Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wordgames with Family

How I feel while playing wordgames (Scrabble, Upwords, etc) with my family (all credit to sinfest):

Where the incantations in question are words like "chull", "rax", "grep", "urist", and "ftaghn"

Friday, December 28, 2012

Fun with Anagathics

I ran a little thought experiment in Traveller character generation the other day.  I was curious to see just how far a character using anagathics could go during Mongoose character generation.  It turns out I played it a bit wrong (snake-eyes on a survival roll are an auto-failure), but I'm still reasonably convinced that, if a character were to use anagathics to their full potential, it should be quite possible to get close to 20 terms during character generation (I made it to 36 terms with the omission of that rule before I got bored and decided to muster out).  If you're clever about it and rush military officer as your first career for a boost to Soc 10 and then go to Noble and roll your cash benefits there, you can probably even avoid coming out of character generation with anagathic debt.  This possibility stands in stark contrast with the 'standard' Traveller character, who's running maybe four terms.  Traveller's NPC selection doesn't really reflect the possibilities of the technology which is apparently available, and the rules as written do not cope terribly well with octogenarian PCs with 15s in multiple stats from decades spent rolling on Personal Development tables and skills at level 6 or higher for auto-success on many tasks.  You do assume some extra risk during play, since you need to keep yourself 'in supply' as it were, but if you can get to a TL15 world, anagathics themselves are not terribly expensive.  It also creates a nice adventure hook when you start running low.  In any case, I'm now curious to see a mixed party of single-term, fourish-term, and anagathic-enhanced characters in action.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

ACKS Player's Companion Review

It occurred to me while writing my Agent review that, since the ACKSPC was just officially released, a proper review of that might be more timely.  So I guess this is like...  Reviewsweek or something.  Full disclosure: I kickstarted the Player's Companion, which is why I currently have a copy, and reported many a typo during development.  Other than those, though, I don't think I influenced things overmuch.

So, contents.  We've got 2 pages of introduction, 46 pages covering 19 new classes, 20 pages of templates, 24 pages on creating new classes, 50 pages of expanded magic research rules and new spells, and then 5 pages of miscellanea at the end, with a little bit of new equipment, rules for building traps, and a few new proficiencies, a lot of which are specific to the Dwarven Machinist.  The introduction is pretty good, and makes very clear that while the PC can be employed in the standard 3.x 'splatbook' fashion of "Hey players, here's a book full of new toys for you", it can also be used as a source of strict replacements for classes in keeping with a campaign's theme, or to build an entirely custom set of classes and spells for a really exotic world.  This note, I think, is worthwhile, so the introduction scores points with me.

The classes are something of a mixed bag.  There aren't any that I would classify immediately as "bad", but there are some that I'm not exactly sure about.  The Gnomish Trickster looks like a dangerous combination of stealth skills and darkvision, which could lead to frustrating party-split scouting like we encountered when we played OSRIC.  I'm still a fan of ACKS' "no darkvision" policy from the Core, so I dislike that the gnome and the Thrassian both have it.  On the plus side, the class building rules make it fairly straightforward to remove darkvision and either reduce their XP values or provide some replacement ability.  Without darkvision, I actually quite like the idea behind the Trickster, of a thief replacement based on spell-like abilities usable once per hour, though most of those they actually have are illusions rather than useful things like invisibility and knock.  It probably doesn't help that after one too many illusionist dungeon masters, I really, really dislike illusions...

Going through the other classes in order:
  • Anti-paladin: mostly as fighter, plus some unholy protections, control undead, detect good, and faster levelling, but loses ranged weapons and d6 rather than d8 HD and must be chaotic.  Nothing objectionable here.
  • Barbarian: Lightly-armored fighters with some other defensive abilities (ability to roll twice and choose for mortal wounds), and with a proficiency and weapon proficiencies determined by their place of origin (Norse, Mongol, or African equivalents).  I like this design, and for our game we added a "Swamp Barbarian" option to the backgrounds for Tim's crocodile-wrestler barbarian henchman.  Levels significantly slower than fighter, though, which is annoying.  Overall we've had fun with this class in play.
  • Dwarven Delver: Dwarf pioneer-flavored thief which trades ability to disarm traps and open locks for d6 HD, caving, and a +2 dwarf bonus to proficiency rolls on all of its remaining thief skills.  They get vaults instead of hideouts, which is probably OK because they would be quite good at hijinks.
  • Dwarven Fury: Dwarf berserkers who can't wear armor, but who get damage reduction, an inherent bonus to AC, and roll-twice-and-pick on mortal wounds.  Andrew played one of these over the summer, and it was fairly entertaining until he was killed by a great heaping pile of zombies.  Their rage ability is distinctly better than berserkergang, since it has no penalty to AC.  Levels pretty slowly, though.
  • Dwarven Machinist: The other half of the dwarf thief, covering lock opening, trapfinding, and trap disarming.  Again, they're much better at these than a standard thief because of the dwarf skill bonus.  Their main ability, though, is designing and building construct servitors from a low level.  Haven't seen this in play yet, but I feel like some of my more creative players would have a field day with it as long as they had gold to burn.
  • Elven Courtier: Elf bard variant with spellcasting as a wizard of half their level.  Very elfy.
  • Elven Enchanter: Elf wizard with some specialist enchantment proficiencies.  In one of the earlier drafts, these guys were double-wizards, getting twice the spell slots of a wizard of their level.  I'm glad to see that this is no longer the case.  As it stands, they're wizards with just a little bit of extra stuff who level a hair more slowly and cap at 12th level.
  • Elven Ranger:  The Legolas.  Explorer + Elf.  No arcane casting, which is a first for an elf class, but looks quite good at ranged combat and wilderness ops.  They lose some of the Explorer wilderness stuff, but replace it with Tracking and Animal Friendship, with the justification that they mostly defend elven forests rather than exploring new areas.  Doesn't really fit the flavor of elf present in my setting.
  • Gnomish Trickster: See above.
  • Mystic:  The 3.x monk, basically.  Unarmed combat specialist with a bunch of weird abilities and four (that's right, four) prime requisites.  I really don't like the huge pile of special abilities; part of what I like about most of ACKS' classes, and old-school classes in general, is that they're simple.  These guys do have a neat rage variant, though.  I think if I were to run an oriental game, I'd probably build a custom arcane class with fancy maneuvers-as-spells for my monks rather than using these.
  • Nobiran Wonderworker: A theurge class, casting both as a full wizard and a full cleric.  Fights as a wizard, no armor, d4 HD, slow levelling, and requires 11+ in all stats, though.  I think is someone rolled ability scores that high across the board, I'd have no problem letting them use this if they could justify it in-setting.
  • Paladin: Basically the lawful reflection of the anti-paladin.  We had one of these a while back, and he was pretty OK.  Nice helmet in the art, too.
  • Priestess:  A d4 HD cleric that fights as a wizard but gets more spells and has more religious restrictions on their actions.  I quite like this class; it's more along the lines of "medieval european monk" than the standard templar cleric.  If you want to play a mendicant friar in brown robes with a walking stick, this may be the class for you after you file the gender specificity off of it.
  • Shaman: Druid, basically.  Has lots of special abilities (totem animal, shapechange, astral projection, and so forth), but not as many as Mystic.  I could see using this for a more primitive setting, but it's not particularly useful in the setting we're currently running.
  • Thrassian Gladiator: Lizardman fighter with natural attacks and natural armor.  We have one of these; he's a scary guy, but he levels quite slowly, even after reduced XP cost to level as a result of removing his darkvision.
  • Venturer: Bard-thief-merchanty types with a little spellcasting as high levels and a very neat ability to improve effective market class.  Matt is playing one of these presently, and seems to be enjoying setting up a trade empire.
  • Warlock:  Mages with slower casting progression, but with dark spell-like abilities added.  Not sure they quite make up for what you lose in casting; haven't seen in play yet.  They do level faster than wizards, at least.
  • Witch: Another d4 HD, low-fighting divine caster like the Priestess, but with four traditions much like the barbarian origins which provide access to slightly different spells and proficiencies.  Whether the witches my players are up against are of this class, or are mages, warlocks, or chaotic priestesses remains to be seen.
  • Zaharan Ruinguard:  An interesting take on the "spells and sword in complete accord" idiom, with d6 HD, fighter to-hit, half casting in heavy armor, and several abilities which let them expend spell slots when they hit with a melee weapon to achieve effects.  Overall I quite like this class as a darker alternative to the elven spellsword.
So yeah; overall the classes look pretty good.  I've been holding out on releasing them to PC hands contingent on actions within the setting; last session, for example, they missed an opportunity to hire a Machinist.   Andrew got access to the Fury for committing burning violent suicide as a vaultguard ("for meritorious service to Armok"), Tim was permitted a paladin because he asked for it by name during character generation in the first session, Matt's venturer was OK'd as a challenge class ("Is playing a merchant actually viable?"), and Tom's Thrassian followed from his chaotic wizard's subjugation of a crocodileman village, which opened it as a source of PCs.  So far we've had fun with all the ACKSPC classes we've tried, I think.

After classes we have a chapter of templates, which are useful for rapidly generating and equipping first-level characters.  Basically you take the 3d6 that you normally multiply by 10 for starting gold pieces, and instead index your roll into a table for your class which gives you your proficiencies and equipment based on your economic situation.  A low roll will get you a background like Hermit, Hedge Wizard, Exile, Outlaw, or Deserter, while a high roll might generate a Patrician, Court Magist, Royal Enforcer, or Knight.  These are handy for equipping henchmen, but unfortunately the fact that they're on a gaussian distribution means that you get a lot of henches from the middle few entries, who start to look alike.  They're also not useful for characters of higher than 1st level; Autarch has been working on this, and released a spreadsheet I believe of expanded templates which extend to higher levels.  Haven't looked at that yet, but it sounds useful.

The next chapter covers custom class creation.  I've used it several times, for the Valkyrie, my Harmakhan cleric variant, and tweaking the Thrassian, and it seems to work pretty well.  It's a bit complex, especially when you start getting into custom tradeoffs, but not too bad.  The cautionary note that "In general, any system of build points is susceptible to abuse and the Judge must carefully review all custom classes for balance.  Just because something can be built doesn’t mean it should be built or must be allowed in play" is a vital preface to these rules.  There's also has a nice section at the end on creating custom proficiencies and spell-like abilities as proficiencies.  There are notes on how to build new classes using the elf, dwarf, gnome, Thrassian, Zaharan, and Nobiran races, but not for building new races.  I did a little reverse-engineering while working on an elephantman class, but do not recall my conclusions.

Chapter the fourth is on magic.  It begins with rules for experimentation and breakthroughs in magic research; experimentation provides a bonus to magic research throws, but with an added possibility of dangerous mishaps on a failure, while breakthroughs occur when you make a research throw by a wide margin, and provide extra benefits to the end product.  There are many 'fun' mishap tables in this section.  This is followed by a section on designing new spells, which is focused mainly on figuring out what spell level a given effect should be.  They're useful; I've played with them mostly with the aim of making more summoning spells (another notable addition), and they seem to generate reasonable results.  Then we get into expanded spell lists; mage spells are expanded from 12 per spell level to 24, while clerics and bladedancers still get 10 per spell level though there is some replacement of old spells with new ones (mostly on the bladedancer list).  There are also custom lists for the various new casting classes, and the number of rituals at each ritual level is increased from 1 to 4 for both arcane and divine casters.  I've been gradually working some of the new spells in, mostly low-level arcane stuff like Choking Grasp (colloquially known as Force Choke here), Dismember, and Burning Hands.  It hasn't seen much use, with old standbys like Sleep and Magic Missile tending to win coveted spell repertoire slots instead.  I will say, though, that the Priestess has a bunch of extra healing spells which fill in the healing-less levels in the cleric list.  There are also a fair number of spells which note that they're used in the creation of a particular magic item; this supports item creation nicely.

Finally after magic, we get to some closing "Supplemental Rules".  Here we find base ages for the new classes, some new equipment (I like the Heavy Helmet, personally), a table of follower-types that appear when some of the new classes hit 9th level, some new proficiencies, which seem predominantly for Machinists to enhance their automata, and prices for traps for use in PC-constructed strongholds and dungeons.  Then we have the OGL, an index, a spells index, and a custom powers index.  The Player's Companion pdf also has bookmarks!  Unfortunately, they slow its load time down a lot compared to the earlier drafts which did not have bookmarks.  I have observed this slowdown also in the updated version of the ACKS Core pdf, which has bookmarks (while the original did not).

Art quality is mostly pretty good.  The interior art is black and white, with a number of full-page illustrations of either a single character or of multiple characters performing an adventurer-some action (plotting in a tavern, fighting skeletal bat-things in a cave, walking away from a burning castle, and so forth).  The art density isn't particularly high, but I'm OK with it.  Some of the art for the new classes seemed a bit silly, but the Paladin and Ruinguard both have excellent helmets.  Nice use of shading throughout.

Conclusions: good quality, but for a few hangups with infravision, possibly weak spells, and issues with rolling the same templates too often.  No editing errors that I noticed on this readthrough.  I'm not sure what they're going to be selling the pdf for, but overall I would say that for an ACKS Judge who wants to roll their own classes and spells, it's quite a good book.  Autarch has yet to disappoint (I guess one could argue that the book is 5-6 months late from its original expected ship date, but they did a good job with keeping us updated with drafts throughout that period, and frankly I tend to take kickstarter ETAs with a large grain of salt.  The more successful a project, the more stretch goals it'll hit, which translates into more work to do, which the money doesn't really make faster.  But that's moot at this point).  For $10 and six months of wait time, I've already gotten quite a bit more mileage out of the ACKSPC than out of any of the comparably-priced Mongoose supplements that I seem to have made an infrequent habit of reviewing.

Now if they'd just launch the Domains at War kickstarter...

Monday, December 24, 2012

Mongoose Traveller - Agent Review

I picked up a copy of Mongoose's Agent sourcebook recently.  My motivation in this was, in part, that at some point I want to run a conversion of Dark Heresy to Traveller (this project tentatively named Dark Travesty), and such a game would feature agent-type operations prominently.  Overall I think this sourcebook has provided several features which would add to a game of this sort.

Agent has a fairly standard structure for a Mongoose class book.  We get 25 pages covering six new careers, 10 pages on agencies, 17 on legal proceedings, 15 on espionage, 12 on corporate operations, 13 on bounty hunting, and 23 of new equipment (including deckplans for four ships and Bond-esque prototype equipment rules).  The careers chapter is surprisingly good for Mongoose; usually I dislike these sections, as the careers are frequently either too specific to be useful or they overlap with each other.  Agent has Law Enforcement, Investigator (a private-eye sort), Spy, Analyst, Corporate, and Bounty Hunter careers - effectively, it splits the Law Enforcement specialty of the core agent into Law Enforcement and Investigator careers, splits Intelligence into Spy and Analyst, leaves Corporate alone, and adds Bounty Hunter.  Honestly I like this structure; it's nicely genre-appropriate for a washed up police officer to to become a private investigator, which is impossible under the core rules.  Six careers feels like about the right number, too.  The specialties within Agent's careers seem sufficiently distinct for the most part, and you can usually tell in the career artwork which character is from which specialty, though there are some exceptions.  I am, however, displeased with the fact that the survival and advancement difficulties are higher across the board than those in the core book; while this is standard for Mongoose supplement careers, it rubs me the wrong way that a corporate technical expert agent who spends his time in a lab under these rules should have as hard a time surviving as a spy on foreign soil under the core rules.  If I use these careers, I will likely decrease these difficulties, much as I do for the Scoundrel careers.  Yes, crime and agency are both dangerous, but the Core establishes an expected difficulty for them which seems out of line with that seen here.  While many of the Agent careers do have higher cash mustering-out awards than their Core equivalents, there are also those like Law Enforcement which use essentially the same table, and which still have their survival difficulties increased, so that justification does not cover the whole issue.

The other interesting point from character creation is the addition of Trust, Networks, and Cover Identities as awards during character creation (sometimes in place of skills).  These provide benefits when using some of the mechanics detailed later in Agent, but overall I think they're somewhat underutilized, or perhaps more accurately that there are few to no details on how to use them outside of the game structures which much of the rest of the book consists of.  Of these three mechanics, I think Trust is handled best.  It rarely takes the place of a skill, accumulating mostly as a benefit of even-numbered ranks and on the Personal Development tables.  When it appears on mustering-out benefit tables, it mostly appears in addition to another benefit (for example, Investigator benefit 1 is "+1 Trust, Contact").  Finally, the mechanics for using Trust are fairly well-developed in the Agencies chapter, for purposes as general as "Requisition 10,000 credits worth of equipment from the Agency."  Thus, it has applications in most any situation a Traveller might find himself in (there are caveats to actually using these applications of Trust, but for those qualified, it looks quite nice).  Networks and Cover Identities, on the other hand, do not appear to be linked to anything other than the subsystems detailed in later chapters, most prominently bounty hunting.  There's no mention of (for example) substituting a cover identity in place of Intelligence for a Deception roll when acting under that cover, nor of using the strength of a network for research purposes except when bounty hunting.  These sort of omissions are saddening.  I will, however, almost certainly be stealing Trust for Dark Travesty; it seems a decent way to model the sort of influence which the minions of an Inquisitor might carry.

The next chapter details four sample agencies plus freelancers.  Each of these describe what agents do within these agencies, and provides ways agents can utilize their Trust scores to gain benefits from the agency they work for.  The flavor notes are mostly pretty good, but I'm saddened by the fact that the Trust functions are only usable by those characters who ended character creation as active agents.  This may be realistic, but it does not sound exactly 'fun'.  What if you leave an agent career to assume a Noble / Administrator position in the intelligence community, or some other extenuating circumstance?  Fortunately, this is nothing GM fiat and being recalled to active service cannot fix.

Chapter three covers an extended version of the legal process outlined in the Law Level section of the Core, with a focus on players as the prosecution rather than as the defense.  It opens with an elaboration of the law levels and categories to which they apply, which is not particularly helpful except for the clarification on Tech restrictions (LL9+ and restricted tech is described as "state-imposed medieval culture", which does nicely explain what TL restrictions mean practically).  These are followed by the extended legal process, which has three phases focused on gathering evidence through the application of various skills, followed by a trial and expanded sentencing tables.  After this comes a brief section on Informants, a variant on Contacts which provide very specific mechanical benefits.  These sound quite strong for what they cost you - having a Market Assistant informant could net you a +1 DM to three broker rolls within 24 hours of each other at a cost of 50 credits, which will almost certainly pay for itself if used for the buying or selling of goods.  A few artistically-rendered criminal dossiers round out this chapter; these are good seeds, but could have been put into a single page rather than the three that they span, and the art for them is somewhat lacking.  Judgement: filler.  Overall a decent chapter for those on legal offense, though.

Chapter four is espionage.  This chapter feels somewhat chaotic, as the ordering is quite bad.  It begins with a very simple espionage system, where a spy rolls several skill checks and totals his effect, which is compared with the effect of several defensive / countering skill checks made by opposing agents.  OK, that's usable enough.  Data analysis is discussed next; this, as it turns out, is useful to generate modifiers to espionage mission payouts as part of the espionage mission system at the end of this chapter.  Between data analysis and the mission system, though, we have a discussion of elite 'hacker' agents, Imperial agents, the roles of various sorts of agents in espionage operations, and rules for what happens to agents when there's a regime change in their agency.  This ordering seems distinctly non-optimal; data analysis should be in with the espionage mission rules.  I found the hacking rules very objectionable (what does "Destroy opposing encryption with one-way entry" mean, anyways?  And since when does developing any sort of workable encryption scheme take 1d6 hours?  Deploying an existing one, maybe, but creating secure cryptosystems takes years of work by specialist cryptographers...  and number theory was not on the list of skills Agent requires for hackerdom); I will be using Scoundrel's computer rules instead, I think.  These hacking rules are not well-integrated with the other systems in Agent, in any case.  I am a huge fan of the Imperial Licenses, though - these are pretty much exactly what I'm looking for for Inquisitorial purposes.  I could do without the requirements for terms in particular careers, but other than that these look very usable, and the qualification process seems almost sufficiently stringent (add "must serve as an interrogator for a senior inquisitor until deemed ready" and it works for me).  The discussion of the roles of various agents, while somewhat interesting, could have been put at the beginning of the careers chapter, since it does a good job of clarifying the differences between Investigators and Law Enforcement agents, among others.  It is also not terribly specific to espionage.  Likewise, Regime Change is not specific to espionage operations in particular, though it is interesting and well-developed.  I would have put this in the Agencies chapter, since it deals primarily with the Trust mechanics and regards change of agency power structures rather than the performance of espionage operations.

Finally, we come to rules for just those operations.  Much like mercenary tickets, these are presented as a way to fill down-time, and they have a structure which recurs in both the Corporate and Bounty Hunting missions of later chapters - roll assignment, which tells you which skills you will need to roll.  Roll target, which provides modifiers to pay and difficulty.  Roll mission duration, which determines how long it will take.  Roll difficulty, which determines the total effect you need to score with the skills designated by the assignment.  If your total effect is greater than or equal to that required, you succeed and roll for pay, and if it is less, you have failed and roll for a mishap on a table of unfortunate consequences.  This "roll multiple skills and total your effect" notion is repeated several times in this book, and it does provide an interesting alternative to the task chain as a means of resolving long, complex actions.  It is also very amenable to parallelization across a party along the lines of 4e's skill challenges, but using effect rather than boolean successes or failures.  Just as with 4e's skill challenges, though, I'm not sure the math works here.  Any espionage op is going to require checks with four specific skills.  Across all seven types of op, 15 distinct skills are represented, and since the type is chosen randomly for each mission, it is quite possible that an agent will just not have one or more of the required skills (Trade?  Seriously?), which is going to dump a big ol' -3 on one of his checks (yes, you do have to attempt all four...).  Further, on average a mission requires about 8 effect to successfully complete.  With average rolls of 7s on the skill checks, this means you need to be at +3 combined skill and attribute DMs for each skill to succeed on average, and it could be much worse; a difficult mission against a hard target might require 15 effect instead, which will require either spectacular rolls or about a +5 modifier to each of the four rolls to succeed.  Between the semi-random assortment of skill checks required and the degree of competence required on average, I'm just not sure that it's possible for most agents to succeed with any degree of reliability.  The payouts aren't particularly good either, averaging about 5000 credits for 2-3 weeks of work (though the payoff on corporate and bounty hunting ops are significantly higher), and failure tends to result in loss of Trust or attribute points.  All in all, it seems a Hard Mode system, much like smuggling was in Scoundrel.  If I were to use this, I think the agency would probably select missions based on the strengths of their operatives, rather than at random, since this would result in fewer casualties and greater rates of success, in which the agency has a vested interest.

The Corporate chapter is somewhat better-structured than espionage.  It begins with a discussion of how corporate warfare is conducted, what ends it serves, and what tools are useful for it.  Highlights of this section are stats and wages for corporate security forces and mercenaries.  This is followed by a brief-and-general discussion of industrial sabotage, and then rules for corporations manipulating governments; I'm curious if these mesh with Dynasty or Merchant Prince.  Some options for would-be infiltrators are considered, and then we tangent back out to the digital realm of electronic infiltration; again, I find their rules dubious.  I don't have any good numbers on how long it takes to set up a good corporate spearphishing attack, but I strongly doubt that 35 weeks is the average.  A list of security systems (mostly sensors) are given, along with lists of skills which could be used to bypass them; these are used to determine the skills rolled for Corporate missions, the rules for which follow immediately.  The structure is very similar to that of Espionage missions, except that the list of skills you need to roll is determined by the security measures in place, you get a random number of rolls to make your effect total (on average you need 12 effect out of 6 rolls, so you still need +3 skill+attribute on average), and the payoff's a little better.  Fortunately, the list of skills you really need is Stealth and Sensors; those two together will let you circumvent everything on the security systems list.  It's much more viable to get +3 in each of those two skills than in each of the 15 skills you might need for espionage, especially since Sensors is wafer-jackable.  In short, corporate work is a lot more viable financially than espionage.  As icing on the cake, the pay is better and the missions are shorter, too.

Bounty Hunting is a dense chapter.  It begins with general advice for would-be hunters, and then moves to necessary mechanic qualifications for a professional one.  These are naturally strongly biased towards PCs created using Agent's rules; it would be fairly difficult for a Core PC to qualify, as they would have to be a 3-term Agent with Streetwise 2.  All other avenues would be closed to them.  A discussion of types of contracts follows - there is a bug here, as accepting a Private Contract nominally permits one to roll on an alternate column for bounty pay; no such column is to be found on the pay table some ten pages later.  Rules for tracking ships across jump come next; these could be quite handy both for PCs chasing other people, and for determining how long it takes bounty hunters to track down one's PCs.  Again, we encounter "Make several checks with an effect totalling X", but here there are many options and the real barrier is time, since there's a clock ticking down to see when your target will move again.  Thus, you can gamble with increasing the time your checks take to get bonuses to your effect.  Once you've tracked your target to a particular planet, you then have to locate the individual, and an analogous system for tracking people planetside follows, along with profiles for various sorts of likely bounty targets ranging from runaway noble scions to axe-wielding stim-heads.  All of the rules so far in this chapter have been generally usable outside a dedicated mission structure, and are pretty good; tracking people down is useful for one's own ends too.  Now we turn to assassination and bounty missions, though, where we're looking at 13 distinct skills where you need to average +3 in order to be able to succeed reliably.  The payout is leagues better than espionage work for comparable difficulty, though - on average, somewhere around 30,000 credits.  Honestly, this whole system is useful to me mostly for figuring about how much a bounty should be worth; I'm not all that interested in resolving bounties in this fashion, but knowing how much of a price my PCs have on their heads is always entertaining.

Finally, equipment.  The prototype rules look pretty reasonable; if I ever get around to running Fantasy Traveller, this would not be a bad way to generate magic items.  The prototype value table looks pretty iffy, though.  Some sneaky weaponry and TL12 improved silencers follow, but there's some weirdness with the "needletto", which in its rules text has the note "The Effect of this weapon is always considered to be one point higher for the purposes of damage."  I'm really not at all clear how this is different from adding 1 to the damage.  If it were a laser weapon and the +1 applied to generating eye hits on effect 6+, that would be one thing.  But it isn't, and this note just leaves me somewhat confused.  Armored bodygloves make an appearance; these are par for Ravenor and Eisenhorn's retinues, and so I'm happy to see them here.  There's a fair bit of weirdness and technobabble though the rest of the gear in this chapter, but I do like the presence of the Doctor Tam Special of drugs that make you seem dead (though there's no nausea side effect post-awakening; might have to add that).  Testimonial Drones make a nice servo-skull replacement, but overall I think I'd need to do a fairly careful case-by-case consideration of which of these gadgets I want in my game.  The book closes with ships.  Frankly, I just don't get all that excited about ships and deckplans, and these were not exceptions.  The fact that two of the four referenced other supplements (I guess Advanced Probe Drones were in Scout or something?) probably didn't help.  I could kind of see using the Inquisitorial Cruiser and Deployment Shuttle on the player side, and the Prisoner Ferry would make a very neat hijacking target, but the super-expensive stealth fighter is probably less than useful.

So, overall impressions.  Some of the book's chapters were poorly structured, and I'm probably not going to get all that much use out of the specific subsystems like the espionage mission game or the bounty hunting mission game.  I do foresee adapting the general "You need X total effect in Y time" structure, so I am glad that this contributed to that development; I'm a little disappointed that they didn't realize they were doing to same thing several times and build a single unified structure for it, though, rather than reproducing it thrice with slight variants to fill page count.  The Trust and tracking mechanics would both have been useful in the game I ran some springs ago, the careers were mostly good, and there were a fair number of things I could mine for a 40k Traveller game.  I would argue that the content was not as broadly useful as that in Scoundrel, though - I wasn't hit with a "wish I'd had this" every chapter, and the rules subsystems, especially espionage, seemed sufficiently difficult as to be nearly unusable.  Thus, a 3/5 for content seems appropriate - decent, but not noteworthy.

I was also pleasantly surprised to note a relative dearth of grammatical and editing errors - I believe there was one "your" in the careers section that should have been a "you're", and there was the missing column on the bounty payoff table, but other than those I was hard pressed to find clear errors.  That I was critiquing structural issues in the espionage chapter suggests that Mongoose's editing went relatively well for Agent (either that or my copy from rpgnow already had errata and corrections applied).  The art was mostly decent, with the career art being clearly superior to Scoundrel's, though the equipment art on page 103 seems rather...  amorphous.  I'm inclined towards a high 3 or low 4 out of 5 for production value and style here, though again lack of bookmarks is irritating in a pdf product.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Mongoose Traveller - Armor and Encumbrance

Skimming the Central Supply Catalogue, I came across a curious rule in the Armor section (page 133, specifically) stating that armor except for vacc suits do not count towards encumbrance.  This rule, if adopted, changes everything about the encumbrance metagame.  I do not think I like it very much.  However, I understand the intent of the rule - armor, if properly worn, is less encumbering than its weight alone would indicate because the weight is well-distributed.  There are also a lot of heavy, heavy armors in Traveller which are basically impossible to use because they weigh so much.  As a reasonable compromise position, I might be inclined to rule that armor encumbers at half its listed mass.  But no encumbrance whatsoever from most armors seems really unreasonable.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Science Skills in Traveller

As a handful of my friends and classmates graduate this winter, I am reminded of how specific research areas are at the graduate level.  It's no good to go to a grad school with a strong general CS program; they need to have a strong programming languages faculty, or a strong computational linguistics faculty, or so forth.  And it got me thinking about one of our recurring issues with Traveller, namely that the Science skills always seemed painfully and uselessly specific.  Going into their first term, a character might have a Science or two at level 0 from their background; this makes sense as some sort of primary education, which is very general but not all that useful (though in its defense, I deduced the principles of operation of metal detectors from highschool physics while standing in a TSA line this weekend, so...).  After their first four-year term, they might be expected to know as much as a college graduate.  It's not unreasonable to expect a fresh grad to have one level of skill in a more general discipline; physics, mathematics, computer use, or so forth.  These are about on par with the specialties listed for the science skills in the Mongoose Core.  However, it seems, at least in my experience with undergraduate science curricula, that majors in the sciences are liable to suffer exposure to other, similar sciences incidentally.  In the first term of grad school, they start working on specialties, and by their second have hopefully completed a thesis in a particular subfield.

This structure of increasing specificity leads me to a proposal.  When you get Level 0 in Any Science, you get Science 0.  When you get another rank, you pick one of the individual Science skills, like Space Science, and then have Science 0 and Space Science 1.  When you get another level, you can pick up another skill at 1 (Physical Sciences, say), or you can pick a specialty and have level 2 in that (and a PhD on that specialty).  Further levels can be used to gain additional specialties or more general skills as desired.  This approach lends a significantly broader scope to scientist characters; rather than choosing a specialty initially, you start with broad knowledge and work your way toward the specifics, just as science education tends to actually operate.  I might be OK with setting the bar for a PhD a little higher, at Specialty 3, since it's possible with good rolls to pull multiple Science (Anys) in a single term of Academic, but I believe the rule is that Medic 2 counts as being a trained and licensed doctor, so Science 2 works as a nice parallel for a doctorate in another subject.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Winter Break To-Do List

(Semi-gaming relevant) things I need to do over winter break:
  • Tabletop:
    • I need to resolve something like 4-5 months of ACKS stuff - basically all of fall and winter.  This is likely to be done in small groups over skype throughout break.  Fortunately, I remembered to bring my hex map (though I left my dice at home due to baggage / space constraints...  guess I'll be using perl's RNG).  I need to resolve a bunch of trade for Matt, Alex wants to explore the caverns beneath Fort Camarone, Tom wants to clear some hexes around his tower, and Jared I believe is recruiting a company of cataphracts to hire out to Drew to clear the hexes north and west of Opportunity.  Then in the winter, Alex and Tom will likely be doing research while Matt does more trade and the domained fighters collect income.  Also need to generate some NPC stats and motivations for the coming Witchwar.
    • Install a pdf editor (xournal, maybe) and use it to put bookmarks in the ACKS core and Player's Companion pdfs.
    • I expect Matt and I will be trying to play Space Hulk at some point.  We'll see how it goes; it's hard to do this properly with digital tabletops because some of the hidden information is either lost or hard to verify.
    • I'm curious to take a look back at Wardogs (MJ12's Starmada-based mech game).  I've kind of concluded that BattleTech is probably a bit too...  heavy, and while I don't like some of the components of Wardogs, like the melee subsystem and the huge number of weapon traits, I feel like it would work quite well for an established universe where you're just converting in units.  In particular, I'm curious to try it on 40k's universe.  It could also work well, I think, if the permitted build options were strictly limited; here's a list of available weapons, here's a list of permitted vehicle traits, and you can only design with these things.  A compromise position between the perfect freedom we had with Starmada design and the lack of design in games like 40k.
    • Traveller.  I've been following In Like Flynn's Traveller sandbox design project (and reading the Schlock Merc archives), and they've got my Traveller gears turning again.  Might be nothing comes of it, or I may post some material since I don't expect to be able to run Traveller again before everyone goes their separate ways.
    • Tim and I split for a copy of Microscope at some point last spring, and it seems like a game that I might be able to get my brother to play while I'm at home.  For bonus points, combine with Traveller.
  • Computer games:
    • Dwarf Fortress - to elevate the fortress of Treatycaverns, home of the Circumstantial Hatchet, to prominence, preparing it properly for siege after I turn invaders back on.  I finally got splintermind's Dwarf Therapist fork set up properly and it's wonderful, so that should help in this.  I recently discovered that my chief medical dwarf, though a qualified doctor and surgeon, really hates helping other dwarves, and therefore hates his job.  He's since been replaced; while still on call for cases when an actual trained surgeon is necessary, he no longer has to deal with minor ailments on a regular basis, and is much happier as a result.  I would never have noticed something like this without Dwarf Therapist's assistance.
    • Get the Steam beta up and running on my xubuntu laptop.  Then, TF2.  Also, filing bug reports.
  • Playing with computers: 
    • Build and learn to operate an Arch linux VM.  I'm not sure I like where Ubuntu is going with Unity and the shopping lens integration and such (and the network manager memory leak is just awful), but I don't want to jump to Arch without trying it out a bit first.  If the VM tests go well, then I'll maybe think about carving a partition out for it (I'd prefer to run a livedisk test too to make sure it likes my hardware OK, but I'm not sure Arch puts out livedisk trial images).
    • Upgrade this laptop to 16 GB of RAM.
    • I should probably try to get through a couple more levels of smashthestack, or start playing overthewire instead.  I like how overthewire at least tells you what the levels are before you get to them...
    • This ARM assembly course looks informative and potentially useful
    • There's this one crashing program that I want to investigate further to see if it's exploitable.  Can't say more, because this might turn into a CTF problem or something.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Gamerspaces - The Future of the FLGS?

There's been much to do about the Death of the Friendly Local Game Store.  The usual culprits are a reduction in purchases since the economy's bad, pdfs being cheaper, easier, and available in greater variety, and the recent edition wars (if you stock just one edition, you lose potential customers, but if you stock multiple editions and bet wrong, then you end up with extra stock that you can't move).  A lot of stores seem to have basically just turned into outlets for Magic the Gathering or Warhammer.  The trouble is that the other function of the FLGS, as a center for the local gaming community, is still useful.  Sometimes it's nice to be able to meet a player in person and get a good read before inviting them to a game, or to watch a game being played before deciding to join it, or just to have a place other than your own home to run a game with CheetoBreath McBurritoFarts (nothing against him, he's a great player and all, but after the last time you had him over and the smell lingered for days, your wife gave you an ultimatum and none of your other players are willing to let him into their houses either).  It's a good place to poster for home games, organize events, learn to paint minis, and a host of other things ancillary to the playing of the game itself, too.  The loss of FLGSs is all the more lamentable for the loss of these elements...  but I think it may also suggest a path by which they might continue.

The parallel which this immediately suggests to me is the hackerspace.  These are essentially groups of technical folks who pool cash for rent and equipment to build a place where they can get together and play with hardware and code while hanging out with like-minded individuals.  They run mainly on memberships and donations, rather than on retail sale of stuff.  This, I think, might be a viable route for the FLGS - abandon retail, and become a membership-based 'gamerspace'.  Get some warehouse space, throw down some cheap tables and power strips, add a wireless router or two and a concessions stand, and then get some groups willing to pay for 24/7 access, or rent out tables for shorter time slots to non-members.  And sure, maybe you also stock dice and Magic cards, but selling those need not be the focus.  Selling stuff starts to get complicated when you're looking at opening the space up 24/7 to members, anyways (MtG vending machine, anyone?).  The natural question is "is there sufficient demand for this sort of thing, in the internet age, where I can game with strangers without either leaving my house or letting them in?  Are people willing to shell out enough for membership to sustain something like this?"  And that seems like something which can only be determined empirically.  On the other hand, dues could probably be a lot lower than those of a hackerspace, since you're not shelling out for soldering gear, oscilloscopes, and 3d printers...

Upon reflection, the Airlock is kind of a construction of this type, but built around videogames rather than tabletops, and with set hours.  They may not be thriving, but they're still kicking, which is promising for the model.  On the other hand, both the Airlock and hackerspaces have the advantage of requiring specialty hardware which is a bit expensive for individuals to buy for themselves.  A gamerspace does not have such a requirement, which will cut costs but also reduces the impetus to membership.  It might be possible to maintain a community library of gaming books, though, and that might provide a financial incentive, in that each participant gains access to books without having to own them.  On the third hand, I know that if there was a dedicated gaming space, it sure would reduce the consternation we college students have when it's sunday afternoon and we can't find anywhere to game on campus...  but college students are cheap.  In any case, the viability of this model will depend in part on the cost of space in an area, as well as the gamer density.  It remains to be seen if there are places where it could be sustained.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

I Miss Vancian Casting

Man, I bet that's not a sentiment you hear often.  Actually yeah, google searching that string doesn't turn up much.  Neat.

For those unfamiliar, Vancian casting is the default means of spellcasting for editions between 1st and 3rd, where a spellcaster chooses his spells at the beginning of the day, picking both which spells he has prepared and how many of each, subject to some fairly tight limitations.  Lots of folks hacked together their own "spell point" systems during this period, some of which were officially released during 2e, while 3e's Sorcerer class was the first official 'spontaneous' hybrid to my knowledge, which chose a small set of spells known and could then cast them interchangeably using slots rather than spell points.  This achieved a flexibility somewhere between spell points and proper Vancian casting.  3e's psionics brought spell points back, and then in late 3.5 we saw a huge proliferation in alternate magic systems (stuff like incarnum and truenaming, which just ran on completely different mechanics from normal casting).  4e, for its part, did standardize things again, but to a new at-will / encounter / daily paradigm which bore little resemblance to anything preceding it, and which severely limited strategic flexibility.

ACKS, on the other hand, uses something very much like a back-port of 3e's sorcerer.  Each mage has a spellbook, which contains the formulae for his spells, and also has a repertoire of spells which he has readily available for casting.  Each day he receives a number of spell slots of each level, which he can use to cast any spell from his repertoire on the fly.  The place where he beats the sorcerer is in his ability to change out the spells in his repertoire; while this is a slow and expensive process, it is a capability which the 3.0 sorcerer lacked entirely, and which is very limited for the 3.5 sorcerer.

There are a lot of things to like about the ACKS mage.  It has a degree of tactical versatility, and also some strategic versatility, but the spells you learn when you level are (usually) acquired at random from other mages in the area.  This means that getting the spells you want is hard, and puts mages on constant lookout for scrolls of spells they want.  Better still, it provides a motivator for mage-vs-mage conflicts; to the victor go the spellbooks.  It brings back something of the old Magic: the Gathering vibe, from back around Arena (sidenote - this is the best of the MtG novels I have ever read), where you duel for the rights to spells (which translated into the long-abandoned ante rules of the card game).  The summoning spells in the Player's Companion really reinforce this feeling, and it pleases me.  Likewise, the inability to choose spells on levelling means that mages aren't always picking the same handful of optimal spells; as I've mentioned, sometimes you're the evoker because you rolled all offense, and sometimes you're the dooromancer because you rolled Wizard Lock and Knock.  Spell acquisition is its own game within the game, and casters are sometimes known by their own custom signature spells, which are not easily learned by others.  It's really a pretty neat thing to have going on, and I think both of our mages are having fun with it.

The thing I miss about Vancian magic, though, is the planning and cunning that it entails.  As a Vancian wizard, you have to make measured guesses about what you're going to encounter on this particular day, and then hope that you guessed right.  An ACKS mage, on the other hand, must estimate how many more things he will encounter in a given day, in order to decide how to conserve his spell slots, but need not plan for particular expected threats to the same degree.  I argue that having to plan in the Vancian manner causes players to think more like high-int magicians, whereas with ACKS-style spontaneous magic, mages are cautious due to their fragility but rarely play to the full capabilities of their nominal intellects.  Roger has previously mentioned the "impulsive vs analytic" dynamic between fighters and wizards, and I think that Vancian casting reinforced that role for wizards.  I recall from my time playing a Vancian wizard back in 3.0 that it was all about contingency planning.  You have your combat spells, and stuff you might need at a moment's notice like Invisibility or Teleport, prepped with your actual slots.  You have Scribe Scroll for a reason - scrolls are for all the stuff that you probably won't need today, but might reasonably need out of combat this adventure.  Knock, Levitate, those sort of utility problem-solving capabilities.  At later levels, you probably pick up Craft Wand, and shift some of your low-grade offense and frequently-used utility spells, like Detect Magic, out to those.  If you're complaining about the ten-minute adventuring day as a 3.x Vancian wizard after 5th level, it's because you're managing your strategic resources poorly.

Now, you may remark, magic item creation in 3.x is terrible because it costs you XP.  And this is true, and that is a bad rule, but I have a theory as to why it is there.  I think, though I have no corroboration from any official source for this belief, that the motivation for magic items costing XP to create in 3.x is that it serves to slow down spellcaster levelling.  It's a workaround for the uniform levelling curve introduced in 3rd edition, with the intent of restoring some degree of the old differences in levelling rate for classes which were clearly different in power.  Because in Core 3.0 at least, playing a good wizard meant either scrolling it up or complaining about the ten-minute adventuring day.  Sadly it would seem that the complainers have won out.

In any case, we do not see this same push to magic item creation in ACKS.  Our wizards have not been creating potions or scrolls of utility spells with the same frequency observed in casters of similar levels in 3.0, and I believe this is due in part to the fact that they do not have to choose between fly and fireball, or invisibility and knock, in the same preparatory way.  Created charged magic items are now useful because they permit you to use more slots in a day than you would otherwise be able, or with potions they let your fellow party members use actions to generate spell effects, which can confer an action-economic advantage.  But the opportunity cost to create these items is quite steep; you need monster parts and many weeks and many gold pieces and a lab.  Our mages have certainly not been jumping on the magic item creation bandwagon.  Part of this, I suspect, may be that they just recently acquired the capability at 5th level, rather than 1st as would happen in 3.x.  Perhaps I should just give it more time...

In any case the point was that playing Vancian casters generated a push towards gathering information about what you were going to face, and planning cleverly, which spontaneous casting does not to the same degree.  And in retrospect, it was kind of fun sometimes, especially when you do have scrolls and other charged magic items as your strategic flexibility reserve.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Roll Your Own Treasure Tables II - Dungeon-Specific Treasure Tables

To Part 1

The natural extension of the notion of creating custom treasure tables was to do so in a per-dungeon fashion, much as people do with random encounter tables.  This, however, seemed like it was going to be a ton of work, especially if I wanted to keep something resembling the original probability distribution for magic items.  Further, there are problems of variety with this approach.  It's reasonable for monsters for be very similar in a localized area, but finding a bunch of the same magic item strains the suspension of disbelief a bit; in particular, it seems like it could lead to some variety of an MMO-like "farming" ethos, where if you want item X you go to dungeon Y where it is known to 'drop'.  And that is something which I wish to avoid.

I think I have something of a solution, however.  Instead of building absolute lists for each dungeon, where an item can be found in the dungeon iff it's on the dungeon's list, I'm leaning towards instead building a "favored items" list for each dungeon.  In this case, the procedure would run as follows:
  • For each magic item, roll to see if it's a favored item with a ~20% probability at the same time that you roll for item type.
  • If the roll comes up unfavorable, roll as normal on the standard tables.
  • If it comes up favorable, check the dungeon favored items list, and see if the dungeon has a favored item of that type.  If it does, that item appears (or one selected at random from the set of favored items of that type).
  • If the dungeon has no favored item of the rolled type, proceed to the normal tables for items of that type.
This would let me add a degree of magic-item characterization to dungeons with little extra prep work, and with one additional roll made concurrently with the roll for item type.  Consider, for example, a list of favored items for a ruined temple of Artemis:

Potions: Animal Control, Healing
Ring: None
Scroll: Favored spell scrolls are Divine, written in Auran, and chosen from Bladedancer spell list, favored ward scrolls are against Lycanthropes.
Rod/Staff/Wand: Staff of Healing, one-time only.  None favored after Staff of Healing rolled.
Sword: None
Misc Magic: Eyes of the Eagle, Quiver of Many Arrows.  Both are one-time only.
Misc Weapons: Roll 1d20 on the Misc Weapons table (always magic arrows of some sort or another)
Armor: Favored armor is always Leather

So yeah, that took me about five minutes to throw together, and should do a nice job of somewhat altering the treasure distribution of the dungeon without turning it into a farm for a particular type of item (except possibly magic arrows, but the 20% chance of being favored is certainly not in the farmer's favor).

Friday, November 30, 2012

Space Hulk and Campaigns

(Forewarning - this applies only to first edition Space Hulk, as that is what I once scrounged the rulebooks from.  Maybe 2nd or 3rd have already done something of this sort; in particular I think I've heard that the marines usually win in 3rd, which was immensely surprising to me)

I had my brother over for Thanksgiving, and we got to talking about Space Hulk.  We really like the premise, but the odds being so stacked against the marines is hard because on some level, even the genestealer player (being a human) bears some sympathy for them.  Personally, I have the difficulty that I like the genestealer flavor ("we are legion and we will eat you"), but when I play wargames I kind of like to take the side with long odds against them, which pushes me towards playing the humans.

These two concerns got us thinking about changing up the scenario design of the game.  Normally, the Marines start strong but have to haul ass to an objective before they are overwhelmed by the genestealers, who keep spawning more-or-less indefinitely.  The genestealers do have strengths other then sheer numbers, though, namely speed, hidden information, and a huge advantage over the marines in melee.  This set of capabilities suggests several variants of the traditional Space Hulk idiom.  The natural extension, it seems to me, is to run a "hunting the hive tyrant"-type scenario with limited or no reinforcements for the genestealers.  One of their blips is the target (broodlord, I guess), and if the marines can kill it, they win the mission.  For the genestealer, then, this is a shell game - if you keep the target in the back, then it's clear that that is the objective (unless you're up against a canny genestealer who puts a decoy in the back...), but if you bring it forward in an attempt to conceal it, then you risk losing it.  You could try to spread your forces out across the map evenly so the marines have to engage each blip to find the target, but then you risk being unable to support the target once it's engaged.  In any case, creating a mobile, hidden objective for the genestealer's defense plays to their strengths of mobility and hidden information and makes it plausible to deny them their numerical strength.  I also considered the addition of trap-like tokens; something like an immobile ambush counter which might be something unpleasant or might be nothing, in order to aid the defense by serving much like minefields in other games.

An inversion of this scenario would put a limited genestealer force on offense against a group of marines with the aim of assassinating their sergeant, captain, or other leader.  Again, this plays to speed, melee offense, and hidden information, but puts a pretty severe limiting factor on the genestealer's ability to just throw more bugs at the problem.  For bonus points, allow the genestealer some number of ambush counters too.  Both of these missions probably entail some sort of turn limit to push Team Offense towards the enemy, and custom map arrangements to make them workable.

The other possibility that I considered was a system by which the players alternate sides, and a mission is iterated until the humans win or both players agree that it's quite impossible.  This started me towards thinking about a simplistic 'campaign system', which would provide a scoring bases for repeated games much like Starmada's Simplest Campaign System, but without resource management carrying between games.  Perhaps 'series' is a better term than 'campaign'.  In any case, the scheme I propose is as follows:
  • Two players agree to play a series of chosen missions, and also agree on rules allowable (equipment availability, psionics, ambush counters, tactical marines, flavor of flamer (1e vs 2e), and so forth)
  • For each mission, in order
    • Each player attempts the mission with the default forces.  The loser of the previous mission chooses who will play which side first; in the event of a draw in the previous mission, flip a coin for who chooses.
    • If both players win the mission as marines with default forces, the mission is a draw.  If only one does, then they have won this mission.  In either case, move to the next mission.  (Variant - if both players win with default marine forces, they instead move to the bidding step below, with a bid cap equal to the value of the default force)
    • If neither player could complete the mission with default marine forces, they use the bidding procedure outlined in Deathwing.
    • Whichever player bids lowest plays the mission with the forces that he bid.  If he wins, he has won the mission and the series advances.
    • If the low bidder loses, then the high bidder must play the mission with the point value that he bid.  Should he lose, the two players may either declare the mission a draw and move to the next one, or they may re-bid.
    • Should the high bidder win, the low bidder may attempt the mission with forces with the high bid in points.  Should he lose, the high bidder has won the mission, and if he wins, then the mission is a draw.  In either case, the series then moves to the next mission.
  • Once all missions have either been drawn or won by one player, whichever player won the most missions wins the series.  If both players have won an equal number of missions, break the tie using the sum of the bid points they spent on their victories.  If it's still a tie, add another mission as a sudden-death tiebreaker or have a headbutting contest or flip a coin or something.
So, let's consider the incentives here. Winning with the default force is good, because it means you've accomplishes the mission under its intended parameters.  We favor the loser of the previous mission in selection in order to give them an advantage in this round; I expect typical behavior here will be to choose that the winner of the previous round plays marines, so you can watch their tactics and adapt them for your own run.  A lot of Space Hulk was getting to understand the tactical quirks of the map layouts; the first run through is extra-hard for the marines, in our experience.  If both players win with marines, then the mission is possibly 'solved' and you move on to the next one.  With the bidding, we give the low bidder one chance to win and another to draw; this provides a strong incentive to get the low bid.  However, the high bidder is prevented from bidding the maximum possible bid as a viable strategy, since if he does this then the low bidder will have the opportunity to draw his probable win.  It might be possible for a player who is leading in series wins to bid the maximum as a viable strategy; in this case, seeking to generate draws to maintain his lead.  If the trailing player realizes he is doing this, though, he could in turn bid the maximum minus 1, likely achieving wins while maintaining low-bidder status.  Thus, this issue may be self-correcting.  One other possible issue is if a single player wins the majority of missions before the series is completed.  In this case, the outcome of the series is clear, and whether or not to continue or start anew is uncertain.  Probably depends on the circumstances.

(Also, further work - generalization of this structure beyond two players)

Sooo...  yeah.  Hey Matt, up for some Space Hulk?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Roll Your Own Magic Item Tables

This was going to be a post extolling the virtues of rolling random treasure and countering the arguments you sometimes hear against it.  There were going to be anecdotes and laughs and such.  And as I was writing that post, I ran up against a realization that I realized was maybe more important than trying to participate in the conventional dialogue.

And that is that you (yeah, you) should build custom magic treasure tables for your world.  And by "you should" I mean I should, but I think you might benefit from it too.

In the writing of that other post, I realized that the main issue people seem to have with random treasure is that it sometimes yields items which are unsuitable for the type of game being run.  The fear is that it'll give them something which is either useless, or a terrifying gamebreaker like a Ring of Three Wishes.  I've seen the first one before - we once found a Murlynd's Spoon in a dragon's hoard in a combat-heavy, tactical Trailblazer game where we didn't track rations or encumbrance (at least not for practical purposes).  It was just the most useless thing, and we complained about it.  But in retrospect, it made me realize that the problem is not that the tables give you items that either your players don't want or that you don't want your players to have, so much as that the tables were developed to give items which made sense when people were playing the Old Style.  When rations and encumbrance are issues, Murlynd's Spoon is pretty neat actually.  Likewise, a Ring of Three Wishes is not a game-ender in this style - your PCs will use it to summon castles and fantastic wealth, as is expected normal behavior in the Old Ways, rather than to kill your main villain and derail your plot.  It accelerates and furthers the game, rather than destroying it.

But the main point, that "the tables may not suit your game so tweak them" is ultimately more interesting.  People build their own random encounter tables, even in 3.x, on a reasonably regular basis.  It's something that people have heard of or thought about at least.  But throwing together custom treasure tables is not.  I've seen new treasure tables published in sourcebooks full of treasure which very rarely got used, and a few schemes at Telecanter's for generating unique magic items, but for me as a DM to roll my own that were well-suited to my world simply didn't occur to me until, well, yesterday.  Perhaps I'm just dense.  That it provides a fairly clean solution to the objections against random treasure is neat, but personally I'm more excited about using it as a creative exercise over winter break. 

How much new, but sensible, treasure can I come up with, and how am I going to vary the probability distributions of various treasures within the world?  Remains to be seen.  Currently I'm looking forward to adding:
  • Magic ballista bolts and catapult shot to the misc weapons table
    • Heck, maybe magic ballistae and catapults proper
  • Magic banners and standards which provide a bonus to troops in formation for mass battle purposes
  • Books that answer questions, a la Grognardling
  • Magic item recipes (kind of a booby prize, but useful nonetheless)
  • Magic shields that do things other than just being +x
    • Winged shields
    • Floating shields
    • Mirrored shields
    • Lifeward shields
  • Ironwood, adamant, and mithral armors
  • A "what flavor of sword is this" table to go with the armor weight table, including flavorful terms like "dirk", "scimitar", "sabre", and "kris" (so far I've been giving out ho-hum magic longswords, except for one gladius) 
  • Possibility for magic weapons to be silvered, adamant, or other special materials 
  • Ideally at least one interesting or iconic variant for each of the main weapons; javelins of lightning, axes of hewing, daggers of poison, and so forth.
  • More wands of other spells
  • Potions of things other than spells (like these)
  • Artifacts, with low, low probability
Anything else you think I should add, Internet?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Praise be to Armok! - New Dwarven Craftpriest Spells

I am sad to say that I had a Dwarf Fortress relapse during the parts of Thanksgiving when I did not have guests.  In between eating leftovers, experimenting with surface farming, and pondering what to do with the two owlmen caught in my cage traps, I was struck by the fact that ACKS' dwarf craftpriest uses the same spell list as their standard cleric.  This is somewhat ridiculous, given that Bladedancer use a different spell list, and it hardly seems reasonable for the folk-under-the-mountain to worship some surfacer sun god.  So I got to thinking about what some suitably dwarfsome spells would be, and while I don't have full descriptions or levels, the rest should be fairly doable.
  • Detect Treasure - Dwarves love gold, and their priests have perfected means for locating it.
  • Detect Ore - Like Detect Treasure, but lower level and somewhat less utile.
  • Plague of Cats - Summons 3d4 cats which harass, distract, trip up, and reduce the frame-rate of the target.  A long-term Curse version is also available, whereby the subject suffers a +4 to reaction rolls with cats, cat-like monsters, and cat owners, and is forever plagued by their unhelpful presence and 'gifts' of dead animals.
  • Fell Mood - A uniquely dwarven Curse with Geas-like attributes, the target of a Fell Mood must save vs spells or be driven mad by an obsessive need to construct an utterly implausible work of art.  Should he fail to do so within six months of the casting of the spell, he goes irrevocably insane.  Should be succeed, however, he becomes a master of his craft.  Sometimes used as a means of trial among the dwarves along old Medieval "trial by superstition" lines; if he succeeds, he must be innocent.
  • Deforestation - Kind of an inverse of plant growth; sends a wave through the earth which uproots trees and other plants in the affected area.  Originally designed for fueling the furnaces of industry, later discovered to be good for depriving those accursed goblins of their cover too.
  • Speak with Stones, Stoneshaping, Burrow, and similar earthy spells
  • Water to Ale - seriously, why do you think they keep these guys around?  Arguably just a reflavoring of Purify Food and Water.
  • Create Ale - A similar reflavoring of Create Water.
  • Bless Tools - A possible replacement for the ability of high-level clerics to create holy water with the Bless spell.  What blessed tools do, I don't rightly know.  Maybe +2 on the next proficiency roll using them in the next unit time?
  • Beard of Iron - Grants the subject's beard the strength of steel wool, providing a bonus to AC and to mortal wounds rolls against the chest and head for the duration.  When applied to a subject without a beard, causes severe facial itching instead.  Might work as a replacement for Shimmer on the Bladedancer list.
  • Stranglebeard - Causes the subjects' beards to attempt to strangle them, much like multi-target Choking Grasp that only works on targets with beards.  Applications in the dwarven justice system are again clear.  An improved version instead strangles the target using the caster's beard.
  • Vulcanism - Flame Strike, but from below rather than on high.
The bladedancer spells Vigor and Flame Blade (er, Hammer) also seem plausible, as well as the Player's Companion spells Call Dragon and Summon (Dwarven) Berserkers.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Of Multiclassing, 'Roles', and Henchmen

My roommate mentioned the other day a desire to play "4e as it was intended, where everyone knows their function within the party and we're not stepping on each other's toes like we do in 3.x derivatives."  This got me to thinking about optimal party size in various systems for the purpose of avoiding capability overlap / overshadow.  4e provides the nominal strikes / defender / controller / leader split, which provides for a party size of at least four before you start getting into overlap territory.  4e players expect the rogue to be dealing more melee damage than the fighter, the cleric to be healing folks, the fighter to be soaking damage, and the wizard to be dealing with large piles of mooks.  What's weird here is that all of these things were true of 3.x as well; even a full power-attack fighter's melee damage did not keep up with a good two-weapon rogue's sneak attack.  The only oddity was that a high-level wizard or cleric could easily surpass the fighter in melee potence as well through the proper choice of spells.

In 3.x, though, I see the optimal party size as being 2-3.  Back when we played 3.x, we wanted to play barbarians and fighters and thieves and wizards - nobody wanted to be the cleric.  And it was easy enough to get healing without one that it wasn't a problem.  I once played in a two-man 3.0 campaign where we had a fighter who dipped one level of ranger, which in addition to providing him with Track, Two Weapon Fighting, and Favored Enemy (Dragons) let him use wands of cure light wounds, while I played a wizard / rogue with ranks in Use Magic Device so I could too, if a little less reliably.  Multiclassing and the broad spell selection available to clerics and wizards lets you completely cut out a class or role if you so desire.  Nobody wants to play a fighter?  OK I guess the cleric is the front line, or you run on summoned creatures, or your rogue dips barbarian.  Rogues are too passe?  Team Spellcaster has you covered with scrolls of Knock and Find Traps and +damage buffs for the frontliner(s).  And lack of a wizard is pretty trivial (if expensive) to circumvent with Use Magic Device or a one-level dip for wand use.

Further, I'd argue that this way of playing 3.x is strictly more fun than playing with a full party in part because you are stretched thin.  You have fewer levels and spell slots and hit points to work with, and as a party you don't have someone who is a master of each thing.  You end up having to improvise a lot more, and to manage your resources more carefully - we stockpiled potions of cleric spells religiously and kept good track of our heal-wand charges, for example.  With a small party, everyone ends up in melee eventually; I distinctly recall a situation where we were on a ship and my wizard was grappled by sahuagin boarders and almost pulled overboard.  Would that happen in a four-player game?  Probably not, because everyone else in the party would be competent in melee.  But when you spread yourselves thin, you leave gaps, and sometimes those gaps get hit and things get real interesting real fast.  This is difficult play, and interesting, fun play.

But what enables this for 3.x?  Mostly multiclassing.  You can kind of fudge having a cleric or kludge together a not-thief as a party.  You cannot do this in 4e, because its multiclassing system is, uh...  basically unrelated to 3.x multiclassing.  Maybe the PHB3 hybrid classing stuff would work; I have no idea.  In any case, 4e's optimal party size seems to me to probably be greater than 3.x's.  What is curious is that ACKS also seems to run best with a small party - I distinctly recall having sessions with only two players going quite well, and one of the designers reports having run an excellent one-player game during development.  And the reason this works is henchmen.  A player can play an entire party, effectively - even with +0 Cha, you can get three henches, fill all four main classes, and be on your merry way.  The problem being, of course, that henchmen will generally be lower level than you and are prone to flaking out when morale goes down and a proper PC would hold the line.  The take-away here, though, is that henchmen in ACKS are a lot like multiclassing in 3.x, except that your levels of cleric can be killed independently of your levels in fighter.

It's also interesting to note that ACKS as a system is much more tolerant of redundancy in role-filling, to the point where in some cases it's basically required.  Having just one front-line fighter does you no good - that's not enough to fill a hallway and stop the goblins from getting to your wizard, nevermind to fill out a rearguard too.  More clerics means more healing available, and they count as most of a fighter for purposes of holding off enemies since they can use plate and shields.  Wizards are an interesting case.  In 3.x, if you have a multi-wizard party, they usually try to intentionally differentiate themselves.  You end up with a blaster and an illusionist for example, with their feat choices each backing up that chosen function.  Ultimately, though, they probably still have access (should they choose) to a fairly similar variety of spells.  There's nothing stopping the illusionist from prepping scorching ray mechanically.  We have a two-wizard party in ACKS presently, and spell availability is a huge differentiating factor.  When you roll randomly for low-level spells, sometimes you get overlap and sometimes you get complete disjunction; one of them has fly and fireball, while the other has dispel magic and lightning bolt.  They have niches, but they're not exactly niches that they chose, and those niches continue to exist because it's a pain to copy spells and then to shift them from spellbook to repertoire.  I think we'll start seeing further intentional differentiation when they both hit the levels where they start having to research their own spells, but at low levels the random spell selection helps a lot in reducing overlap.  At one point we had a spellsword who rolled, as his 2nd level spells, Knock and Wizard Lock.  He was henceforth known as the Dooromancer.  That sort of weird, quirky non-combat caster specialty is not something you would see in a 3.x or 4e game, but is something immensely useful in ACKS (this old-school idiom of "spells as solutions to very particular problems" is an interesting but forgotten point that Brandon has discussed before).

So, conclusions:

4e - optimal party size 4-5.  Below that and you get shafted because you're missing something important and can't fill the gap well.
3e - optimal party size 2-3.  Above that and people start getting cranky because they're fighting for niches in an environment which is generally insufficiently deadly to demand their full power.
ACKS - optimal party size 2-5.  On the low end you fill the gaps with henchmen, and on the high end you stack fighters and wizards because multiples of both of those are quite useful.  The environment is sufficiently deadly that redundancy is encouraged in general.

I'd be curious to run analyses on some other systems, like Traveller or Shadowrun, but presently I need breakfast instead.  Perhaps another time.

Friday, November 16, 2012

On Wargame Campaigns (and BattleTech)

As I read back through some of the BattleTech material I have around which has been collecting dust, I'm led to reflect on our experience with Starmada campaigns and with some of the campaign systems I've seen in other wargames.  Looking back at our attempts at 'mada campaigns, I can't help but think that we drastically overcomplicated them.  We built a grand strategic game system, not a campaign system - we had star systems with planets with their own productivity values and infrastructure and population and stuff, we had spies and treaties and hostile natives and pirates and research and all kinds of crap.  We had Master of Orion.  A wargame campaign, though, in its purest form, eschews most of these things.  You have some forces which persist through multiple scenarios, which you have to direct and allocate, and which grow, shrink, or otherwise change composition as a result of those scenarios.  Continuing the video game analogy, Homeworld is a good representative of this model - you're always trying to eke as many resources out of each scenario as possible so that you can carry it over to the next in the form of ships, and if you haven't completed all research available in the scenario when you finish, you sit around and wait for it to complete before declaring victory and hyperdriving out.  Starmada's Simplest Campaign System is a canonical example of this as well.

Moral of that story - when embarking on a campaign, make your intentions clear, choose a system that matches them, and make sure everyone's willing to carry through with the sort of time investment that the chosen system entails.

Before I move on to BattleTech, there's another campaign system I happened on once that I think is worth mentioning as interesting.  It was from MechWar '77, an old SPI hex-and-counter game portraying the Arab-Israeli War(s) of 1977.  It had a very curious campaign system.  You had two players, each of which had some pool of forces to secretly divide between each of three fronts - north, south, and center.  A single battle was then fought on each front with the forces each commander had assigned it, and the victor of the campaign was determined based on who had won which battles and to what degree.  I found this campaign system to be unusual in that it split battles and forces across space rather than time; most of the time when we think of campaign systems, we focus on the "over time" aspect, rather than the allocation aspect.

This brings us to the BattleTech bit.  I found, in the Combat Operations book, a very nice and fairly simple campaign system.  Each campaign turn, each player assigns each element (depending on the scale of the campaign) an order to Fight, Defend, Scout, Repair, or Supply.  The relation between the number of Fighting, Defending, and Scouting units then determines what scenarios are fought during that turn and between which units, while Repairing and Supplying units can fix damage or purchase new equipment and are vulnerable to combat only if the other side's attacking forces drastically outnumber and swamp their defending forces.  Campaign points are scored based on the degree of victory in each battle, and lost for defeat, with the three ways to win the campaign being to destroy the enemy to a man, to capture his base of operations, or to amass a sufficient morale and supply advantage by winning many battles, as represented by gaining enough campaign points.

Overall, I think this system strikes a good balance.  It has unit change over time, with units taking damage and being repaired between scenarios, but it also has MechWar '77-style unit allocation to different tasks; thus, but operational and tactical resource management.  In BattleTech, there is very little hidden information built in; hidden unit assignments does create a degree of hidden information, and turns the campaign into a light lateral-thinking game which the wargame itself is not.  It has a means of unit advancement, both through pilot improvement and using the Supply order to purchase new units, which limits the potential for Starmada Simplest-style degeneration (where each side ends up with units which are barely fieldable).  Finally, it seems that for a reasonable small force (say a company of four lances to each side), the game would likely be very reasonable to run, complexity-wise and in terms of number of games required to complete the campaign, especially if one limited the availability of supplies.  Salvage then becomes imminently important for getting ammunition and replacement parts - it keeps striking me as odd how heavily BT emphasizes salvage compared to other wargames, but I think I like it.  It emphasizes the "we just can't build stuff like this anymore" aspect of the setting from the early Succession Wars.  That might be another post, though.

But yeah - I think I might want to run one of these.  Heck, multi-faction might work too; the only really critical addition would be making Fight and Scout orders specify a target, though the scenario determination rules might need a bit of tweaking too, and with limited supply I feel like such a game might get very treacherous very quickly.  But I can kind of see it, if you replace the setting; in the ruins of post-apocalyptic Earth, the only units capable of operation in the blowing dust of the radioactive wastelands are ancient mechs, the likes of which can no longer be produced, and those who have such mechs war amongst themselves for control over those which remain...

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How Does Anyone Survive in ACKSWorld, Anyways?

This is a post that has been in the works for a long time, and one I really should've gotten around to writing sooner.

One of the repeated complaints of my players about ACKS is the perceived unreasonableness of having a peasant population, nevermind towns and caravans, in the midst of a wilderness as monster-infested and generally deadly as that which ACKS postulates.  I think my veteran players have come to terms with it by this point, but our new players brought it up again, so I figure I had best address it after all.

The important mindset to have here is one of the post-apocalyptic.  The Hill Cantons had a wonderful post back in August, when we first confronting this problem, about how the default assumptions of AD&D strongly suggested a world where civilization had just about collapsed, and mankind was on the brink of extinction (this post that he wrote leading into it was good, too).  ACKS' default assumptions are not quite to AD&D's level of sparseness - the Auran Empire setting seems to assume a falling empire, rather than one fallen some time past.  But they're close enough to be adapted, and that is what I have done in the Shieldlands.  Zahar collapsed some sixty to a hundred years ago; well outside of human living memory given medieval life expectancy, but within elven living memory (if one trusts the elves).  The Shieldlands were a Zaharan territory, though largely human-inhabited, and later they became a battleground between the Myrmidians and the Zaharans leading up the to disaster which shattered their empire.  With these historical assumptions in mind, let's address more specific concerns.

First off, why are there peasant populations in the wilderness such that when we clear a hex, there are people there to swear loyalty to us?  The simple answer is that those peasants are existing at a near-animal level of subsistence as a prey species for monsters, and surviving at something of an equilibrium state where births per unit time equal deaths from predation and disease in that same timeframe.  They don't form large holdfasts because those are like presenting the wyverns with a lunchbox, instead living in bands practicing crude farming or herding.  They also don't have sufficient numbers, leadership, or skill in metalworking to arm up to a level where they can fight wyverns, nor the food stores for long-distance travel to a well-defended town.  It is a nasty, brutish, and short existence, but it's what they've got.  There's a reason they swear fealty if you can clear a hex and have the fortress and garrison to defend it - it's a huge step up in life expectancy, and the rules reflect this by allowing domained peasant populations to grow, while peasant populations in monster-infested hexes remain static.

Second - why is there this ring of 'civilized' hexes, then borderlands, and then wilderness beyond?  This I posit resulted from an exodus from the cities into the wilderness by peasants when the empire fell, the rule of law ended, and petty tyrants, cults, bandits, and worse took control of towns.  With the empire's monsters no longer under control and now ravaging the countryside, staying in the cities became a very dangerous proposition - with the peasants dying in the fields and trade at an end, famine struck the cities, followed by open violence in the streets, plague, and anarchy.  In this situation, some felt it wiser to flee the population centers, becoming some of the herders and subsistence farmers who are our solution to the first question.  That their population density falls the further from the cities you go supports this explanation - not many of them made it that far.  This also has interesting implications about the former maximum size of various population centers in the Shieldlands; perhaps modern Opportunity is built atop the ruins of Zaharan Opportunity, with further ruins extending some distance into the countryside.

Third - If everyone fled, why are there still towns, and how do those towns survive?  The towns survived because eventually, their populace fell to the point where they could sustain themselves from the food generated by peasants within their hex.  They also had the advantages of walls,  safe water-sources, a few surviving skilled craftsmen, and government (eventually).  These permitted a well-prepared town to button itself up and repel orcs and bandits who would lay siege, and to organize and arm large groups of men to repel other (winged) threats.  Their populations are largely stable based on the area around them which can provide them food, and to which they can provide sufficient protection that herders and farmers can bring their wares in to market without needing a personal army.  There are, of course, still monsters in the vicinities of cities, but they are fewer than out beyond their areas of influence.

Fourth - why are there no roads?  It's been sixty-plus years, and nobody's been maintaining them.  They're all either overgrown, lost beneath the sands, or so full of boulders and holes that they're barely recognizable, nevermind passable by wheeled transport.  It took years for the various towns to return to order after the upheaval, and with their reduced populations and the looming threat of being devoured by monsters, none have had the resources to restore the old Zaharan road system.

Fifth - if there are no roads, and so damn many monsters, how does overland trade work?  Mules!  Lots of mules!  And as many guards; I submit for your consideration that a merchant caravan (from the Men, Merchants entry in the monsters section) may have a guard of up to 80 1st-level fighters, 8 3rd-level fighters, and a 5th-level fighter captain, each with a chance of magic items suitable to his level.  While such a force will take many casualties from an encounter with a wyvern, the damage it could inflict via crossbows would likewise pose problems realistically (infection, if nothing else).  Many a caravan has been lost in the Shieldlands, though, and muleskinning is a dangerous business undertaken by the reckless and the desperate because it can be very profitable.  The rivers are somewhat safer, at least from bandits and orcs, and this is why most trade in the Shieldlands is conducted via water, and the only proper city in the area is on the coast and largely supported by fishing and piracy.

Sixth - where did all these monsters come from anyways?  The Zaharan Empire was a dark and terrible one, whose legions included countless goblins, orcs, trolls, undead, wyvern cavalry, and worse.  When the Shieldlands were a territory, the monstrous armies stationed there served in fear of their wizard-lords and limited collateral damage to an acceptable level.  When the empire fell, the monsters slipped the leash, broke company along racial and clan lines, and have been running amok ever since.  Worse still is when things escape from forgotten Zaharan labs and sealed crypts...

And so, enter the PCs into a world where most people live and die within six miles of where they were born, where safety and permanence are foreign concepts, where 35 is a ripe old age, where no institution has persisted more than two or three generations, and most people with weapons and manpower are basically bandits, settling down permanently only if they find some particularly productive area of land inhabited by many peasants who fear them, and dealing with the monsters only if personally threatened.  But the PCs, they're different.  They're actually seeking to impose order - they have grand visions of sprawling empires, marble cities, just rulers served by knightly warriors, peace, prosperity, and plenty.  Whatever their alignments may be, by the force of their ambition they are serving as a force of Law and civilization in a land dominated by the Neutral and the barbaric.  And they seem to be succeeding; Opportunity is flourishing under their rule, and has even withstood a change in leadership without descent into anarchy, something unheard of in the Shieldlands in many years.  For the first time since the fall, roads are being built and properly defended, and new trade routes are opening.  They may not have convinced the Shieldlanders to abandon some of their dearest-held traditions, like knifing strangers for their boots, but Rome wasn't built in a day...

Of course, for every force of law, there is an equal and opposite force of chaos - in this case, the witches of Bleak and their expansive beastman domain...  But such is the nature of things.