains, forested swamps?: 3
  • Truly miserable haunted mountain glacier hellscapes not fit for man: 4
Following a road drops the MP cost down one category (so following a road through a hex of flat forest costs 1 MP rather than 3/2, road through mountains is 3/2 rather than 2, and so forth). Bad weather, snow, or mud increase the cost by at least one category (ie, snow-covered mountains are 3 MP instead of 2 because they have standing snowdrifts, and go up to 4 when actively snowstorming).

Snowshoes may be used to negate the movement penalty for snow on the ground (and weigh one item (sixth of a stone) per pair).  Skis on snow-covered terrain can reduce its cost to traverse to one category lower than its base (ie, snow-covered mountain is only 3 MP per 2 hexes when traversed with skis in good weather), but weigh one stone per pair.  Fighting while wearing skis is sort of hard, and may require Riding (Skis) to move and attack in the same round.  Snowshoes and skis are not compatible with livestock, except for dogsleds, riding sabretooth tigers, packmammoths, and other extra-fuzzy beasts of burden specifically adapted to the snow, who count as having snowshoes.  Characters with Riding (Skis) may skijor behind such beasts under snowy conditions.  I will figure out rules for this later, but it will be fast - as the beast doesn't actually need to carry the rider's weight except on the uphill, skijorers probably count as less encumbrance than their actual weight for determining the overland speed of the beast+skijorer combo.

TODO figure out sled dog prices and availability in markets.

Iceweasel: Not Just A Firefox Fork Anymore
Begin digression

Huh, giant weasels are actually very competitive with grizzly bears and giant boars stat-wise (faster, lower AC, comparable HD, low damage but they latch on so they only need to hit once, best carrying capacity of the three, scent, noted to sometimes burrow into dungeons -> you can probably take them into dungeons).  Not trainable as war mounts per DaW:C ("Anyone can ride a giant weasel...  once."), but hunting/packweasels (or Beast Friendship henchweasels) would be pretty great.

In the Cons column, if they fail morale they might flip out and try to eat you.  They're also pretty pricey, but that sword cuts both ways when you're using them as garrison (Excellent for garrison duty.  "The peasants' revolt has reached our gates, sire."  "I had hoped it wouldn't come to this, but...  release the weasels."  "I...  I've never seen so much blood, sire.") or you've established a giant weasel breeding program to corner the market.

Apparently "a confusion of weasels" and "a boogle of weasels" are both valid collectives for weasels.  If I just came up with a random-ass collective noun for some animal, I wonder how long it would take before google decided it was actually a thing.  Your homework assignment for tonight is to use "a conspiracy of cuttlefish" in a sentence somewhere on the internet (seriously, with those w-shaped pupils and adaptive camouflage, they can't be up to any good).  I look forward to your reports.

End digression

Right. Where was I before I started thinking about snow and weasels?

If the party doesn't have enough MP to traverse the next hex at the end of the day, keep track of how much of the next hex they still need to traverse.  You know, the sensible thing.

I think that's all there is to this.  Should make dealing with the sort of overland adventures in mixed terrain we're doing a touch easier.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Wilderness Fatigue, Quantum Caves

I get the feeling that there is something I'm missing with the mid-level wilderness game.  I'm not super-excited to prep and run it, and my players don't seem particularly excited to be playing it.  On my end there is definitely the possibility of some DM fatigue (supplemented by ordinary work-deadline and performance review fatigue), but I think it's worth considering the pain-points.
  • Wilderness travel is slow
    • It is slow in game-time because of plate and bad terrain.  One good solution to this could be horses...  or rocs.
    • It is slow in real-time because of counting hexes and multiplying for bad terrain.  This is a surprisingly challenging operation to do mentally when crossing multiple terrain types with different multipliers in a single day of travel.  Could definitely stand some automation operating on hexographer map files.
  • Logistics (estimating how many mules they'll need to carry their water) is not exciting, and also time-consuming.
    • Again, automation.  You hire an NPC muleskinner, you tell him how many mans, how many days, and how much slop factor you want, I put that in a script, and I tell you a number of mules and a rations-cost.
    • Logistics gets a lot more exciting if hungry monsters target the tasty, tasty mules over the guys in plate.  The problem here, though, is that if this happens near the end of the journey, your mules are probably mostly empty, and if it happens at the beginning, you can just return home.
  • Random encounter results so far have been unsatisfactory
    • Part of this is that the default random encounter tables don't really fit my setting.  I need to rework them, but for that I also basically need new monsters, and I don't have a good source for monsters in quantity.
      • I want to do Western Marches-style per-biome (Blight, Cinderwood, Bjornskog, Bjornfells, Dvagrfells, Mithrskog, Vestrifen, ...) encounter tables, but hexographer doesn't have a good way to draw biome-division lines.
      • I should also remember to include natural hazards, "roll on adjacent biome table, no chance of lair", and "roll twice and combine" results on these tables
    • I think I've also been confusing the wilderness encounter rate for borderlands travel with the one for fixed settlements in the borderlands, which has led to unusually infrequent random encounters, hence boring travel except when they stumble upon a pre-placed lair (more on that below).
      • I really want to check the math on the radius of civilization that gets generated by large settlements.
  • I've been failing to use dynamic lairs (again).  So far my PCs' routing has taken them through or within spitting distance of some fortuitously-placed lairs, but there are also some that they're basically never going to hit.
    • I also want to start placing dynamic nonlairs; dynamic points of interest.  Wilderness shrines, circles of standing stones, moon portals, magic pools, barrow mounds, runestones, &c.  I call them quantum caves because they're just probability distributions on the random encounter tables until collapsed by observers.  No relation to quantum ogres.
Two things that are going OK are forced marches and my weather subsystem.  The choice to forced-march is one that my players have been making regularly, and they are well-aware of its risks and tradeoffs.  I like that it is a simple choice with consequences.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Nonlinear Effectiveness of Armor Class

Or, why Fighting Style (Shield) and Plate is pretty great.

So you're playing ACKS and you find a ring of protection +1 (a rare and extremely valuable thing).  The wizard with AC0 wants it, because having any AC at all would be nice.  The fighter with AC10 (plate +1, shield +1, fighting style shield) also wants it, because he thinks AC11 is much better than AC10.  The wizard argues that this isn't true, the fighter has enough AC already, and he should stop hogging all the magic items.

(Then the ghouls attack while the party is arguing, but that is neither here nor there)

Who is right?

It turns out the fighter will actually gain (much) more survivability than the wizard will.  Here is why.

The more AC you have, the better each point of AC is, on average across all reasonable monsters (up to a point).  Let us consider four characters: wizard in no armor (AC0), clumsy thief in leather (AC2), barbarian in chain (AC4), and fighter in plate (AC6).  Let us also consider a couple of hypothetical monsters: an orc (THAC0 10+), an ogre (THAC0 6+), a stone giant (THAC0 3+), a woolly mammoth (THAC0 0+), and a great wyrm dragon (THAC0 -3+).  If each of these monsters attacks each of these PCs, what is the probability that they will hit?

AC 0 2 4 6

10 0.55 0.45 0.35 0.25
6 0.75 0.65 0.55 0.45
3 0.9 0.8 0.7 0.6
0 0.95 0.95 0.85 0.75
-3 0.95 0.95 0.95 0.9

Looks pretty straightforward - +2 points of AC reduces your probability of being hit by 10%, as we'd expect (up until the monsters only miss on a natural 1, which is what the 0.95s in the bottom left mean).

But what does having your probability of being hit reduced by 10% actually mean for your survival time when fighting this monster?  It can mean a lot more than a 10% increase in survival time!  Consider AC4 vs AC6 in the case of THAC0 10+.  AC4 gets hit about once every 3 attacks.  AC6 gets hit once every 4 attacks.  So assuming each PC can take the same number of hits, the guy in plate lives 33% longer on average than the guy in chain.

What happens if platefighter gets a shield and Fighting Style, bringing his AC up to 8?  Or fighting style and various levels of magic shield and plate for ACs 10, 12, and 14?

AC 8 10 12 14

10 0.15 0.05 0.05 0.05
6 0.35 0.25 0.15 0.05
3 0.5 0.4 0.3 0.2
0 0.65 0.55 0.45 0.35
-3 0.8 0.7 0.6 0.5

AC8 only gets hit by an orc once every 6-7 attacks.  He will live twice as long as the PCs in chain, and 1.5 times as long as if he were in plate.  At AC10 (shield +1, plate +1, and fighting style), he is hit by an orc only on a natural 20, once every 20 attacks, and will live five times as long as if he were in nonmagical plate with no shield (or about three times as long as if he were in nonmagical plate+shield+fighting style).

This is what I mean by the nonlinear effectiveness of Armor Class.  The more AC you have, the more each point increases your life expectancy in combat, up to the point where your opponent needs a natural 20 to hit.  Just that one point that pushes them from 19+ to 20+ to hit doubles your life expectancy.

On the flip size, the increase in AC from 0 to 6 only changes your probability of being hit by an orc from 0.55 to 0.25, slightly more than doubling your survival time (assuming the AC0 character has the same number of HP as the AC6 character - an AC0 wizard with d4 HD thus has about a quarter the combat life expectancy in melee of an AC6 fighter with d8 HD).  At higher THAC0s, the increase from AC0 to AC6 is even less effective - it means the great wyrm will hit on a 3+ instead of a 2+, which is right around a 5% increase in life expectancy.  At that point 6 stone of armor is a liability.  Go magic or don't bother.

By comparison, at high THAC0s, even small increases in AC continue to matter.  AC12 vs AC14 at THAC0 -3+ is 12 hits per 20 attacks vs 10 hits per 20 attacks is about a 20% increase in life expectancy.  Against a stone giant (THAC0 3+), AC 14 survives one and a half times as long as AC12, and twice as long as AC10.  Those last couple of points that push your AC up into the low teens are really, really good.

(I strongly suspect that there is some connection here with something like the harmonic progression or some other known sequence, but mathematical insight is failing to strike today)

Incidentally, this also explains why some of my past players felt vehemently that classes who can't use plate shouldn't be in melee, and that if you roll an 18 Dex and a 9 Str, you should use that statblock for a fighter (AC11 with shield and fighting style at 1st level and no magic?  Yes please) rather than a thief, explorer, or other dex-based class.  This is also, I suspect, why there are basically no spells that increase other peoples' AC in ACKS (except protection from evil, which has some drawbacks).  Shimmer (+2 AC for 3 turns) with range touch is probably absurdly good for keeping the monsters from breaking through your fighter-line.

To return to our AC10 fighter and AC0 wizard, the wizard gains, against opponents with THAC0 10+, only 10% survivability by increasing his AC by 1, and that falls as THAC0 increases to the point where it is irrelevant against opponents with THAC0 1+ or better.  The fighter, by comparison, doubles his survivability against opponents with THAC0 9+ by increasing his AC to 11, and even against great wyrms with THAC0 -3+, that +1 point of AC increases his expected survival time by about 8%.

Then the question becomes, "Is expected survival time in One Monster vs One PC combat a representative metric of utility in an adventuring context for item allocation purposes?"  I think it's pretty arguable - you can't do the party any good if you're unconscious in a pool of your own blood.  Likewise, if you live twice as long, you get twice as many chances to attack before dying, and your odds of successfully escaping from combat are much improved too.

This post roughly reflects the state of the dungeoneering fighter metagame in my group - shields are king.  I am curious under what circumstances other fighting styles make sense for classes who have access to plate and fighting style shield.  I think constructing an ACKS combat simulator and just running like a million trials is probably a better plan that doing math for that, though.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Bundle of Holding: Magical Society: Ecology and Culture: Review

Or, "how many colons can I reasonably put in a post title?".

There is a new Bundle of Holding, Worldbuilding III.  I picked up the base bundle, as it contained two of the Magical Society series, of which I have generally heard high praise.  I read the first, Ecology and Culture, this evening.  This is relevant to a project I am considering to automate worldbuilding at a large scale (in the Dwarf Fortress worldgen tradition, starting with plate tectonics and ending with a hexographer map with stocked 6-mile hexes).

This book is not well-proofread.  The most glaring issue is the repeated misspelling of "arctic" to "artic", though the replacement of "band" (as in, "band together") with "ban" is also recurrent.

Their treatment of geology is adequate for fantasy worldbuilding.  I was somewhat disappointed with the ecology section (granted, I totally skipped the substantial treatment of magiotrophic organisms due to differing cosmological assumptions about the nature of magic), and am not sure if placing ecology and biomes between geology and weather was the correct organizational choice.  I'd've probably gone geology, weather, ecology, biomes, in a causal ordering.  Overall this part of the book was decent and I learned some stuff.

The cultures section is strongly reminiscent of Guns, Germs, and Steel, which was an OK book but has attracted substantial criticism.  Several assumptions, including the ever-upward Progress of Civilization from hunter-gatherer to pastoral to agrarian to urban (with each better than the last, minus a brief note on magic forsaking advanced societies) and the assumption that war is the near-inevitable result of contact between civilizations, are very GGS.  Overall a very instrumentalist, geographically-determinist account of culture - every piece of culture is viewed as an adaptation to an environmental or social stressor.  It's not bad advice, but it's also not very interesting.  I would have liked to see a treatment of alternate social value-structures, but so it goes.  I guess it might be accurate to say that this felt like a fairly shallow treatment of culture to me, with cultures generated likely to be "us in funny hats"; details (food sources, clothing types, deities, taboos) altered but ultimately pretty similar in value-system and ways of thinking to oneself and one's players (which does raise the Tekumel/Rokugan Problem - if the natives are too foreign, I'm going to have a hard time running them.  But I have had good fortune with players being interested in strange philosophical groups in my past games).

Anyway, I'm glad I did not pay full price for this book.  A decent overview of earth science for DMs, but hardly the 4.5 stars it has on rpgnow.  You could probably do about as well with a copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel and a couple of hours on wikipedia.  The only thing this book does is save you time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Maneuver Warfare Handbook

I read most of Lind's Maneuver Warfare Handbook this evening, and as usual when reading this prompted a few thoughts relevant to gaming (although, unusually, more ideas related to my job - maneuver warfare applied to software development looks like a particularly weird, German flavor of Agile I expect).  The quick summary is that maneuver warfare is a mode of fighting which emphasizes distributed action rather then central control, and which has a few standard tools (mission orders / commander's intent, schwerpunkt, and the search for gaps in the enemy's surface) to make that organizational structure work.  When used properly, the more rapid reaction times of unit leaders closest to the action (who no longer have to wait for high command's permission to act) allow them to out-react their adversaries, forcing confusion, panic, and defeat.  Also emphasized are adaptability to circumstances and initiative by small-unit leaders.  This allows a smaller force to defeat a larger one by capitalizing on failures in enemy command and control.

Which sounds a lot like the sort of thing a human force in Domains at War could use to defeat the numerically-superior orc force in Battle of the Teeth, for example.  Create and exploit weaknesses in their formation as a result of their poor command and control, punch through, kill their commanders and force morale collapse.

Some of the small-unit fire-and-maneuver examples also had me thinking about Stargrunt again (where suppress-then-assault is king), though to some extent using ranged units to disorder troops in Domains at War is similar, and the section on never doing the same thing twice reminded me of the Starmada metagame of old (and that one time I cloaked ships but didn't move them, because my opponents were used to cloaked ships reappearing on their flanks and rear and had started turning to counter).

There was an excellent line about how attrition-warfare forces seek to engage and destroy the enemy "where and whenever" possible via superior firepower, which reminded me of 3.x gamers and how hard it is to get them to refuse a battle when they start playing ACKS.

One thing that I haven't gotten much sense for while wargaming has been friction (and in general properly confusing fog-of-war), though.  To some extent Starmada's written orders created some of this, because it was easy to goof and put your ships out of position.  Unfortunately, that's about as far as serious fog-of-war and friction can go without becoming a huge pain on the tabletop.  Computers could handle the sheer volume of chaos required better, but most computer wargames these days are not for audiences interested in unpredictability (to the point where some players argue that a good competitive RTS should have no randomness).  Perhaps I ought to write one.

In any case, pretty good book.  Very to-the-point!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

DaW: Mercenaries of the Vale of Traitors

Last session, the players in my Midnight Vikings ACKS game received a grant of (terrible, unsettled) land from the Troll Lord in exchange for having slain a dragon in his realm.  On their way out of his capital, they decided to hire more mercenaries, which left me in a bit of a quandary.  The normal mercenary availability table just doesn't quite fit a part of the world where horses are rare and most sentients-at-arms are orcs.  So I cooked up some custom setting-appropriate units using Domains at War and this very helpful post on the forums.

Reavers: 2/4/6 Loose Foot, AC 4, HD 1-1, UHP 6, ML -1, 3 battle-axe 11+.  Wages 12gp/mo, availability as Heavy Infantry.
Norse warriors equipped with a chainmail byrnie and a battle-axe in both hands.  Traditionally used for crewing longships and raiding coastal settlements.  They are capable sailors and possess the Seafaring proficiency.  Reavers are probably best used to chase down and kill enemy light infantry, which cannot withdraw from them (because the reavers are fast) and probably cannot match them in melee.  Reavers may also be useful for harassing slow heavy infantry like dwarves.  They don't really have the morale or AC for a slugfest with fast melee infantry like orcs or for holding the line against cavalry, though.
Veteran Reavers level into the Jutland Barbarian class.  Their stats are as follows: 2/4/6 Loose Foot, AC 4, HD 1, UHP 8, ML 0, 3 battle-axe 10+, wages 24gp/mo.  Veteran Reavers can scale walls and cliffs without siege ladders ("In your monastery, killing your monks"), and are hard to kill - after a battle, only a quarter of their casualties are killed or maimed, while the remaining three fourths are lightly injured (instead of a 50-50 split for most units).
Huskarls: 2/3/4 Formed Foot, AC 5, HD 1-1, UHP 6, ML 0, 2 spear and shield 11+ melee (with bonus damage on charge) or 2 spear 11+ ranged.  Wages 11gp/mo, availability as Heavy Infantry.Norse warriors equipped with spear, shield, and chainmail and trained for defensive and field engagements.  They also possess the Seafaring proficiency.  Pretty basic heavy infantry with accompanying tactics; form a battle line for bonus morale, advance towards the enemy in a shield wall (to avoid disruption by his ranged troops and accompanying breakdown of formation), spear-charge, and then slug it out (ideally with another element of the army turning the enemy's flank).
Veteran huskarls level into Fighter, and have the following stats: 2/3/4 FF, AC 5, HD 1, UHP 8, ML 1, 3 spear and shield 10+ melee with bonus damage on charge or 3 spear 10+ ranged, wages 23gp/mo.
Skoglanders: 2/4/6 Loose Foot, AC 2, HD 1-1, UHP 6, ML 0, 3 greataxe 11+ or 2 longbow 11+.  Wages 14gp/mo, availability as Bowmen.  Upcountry tree-cutters, hunters, and inexperienced bandits armored in leather with great timber-axes and flatbows.  Skoglanders are effective missile troops (as longbowmen), but more lightly armored, stronger in melee, faster, and cheaper.  Fairly standard archer tactics; strongest before melee is joined, deploy in front of the heavy infantry, disrupt the enemy's units to delay his advance or put holes in his line that your heavy infantry can later exploit, and withdraw through the friendly heavy infantry line if under attack.  Not sure how to best use them later in the battle.
Veteran skoglanders level into Explorer, and have the following stats: 2/4/6 LF, AC 2, HD 1, UHP 6, ML 1, 4 greataxe 10+ or 3 longbow 9+, wages 26gp/mo.  Veteran skoglanders are also difficult to spot; when in obscuring terrain, they gain an additional +2 to AC against missile attacks (for a total of +4).

Skirmishers: 2/4/6 Loose Foot, AC3, HD 1-1, UHP 6, ML -1, 2 spear 11+ or 2 javelin 11+.  Wages 6gp/mo, availability as Light Infantry.  Tribesmen from the far north practiced in hit-and-run raiding and equipped with crude ring mail, spears, and javelins.  They are trained in winter survival and the use of skis, and maintain their strategic mobility (ie, overland movement, not combat movement) in snow.  Their javelins are effective at disrupting the shield walls of enemy heavy infantry.
Veteran skirmishers level into Ivory Kingdoms Barbarians (weird, right?  But it actually makes sense with their tech level, weapon selection, and mobility focus), and have the following stats: 2/5/8 LF, AC3, HD 1, UHP 8, ML 0, 3 spear 10+ or 3 javelin 10+, wages 18gp/mo.  Veteran skirmishers are very fast for infantry (2/5/8) and hard to kill.
Hunters: 2/4/6 Loose Foot, AC1, HD 1-1, UHP 6, ML -1, 2 handaxe 11+ or 2 shortbow 11+.  Wages 8gp/mo, availability as Slingers.  Skilled hunters from the far north, proficient in the use of skis and winter survival (maybe I should make Skiing a general proficiency like Riding...).  Equipped with a shortbow, a hand-axe, and a quiver of arrows, and clad in furs.  They are effective with standard archer tactics; they're basically Bowmen with worse equipment and lower wages.
Veteran hunters level into Ivory Kingdoms Barbarians, and have the following stats: 2/5/8 LF, AC1, HD 1, UHP 8, ML 0, 3 handaxe 10+ or 3 shortbow 10+, hard to kill, wages 20gp/mo.
War Mastadons: 2/4/6 Formed Mounted, AC8, HD 19+2, UHP 6, ML +2 Unpredictable, 5 lances and tusks 6+, 6 tramples 0+ on a charge, and 2 composite bow 11+.  Wages 630GP/mo per mastadon and 6 crewmen, availability is 1d3-1 in Class I markets and 33% chance of 1 in Class II markets, with 5 mastadons per unit at company scale (only one per unit at platoon scale).  Great hairy mastadons in ring-mail barding, with an armored war-yurt containing six archers and lancers on their back.  As indicated by their unit HP, you don't have to kill the mastadon, just the guys guiding it.  Terrifying for the enemy when they charge, terrifying for their allies when they retreat.

Orc Pikemen: Straight from the book.  Wages 9gp/mo, availability as Slingers.
Orc Crossbowmen: Straight from the book.  Wages 6gp/mo, availability as Slingers.
Orc Boar Riders: Straight from the book.  Wages 33gp/mo, availability as Light Cavalry.

Iron Faces:
Iron Face Glaives: 2/3/4 Formed Foot, AC5, HD 1+1, UHP 10, ML 0, 3 polearm 9+.  Wages 17gp/mo, availability as Longbowmen.  The Iron Faces are disciplined, veteran orcs from the East.  They served the Great Dragon in his wars against the Wolf Khans for many years, but fell out of favor after a defeat and fled to the Troll Lord's lands, where they serve as mercenaries.  Their heavy infantry are equipped with standardized glaives, banded mail, and fearsome helmets that cover most of their faces (hence Iron Faces).
Iron Face Archers: 2/3/4 Loose Foot, AC5, HD 1+1, UHP 10, ML 0, 2 scimitar 9+ or 2 composite bow 9+.  Wages 27gp/mo, availability as Horse Archers.  The Iron Faces adopted the composite bow from their Wolf Khan opponents, and their archers, equipped with banded mail, composite bow, and scimitar, are rightly feared for their range and accuracy.
The Iron Faces do have boar cavalry (porcelry?) units, but they are typically not for hire, being the personal guards of Iron Face leaders.

Dwarven Spearmen: 1/2/3 FF, AC7, HD 1, UHP 8, ML 0, 3 spear and shield 10+ (with bonus damage on charge) or 3 spear ranged 10+.  Wages 30gp/mo, availability as Heavy Cavalry (for the time being, as Gnupur the Shaven has been hiring as many dwarves as he can for his crusade to reclaim the mountainhome.  Their base wages without competition are 20gp/mo and their availability would be as Longbowmen).  Dwarven heavy infantry with plate, shield, and spear.  Slooow but hard to kill, excellent for holding a fixed position or fortification.
Dwarven Crossbowmen: 1/2/3 FF, AC6, HD 1, UHP 8, ML 0, 3 hand-axe 10+ or 3 arbalest ranged 10+.  Wages 39gp/mo, availability as Cataphracts (again, their base wages are only 26gp/mo and their base availability is as Medium Cavalry, but Gnupur is hiring aggressively).  The dwarves take an unorthodox approach to ranged combat, with their plate-armored arbalestiers holding their own in the main battle line.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Variant Legates - Scholastics

It only makes sense that if there are legates with different doctrines, they ought to be at least a little different mechanically.  My biggest concern here is obviously the Scholastic Legates, because they are probably least intolerable to the existing PCs and so might make acceptable henchmen.  Unfortunately, it turns out that getting a decent mix of Divine, Thief, and/or Arcane values with no fighting produces some very anemic classes.  Divine 3 / Thief 1 leveled even faster than thief, but was horrifically bad at low levels, while Arcane 3 / Divine 1 didn't get 3rd-level arcane spells until ~70kXP (whereas normal wizards get them at 20kXP).  I considered Arcane 4 / Divine 2 with lowered maximum level and telling the rules where to shove it, and that might still be an option, but managing such a character sounds like a pain in the ass.


The simple option is to bring it back in and get something closer to cleric.  Divine 2 / HD 1 / Fighting 1 is a workable basis for a class.  If we trade armor down to leather, we can get two custom powers.  Probably want to keep weapons at Narrow, which lets us get wizard weapons (darts, slings, staves, clubs, saps) and swords and daggers (because if you're in leather with 2-per-4 to-hit, you probably should be able to use all those magic swords that get found, and also daggers are traditional for blood sacrifice).  Plus, this gives another reason the rest of the legates think they're heretics - they use blood-spilling weapons (instead of trying to save that blood for sacrifice)!  I guess they can keep shields; two-weapon fighting doesn't make much sense either, and shields are nice.

With those two custom powers, we can get Arcane Dabbling and Loremastery, which both seem appropriate.  Those two are both weak at low levels, though, which isn't great.  Black Lore (swapping the turning bonus for a bonus to blood sacrifice rolls, maybe), Familiar, Prophecy, and Contemplation would also be defensible choices.

The rest of the customization we can do on the spell list and the class proficiencies.  They get 28 class proficiencies, which are sort of a mix of cleric, thief, and wizard: Alchemy, Ambushing, Apostasy, Battle Magic, Black Lore (replace control undead with +2 bonus to Blood Sacrifice research throws), Collegiate Wizardry, Contemplation, Disguise, Divine Blessing, Divine Health, Eavesdropping, Engineering, Familiar, Healing, Knowledge, Language, Magical Engineering, Military Strategy, Mystic Aura, Naturalism, Navigation, Prophecy, Quiet Magic, Righteous Turning, Sensing Power, Swashbuckling, Theology, Unflappable Casting.

The spell list is sort of similar; a little cleric, a little wizard (via the witch spell list), emphasis on detection, curses, and concealment.

  1. Cause Fear *
  2. Command Word
  3. Darkness *
  4. Detect Danger
  5. Detect Magic
  6. Inflict Light Wounds *
  7. Protection from...  Evil?
  8. Read Magic
  9. Resist Cold
  10. Sanctuary
  1. Augury
  2. Bane *
  3. Cloak in Shadow (as Shimmer)
  4. Delay Poison
  5. Find Traps
  6. Hold Person
  7. Locate Object
  8. Resist Fire
  9. Silence 15' radius
  10. Sleep
  1. Bestow Curse *
  2. Cure Blindness
  3. Cause Disease *
  4. Continual Darkness *
  5. Detect Invisible 
  6. ESP
  7. Feign Death
  8. Glyph of Warding
  9. Invisibility 
  10. Speak with Dead
  1. Clairvoyance
  2. Control Undead
  3. Dispel Magic 
  4. Divination
  5. Inflict Serious Wounds *
  6. Nondetection
  7. Poison * 
  8. Protection from...  Evil?, sustained
  9. Speak with Plants
  10. Tongues
  1. Atonement
  2. Commune
  3. Dispel...  Evil?
  4. Fear
  5. Finger of Death *
  6. Insect Plague
  7. Quest
  8. Scry
  9. Strength of Mind *
  10. True Seeing
I think this variant would work out OK.  They would be strictly better with spears/polearms instead of either of their weapon choices, but less sensible for their background I think.  At low levels they turn, do knowledge things, and heal OK.  At high levels, I'm not sure straight caster-offense is as viable as for most divine casters; most of their offensive spells are save-or-suck, a lot of it at touch range, and no Flame Strike or Spiritual Weapon.  They should be fairly viable in melee with magic gear, Shimmer, and Swashbuckling, and once they're in close they can deliver those touch spells.  Taking Apostasy for Chameleon, Silent Step, Swift Sword, and Striking or Sword of Fire combos pretty well with Ambushing and Swashbuckling.  Could also use Apostasy to pick up some decent direct-fire support capabilities or a top-tier healing (Cure Moderate, Cure Major, Spirit of Healing, Salving Rest or Cure Critical).  Man, Apostasy is just really good with the Player's Companion spells, especially in combination with other casting-support profs like Battle Magic, Contemplation, and Black Lore, and it's even better on a Divine 4 class like Priestess or Witch than it is on this guy.

Anyway, I will probably do a variant Skami legate next.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Wigle Whiskey Tasting Notes

Totally unrelated to gaming, except inasmuch as it has become traditional for certain of my players to show up to ACKS hungover.

Wigle Whiskey (not to be confused with WiGLE) is a Pittsburgh distillery named after Phillip Wigle, a local hero(?) of the Whiskey Rebellion.  Anything having to do with liquor is a bureaucratic nightmare in Pennsylvania these days (what with the state Liquor Control Board's monopoly), so Wigle is one of just a handful of distilleries (well, legal ones) in what used to be a very still-heavy part of the country.  They had a free tasting last night, so being a whiskey drinker of unsophisticated palate, I decided to go try their goods.

After a bit of a wait in the cold, I tried the following things (in roughly the following order, so it might be expected that things I tried later have slightly less accurate reviews):
  • Landlocked Spiced: Landlocked is a honey spirit that has been compared to rum.  I rather like honey spirits (eg Bushmill's Honey Whiskey, with Barenjager on my to-try list), and this one was OK but not amazing.  Tasted a bit flowery almost?  From their notes, I was probably getting too much vanilla over the honey, which is not what I was hoping for.
  • Small-Batch Maple Wheat Whiskey (which I'm not seeing on their online store, curiously): Wheat whiskey aged in charred oak barrels with maple staves, if I recall correctly.  I went through an "mmm, tastes like drinking a tree" phase a year or two ago, and this is representative of that style in the best possible way.  Not to my current tastes, but if that's what you're into, probably pretty good.
  • Walkabout Apple Whiskey: Wheat and rye whiskeys, barrel-aged, blended, and cut from cask strength using local cider rather than water.  A promising premise, but there was definitely a discordant note that threw things off for me; I'm not sure if it was the rye or the woodiness from the barrel aging or something else, but something did not combine well with the apple flavor.  Not a fan, but it's an experimental on their parts so I think we'll see further refinements in future.
  • Landlocked Clear: I know, you're supposed to mix clear spirits, but this was pretty good.  An unapologetic, uncomplicated honey spirit, would probably blend well with apple flavors.
  • Straight Wheat Whiskey: One of their flagship whiskeys, and quite good - not as sweet as a corny bourbon, not as woody as a Tree In A Barrel, nicely balanced, tasty.
On my way out I ran into some friends in line who decided that the wait wasn't worth it, and we went and got thai food while I metabolized before driving home.  So that all worked out rather well.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Theological Disputes and Legate Factions of Midnight ACKS

I've commented previously on how Midnight benefits from heretical legates.  Since this is rapidly becoming relevant to my current game, and one of my PCs has Theology, here's the data dump.

Structure of the church: The church is currently fragmented and disorganized.  There used to be a Speaker for Darkness, whose word was divine law, but Naxander the Conqueror killed it and received the Dark God's blessing.  When he died, he did not leave a clear successor for the position, and now the princes each vie not only for temporal power but also the support of the church factions, hoping to be acknowledged as the Speaker.   Some legate factions support the princes, while others believe that the next Speaker must come from the ranks of the legates themselves.  A few believe that the Speakership is permanently lost.  It is commonly believed that pilgrimage to the City of Black Ice is a requirement for Speakership; currently the City is held by a militant brotherhood of legates, but should a prince take the city (despite the logistical difficulties), that would greatly contribute to the legitimacy of their claim to Speakership.

Monolithicity: The orthodox position is that the Shadow is the only Shadow and brooks the worship of no other gods.  However, many of the primitive far-northern tribes that Naxander the Conqueror led out of the north have attributed deific status to him, in their tradition of ancestor-worship.  These "dualist" sects claim witnesses to miracles surrounding Naxander's death as support for this belief.  Some trinitarian orc sects even claim there are three divinities - the Shadow, the Conqueror, and an orcish messiah yet to come.

The End of Days: Most orthodox "accelerationist" human sects hold that when the Shadow has devoured everything, it will break the interplanar veil and release the trapped souls of the dead to afterlives of its choosing.  It follows then that acts in service of the Shadow (sacrificing all the mans, absorbing all the magic items) accelerate this process, and bringing about the End as quickly as possible is a good thing because it will put the spirits of the dead at peace.  Some scholastic, gradualist sects, however, believe that intelligent life converts "potential" trapped in the land itself into harvestable energy, and question whether or not just sacrificing all life would provide enough energy to shatter the Veil.  These sects promote fertility and economic investments aimed at producing large, stable populations, with the intent of guaranteeing the End eventually after depleting all of the residual magic of the soil and sun (a process accelerated by having more people).  Many gradualist heretics have found favor with the Princes, as sacrificing all the peasants weakens the army and leads to being crushed by one's rivals.  Finally, orcish variants of the End of Days include "we kill all the humans and reign over this, our destined dominion" and "we kill all the humans and the Shadow transports us, Its chosen people, to some other world to conquer and despoil in Its name."

Divine Revelation: Some orthodox sects accept only the recorded words of the Speakers as canon ("Canonists"), while others believe that the Shadow grants divine revelation to chosen prophets beyond the Speaker ("Revelationists") or anyone at all ("Individualists").  This leads to any number of contentious minor theological differences (whether you can eat fish on wednesdays, the type of dagger appropriate for sacrificing halflings, and so forth) depending on which version of the canon you're using.

For its part, the Shadow doesn't seem to care much about any of these matters; everyone still gets the same number of spells per day.  On the other hand, perhaps it is just testing its followers, weeding out the weak.  The joy and terror of evil gods is that sometimes they're just messing with you.

A few sample sects:

The Militant Brotherhood of the Monolith: Guardians of the City of Black Ice, super-orthodox.  Currently backing no candidate for Speaker (believe it will be obvious when the Shadow chooses, all current claimants therefore impostors), violently monotheist accelerationist canonists.

The Whisperers: Cultists who spread the worship of darkness in human lands before Naxander came.  When he did, they came out of the woodwork and set up shop in places where they already had influence.  Often cooperate with other Whisperer organizations in neighboring towns, tend to have a established political bases.  The shrine legates in Ostergot are of this faction.  Typically believe that the next Speaker must be a legate (and question Naxander's claim to Speakership), belligerently monotheist, moderate to lip-service accelerationist, and belligerently revelationist.

The Skami: A collective term for the tribes that Naxander brought south, the Skami have formed a sort of priestly class in many of the large cities that they conquered.  They are often in conflict with their local Whisperer organizations for power; while the Whisperers have economic / peasant support, the Skami can draw on their settled tribal warriors.  They usually favor either their local Prince or a powerful Skami kinsman for Speakership, are mostly dualists, lean pragmatically gradualist (gradualism offers many fruits for the decadent priest-nobility as well as the favor of the Prince, but they typically don't really grok the metaphysical arguments about gaian potential and the Veil, and sometimes it's politically useful to sacrifice a bunch of those Whisperer-loyal peasants), and are also often pragmatically revelationist.  The Skami are weak in the Vale of Traitors, as the region maintained much of its own native nobility and autonomy, but are strong in Verlath the dragon's realm, where their tribes displaced or enslaved many of the Norse natives.

The Scholastics: While the Whisperers got their start via the Shadow's whispers and messengers, the Scholastics began as wizards who experimented too greedily and too deep, and glimpsed the coming darkness with prophetic certainty.  Though few in number and often considered illegitimate by other legate branches, they do get spells and turning, and those sufficiently politically adept often hold high favor with the Princes.  No consensus on Speakership, monotheist gradualist individualists.  May warrant a custom class or something (because to be honest, these are the guys the PCs are going to want to ally with and henchrecruit, and also the ones who make the least sense in plate).

The Udareen: The orcish holy women hold beliefs just as heretical as the Scholastics, but have an army to back them up.  Believe that orcs are the Chosen People; the next Speaker will be an orc, trinitarian accelerationist (with favorable orc End of Days) individualists (but divine revelations by non-orcs are invalid).  Tolerated by non-orc Princes who value their hordes, a common enemy for the other legate factions.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

1.5 Mile Hexes

I used to think that people who did sub-6-mile hexes were lunatics!  But it turns out with the right tools, it's actually pretty satisfying to map this way.  Here's a thing I've been working on.

Vale of Traitors, 1.5mile hexes, open in new tab or window to enbiggen

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Domains at War: Another Test Battle, More Piledrivers!

We ran a test combat the other day of platoon-scale Domains at War Battles, with rough approximations of the PCs in my Midnight ACKS campaign leading a mixed force of elves, dwarves, and woodsmen against a column of orcs.  The PCs were handily victorious.

We did screw some stuff up, however!
  • No generals, just independent and interoperating commanders.  This is relevant, because generals apply half of their morale to the rolls of all units, and can force a morale check when killed.  Their leadership also limits the maximum number of divisions (independent commanders) available to each side. This mistake favored the orcs, who lost both of their commanders (which would've forced morale), and denied the PCs' units their general morale bonus.
    • James the Dwarf, having Morale +3 and Leadership 4, is probably the best choice for the PCs' general at this point.  I could see Skorn the Varangian being an excellent general in time, between her Charisma bonus, class features, and potential class proficiencies, but she is yet unlevelled. 
  • No lieutenants, but the PCs didn't really need them.  The orcs should maybe have had them at platoon scale.  Each platoon is roughly a warband of orcs (~35), which should have a subchieftain qualified to lead it.  This would've made the orcish command situation much less tenuous and enabled ready replacement of slain orcish commanders.
  • Applied commander morale bonus to all units in their division.  Again, this favored the orcs, who had more units per commander, whereas the PCs had three commanders and four units.
    • Although the only PC with a morale modifier was James; the Elder Bear inflicts a morale penalty on enemies but provides no bonus to his allies, and Scarth the wizard has excellent strategic ability / mass combat initiative but no bonus to morale (which made him a fine leader for the archers in the rear to disorder the enemy early in the turn).
  • When a commander is slain, his division's remaining units are not reassigned to other commanders until after the next morale phase.  We reassigned immediately.  Whoops.
  • We did not permit a fireball to be directed at an orc chieftain personally, even though he was within visibility range for a man-sized hero.  This one cuts both ways, of course.
  • The rules were unclear on whether or not retreating units can pass through threatened hexes; an orcish unit whose only path of retreat laid through one was ruled to be routed.  This, it turns out, is not correct.  So that one favored the PCs, and pretty handily, since that was a command unit.
  • Retreating, recoiling, and withdrawing units can be pursued, and irregular infantry like orcs must pursue.  This would've brought an orcish command squad back into melee with Scarth's longbowmen, and prevented him from firing on his next activation (granted, they're about as good in melee as at range, but that would've been a more concerning situation for the PCs).
  • Loose Foot cannot withdraw from units which have equal or greater marching speed, so actually the longbowmen couldn't've withdrawn from the orcs and should've taken the damage after all.
  • Initially we forgot that the longbowmen could withdraw, but we figured that one out and it was OK.
  • Our deployment was not doctrinaire, with the PCs coming at the orcish column from both sides and without a clear rearguard, vanguard, and main body.  On the other hand, it's platoon scale.  Meh.
  • Terrain was not handled rigorously.
We handled most of the 'core' combat mechanics of the game OK, though - movement was much more intuitive this time than last, hitting and damage are easy to start with, and shock and morale went way better than previously.  Last time we were running from a .doc draft of the Battles rules and it was cumbersome; this time I had the paper book in my hands, with bookmarks for the shock and morale modifier tables, and those went very quickly, which pleased me.  The heroes were all very effective in different ways; the Elder Bear shredded orcs with 4 attacks at 3+ while shape-strengthed, James' morale bonus kept the outnumbered dwarven infantry from breaking despite flanking attacks, and Scarth's fireballs did excellent damage on this scale, forcing shock rolls wherever they landed.  The fact that heroes engage heroes attached to their target unit instead of the unit itself did influence targeting decisions some (in that the Elder Bear really preferred to shred half a unit of orcs instead of trying to hit one chieftain once), but with generals working properly the incentive to kill enemy heroes should be stronger next time.

We also played an extra-large game of OGRE!  We had three players, so David and I each took a MkIII while Matt ran a double-strength defense.  It was a brutal game, with David stripped of all weapons but his AP guns and no movement about six hexes from the objective, while I lost all of my non-AP guns and was down to speed 1 at the end.  Matt almost stopped me one hex short of the objective, but the dice turned against him on the last turn of firing at my treads, and I succeeded in destroying the command post.  For our part, we destroyed most of his forces (of 24 armor units, he had 2 heavy tanks, a missile tank, and a howitzer out in the boonies remaining at end of game), but it was the closest game we've had yet.

Monday, October 12, 2015

ACKS in the Wilderness

I have a confession to make.

As much as I hate using grids for combat, something they really do make things better.

In this case, last session we had our first real wilderness combat in ACKS.  We'd had some during previous campaigns, but in the theater of the mind things tended to get very muddled in so open an area of engagement, and the party's melee contingent tended to assume they could always get in and engaged.

This combat was very different.

The party was hunting a group of ghouled woodsmen in the mountainous forests north of Ostergot.  Their cunning plan was to catch and field-strip a deer, hoping that the smell of blood and meat would draw the ghouls to them.  They were quite correct, and over the top of the ridge advanced a group of 8 ghouls with bows in a broad skirmish line (I play ghouls as "of malign intelligence at least equal to a human's").  The PCs were mostly 5th-6th level at this point, and the PCs fighters have ACs in the 8-9 range.  Eight ghouls at this level is somewhat concerning, but not normally a dire, mortal threat to a PC unless something goes quite wrong.  The ghouls advanced down the slope, trading arrows with the party's archers and taking a fireball in the center of their line.  The ghouls began a fighting retreat and two of them managed to inflict some pretty serious damage on the party's unarmored witch.  The party's heavily-armored fighters were unable to catch them and engage, and in the end it was the archers that did them in.

This was a very unusual combat for us in ACKS.  Ranged enemies are not particularly viable in the dungeon, but in the wilderness even weak ranged foes can still be dangerous as long as they're fast.  This fight was not the fighters' to win; instead it was the assassin and the explorer's (and those few fighters who had thought to bring bows).  In the absence of archers in the party, I expect the ghouls would've exhausted their arrows before downing any of the party's superheavy fighters, but the party's wizard and witch would've been toast long before then.  I see three counters to this:
  • Superior ranged firepower (as happened in this case) - beat the archers at their own game.  Honestly a party of mid-levels fighters can be a competent ranged force if they're willing to carry; most archer-types aren't super-high AC, so losing out on dex bonus to hit them is probably not a huge deal, and strength+fighter damage bonus applies to bowfire.  The problem with this approach is that it means you can't use a shield, which drops the fighters' ACs by anywhere from 2 to 5 points in this party (shield +3 and fighting style shield), leaving them vulnerable to missile fire and cavalry charges themselves.
  • The phalanx / testudo / hedgehog - huddle up (perhaps aided by favorable terrain), shield your casters, and wait for the enemy to run out of arrows.  Not a whole lot of fun, and honestly pretty risky, because they are going to get some lucky hits even against high AC PCs before running out of arrows.  Also requires a very high ratio of shieldbearers to squishy casters, because a more-mobile enemy can encircle a fixed defense and strike from any side.  Performance against horse archers should be comparable to that against foot archers, but might actually be able to receive and stop a heavy cavalry lance charge if done properly.
  • Superior speed - mount up and run the bastards down.  Takes a proficiency (Riding) and requires a horse (in short supply), leaves you vulnerable to having your horse killed out from under you, but also the premier delivery system for heavily-armored melee fighters in the wilderness, and massed lance charges are spectacular, especially with fighter damage bonus and cleaves.  Also scales well into the high levels with monstrous mounts.  Still somewhat vulnerable to light cavalry / horse archers, but not in the same way that infantry is to infantry archers - if the horse archers are in range to fire on you, you're in range to lance-charge them.  The lance charge can also bog down against tough / high HD foes, leaving the party's fighters engaged with something scary without a good way to retreat (particularly if their horses are slain).
  • (Situational) magic and trickery
In any case, I look forward to more exploration of tactics outside the dungeon.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Quality Links

I've been pretty busy between crunch at work and prep for my Midnight ACKS game, but there have been a number of really good posts that came up on my radar this week.

First off, Koewn's analysis of ACKS' stealth mechanics is fantastic.  I was considering (am still considering, actually) an ACKS assassin that trades plate for something else, and this has reasonably convinced me that they don't need Naturally Stealthy (-1 to enemy surprise rolls) to be effective at sneaking at low levels.  Honestly, reading his analysis, I'm pretty convinced that ACKS' stealth system is fine and we've just been Doing It Wrong; I actually kind of like that a 1st level thief is ~18% more likely to surprise a target than a common man.  As Koewn points out, this is about on par with the incremental improvement in combat ability that fighters get, with a 1st-level fighter being better but not massively better than a common man. The question remains, though: what to give assassins?  I'm thinking Poison Use (some combination of bonus to saves against poison, bonus to proficiency throws to produce poisons, no chance to poison self when using poison), but I haven't set on anything yet.

Second, Trilemma has a pair of solid posts on knowlege and preparation and DM-player bandwidth.  The first is a good statement of the general philosophy behind his prior (excellent) posts on useful dungeon description and monstrous effects on terrain, as well as explaining the importance of intel in old-school gaming, the prevalence of monsters with crazy immunities, and (indirectly) why vancian casting was awesome.  In a way, it explains a lot of the mechanical oddities of the Old School that fell by the wayside as cultural, playstyle elements of the Old School (which made those mechanical elements sensible) faded due to dilution, and in identifying those cultural elements provides a path forwards/backwards, depending on how you look at it.

Trilemma's second post, on bandwidth, is particularly relevant to me at the moment, as I am engaged in world creation and trying to get data to my players.  It's also somewhat interesting because "the bandwidth problem" was something parts of my group have been talking about for years, but never thought to write down.  I have the good fortune of having a player this campaign who really likes lore (at one point he explicitly asked me for more lore, and I was taken aback; not a problem I've ever had before!), but my approach is still mostly a combination of a (written lore), c (no lore), and d (players propose reasonable lore).  Some but not many things are fixed (written lore), many things that aren't relevant to the game just don't exist (no lore), and if my players propose something that makes sense, it's on me to either find a good a reason it isn't true, or to adopt it.  I imagine this is probably true of most campaigns, that they follow hybrid approaches.  Still, interesting stuff to think about.

Finally, today from the Hill Cantons, two solid posts on building and running dynamic sandboxes [1, 2]!  Since I'm running a dynamic sandbox at the moment, these are extraordinarily relevant to my interests.  The first article discusses having a campaign news cycle and dynamic encounter tables, while the second focuses on his Chaos Index world engine and campaign-scale event charts.  The campaign news cycle is probably not reasonable for a setting like Midnight, where news is sparse and literacy is sparser, but dynamic encounter tables are something I've been playing with lately.  ckutalik proposes a "New Development" slot on one's random encounter tables, where something related to a world event or past PC actions shows up when rolled.  I've been thinking about having an encounter queue instead - when the PCs take an action which generates Consequences, those consequences go in a queue.  When you roll "queued encounter" on the table, you pick something sensible from the first couple of things in the queue and that's what they find.  This means that consequences can linger in the queue for quite a while, but will probably find the PCs eventually.  I've also considered having multiple queues on a per-area basis; failing to assassinate the duke might queue a squad of royal guards in his domains, and bounty hunters in each of several nearby domains.  Things like that.

From the second post, I could see setting up a Shadow Index, where certain actions increase the grip of the Shadow on the world and that alters things cosmologically (again, ideally I think I'd want per-area or -domain indices, so that some places can be deeply shrouded while others are 'points of light').  I've been running some loosely-defined world engines for various plots that are afoot; when the players decide to engage the ghouls hunting the farmers of Ostergot, the mushroommen of the Monastery Caverns grow and multiply, and when they fight the mushroommen, the ghouls spread.  Event charts are something I should consider; my plan currently is to use politics as the primary event-driving factor for the campaign, but the occasional natural disaster or similar would not be amiss.  My thought is to set up a network of high-power NPCs who have various relations with each other, and in any given unit of time some may undertake actions (declaration of war, assassination, charm / domination, slander, ...) against others, the consequences  of which trickle down to the PCs.  Event tables would be a simpler way to handle this, though, with "assassination attempt on X by Y", "raiding of X's domains by Y", and "warfare of X against Y" as table items with fillable variables as sensible.  Maybe I'll do that instead.

Anyway, good posts, well worth reading.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Weekend with Dad, Nightblade Playtest Notes

It was good to see him, and there was much gaming and playing with my cat (who, we discovered, rather likes shredded coconut).

Taught him (dad, not the cat) Race for the Galaxy friday night, and played quite a bit on saturday too.  I learned that I really like trade-focused strategies, but neither of us are at the level of quickly reading our opponent's intentions for the upcoming turn yet.

We also played one game of Carcassone, which I had not played before.  Interesting, would play again, still not really clear on all the rules.

Saturday evening was a Pathfinder Society event.  Dad plays a lot of PFS and I decided to come along.  A very different style from my usual; lots of boxed text, skill checks, and name-drops of NPCs and places with which I was unfamiliar.  I wonder if there's something in the nature of large-scale company-backed organized play that leads to settings which are both highly detailed and kitchen-sink in their approach to new material - perhaps the players demand kitchen-sink and the business demands volume of setting book sales?  Notable counterexample - the Legend of the Five Rings large-scale play organization seems to have done a decent job of maintaining thematic consistency.

Anyway, we brought a party full of diplomats and ended up accomplishing our objectives without killing anything!  Probably a first in my gaming.  The space they were running the game in (a church basement) was really nice, and my fellow players were fine folks, but there was a lot of organizational / administrative paperwork and general powergaming (both of the game rules and the organization's rules).  Not my cup of tea at this point I think.

Today, there was more Midnight-esque (Midlite?) ACKS!  Dad playtested my nightblade mods and the Bear God's Rebellion engaged the two biggest, scariest threats in the first level of the mountaintop monastery they've been working on for the last couple of weeks - a group of four mummies, and a young dragon.  Their original plan for dealing with the mummies involved a ward scroll against undead, a pair of bearsarkers (who, being immune to fear, are not "paralyzed with dread" when confronted by mummies), and a blindfolded wizard who knows burning hands.  This plan did not survive contact with the mummies, who acted more offensively than expected (I'm still not really sure why the party didn't use the ward scroll, though).  There were many failed paralysis saves and webs and fire and shape strength and in the end nobody died, though the nightblade and the vaultguard PCs both contracted mummy rot, which the witch circumvented with Delay Disease.  There was much loot (including two magic shields) and rejoicing, and after sending the nightblade on a gaseous, infravision scouting spree (during which they learned that the rumors of a dragon in the tower were true, of a secret door in the abbot's quarters, and that the monastery's well leads into a caverous lake), they hauled the holy relics of a forgotten sun god down the mountain to Bearholm, there to level up their henchmen.

While in the nearby market village of Ostergot trading gems for alcohol, the PCs learned that yetis and ghouls are eating the local farmers.  The PCs feel somewhat responsible for this, since they did recently kill the local constabulary.  The PCs were coming down the mountain and met the constables coming up to check on a burning building at the dungeon site.  When the constables caught one of the bearsarkers in a lie, they demanded the party's weapons and (gods forbid) taxes!  This did not end well for them, and now the village lies more-or-less defenseless save for its wooden palisade walls.  The PCs resolved to look into these unintended consequences next session.

After three days in the market and levelling, back up the mountain they went to fight the dragon.  They gathered outside its tower, and sent the wizard up the tower alone with a vial of yellow mold spores to throw down into the tower.  Unfortunately, the dragon heard his climbing, and was perched on top waiting for him on his arrival.  He stalled with diplomacy long enough for the nightblade to come check on him invisibly, and the rest of the party rushed into the tower to distract the dragon.  One of the berserkers hit it with a yellow mold vial, but it made its save and replied with a breath weapon.  Shortly it was laid low by well-placed arrows from the two explorer henchmen and a barrel of lamp oil thrown with shape strength by one of the berserkers, while the wizard fled back down the side of the tower during the chaos.  There was more loot, and nobody died (again...  I need to step up my game.  On the other hand, pretty much everybody has levelled since that dragon was placed in that tower, and they were playing a man up, so...  I'm going to need to make the mushroom-men in the second level tougher).

Notes and feedback on nightblade performance:
  •  Jumping into the enemy rearline is very tempting, and there is probably a right time for that maneuver.  Fighting mummies is not that time.
  • Today I learned that ACKS' infravision has a 24-hour duration.  I'm not sure how I feel about giving it as a power to the nightblade.  On the one hand, infravision encouraged PCs to split the party for scouting.  On the other hand, giving the thief infravision+gaseous form at 5th level could just operate as a hard phase-shift away from dungeon exploration towards wilderness play.
  • It was remarked that one use of invisibility per day is enough to get to the target or away from the target, but not both.
  • Acrobatics+Jump generates a lot of pretty reliable backstab, such that the nightblade was trying to stand in front with the fighters.  The primary incentive to not do that was that her AC was not front-line material.  This session's structure of "two monster hunts against things that paralyze you and things that breath fire" was not really conducive to having the nightblade out front in the zone of shadowy illumination, so being in melee range entailed being in a dangerously well-lit position.
  • Did not have enough combats in any single day of adventuring this time for resource constraint on number of 1st-level spells to come into play.  Part of this is the structure of this dungeon, part of it is just the place this party is in the exploration process for this level.  Happens.
  • ACKS' stealth system continues to be tricky for me to use in practice, and I think this trickiness is part of why we have "thieves are bad" as a meme.
    • The dragon made its Hear Noises throw to hear the wizard climbing the tower.  All well and good.
    • I don't remember if it made a surprise roll to see if the wizard got a round to act before it did, but it was fast enough flying to beat a climbing wizard to the top of a 40' cobblestone face handily.
    • When the nightblade snuck up on it invisibly, she failed her Move Silently roll by 1 and in play was detected immediately upon reaching the top of the tower.
    • However!  The dragon should've made another Hear Noises throw to see if it detected her moving less-silently than intended.  In practice, it probably would've failed this (it's an 18+ roll, maybe 14+ if dragons have super-senses like my players expected this one to).  Which I guess might be canon now for dragons in this setting, because man this one was pretty good at detecting sneaking characters.
    • Even if the dragon had made the Hear Noises roll, the nightblade should've gotten a surprise roll against it, which had a 33% chance of giving her a surprise round to either freeze (which, being invisible, would've taken her off the radar) or close and backstab.
    • So what we see here is the interaction of several mechanics (thief skills like Move Silently, everyone skills like Hear Noises, combat mechanics like Surprise, and their attendant class features and proficiencies like Naturally Stealthy) put together is a way that is not necessarily intuitive.  It's not a bad system, just very different from the 3.x stealth systems of our youths, where rolling a 4 on a Move Silently to sneak up on a dragon meant you were toast.  Instead of an opposed roll, we have several boolean rolls whose results are interpreted together.
  • We did do multiplied-damage in the correct way this time at least, and at one point the nightblade rolled a 6 on a d6, multiplied by 3 for backstab against a mummy.  Under our previous crit interpretation, that would've been a 1 in 216 event; this time it was a 1 in 6 event.  And it was good.

Monday, September 21, 2015

ACKS Class: Nightblade Redux

Nightblade Redux
Prime Requisites: Dex, Int
HD: d6
Max level: 12

Nightblade is a neat class in concept, but ultimately slow arcane casting progression on a thief base is a hard sell.  We had one in the first party of our first campaign, and then there was one nightblade henchwoman who survived a single adventure, but they get no love in this group.  Perhaps this could change that, and offer an a way forward for thieves in general.

Nightblades are elven spies, assassins, and covert operatives.  Their occupation entails some degree of combat training, though it is not their forte.  They advance in attack throws by two points per four levels of experience, like a thief.  They may use all ranged weapons and all one-handed melee weapons, and may fight with a weapon in each hand.  They cannot use armor heavier than leather, and cannot use shields.  Their saves and to-hit numbers are as an ACKS Core Nightblade of their level.

Elven Nightblades may move silently, hide in shadows, climb walls, and backstab as a thief of their level.  In addition, they may perform feats of acrobatics, as the proficiency of the same name.

While not true spellcasters, Nightblades master a number of supernatural tricks to enhance their stealth capabilities.  At first level, nightblades learn Chameleon, Silent Step, and Jump, as the spells of the same names.  They may use these powers a total of three times in any eight hour period, and each takes a round to activate.

ex: a nightblade wants to sneak up on a group of orcs, so he casts Silent Step.  A turn later, his party is in position to engage, and he casts Jump for maximum backstabbing.  In the next seven hours and 40 minutes, he can cast one more of Chameleon, Silent Step, or Jump.

At 3rd level, the Nightblade's ability to cloak himeself in shadow is perfected. He may cast Invisibility once per 8 hours, with a casting time of one round.

At 5th level, the Nightblade's mastery of shadow goes beyond merely concealing himself; concealment becomes part of his nature.  He may make his form insubstantial (as Gaseous Form), and adapt his eyes to the darkness (Infravision).  These powers are usable in any combination a total of twice per day, and take a single round to activate.

At 7th level, the Nightblade begins to understand the universality of the shadow, and this enables him to transcend distances as they are commonly thought of.  He may leap through shadow (as Dimension Door) once per week with a casting time of 1 round.

At 9th level, the Nightblade's occult studies of the void as the foundation of the structure of the cosmos have reached their inevitable conclusions, unlocking the most perilous secrets of his art.  Once per week, with a casting time of one turn, he may walk the dark road (as Teleport).

Also at 9th level, the Nightblade's endarkenment is recognized by all, and he may attract a cabal of 1d6 1st-3rd level Nightblades seeking to learn from him.  Cabals obey the standard rules for thieves' guilds and hijinks, though most are loathe to accept non-elven members, lest the esoteric wisdom of the nightblades be misused by the rash and younger races.

Nightblades also get the usual elf powers:
  • Attunement to Nature: +1 to surprise rolls in the wilderness
  • Elven Tongues: Elf, Gnoll, Hobgoblin, Orc
  • Keen Eyes: Nightblades can detect secret doors on an 8+ on d20 when actively searching, or at 14+ on casual inspection.
  • Connection to Nature: Nightblades are unaffected by ghoulish paralysis, and gain a +1 bonus to saves against Petrification/Paralysis and Spells.
  • +125XP to 2nd level.  +50kXP/level beyond 8th is unreasonable here; going with +10kXP/level beyond 8th (like dwarf fighters, where abilities don't synergize particularly well).

Class proficiencies (30): Alchemy, Alertness, Arcane Dabbling, Battle Magic (applies to spell-like abilities), Black Lore of Zahar (substitute -2 to enemy saves vs death with +2 bonus to proficiency throws to extract, refine, or use poisons), Blind Fighting, Cat Burglary, Combat Reflexes, Combat Trickery (incapacitate), Contortionism, Eavesdropping, Familiar, Fighting Style, Intimidation, Mystic Aura, Passing Without Trace, Precise Shooting, Prestidigitation, Quiet Magic (applies to spell-like abilities), Running, Sensing Power, Skirmishing, Skulking, Sniping, Swashbuckling, Unflappable Casting (applies to spell-like abilities), Trapfinding, Wakefulness, Weapon Focus, Weapon Finesse

XP Title Level HD Acrobatics Backstab
0 Elven Mole 1 1d6 20+ x2
1825 Elven Asset 2 2d6 19+ x2
3650 Elven Courier 3 3d6 18+ x2
7300 Elven Spy 4 4d6 17+ x2
14600 Elven Agent 5 5d6 16+ x3
29200 Elven Occultist 6 6d6 15+ x3
60000 Walker on the Dark Road 7 7d6 14+ x3
120000 Left Hand of Darkness 8 8d6 13+ x3
230000 Elven Nightblade 9 9d6 12+ x4
340000 Elven Nightblade, 10th 10 9d6+2 11+ x4
450000 Elven Nightblade, 11th 11 9d6+4 10+ x4
560000 Endarkened One 12 9d6+6 9+ x4

Design notes:
Playing a little fast and loose with classbuilding rules here.  We've seen arcane elves, we've seen divine elves, and now this is a thieving elf.  Basically it's a fighting 1 / HD 1 / Thief 3 / Elf 0 build that swaps most of its thief skills for magic powers.  The old nightblade started off as a passable wizard and a normal (ie, bad) thief at low levels, and then inverted at high levels into an OK thief and a bad wizard.  This one starts off as a strong wizard in terms of spells per day, but they're all thief enhancement, so at low levels he's a better thief, and that's OK, because low-level thieves are the worst.  At higher levels, he doesn't need the magic as much to supplement the raw thief numbers, and instead gains a few extra tricks - gaseous form and infravision are very good for scouting, dimension door is a good escape ability, and teleport "strategic utility".  I'm a little conflicted on teleport because once per week is not much compared to what a real wizard can do, and one turn casting time makes it useless as an "escape" ability.  I'm not convinced it's worse than passwall, though, which is sort of the other "thief / utility" option at 5th level.

Place in Midnight:
The "use the weapons of the enemy" branch of Elven Intelligence.  Vulnerable to corruption, mistrusted by their brethren and the enemy alike if their powers are known.  Also probably common among the dark elves (provided that the rumors of the existence of such elves are substantiated, of course).

Hmm...  maybe there are some other branches of Elven Intelligence that need "thieving elf" classes.  We have here the operational (get in, kill target, get out) arm; maybe we need HUMINT (er, ORCINT - charm, ESP, disguise, alter self; enchantment and transmogrification) and SIGINT (MAGINT - detect *, locate *, scrying, prophecy; detection and divination) arms.