Sunday, August 28, 2011

Games I Want to Run 3; also, Why Traveller Psionics Are Better Than d20 Magic

School starts up again tomorrow.  This may or may not mean the death of this blog, since free time is about to get a lot scarcer.  I do still intend to run Wilderlands or something along similar sandboxy hexmap lines, but at this point I'm looking primarily at systems.  Here are the contenders:
All three of these have features and bugs.  Here's the rundown:

Trailblazer is already known to the folks I've been playing with, and is well liked as 'fixing most of the problems with 3.5'.  On the DM side, I'm still itching to try out their monster upgrade rules and possibly their simplified encounter budgeting as well.  A previous post of mine proposes a magic item replacement that would work nicely for TB in the Wilderlands.  The main issues here are that it's a heavy system, with kind of slow combat, complex monster statblocks, and NPCs that take a while to assemble.  There's also my lingering trepidation over their action points and rest rules; on the one hand, APs are a balancing factor for casters, but on the other, they introduce per-level resources, which I really hate, and the rest mechanic is terribly suited for overland travel where random encounters are fairly frequent (in that those random encounters don't actually cost anything in terms of party resources due to rapid rest availability).

Justin Alexander released the L&L Beta a few days ago, and my copy came in this morning.  I've given it a skim, and there are some good things and some bad things.  The design goal here was a very stripped-down 3.5 derivative that remained backwards compatible.  The monster design rules are a real standout; I am fairly confident I could put monsters together during play with it, and that they'd be about right in terms of CR.  That's an awesome thing in a 3.x derivative, and while I'll still probably buy the TB Monster Book when it comes out (hopefully soon...) for what I imagine may be a better-researched monster design system along with a pile of 'Trailblazered' classic monsters, this one has the speed for use in play.  The hazard design system is also very cool, providing a quick way to generate CRs for all manner of traps, perilous crossings, and environmental hazards.  The stunt system provides a mechanism very similar to Traveller's task chains, as well as flexible combat options; I wasn't impressed on first read, but going back for a second, it actually looks pretty slick.  The skill system is kind of nice and simple; you're considered at max ranks for all of your class skills.  If you have a low Int, you choose a number of class skills equal to your penalty to not know.  Very straightforward, and it means that you're good at the things your class is supposed to be good at; similar to Iron Heroes' skill groups in that regard, but a damn sight less complicated.  Other highlights were some notes on wilderness adventures, good rules for hirelings and henchmen, and a number of unusual slimes and molds which didn't make into the 3.0/.5 DMGs (think along the lines of green slime, but different).

On the other hand...  man, when he said he was going to strip down the classes, he really, really stripped down the classes.  Only Barbarian, Fighter, Cleric, Rogue, Wizard, and Sorcerer made the cut, for one.  Feats are gone, but at levels where you would get one, you get a pre-selected one based on class (for example, Barbarians get Power Attack at 6th).  He seems to have dropped the first-level feats, though...  likewise, humans kind of got the shaft and stepped on the half-elf's toes, since that bonus feat got converted into a racial bonus to Diplomacy and Sense Motive.  I'd be happier with a +3 to any one skill.  This solution would be on par with 3.5 Skill Focus, works with whatever class you might happen to be, and reinforces the 'versatile' nature of humans.  Finally, he doesn't appear to have really touched the balance issues underlying 3.x; Clerics, Sorcerers, and Wizards will still dominate, since casting still works as normal, unless he nerfs the spell lists pretty hard (updated spells aren't in the beta).  Granted, this move makes sense in the light of his stance on balance in general.  Iterative attacks are still at the old -5, and rogues are still running at 3/4 BaB, so they're going to have a rough time hitting, especially since they never get Weapon Finesse (though they do get Vigilant Shot, which allows readied ranged sneak attacks under some circumstances, making ranged rogues much more viable).  The feat selection on some of the classes is...  questionable, with Rogue being probably the best example.  No finesse, no TWF, just ranged feats.  Barbarian also picks up Expertise, which is an unusual choice for Barbarians in my experience...  I guess as long as one keeps in mind that those feat selections are really just suggestions, and could be swapped out for other 3.5 feats, things should work OK.  Otherwise, I would foresee rioting.  Likewise, while multiclassing is still around, the problem of base save multiclass stacking persists.  At least this time there are fewer classes to multiclass between...  It also doesn't address caster multiclassing like TB did.  I guess the thing here is that if I decide to run L&L, I'd have to Trailblazer it (yep, it's a verb now).  This would basically entail switching iteratives to -2/-2 with decreasing penalties later, chosen good saves at character creation, combat reactions rather than stock AoOs, Combat Tactics for the rogue, upgraded turning on the cleric, BMB for casting...  I think those'd be the big ones.  And allowing players to choose their feats, too...  the classes with pre-chosen feats seem to be primarily a resource for new players and for DMs who need an NPC in a hurry.  Used with that understanding, I think the system in general would work pretty nicely.

Finally, there's the black sheep, Adventurer, over at Crawdads and Dragons.  Adventurer is basically the Classic Traveller rules converted to run OD&D.  This has the advantage of being pretty rules-light; statblocks are small, simple, and easy to assemble.  It also avoids the 'ever upward' problem of D&D in all its incarnations, where the numbers just keep growing, because skill training is still fairly slow (they do introduce some faster rules for it than Mongoose's version, though).  Being essentially Traveller, it has a number of random tables for things like dungeons and areas of wilderness, which goes beautifully with the style of Wilderlands.  But...  on the minus side, it's a conversion of one old, quirky, non-standardized system to run another old, quirky, non-standardized system.  There are tables of attack DMs based on your weapon type vs. your opponent's armor type.  That kind of thing.

Likewise, there's a whole book devoted to spells.  Part of what I liked about Traveller was that its psionics served an essentially different purpose from magic in D&D.  In D&D, magic is the main and exclusive activity of many characters, and the system encourages this by making spell slots readily available at mid-to-high levels, and by providing mages with very little else to do.  In Traveller, while it is possible to try to make psionics your sole activity, it is neither efficient nor necessary.  First, the resource behind Traveller psionics is distinctly limited; the more you use, the lower your psi score drops, and the harder it is to use more of it.  This is in contrast to d20's magic, where you know exactly how much magic you can put out per day, and running low on slots doesn't make any of your remaining slots less effective than they were at the beginning of the day.  Thus, Traveller's psionics are categorically weaker than d20's magic in this 'declining ability' sense.  Further, Traveller's psionic recovery mechanism is non-boolean; rather than resting for eight hours and then being fully recharged, psionic strength recovers gradually across hours as long as no further powers are used.  This again encourages conservation.  Finally, when you look at the things Traveller psionics can do, and the prices on them, it becomes apparent that they fill kind of a 'special projects' role; they can do things that you just can't do otherwise, but it's hard to pull off and expensive.  Further, most of the Traveller psionic powers seem to be intended primarily for non-combat use; sure, you could teleport in combat, but it's really expensive and the benefit is probably minimal.  They're not built with combat as the first consideration, whereas most d20 spells definitely are.  d20 mages are multibarrel weapons platforms that carry loadouts specified at the beginning of the day, while a Traveller psion is more like a solar-powered multitool.  However, the need for psions in Traveller to be able to rain hellfire and lightning down on their enemies is significantly less than that of their d20 counterparts for two reasons.  First is that it's really hard to generate a Traveller character with no other combat-useful skills, both given the skills on the tables, the group skill package, and the connections rule.  In d20, if your wizard is out of magic, he's stuck with a crossbow and an abominably low base attack bonus.  In Trav, if you have Gun Combat 0 and a decent Dex, you're in reasonable stead for combat as far as offense goes, and then it's just a question of keeping your head down.  Second, Traveller in general places a lower emphasis on combat than modern d20 does, meaning that combat prowess is less necessary, and therefore characters who aren't focused on combat are significantly more viable.

This all kind of leads up to the implicit fourth option: hack my own system together based on Mongoose Traveller, with a similarly 'fuzzy' magic system.  The things necessary to achieve this task would be:
  • Updated (er, downdated) skill list.  Remote operations and astrogation aren't really things in fantasy settings.
  • New background term tables and careers.  3.5 has 11 core base classes, which would fit roughly into 4 careers of three branches each with one new one.  The expanded education column might be used for a prestige class relevant to each branch.  I think Warrior (Barbarian, Fighter, Paladin?), Thief (Rogue, Bard, Ranger?), Priest (Cleric, Druid, Monk), and Mage (Sorcerer, Wizard) would be traditional ways to split things up.  Alternatively, ditch D&D classes as specialties and make things more interesting.
  • Races should be very straightforward.
  • Medieval-era gear selection would need expanded significantly, as well as rules for magic items.  To be honest, a lot of magic items could just be standard Trav gear - a potion of Cure Disease is not so different from a Medicinal Drug, for example.  Likewise magic weapons could be modeled as weapons with expert computers.  This may not be the best course, but it's an option.  The other would just be to cook up magic gear, hand it out, and see what happens.  Naturally, that sounds more fun.
  • Magic proper is the hard part.  I need maybe 3-5 'schools' / skills for each of arcane and divine, each of which has about 4 fuzzy, non-combat-centric effects of varying difficulty.  Tricky.  I'm actually tempted to go with the four classical elements, plus life and death, and nix the arcane / divine divide, but then things like summoning and teleportation get lost in the noise.  Alternatively, the five colors of Magic the Gathering might work very nicely...  They're familiar to a lot of gamers, sufficiently general that I only need the five of them to cover most any effect that could come up, and reasonably clear-cut in most cases.  Heck, I was going to have four caster specialties already; it's trivial to map each to a color and its two allied colors, and to introduce a fifth specialty for that last one.  Cleric gets white, druid is green, sorcerer is red, wizard is blue, and necromancer is black.  Then it's just a question of intuiting difficulties and mana costs for each attempted effect, which is not significantly harder than assigning difficulties on the fly to tasks run by other skills.  Boom magic system complete.
So, with those points in mind, I do believe it's time to hack together a system.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Starcraft Stargrunt Playtest Report Part 2: Stuff We Did Wrong, Reprise

So at the end of the playtest report for the Stargrunt game I ran last night, I mentioned that I was concerned on a number of fronts, in that close combat, artillery, and possibly anti-air fire all felt just a little bit 'off'.  Went and re-read the rules this morning, and here's what I'm seeing:

First off, close assault.  The biggest thing, looking back at the rules, is that initiating a close assault takes two actions; thus, we can't do that thing we were doing where we make a non-combat move six inches towards the target, then initiate close assault, guaranteeing that you'll get there in one combat move.  This makes final defensive fire a lot more likely to happen, which is great for Terran.  On the other hand, it really exacerbates the problem with Zerg being suppressed - if you have to spend an action to try to break suppression at the beginning of your activation, there is no way you can close assault.  I really think a free suppression removal attempt at the beginning of Zerg activations at morale levels where they have to close is probably a good plan.

The other thing we did wrong with close assault was casualty resolution with regard for stunned troops.  The way we were doing it, we were resolving the status of casualties at the end of each round of close combat.  This in incorrect; the book states that a casualty is out for the rest of that "close combat resolution".  We interpreted this to mean that round; however, the Ending Close Combat paragraph opens with "After the first round of close combat resolution..."  Thus, a 'resolution' is the entire process from charging to one side breaking and abandoning an objective, while a round is the process of pairing off and making opposed rolls for each pair.  Therefore, casualties aren't resolved until one side breaks, and stunned individuals on the losing side may 'come to' out of unit coherency and surrounded by the enemy.  Thus, 'stun' isn't just "Oh hey, the squad leader's fine."  It's roughly on-par with being an actual casualty.

Finally, there's an important line in the close assault modifiers table that states that if in cover, the defenders get a 1-die shift during the first round of that close combat.  Oops.

As for artillery, I found a very important line in the artillery rules that the spotting unit must have line of sight to all three points nominated (the two dummies and the actual incoming).  This makes overlords and other aerial units excellent spotters, and also gives hills some value (besides as places to sit at the bottom of and fire up at the enemy who are trying to take it...).  However, we did do it wrong last time.  Still couldn't find a mention of the Observe action, though, outside of the list of actions at the beginning of the book.

Finally, I screwed up the firing at the overlord, in Terran's favor, actually.  We used the rules for firing on point targets with heavy weapons from page 39 and the guided missiles section on page 41, which seemed like the right thing at the time...  but we should've been using the "On-Table Anti-Air Fire" rules from page 49.  Under these rules, Terran would've needed a roll to acquire the overlord as a target.  Then the overlord would've had a chance to take evasive action, allowing it another chance to avoid the fire, after which Terran gets a chance to actually fire the missile, and has a third chance to miss.  It's kind of ridiculous really.  Terran gains two things from this: first, if an aircraft takes a hit, the pilot has to take a confidence check at +2 TL or decide to purple and GTFO.  This means you could potentially drive the overlord off the table, denying the Zerg their command squad, transport, EW, and artillery support.  The other thing Terran gains is that when hovering in place, the overlord suffers a negative die shift on its ECM roll.  But the Terrans now need more successful rolls in order to actually take a shot at it, so this is a really bad change for them.  Considering that their AA fire was already horrifyingly ineffective, we might not want to change the way we played it to this rule.

Starcraft Stargrunt: Playtest Report

Got together this afternoon for two games of 'grunt with Glisson, Matt, and Jared.  Glisson brought the paper rulebook this time, which was immensely helpful; I should probably print and bind my own copy from the pdf if I intend to play on a regular basis.  Glisson also brought a bag of green army men and a bag full of the original counters for the game, which were likewise wonderfully convenient; being able to mark the LD, quality, and morale status of a squad all on the board with the squad was a great improvement over tracking those things on a whiteboard, nevermind other things like In-Position and Suppression which were really problematic last time.

The first game we played was a straightforward battle between two forces of two platoons each of non-Starcraft units.  The game kind of dragged on, with units in cover remaining in cover and kind of poking at each other ineffectually, and with units who ran out of cover being mercilessly gunned down.  We did have a few rounds of close assault in some woods, and likewise managed to deny the enemy the hill on the south side of the map, but in general, it was a very entrenched kind of warfare.  On the plus side, we didn't see the kind of squad-wiping fire that we got in the previous game, but it was pretty slow and static, centered around defensive positions, nonetheless.

Not so the game with Starcraft Terran vs. Zerg.

There are several reasons that I believe this game went differently.  The first and most obvious was the availability of off-map artillery support to both sides.  This meant that sitting in a single defensive position the entire game was a recipe for attracting high explosives.  Second, the Zerg were compelled to close to melee by their morale rules.  The Terran player exploited this to great effect by putting a squad of firebats in the front, and managed to annihilate 8 zerglings with only two casualties.  Third, the general lack of support firepower meant that sitting and hammering at range was very difficult; the only unit with a SAW or SAW-equivalent on the map was the goliath.  Since ranged combat was relatively hard, we saw a lot more close combat, which required movement.  Fourth and finally, the availability of higher-mobility units, namely the overlord, goliath, and zerglings, encouraged players to make use of that mobility.

The game ran somewhat like this - a Terran force was set up on a hill on one side of the map, with the Zerg behind a hill on the other side, and a ruined town in the middle of the map (complete with hostile but terribly-ineffective villagers).  Zerg objective was to capture the Terran supply depot on their hill, while Terran's was to survive / prevent this outcome.  Both sides rapidly ran for the town, taking cover in the buildings, but quickly abandoning and hopping between buildings as the shells started to fall.  The goliath was primarily concerned with firing missiles at the overlord and suppressing two squads of zerglings, but the overlord's EW capabilities really put the nix on the missiles.  The firebats engaged and destroyed two squads of zerglings before being stomped into the ground by the hydras in melee, and the marines suppressed some zerglings before coming under murderous deviated artillery fire that they really shouldn't've survived - about 12 rolls between all three shells, impact d8, armor d8 should've been almost a complete wipe.  They took one casualty; Jared had some simply stupendous luck there.  However, that casualty was their squad leader, and when they were then close assaulted by zerglings, they broke and routed and fled off the map.  We finished with the hydras going up against the goliath and the last zergling squad being carried by the overlord towards the depot to assault Jared's command squad, who were holed up in the vicinity; they had been driven out of the depot proper by a dummy artillery marker.  We called it about then; it looked like the hydras would probably disable the goliath, and we ran the close combat out between the command squad and the zerglings; the zerglings took 50% casualties, and the marines were wiped.

Overall, we came away with one primary concern and two secondary concerns:

1) Hydras as powered armor are brutally overpowered in melee.  Matt and Jared agreed that they should not have been able to just stomp through the firebats like they did.  Solution: downgrade to normal armor (d8).  I'm still not convinced they shouldn't be considered armed with a close-combat weapon, but that's probably pretty acceptable.  Also considering upgrading their weapons to d12 impact to keep things on par with marines, but I think d10 impact and a CC weapon is probably a reasonable place to be.  Hence, Hydra 2.0 looks like normal infantry with d8 armor, 6" move, FP2, Impact d10, and a close-combat weapon for a 1-die shift in melee.

2) Goliath vs. overlord balance, and by extension electronic warfare.  The EW system was very dissatisfying, in that it ended up creating these ridiculous EW 'stacks' of Jared trying to counter Matt's counter to Jared's counter to Matt's jamming of the guided missile, which was annoying.  Then, had the missile actually hit (which it never did), it would have either totally obliterated the overlord or bounced off harmlessly, neither of which is a terribly satisfying outcome (in that squads, when hit, will likely survive to some degree.  Vehicles just go "Boom" or keep running fine).  There were also complaints regarding the infinite range and infinite movement of the GMS and the overlord; not sure what to do about these.  On the one hand, reducing speed / range is certainly an option.  On the other hand, it kind of sacrifices realism and breaks strongly from the SG standard of "VTOLs come in, drop off troops wherever, get out in two turns.  You need that infinite range to be able to even get a crack at 'em."

3) Zerg morale and suppression issues.  Zerglings, when suppressed and running on low morale, are a special flavor of hosed - even if they break the suppression, they have to keep running straight into the guns that suppressed them, whereupon they get suppressed again and eventually casualties add up and they just die off (whereas a normal squad might get a chance to break suppression and then fire back, suppressing their suppressors, or if morale got bad enough, it might break and run away from the suppressing squad, and then get far enough away to avoid being suppressed).  Matt proposed a rule similar to one by the Warbard for Xenomorphs, a similarly all-melee army, that each activation, a Zerg squad of a low-enough morale that it can't be in cover gets a free attempt to break suppression.  This seems fairly reasonable, but plays into the second concern that Jared had about Zerg morale, namely that as a Terran player, it was dissatisfying to watch the Zerg get bonuses for failing morale rolls.  On the one hand, yeah, they get bonuses to morale checks to enter close assault...  but on the other, they also have to close the range and try to get in close, even if it's a really terrible idea (one zergling vs. a squad of firebats for example).  I guess the thing was that while Jared was dissatisfied with the morale situation, he also used it to great advantage by provoking a squad of zerglings to engage (and be toasted by) his firebats, and was never really negatively affected by the changes, except possibly when his marines were assaulted by a squad of steady zerglings.  Since steady doesn't impede actions and grants a bonus to attacking in close assault for Zerg, it was actually strictly better than Confident for Matt (except in that it was close to Shaken, Broken, and so forth).  Not sure it's really a problem, but it was a concern which might need addressed.

But, other than those issues, the game went really well.  It was agreed by all sides that unit balance felt pretty right except on the hydras and in the overlord vs. goliath pairing, and the artillery kept the game moving quickly.  While artillery and close assault both involved a lot of rolling, neither side was bored during the process; with artillery scatter, it's always a "oh god oh god is it going to land on me?" type tension, and melee has many hand-to-hand opposed rolls.  It seemed to me that Jared and Matt became significantly more excited during close assault than during shooting; not really sure why that was the case, but hey, I'll take it.  I suspect that only having two players (I was reffing / advising, basically) improved gameplay because subsystems involving many rolls weren't horribly dull for the remaining players.  I do think we played CC wrong, in the handling of stunned units - we should've counted them as casualties for morale / withdrawing resolution, but didn't.  Likewise, I suspect there's something buggy in the way we played artillery, but I'll try to hunt it down later today maybe.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Starcraft Stargrunt, Part 2: Zerg

So last time, I talked about converting Terran to Stargrunt.  This time it's Zerg, and it's going to have to break from canon a little more to make it work within the system.

Morale and leadership are the hardest part of alien species in SGII, because we humans don't really have a particularly large dataset of real examples to draw from.  So this is where we have to make some assumptions.
Proposition 1:  Zerg battle-units are bred for killing.  They're hungry.  Their instincts tell them to go forth and devour, even without any mental urging from the hive mind.
Proposition 2:  The Overmind exerts its influence over the swarm through overlords, giant flying psychic transport whale-bugs (kind of).
Proposition 3:  Zerg units of the same genotype do vary to some degree in maturity / quality.  Ex: Devouring Ones vs. adrenal zerglings vs. zerglings.  All the same breed, more or less, but of varying quality.

These propositions suggest or imply the following:
  • A zerg squad's leadership value is a measure of how strong its link to the hive mind is (receptivity, if you will).  Note that there is no single 'squad leader' element; leadership measures the reception each individual in the squad gets.  As a result, you never lose the squad leader (but you also never get leadership upgrades by replacing poor leaders).
  • If a zerg force has a command squad, it's an overlord (which basically operates as a tank-sized VTOL vehicle with EW, transport, and command capabilities).
  • Zerg units do have unit qualities just like human units, but based on the quality of their genetics.  Hunter-Killers are elite, upgraded grooved-spine hydras are veteran, bog-standard hydras are regular, and perhaps 'rush-job' hydras are green; the Overmind sacrificed quality for rapid growth, resulting in a wide variety of negative mutations which impede performance.
  • As a zerg squad's morale deteriorates, they become less cautious and prone to close-assaulting the enemy against orders.  When they would be broken, they may turn against their own kind.

Morale is really the only complicated thing there.  Below I propose a modification of the Warbard's rules for Kra'Vak morale.
At Confident and Steady, or Calm and Irked, a Zerg squad may take any action normally available to it.
At Shaken, or Mad, a Zerg squad cannot enter cover or retreat from the enemy unless it passes a Reaction test.
At Broken, or Angry, a Zerg squad must spend one of its actions per round advancing towards the nearest enemy unit, and may not go in-position.  If fired upon, they automatically become Routed.
At Routed, or Furious, a Zerg squad must spend both of its actions per round either advancing towards or close-assaulting the nearest enemy unit.  If they attempt to rally and fail (or are passed an action by a unit up the chain of command, use it to try to rally, and fail), they fall to Berserk.
At Berserk, the squad must spend both of its actions per round either moving towards or close assaulting the nearest other unit, with no regard for side.

When making reaction rolls to initiate a close assault, Zerg units invert the normal modifiers; they take -0 at Confident, -1 at Steady, -3 at Shaken, and automatically make the reaction test at any lower morale level.  They do not modify the morale test for defending against close assault; it's an unexpected and scary situation, for the hunter to become the hunted.  Note, though, that even if you drive the Zerg from a hilltop when they fail their morale save to hold their ground, they might charge right back at you next turn...

Now I know what some of you are saying...  "But the Zerg want to be in close assault!  This just makes them do what they were going to do anyways!"  As Heavy would say, "Maybe, maybe...  but I have yet to meet Zergling that can outrun Bullet."  Put your marines on the other side of difficult terrain before enraging the Zerg.  Put firebats between your marines and the Zerg before enraging the Zerg.  Minefields are wonderful things.  If the zerglings want to remain in cover, make 'em mad and make them come to you.  Those hydras want to sit at range?  Make 'em mad and then they can't.  I think it may be workable.

Oh yeah, burrowing and regeneration.  Burrowing's easiest - it operates similarly to In-Position.  A Zerg ground unit may choose to Burrow as an action.  While burrowed, it cannot move or fire any weapons, but it gains a 1-die shift to its range die and its armor die, as if in soft cover.  These die shifts stack with bonuses from actual cover.  For purposes of spotting hidden burrowed units, a burrowed unit applies a two-die shift to its range roll; see Hidden Units, page 26.  A reaction test is required to Burrow successfully; the difficulty of this test is at +0 in reasonably-soft ground (most terrain, but definitely mud and swamp), but at +2 in areas which are more difficult to burrow into, such as concrete or through the root webs of trees (so in woods, inside buildings, on roads, and similar).  Moving out of Burrow operates exactly the same way as moving out of In-Position.  A unit may not be both Burrowed and In-Position simultaneously; they're mutually-exclusive states.

Regeneration's slightly tougher.  On the scales involved in a typical SG2 game, regeneration is completely ridiculous, so I intend to ignore it.  If, however, you wanted to apply a +1 bonus to casualty resolution rules in some circumstances to model regeneration and make up for the Zerg's lack of medics, go for it.  Alternatively, you could resolve all Zerg casualties immediately, rather than requiring a Reorganize action, but at no bonus.  Also, just for shits, the Zerg take the same penalties for leaving behind injured squadmates as injured humans do; those are their pack-brothers, of one mind and one flesh!

And so, without further ado, on to stats!

Zerglings are light / scout infantry (speed 8") with light armor (d6 armor value) and a close combat weapon (+1 die shift in close combat).  Simple, but dangerous in numbers and in close.  Note also that they're technically inferior to Firebats of the same quality in close assault, because flamers give a two-die shift.

Hydralisks are slow light powered armor units (speed 6", armor d10) armed with a biological equivalent of an advanced assault right (FP2, Imp d10).  Powered armor makes sense here, because they're twice the size of a man, and while they don't have specialized close-combat weapons (arguably...), they have raw mass and brute strength, as modeled by PA's melee doubling.  Compared to Terran marines, hydras under this conversion are tougher (d10 armor vs d8 for marines) and meaner in melee, but slightly less punchy at range (Imp d10 as opposed to Imp d12 for the Terran gauss rifle), and use twice as much transport space.  So the trouble with hydra deployment and use is that, on the one hand, they're pretty strong in melee, and tough enough to probably get there, but on the other hand, they're also all the ranged fire support your zerglings get.  Choose wisely.

Overlords are Size 3 vehicles with Armor 2, carrying capacity 8, and command capabilities.  Additionally, they carry an enhanced EW suite (3 EW counters per turn, d8 on EW rolls) and Basic ECM (1d6 on rolls against guided missiles and similar).  Movement is where things get really tricky.  On the one hand, they're probably best modeled as VTOLs like dropships.  On the other hand, they're also slow as anything in SC, which causes problems with SG's aeospace rules, namely that an air unit can move to anywhere on the table as a move action.  I'm kind of OK with that for overlords as a concession to reality - air transports should probably be reasonably fast, and they're still countered by guided missiles, which have "Anywhere on the table" range as well.  The real question is "Why is the overlord hanging out on the table at all?"  There's an essential conflict in its two roles of 'dropship' and 'command unit'.  I think a compromise position is this - feel free the move the overlord off-table, but you can't activate off-table units, which means you can't use its command capabilities to transfer actions.  So you can protect it, but you lose a hefty chunk of the benefit of having one if you do.

Most of the other Zerg units are just too damn big to have in SG...  Guardians are artillery support firing medium-caliber shells (4" blasts).  Mutalisks might qualify as gunships, but I never did understand how they actually flew...  I'm writing them off just like I wrote off wraiths for Terran.  Devourers and Scourges, as with Valkyries, just contribute to the Air Defense Environment.  Lurkers are an interesting problem...  I'm kind of thinking that unburrowed, they're mid-sized vehicles with no weapons, but when burrowed, they radiate a large minefield that doesn't attack friendlies.  Call 'em Size 3, Armor 2, walking propulsion with a speed of 8", and they radiate a 6" radius Mixed AP/AV minefield when burrowed.  Great for holding a position, and vehicle armor means that you might actually be able to get up near an enemy unit and then burrow.  Rather scary, really.

So that leaves us with Queens, Defilers, Ultralisks, and Infested Terrans to deal with.  Infested are probably easiest; they're Independent Figures (per page 27) with d8 armor, 6" speed, and the ability to detonate the equivalent of a Command-Detonated Mine (page 56) centered on his own position at any time, after which he is destroyed.  To model the effectiveness of Infested against armored targets like buildings and bunkers, we may want to let them apply 1d10 doubled against the armor of buildings and vehicles within the blast.

So we're down to Queens, Defilers, and Ultralisks.  Spellcasters and the superheavy tank.  The spellcasters I think could be modeled as variant off-board artillery; Dark Swarm, for example, might be a variant artillery shell type that creates a zone of soft cover in a radius about where it lands, Ensnare creates an area of difficult terrain, and Plague could do something interesting like inflict a penalty on casualty resolution rolls for units that were caught in it (or go with the simple solution of "It's a general-purpose artillery barrage, screw the flavor text.").  Battlefield control via unusual artillery, basically.  So that pulls those guys mostly off the table...  Parasite and Spawn Broodling are odd, in that they're single-target...  maybe light artillery?  Or just leave 'em out...  It also just hit me that I left out Science Vessels last post.  Off-board EW capabilities with Enhanced sensors, and whatever Plague ends up doing, Irradiate should end up doing something fairly similar.

And the ultralisk.  These should pretty much never be on the table, unless it's like the only unit the Zerg have.  You want to play the tank game, you're welcome to...  but use Dirtside and keep it out of Stargrunt.

So there are the Zerg...  thoughts?

(Proposed modifications following playtesting are here; this version is preserved in its original state for reference purposes)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Starcraft Stargrunt, Part 1: Terran

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago with the initial Stargrunt playtest report, I really want to convert the units of Starcraft to the SG2 rules.  Caveat the first: I only ever played SC1.  Hence, SC1 material.

Terran's pretty simple and probably not terribly controversial.

Marines are standard grunts with gauss assault rifles (FP2, Imp 1d12) in d8 heavy non-powered, but environmentally sealed, armor.  Move of 6", leadership and experience as for standard humans.

Firebats are effectively marines with flamethrowers; this gains them two die shifts in Close Combat and the Terror quality.  Firebat armor is also fire-resistant (handy!); if using the optional Fire rules from page 58, firebats need not test to survive near fire markers (though they can still be killed in close combat by a unit with a flamer; think TF2 pyros).

Medics in SC can't shoot...  this is no good in SG.  I suggest giving medics a PDW or similar weapon to defend their wounded charges (FP3, Imp 1d8, can fire in close band only).  In addition, medics grant a +1 to die rolls to stabilize casualties, per page 60.  Armor is kind of tricky; d8 is the heaviest non-powered armor gets, there are no rules for giant shields, and having mixed armor values within a squad complicates fire resolution.  I'm for giving them d8 armor and trading the defense of the shield for the offense of a weapon.  Not like the shield ever did them any good anyways...  If you're really concerned with being canon, go with d10 non-powered armor and no weapons, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Ghosts probably fall under the (hideously overpowered) Sniper rules on page 28 using conventional sniper rifles (FP 1d10, Imp 1d10).  Their cloaking is also, conveniently, modeled by the sniper's hidden unit rules.  Special ammunition is not within the scope of this post.  As with all instances of the snipers rules, I recommend not using ghosts.

Stimpacks can probably be modeled by increasing FP on Marines from 2 to 3, and increasing Marine, Firebat, and Medic movement from 6" to 8".  They require a reaction test to use, and, at the end of their effective duration (possibly 2 turns?  One action to stim, three actions of effectiveness), casualtying about 1 in 4 of the subjects, with a possible reduction to 1 in 6 with a medic in attendance.

So that about covers infantry.  Bunkers fall under the Buildings rules of page 57; probably Armor 5, with doors of Armor 2.  They're pretty small, since they can only hold 4 people...  Probably size 3 as far as vehicle / building stats go.  Sensor scans are off-table support (page 45) that generate EW counters (page 53); the difficulty of calling in a sensor scan, and the quality of the scan, will vary by scenario.  Likewise, siege tanks are off-table artillery (page 47), of large caliber (so 6" burst radius), and firing general-purpose shells (Imp 1d8 against both infantry and point targets).  Battlecruisers are just orbital fire support; massive shells for 10" burst, but general purpose (d8/d8) and a longer delay on arrival because they're in orbit, and the difficulty to call them in is higher.  Wraiths fall under air support, and are kind of an edge case that I'm not looking to develop presently.  Don't even think about calling in nukes; to paraphrase an SPI wargame from the 80s that I once read, "To simulate the use of nuclear weapons, dowse the playing surface liberally with lighter fluid and ignite."

Dropships, however, are actually an interesting topic; SC dropships are what SG would classify as small VTOL transports.  Their 8-man capacity could easily fit into a size 2 vehicle chassis, along with armor 2 and basic (1d6) ECM, and you'd still have 2 capacity points left over.  Me, I'd use those two points to put a pair of door-mounted Gauss SAWs on it a la various American transport helicopters in Vietnam, but if we're really sticking to canon, we can hold off on those.  Lord knows your marines need the fire support, though...

Goliaths are tricky.  I've got two possible implementations in mind.  The first treats them as Size 1 Vehicles with Armor 1, Speed 6", a pair of SAWs, a dedicated AA (page 49) Guided Missile/L launcher, and 1 leftover capacity point (maybe extra ammo for the missiles?).  Note that this makes them kind of scary in terms of raw firepower (see below).  Note also that, as in SC, the only thing they have going for them in melee is armor (and unlike in SC, vehicle armor only applies to the front; it's reduced on the sides, top, and rear.  Yes, vehicles have facing.)...  except that there are also no rules for engaging vehicles in melee in SG.  We may have to hack those in, treating Goliaths as powered armor for purposes of odds calculations (they're big and intimidating, and Size 1 vehicles are the same size as PA), but not for melee resolution (they're kinda squishy once you knock 'em over, crack 'em open, and eat the softlings inside).  Firing by Goliaths is resolved as follows: in a single action of firing, you can fire one or both SAWs at a single target, or you can fire the GMS at a single target.  When firing both SAWs at a single target, you roll your quality die and 2 FP dice, one for each SAW (per errata / clarifications on multiple support weapons in a single squad).  If you use both of your actions for firing, you can fire both SAWs at a target and the GMS at something, or one SAW at each of two different targets, or two SAWs separately against the same target (to suppress rather than kill), or one SAW and the GMS (though since there's no penalty for firing both SAWs, there's really no reason to only fire one).  It's fairly straightforward, really, but the SAWs give it dakka on par with a squad of marines, and the GMS makes it much better at cracking tanks and other vehicles than marines would be.  This makes sense, but is not strictly consistent with the numbers from SC.  They'd be great for fire support if you don't want to put SAWs on your dropships, and take up 2 marines' worth of carrying capacity...

The second, simpler, implementation is as heavy slow powered armored infantry (speed 6", 1d12 armor) armed with a Gauss SAW and Multiple Rocket Launcher packs (page 31).  Note that ML packs are also pretty darn scary by RAW, since they have unlimited ammo, and are excellent against infantry.  They are, however, not so good against vehicles, and therefore don't fit the canon.  Further, this version of the Goliath, while simpler, kicks ass in melee; another breaking away.  Therefore, the vehicle conversion is probably empirically a 'better' conversion.

Vultures I don't really care about.  If somebody really really wants 'em, maybe I'll stat 'em up.  Expect size 1 vehicles with high speed and crap armor.  The real problem is weapons; grenade machine guns are really quite scary in SG (they're like SAWs, but with an extra anti-vehicle / anti-building function), and single-shot grenade launchers are not considered.  There's no good middle ground.  So I'm holding off on vultures for a while yet.

And that's all for Terrans, unless I'm forgetting something important...  oh, right.  Don't bring SCVs.  Problem solved.  If you really want them for like a scenario objective, treat them as marines without guns, and probably Green experience.  Also Valkyries should not be atmosphere-capable if they're anything resembling a 'space frigate'.  Another problem solved.  If you really want 'em, make them off-map anti-aircraft artillery and increase the air defense environment score (page 49) of one side to account for their actions.

Expect Zerg in the next couple days.  I don't really intend to do Protoss for a number of reasons; they just don't interest me that much, I'd have to bend a ton of core-ish rules (Shields?  Psychic powers?  Wut?), and their psychology is trickier than Zerg.  But the Swarm is coming to eat your marines...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

On Hiatus...

No tabletops last weekend, between Tim being sick, Ythir's campaign ending, people being out of town, and moving.  Not looking like a whole lot this weekend either...  so it's back to videogames, theorycraft, and planning for me.  Decent progress on all fronts, though.

My graphics card is doing poorly, so no TF2 for me.  This is saddening, because I was getting to be pretty decent at it, but also good, because the pyro dreams were getting old.  No Tribes or UT either, which is unfortunate...  so I'm back to Kingdom of Loathing.  Running my 8th hardcore ascension as an Accordion Thief to complete the Nemesis Quest ring for the trophy.  I kind of hate Accordion Thief as a class; buffs are a pain to manage and expensive to boot.  So far it's going well, though; I've just been playing like a Disco Bandit.  There have been a ton of changes since I left in February; the Knob Goblin quest, the Liver of Steel quest (fewer hellions :( ), the Crypt, moon signs, no stat days during ronin / HC...  most important to me, though, was the Valhalla update.  It's letting me perm skills significantly more quickly and with much greater flexibility, so that's cool.  Likewise, the replacements for lead-in gear and consumables are awesome.  Compared to previous runs, I'm currently at the end of Day 2 where I was at the end of Day 5 on my previous fastest hardcore run.  It's just nuts.  My goal for this run was initially 10 days, but since my previous best was 10 days and I'm currently doing much better than that, I think I'm revising it down to 7 (which would also beat my previous best softcore run...  I've picked up a bunch of skills, knowledge, and familiars since then, though.  I think it's doable).  After this run, I'm looking at picking up some +non-combat skills; that seems to be what's holding me back in a bunch of places.  I also want to bank some karma in Moxie runs and then do a Turtle Tamer run to pick up Tao of the Terrapin, Hero on the Half Shell, and Shieldbutt to make further muscle runs more bearable.  Then maybe a Seal Clubber run as to go basementing for a telescope...

But enough of that gibberish.  I've also resumed work on the Starcraft -> Stargrunt conversion.  Zerg morale seems to be the really hard part.  I'm kind of considering stealing Warbard's rules for Kra'Vak morale; they would very much deliver a "Your zerglings have slipped the Overmind's leash and gone berserk" kind of effect.  On the other hand, since the zerg seem likely to have the close-combat advantage (both in numbers and in terms of close-combat weapons per squad)...  so giving them the ability to charge the enemy rather than retreating when normal men would fall back kind of plays into their hands.  I guess playtests are the only way to determine what really works.  I'm also lacking a good model for stimpacks or adrenal zerglings presently.  Finally, squad composition in Starcraft is totally backwards compared to the expectations of Stargrunt; 12 marines with no support weapons, and a separate squad of 12 firebats?  What is this madness!?  So that's an issue to be overcome as well...

I've also been planning Wilderlands.  I've found a Dungeon Crawl Classics module that fits well into the Wilderlands, and I think I'm going to run it.  It's one I've played through before, so I have an idea of how it actually goes (though hopefully the party won't be so horribly overpowered this time...  oh, True Sorcery Dabbler-stacking, you so broken...).  It also ties in nicely with another module I want to steal inspiration from...  and so a campaign is born.  I think I'm moving away from the episodic and open-table focus and more towards the style of the Traveller game I ran last semester, where a fairly-fixed party of PCs travels and gets into trouble wherever they happen to end up.  The issue, then, is long dungeoncrawls...  I might cut out extraneous encounters to keep things moving.  I guess I'm looking for a better balance between dungeon and wilderness than we had in Traveller; Traveller focused really heavily on the travel, and while dungeoncrawls did happen (er, "Ruin and/or derelict ship crawls"), they were played very loosely, had only 3ish fights in a dungeon tops, and did not dominate gameplay as dungeons do in D&D.  So I guess I'm looking for a middle ground between the super-abstract dungeon and the super-detailed dungeon.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Character Dossier: Asmir the Faceless

Name: 'Asmir'
Age: 22 years
Species: Half-Elf
Class: Rogue 5 / Assassin 4
Height: 5'6"
Weight: 122 pounds (6 stone)
Alignment: LE.  "The mission comes first; I have no compuctions about what can be done in the name of the mission."
Theme song: Perfect Mask - Paradise Lost.

In Dehlia and its environs, there exists a sect of assassins known as the Brothers of the Dead.  They pay handsomely for pairs of twins, which they train in the ways of death.  When the twins come of age, their final test is to slay their sibling (in what is basically a game of Assassin, but for srs).  Asmir and Asmul were one such pair; bastards of an elven raider on a frontier woman.  Asmir was the more cunning of the pair, but Asmul was stronger.  When the time of the Test came, Asmir was ready - he anticipated what was to come, and disguised himself as the Herald of the Test.  So disguised, he delivered a ceremonial dagger to Asmul...  by the pointy end, with a side of poison.  He wears several of Asmul's fingerbones on a necklace to this day.  Since his induction, Asmir has been a successful member of the Brothers, further mastering disguise and deception.  He is attributed with a number of slayings, including one particularly daring operation where he slew and assumed the identities of no fewer than three men and two women over the course of a week to work his way to his true target, the late Thearch Inach of the Sun Fists company of the Knights of Pelor, then stationed in Malas Farngrey.

Asmir is zealously loyal to the Skullfathers, the council of the leaders of the Brothers of the Dead.  He only kills who he has to, and only on orders / in the name of the mission.  Outside of his work, Asmir lives like a monk; a hard cot, cold water, and bread are his daily fare.  He keeps his knives sharp, but keeps his armor in neither very good nor very bad repair; either would be too noticeable.  He does not let it be known that he is an assassin; if working with a party, he acts the part of a common 'adventuring locksmith / silver-tongued rogue' until stuff comes up.

Quotes (Sadly, never used in-game because they would've given him away):
    "Take life seriously, when taking life is your profession."
    "I knew a man once who $FOO.  He's dead now."
    "I knew a man once who $FOO.  He was me."
    "By my brother's bones!"

Ability Score Rolls (4d6 drop 1):

Str 10
Dex 17 +1 4th = 18
Con 11 +1 8th = 12
Int 14
Wis 9 +1 8th = 10
Cha 11 +1 4th = 12

Racial Traits:
    Low-Light Vision
    Keen Sense - +1 Perception and Search
    Trustworthy - +2 Persuade
    Skill Focus (Disguise)
    Enchantment Resistance +2, immune magic sleep
    Elven Blood
Languages: Common, Elven, Mortic (secret handsigns and codes of the Brothers of the Dead), Draconic

Tier 1s:
    Disguise         8 ranks +3 class +1 cha +3 skill focus +10 Disguise Self = +25
    Stealth         9 ranks +3 class +4 dex - 0 armor = +16
    Persuade        8 ranks +3 class +1 cha +2 race = +14
    Acrobatics        8 ranks +3 class +4 dex - 0 armor = +15
    Perception        9 ranks +3 class +0 wis +1 race = +13
    UMD                8 ranks +3 class +1 cha = +12
Tier 2s:
    Search            7 ranks +3 class +2 int +1 race = +13
    DDevice            7 ranks +3 class +2 int +2 masterwork = +14
    Pick Pocket        5 ranks +3 class +4 dex = +12
Tier 3s:
    Climb            1 rank +3 class +0 str - 0 armor = +4
    Jump            1 rank +3 class +0 str - 0 armor +5 springing +4 speed = +13
    Craft Poison    1 ranks+3 class +2 int = +6
    Sense Motive    1 rank +3 class +0 wis = +4
    Kno (Local)        1 rank +3 class +2 int = +6

    1: Two-Weapon Fighting
    3: Weapon Finesse
    6: Quick Draw
    9: Improved TWF

Class Features:
        Sneak Attack +3d6
        Combat Tactics +2
        Uncanny Dodge (retains Dex bonus to AC even when flat-footed)
        Trapsense +1 (+1 on Ref, AC vs. traps, can use Passive Perception +1 to sense traps within 10 feet (so 24))
        Combat Tactics +1
        Sneak Attack +2d6
        Death Attack (study target for three rounds, then melee sneak attack.  Fort save DC 10+AssnLvl+IntMod or die or be paralized for 1d6+AssnLvl rounds.  Must strike within three rounds of finishing studying, or have to start over)
        Poison Use (does not have chance of poison self)
        +2 bonus to saves against poison
        Improved Uncanny Dodge (can't be flanked except by 10th+ level rogue)

AC 22 (10 + 4 dex + 6 armor +2 deflection), BFRW 6/3/6, totals 7/7/6.  BaB +6, BmB +5
HP 8 + 7 + 8 + 6 + 3 + 2 + 4 +4 + 9*1 = 49 HP.  Down 0.
Paired +1 daggers +11 or +9/+9 or 7/7/7/7 (+6 BaB +4 dex +1 enh), 1d4+1 damage, 19-20/x2 crit, thrown range increment 10 feet.
TWF with Darts +10 or +8/+8 or 6/6/6/6, 1d4 damage, x2 crit, range increment 20 feet

Spells: Base 4/3/2/1, bonus from int 0/1/1.  Now 4/4/3/1
1s: Feather Fall, Ghost Sound, Obscuring Mist, Jump
2s: Invis, Cat's Grace, Spider Climb
3s: Gaseous Form

    Boots of Springing and Striding (+10 speed, +5 jump checks)
    Hat of Disguise (Disguise Self at will)
    Dagger of Venom (+1 dagger, 1/day Poison (DC14) after have struck)
    +2 Mithral Chain Shirt
    +1 Dagger
    Ptn Cure Mod Wounds x5
    Ptn Haste x4
    Ptn Cat's x4
    Mwk Thieves' Tools
    Some darts
    Shroud of Undetectable Alignment
    Everburning Torch
    Wand CLW 50 charges
    Alchemist's Fire x4
    Ring of Protection +2 (taken from Five)
    Other misc / useless stuff found and sold.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Tale of Ythir Minicampaign Finished

The prequel campaign / Tale of Ythir came to an early finish this Wednesday due to scheduling conflicts; one or more of our players are going to be out of town at all times for the rest of the summer, so Tim decided to wrap things up quickly.  Here's a short summary of the whole run, along with some of the people we met and things we learned.

Session 1:
Party formed.  Ythir is directed by a mysterious benefactor to acquire an elven artifact from a ruin in the south.  He meets with Seche Peret, the Man Who Knows Everyone, to see if they know this benefactor, but Seche does not.  Seche does, however, send Aluna the sorceress with Ythir to retrieve the artifact.  Asmir the assassin has had a mysterious dream of Ythir; typically this means that Ythir is his target, so he follows Ythir from Seche's place, then convinces the party to let him join up with them under the guise of a thief / wizard who is in it for the loot.  Miranda the paladin receives a letter from the city council directing her to retrieve the artifact as well; she meets the party at the city gates.  There is much tension within the party.
The party proceeds south through the fringe of the Impasse, a place where strange magics happen.  Random monsters fall from the sky but are slain.  A village trapped in a time bubble is passed through quickly / nervously.  The elven lands are reached, the ruin found, puzzles solved, and the artifact, the Rod of Duplication, is gained.

Session 2:
The ruin collapses as the party leaves, and mummy guardians awaken and attack.  Qual, the elven ranger of feather-token fame, and the Avenger, a monk / paladin wandering vigilante, appear and come to the party's aid.  The mummies are put to rest, and it is revealed that it was Qual's task to guard the rod, which Ythir was disguised.  More elven ruins are explored, but little is gained except the knowledge that the high elves and the gnomes of old fought a great war of trickery and magic, and Qual was left behind when the elven host sallied forth into the area that is now the Impasse.  The party returns to Dehlia circumspectly, by back wilderness roads, because Ythir is loathe to give the artifact to his benefactors, who he believes to be gnomes.  A teleporting mage ambushes the party, but is promptly grappled by the Avenger and then beaten to death by everyone else.  The party re-enters Dehlia; Ythir and Aluna make separate reports to Seche Peret, Miranda seeks his protection, the Avenger is tricked into his employ, Asmir evades his notice by disguising himself as a peasant porter for the party, and Qual tries to sell him a walking stick.

Session 3:
I wasn't here for this one, but the way I hear it, the ambushing mage was revealed to be Ace of the Black 13, a cabal who name their members after cards.  The party (sans Asmir and the Avenger) also slay Three and Four of the 13.  They find the Black Lotus Dagger and a mighty hammer of throwing in the crypts beneath the temple of Miranda's order, and use the Black Lotus to escape Dehlia through various creepy hell dimensions (something about flowers?...  I have no idea).  They end up stranded in the frozen tundra to the far north when they return to the material plane, and give battle to a tribe of orcish barbarians led by Somar.  The session ends with them out of slots, hidden in a Leomund's Tiny Hut to avoid hypothermia.

Session 4:
Asmir realizes that the rest of the party has disappeared, and dreams of a man in black robes numbered Five.  He slays Five of the Thirteen at his desk in his home, then disguises himself as Five when a vague man comes knocking at his door.  He teleports with the remainder of the Thirteen to the party's location in the tundra, where the orcs are revealed to be in league with the cabal, and Ythir is forced to give up the Rod of Duplication to the Thirteen.  King tries to use it, but is transformed into the king of the high elves; the rod was actually a trap.  He slays Queen and Jack of the Thirteen trivially, gives an ominous monologue, breaks Asmir's disguise, and teleports out.  The remaining members of the Thirteen flee, and the party escapes the orcs using the Black Lotus again.  They return to the material in Malas Farngrey and pass off their abrupt appearance in the Temple of Ffarlaghn as a magic trick gone bad.  They decide to head south to the dwarven lands, both to see Miranda's heritage and as a route to the empire of Sol Magnar beyond the mountains.

Session 5:
The party begins at the mouth of the dwarven caverns, and encounters the Singed, exile dwarfs who have devoted their lives to containing the dragon (mainly by getting in the way...).  They try to bar the path, but are convinced otherwise.  The party sneaks through the ruined city of Kathras Deep, and slays many salamanders, but avoids attracting the red dragon's notice.  They arrive in Sol Magnar, the empire of the lizardmen, and make a beeline for the library, which contains much knowledge lost in the lands of men.  Adam the Bard appears, revealing himself to be Two of the Thirteen ("Twos are wild"), makes Ythir an offer of membership, and reveals the nature of the Impasse, as well as that the Elves were fond of enchantment magic.  He also states that he is hunting the Chromata to fight the elf king, and that we might do the same.  Ythir finds a working description of the Chromata, and a hunt for those artifacts as a means to defeat the Elf King begins.  The Black Chromata is the spelldrinker; see Fjolkir's journal.  White gives the gift of eternal life and death, Red is a tether to reality against illusions and in dreams, green allows mind control but the target's mind bleeds into the user's, and blue allows the user to create a perfect disguise which can only be broken by speaking his (the user's) name.  The party decides to split up; Miranda returns to the dwarven lands to join the Singed, Qual heads south across the sea to find the elven libraries (I think...  I may not be recalling that bit properly), Aluna reports back to Seche and then seeks the white chromata, Ythir starts a general hunt for them, and Asmir decides to continue accompanying him in case he gets the 'terminate' order.  Also disturbing is the revelation that the gnomes knew about the Rod for the last 5000 years, but only now got around to retrieving it; the possibility is raised that there is a time-delayed 'egg' of some sort, possibly the dragons guarding the chromata.  Uncertainty abounds.  Shortly after the session ends, Asmir receives the kill order, and it is presumed that he is still hunting Ythir in the sequel campaign.

For my part, I greatly enjoyed playing the stereotypical greedy rogue as a cover for a whole different beast.  None of the rest of the party had any clue until the last session where I let a few hints slip...  I'll probably post Asmir's stats as of endgame in the next day or two.  It was a good run.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Interesting Magic Items

"It is not the sword, but the hand that wields it."

A significant portion of Trailblazer's analysis of 'the spine' is motivated by the desire to prove that "The Big Six" items are not necessary for game balance.  For those unfamiliar, the Big Six are magic weapons, magic armor and shields, rings of protection, cloaks of resistance, amulets of natural armor, and ability score boosters like the belt of giant strength and the headband of intellect.  These items are all distinguished by 1) requiring no actions to activate and 2) applying bonuses to the core combat stats of a character (mental ability score boosters are an odd case, in that they increase the save DCs for spellcasters, but are significantly less useful for noncasters).  As TB's analysis shows, these items contribute significantly to a character's power, especially in regards to defense; of the big six, three exist for the sole purpose of boosting AC, while only one exists solely for boosting attack and damage.  Further, the cloak of resistance is critical in boosting poor saves to a reasonable rate of success, especially as character level increases.  Poor saves grow at 1/3 of character level, while monster special ability save DCs grow at 1/2 of monster hit dice.  As monsters of CR n often have greater than n hit dice, and sometimes as many as 2n hit dice or more, player character poor saves are rapidly outstripped without some kind of extra bonus (namely the cloak).

Trailblazer uses its analysis to suggest that there may be alternatives to using the Big Six, namely Combat Reactions, Action Points, and similar.  Though I don't remember seeing an explicit motivation for this move, I have inferred several.  First, getting rid of the Big Six combats the "Christmas Tree Effect", namely that player characters are so decked out in shiny magical items that they look like Christmas trees done up in tinsel and glowing ornaments.  This is a problem both because it generates downright silly character portraits (see some of the art from the Epic Level Handbook, for example), and the concentration of wealth involved stresses the economics of the campaign world.  Removing the Big Six also eliminates magic item turnover.  We've all seen it; you find a +3 sword and all of a sudden your +2 sword, companion for many long adventures, a named and storied weapon, falls by the wayside.  The final complaint that I see about the Big Six is that they're boring.  They're uninteresting and don't feel magical.

So I thought to myself, "Hey, let's follow Trailblazer's lead, get rid of the Big Six, and make some magic items that are interesting."  I've got a couple ideas along these lines.  TB suggests items with spells per day; I'd actually done this before reading Trailblazer's suggestions in this regard, by giving a party a Cloak of the Cat, which allowed the wearer to use of Cat's Grace and Catfall each once per day.  That was kind of interesting, though to be fair it was a bit underpowered at the level I gave it out.  I'd probably make some such 'buff items' usable as swift actions, so that as with the Big Six, they don't have a huge impact on the action economy of a combat.  I also considered various conditional save boosters, like an amulet that grants a bonus to saves against poison, or a bonus to will saves, or a bonus to just your poor saving throw(s).  Again, less bland than normal, and not complex enough to bog down play.  Magic weapons with spells per day that gain charges under certain conditions, like a bloodthirsty weapon that gains a charge when you slay a living foe with it, or one that gains a charge on a critical threat, might also work.  A little more complex, but they're primarily a tool for melee classes, whose gameplay and choice sets tend to be simpler than those of casters.  If we can trust a caster with a pile of wands, each of which has charges, it seems reasonable to trust the fighters similarly.

But this post isn't really about those interesting magic items.

Because I realized, as I went to write that post, that nearly every fantasy RPG blogger and their brother has a post like that, either lamenting the lack of interesting magic items, suggesting how to make magic items more interesting, or giving a few examples of their own.  Likewise, all those interesting things slow down play, confuse new players (or if they're situational bonuses, like a bonus against poison, they're forgotten and wasted), and increase book-keeping.  Plus, it's possible those guys playing fighters wanted to avoid the kind of resource management that casters have to do, and really don't want to deal with spells per day or charged swords.  It's all fine and good for the DM to be handing out interesting items, but it's the players who have to deal with actually using them.

Which brings us to the crux of things - D&D is a game that we play for fun.  "Are the Big Six items fun?" is, in a sense, a more important question than whether they're interesting or boring or balanced or anything else.  Likewise, are 'interesting' magic items fun?  Sure, it's nice to have an oddball magic item now and then, as Tim's use of the Stone of Alarm, Horn of the Tritons, and Forn of Hog showed in the sequel campaign.  But I get the feeling that if every damn magic item operated like those, it would get kinda overwhelming...  unless you had fewer magic items.

Which led me to the conclusion that the best way to handle the Big Six is to make them inherent / innate bonuses.  I'm considering two schemes, but they both work very similarly.  In the first, when you level, you get a budget of astral gold pieces that you can 'spend' on inherent bonuses.  In the second, you spend literal gold pieces while carousing, and this boosts your inherent capabilities.  If you're boosting your Constitution, it might be that you literally drank thousands and thousands of gold pieces worth of ale, and your liver has turned to steel, rendering you more resistant to attacks.  Natural armor bonus from expensive ritual scarifications, Intelligence bonus from concocting expensive elixirs which boost your brainpower, Wisdom bonus from sacrificing gold to your deity in exchange for guidance, attack and damage bonus from getting into many many barfights and paying for damages, and so forth.  Gold gets spent, you get permanent enhancement bonuses to things at the same rates it would have cost you normally.  Pros and cons of these inherent bonuses:
  • On the plus side, they can't be stolen from you.  On the minus side, when you die, the other PCs can't take them off your corpse (which, in turn, doesn't screw with party wealth when people die.  So it's really a plus, from my perspective, but players might be less happy about it).
  • On the plus side, they apply regardless of what weapon you're using or armor you're wearing, increasing your versatility in that regard.  On the minus side, they can't be changed once chosen - if you invest umpty thousand gold pieces in boosting your strength, but realize later that you should've gone with dexterity, you can't just swap your gauntlets of ogre power with the rogue's gloves of dexterity.
  • On the plus side, they can't be dispelled - they're part of you.  On the minus side, they don't stack with buffs or any Big Six magic items you might find; if you have +4 to strength by this scheme, it's a +4 enhancement bonus, and Bull's Strength does you no good at all.  Likewise, if you have a +2 weapon bonus, a +1 sword is no help (should you happen to find one, which is unlikely).
  • On the plus side, you get to choose whatever you want, rather than finding a +1 ring of protection when everyone in the party has +2s, and you can choose to specialize in unusual ways.  If you have a melee mage, you can get the +3 weapons without stepping on the fighter's toes.  On the minus side, you only get these things between adventures; you no longer have the possibility of going "Ooh, I grabbed a random wang from the dragon's hoard, and it's +n!  I stab the dragon with it!"
  • On the minus side, you can't take these things off of dead NPCs.  On the plus side, this gives me an excellent excuse to hand out tons and tons of gold pieces.  When was the last time the dragon's hoard was actually enough gold for the dragon to sleep on?  Those days are back, baby.
And finally, it lets me give out magic items that aren't awesome because they're +n, but because they have interesting properties.  You might find a flaming sword.  It's just flaming.  That's it.  And it'll grow with your fighter, because you keep boosting your personal enhancement bonus.  Sting?  Just an orcbane shortsword with some history.  Excalibur?  Holy vorpals, batman.  Also expect to find wands, potions, staves, and wondrous items that aren't Big Six.  And maybe some of the interesting stuff I mentioned earlier will work its way in.  But the really neat thing, to me, is that this scheme should let a high-level character, naked and armed only with a rolling pin, kick an amount of ass comparable to the amount he would kick if properly armed and armored.  Yeah, he'll miss the +5 armor bonus from his breastplate, but he'll still have a high enough AC, to-hit, damage, and saving throws to have a chance against a high-level foe.  He doesn't need a ton of bling to do his thing, because he is badass.  Did Conan need armor to kick ass?  Didn't think so.  Why should your barbarian?