Wednesday, October 31, 2012

ACKS - Domains at War!

Managed to get my grubby paws on a preview of the Domains at War basic rules today, and they look pretty good!  Simple / abstracted mass combat turns are mixed with PC actions against enemy units, where the scale is normal and it's you and your buddies against 300 goblins with spears.  There's been some concern that engagements of this size (party vs several hundred enemies) will take a long time to resolve, but I suspect that they really won't.  Powered by domain, hijink, and trade income, the average party level is starting to shift up towards 6 or 7 (7s: Tim's fighter, Tom's wizard, Drew's assassin.  6s: Matt's venturer, Drew's cleric.  5s: Tom's crocodile-man, Jared's bard.  4s: Alex's wizard).  Tom just finished researching and repertoiring fireball, and the combination of cleave and damage bonus that the fighter and assassin can put out should let them demolish 1-HD foes in industrial quantities.  Drew's a level from getting Flame Strike, and hell even sleep can drop a whole squad of humanoids.  The other saving grace is morale; you probably only have to kill 150 goblins or so before the rest break and run.  If you include champions and subchieftains in the units, then there's another avenue to break morale too.

On the other hand, I am a little concerned about PC survivability in the face of many, many attacks per round (and let me tell you, if I'm concerned about survivability, it might be serious).  Lots of attacks means that even against plated-fighters with high HP, it's quite possible to catch enough incoming fire to get killed.  So...  I guess people will have to be clever.  The standard answer for ACKS, really - if you're having trouble, quit being stupid (I have a good story along these lines - suffice to say that they were trying to clear two ankheg lairs, and stupidity was had, dwarves were eaten, tactics were revised, and then no further casualties were suffered).  Also impressed with the XP and loot rules; there's quite an incentive for pursuing mass battles in favor of dungeoneering.  Which is good, because that's kind of what we need right about now, as the Razors prepare for all-out war against the witches who have taken up residence in the Bleak Academy and their beastman allies.

So yeah!  Looking forward to testing these on Sunday.  Will report back in sufficiently general terms as to not spoil anything :P

Monday, October 29, 2012

How Traveller is Supposed to Work, Part 3 - Responses

Well, I made the dubiously wise decision of posting a link to this on the /r/rpg subreddit.  Got very little feedback, but the main point which all commenters agreed on was "Man, if you run Traveller with strict economy, it makes life so much easier because you can lead the PCs by the nose, especially when they can hop between worlds!"

To which my response was kind of "Augh damnit guys, you're missing the point."  If you lead the PCs by the nose, then they're forced into particular situations of your choosing.  If such a situation is impossible to overcome, then it's your fault when they lose.  Likewise, if they do manage to succeed, it's because you designed it in a particular way and drove them into it.  Hollow victory on success and bad blood on failure?  Noooo thanks.

On the plus side, local response has been pretty good - Tim went "I'd play that!" and Alex went "Damnit John, I want to run a Traveller campaign next semester!"  ...  upon further reflection, that's actually a mixed response, but neither of those were "This sounds like an awful idea."

Friday, October 26, 2012

On PvP

Player-versus-player actions in tabletop RPGs are a tricky subject.  Matters recently came to a head in ACKS, when people got fed up with the actions of a particular chaotic PC mage against their holdings (secretly charming their henchmen and such).  A long and heated discussion ensued, and I think we reached a satisfying conclusion.

It came up that we had managed to have a lot of fun with PC vs Group actions during my Traveller game some semesters ago, and an analysis of those actions followed.   Two actions in particular stood out.  In the first, which I've mentioned before, Tim's character was tasked with jettisoning some prisoners into the sun while the rest of the party was away buying spare parts.  Instead, he made a deal with some other shippers and managed to send the prisoners home.  The rest of the players know about it, and thought he had erred badly in permitting their enemies to live, but their PCs knew nothing of it, and it worked out for the better.

In the second, Jared's character pulled one over on Tim's character in order to get the party to pursue his interests.  I don't remember exactly how it went down, but they both knew exactly what was going on, and Tim was OK with it.  And it was from this case that we derived a general principle for Acceptable PvP - the target needs to agree to it for whatever reason.  Maybe they think it will advance a story in a pleasing fashion, maybe they want to get rid of a particularly troublesome henchman, or what-have-you.  But in the end, the affected player needs to not have a problem with what is happening.  This says nothing about the characters, being an entirely metagame concern, but does serve to mediate out-of-game issues.

This marks an interesting shift in the ACKS campaign.  The players have abandoned their freewheeling, backstabbing roots in for solidarity and common goals.  I believe something to the effect of "Look, let's delay fighting among ourselves until it's safe to walk around out in the wilderness" was actually said.  While I will miss the old propensity towards PvP (which I always found pretty entertaining from my side of the screen, especially if undertaken in a dangerous environment like the dungeon), if the players are happy about it then it is probably better for the campaign.  I also expect we may see the Acceptable PvP Principle propagate into other games we play here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

More Thoughts on How Traveller Is Supposed to Work

Well, last post along these lines kicked off good discussion with the roommate last night.  There were kind of two main threads that I recall from our discussion:

First - one issue with Traveller is that money is advancement.  Skills grow really slowly, but money can buy cybernetics and combat armor and whatnot, so that's usually how characters improve over the course of the game.  When characters are strapped for cash, as my last post posited that they should be, suddenly advancement grinds to a halt.  So there was some debate over how to preserve advancement while keeping money tight.  The best we could come up with was something like the Mercenary ticket support system, where you get a job from a patron and maybe it comes with some gear.  Of course, if you're hard up enough for cash, you might try to sell the gear, but depending on the patron it might be stolen, hot, illegally salvaged, or otherwise unsalable, in which case it would probably stick.

This leads nicely into the general loot distribution and accountability problem, too.  One thing about RPGs which is usually a little weird is that they're super-egalitarian, even in situations that usually aren't in real life.  Pseudo-nautical situations, for example, usually entail a clear chain of command.  Looking at the Traveller rules, it certainly seems possible for one guy to be The Captain and everyone else to be crew.  There are pay rates for the various shipboard functions, and if you have the right skills you can stack up a pretty nice salary and you also don't have to worry about keeping the ship's finances in order.  If the captain can't make the loan, that's his problem.  If he can't make payroll, that's everybody's problem.  In any case, if you go that route, then most of the group gets a nice flat 'character advancement budget' per month, and it's just the Captain who has to go without advancement.  Ideally, though, the Captain is the most experienced character in keeping with trope, and maybe doesn't need it.

The final thought was on iteration.  Sometimes the ship gets impounded and the guy in charge goes to jail (because when things go south, it's always the Captain's ass on the line) and the rest of the crew is left dirtside with just their duffel bags going "Well...  crud."  But this situation provides a wonderful explanation for rules like low-paying planetside jobs and patrons that don't require starships and PCs getting passage tickets during character generation and other such things that just never made sense to me before.  And after you get tired of playing in the mud, and you put together enough cash to make a down payment (or you do something dumb enough that you really need to get off-world in a hurry), someone steps up to be the new Captain.  And the old Captain's player brings in a new PC and the cycle begins anew...

Lando Calrissian - Han's player's backup character

Another handy perk of iteration in this fashion is that it lets you change ships!  If you were making really good money but got caught, maybe you try for a better ship because you think you can make bank if you can just outrun or outgun the authorities.  And if you got impounded because you missed a payment, well, maybe you go for a smaller ship that you can actually make the payment on next time...  But in any case, this captaincy rollover also provides an opportunity to play around with ship design and loadouts, which is normally not feasible in a game where you get one ship and stick with it forever, because starship components are ridiculously expensive.  Given the fun (some would say addictive) nature of Traveller ship design, I feel like the designers might have anticipated this and designed for it...

The final advantage of this iterative cycle is that it lets you change campaign flavors.  You could, as a group, go "Uh, well, I guess we're done trading since the entire surviving portion of the party is ex-marines...  Let's start a mercenary company and buy passage to the nearest warzone!  My character has this cousin who's a mercenary administrator..."  Or you join the mob, or the Ine Givar, or the Scouts, or decide to go belt-mining, or do any number of other things that weren't on the agenda before.  Effectively, each change of command is a chance to change the structure of the campaign, with the advantage of continuity of characters and setting.

So yeah, the more I look at it, the more I feel like this is how Traveller is supposed to run.  Maybe I actually will do this next semester...

Monday, October 22, 2012

How Traveller Is Supposed To Work

Two games of Mongoose Traveller have been run in these parts in the last...  I guess two years now?  In both cases, good times were had by all and we were left with good impressions of the system, but it still like things were running a little bit off.  Kind of that feeling when your laptop works but it takes five minutes to resume from suspend, or you're driving cross-country and your car's getting fine gas mileage but making funky noises.  It worked, but not like it was supposed to.

Now, after running ACKS, I think I might've hit on how it's supposed to go.  What got me thinking was the importance of treasure in ACKS, and another blogger (I think it might have been Beedo?)'s question about "How is trade in Traveller actually supposed to work in play?".  PCs in ACKS really care about treasure because it is the main source of XP for levelling, and in play I think it would be fair to say that Greed is one of the primary factors in PC decision making (the other three being Fear, Revenge, and Confusion).  Smart play revolves around exploring the dungeon cautiously, finding unguarded treasure, and offing as few monsters as you have to in order to get the goods and get out.  So my line of inquiry ran, "Traveller's an old game, with as lethal a combat system as Old D&D, and where avoiding fights is similarly smart; I wonder if it emphasized monetary treasure more heavily than we thought too, and we just didn't notice?"

Looking at MongTrav's rules (hey, it's pretty close to Classic, and it's what I have to work with, alright?), I think this might be so.  There's a heck of a lot of rules about miscellaneous expenses - lifestyle, docking, fuel, maintenance, ammunition, life support, crew salary, cargo hauling fees, fines, and of course the all-important starship loan.  The rules for this cover more pages than the rules for combat.  The rules on making money, via hauling mail, bulk cargo, passengers, or speculative cargo (or through patrons) do likewise, with further methods appearing in the supplements - salvage, gambling, and mining in Scoundrel, and even in the combat-oriented Mercenary book, we got about as much page space dedicated to a system for making money through mercenary contracts as to new combat rules.

So, what the distribution of the rules in the book is telling us is that in Traveller, money is supposed to be kind of a big deal.  Now, in our last two Trav games, money was not a motivator for adventure in the slightest.  In the first game, the crew had a free scout ship, and were able to cover maintenance costs more-or-less without effort.  This freed them to go gallivanting across the galaxy, gathering artifacts releasing ancient evils.  In the second, I had a character design, a plan, and enough starting capital to make terrifying amounts of money despite the large starship loan hanging over our heads.  And by god, we made every payment on time, despite being wanted men for grand capital ship theft, possession of alien artifacts, and precipitation of international incidents, with enough money left over to run for congress and retire to a private island on that planet whose biosphere we wrecked (long story, but I got the real estate for a song...) with many good (well, better) deeds to our names; we rescued the citizens from their tyrannical mad AI-driven government, saved the human species from an ancient evil, established peaceful relations with the crystal men, performed original Nobel-winning research on ancient alien cultures, and brought civilization (and toothpaste) to the savages.  We were doing the "filthy rich and turning our prodigious resources to the greater good" thing, basically.

So, looking at these two games, I believe that lack of motivation to money stemmed in the first case from a lack of starship loan and in the second from an overabundance of starting capital.   A couple megacredits (like we had) is way more money than most groups of travellers could be expected to start with; 200-300kCr is a more reasonable, if still optimistic estimate.  That's enough to cover the starship loan for a month or two while you look for work, maybe run a little speculative cargo, but nothing like the kind of dealing in radioactives I was doing right out of the gate last time.  So you stay above water for a little while, but eventually your starting funds begin to dry up; you lose on a speculative cargo deal, pirates steal your goods, the plasma compressor breaks and you have to replace it, and you find yourself low on cash.  Contract trade won't cover the mortgage (not with the size of your hold), so you start hunting for patrons, and eventually you end up close on the end of the month and desperate enough that you take a job from a seedy character and don't look too close at the fine print, because no way is it worse than being impounded and having jump tracers on your tail at every port of call.  Of course, it turns out that it is, and then you end up on somebody's bad side; could be Johnny Law if you're moving illegal goods, could be organized crime, or could be that something spooky's afoot and you're in the middle of it.  Meanwhile you're still trying to cover the bills despite these entanglements, and you get even more desperate; you're living from job to job, skipping monthly maintenance and hoping you don't combust on reentry, sleeping with one eye open in case Customs Enforcement comes knocking, trusting nobody, thinking about turning to piracy, and absolutely praying for the dice to roll your way and give you that one big score that'll let you settle your debts and retire someplace rustic under a new name.  And then the fun really starts.

If you're smart and lucky, you end up in the company of Malcolm Reynolds, Jim Raynor, and Han Solo; you hold things together long enough to pick the right side of the political upheaval, help 'em win, get the girl, pull off the big heist, and fly off into the trinary sunset.  If you're not...  well, MongTrav is based off of Classic Traveller, which is the Old School, friend.  This is a game where you can die in chargen, and if you're stupid or unlucky in play, you could end up with your ship grounded and your sorry smuggler butt in jail for 20 to life.  Beats being frozen in carbonite, anyways.

So yeah.  You might lose.  It might even be inevitable; I haven't really run the numbers on a 'normal' party.  It probably depends on how merciful your GM is with patrons and how the law levels are in your sector, really.  But this is a game from the late 70s, created by the same folks who made a 2300AD RPG, and popular in Britain... so I can't help but wonder if there might be something of the punks here.  Is their rallying cry, "No future!", the secret and intensely ironic intended epitaph of the heroes of Traveller?  I am not qualified to say; if any of you, my dear readers, happen to know, I'd very much love to hear.  I do think it safe to conclude, though, that the next time I run Traveller, it will be in this Old School fashion, where resource management and risk management are paramount, things get cut close to the wire, and sometimes, you lose spectacularly.  There's always a good story to get out of it, though.

Maybe next semester...  I still have a bunch of ACKS PCs to kill first.

Follow-up post

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Almost Done Travelling...

Got back late last night from another interview.  This one was kind of a mess - my ground transport on the far end didn't pan out, there was no food around at the hour I finally got to the hotel so I ended up hiking about a mile in the along the side of the road in the middle of the night to get chow, had to go through security three times coming back (once OK, went back out to get food, went back through, forgot I had refilled my water bottle and they thought one of my USB drives was a knife, through again; they were friendly about it though and there was nobody else getting screened, so there was good humor on all sides), my flight back was delayed enough to make catching my connection a close thing, and when I finally did get home I ran into the Late Night Food Problem again... but the interview itself went OK, I made it home in one piece, and didn't have to sleep in the airport like I thought I would, so I'm calling it a win.  Hopefully this will be the last one...  I have to travel again in mid-November, and then in early December, but at least I have most of a month of uninterrupted Term Paper Time between now and the next wave.

As is typical for my post-travel posts, I have a few scattered ideas from the long periods of sitting on my butt not feeling like doing homework.

First off, some dude in front of me on one of my flights watched The Four on the airplane.  And that got me thinking, "Does ACKS need its own Book of Weeaboo Fightin' Magic?"  I'm not really a fan of ACKS' Mystic class from the Player's Companion (basically, the Monk, ACKSified), but it's hard for me to pin down why - I think what initially strikes me as WrongBad about it is that it just has too many class features and doesn't really fit into my setting.  On the player side of the issue, though, it has four (4) prime requisites and is unarmored melee with only a d6 HD and none of the survival special abilities of the Barbarian or Fury (DR, reroll mortal wounds).  They do get Swashbuckling, +initiative, Alertness, and polearms, so I guess maybe they're supposed to be hard-to-surprise second-line melee?  The trouble with light-armored and ranged classes in ACKS, though, as articulated by Tim, is that "Damnit Sheng, if you'd taken your 18 Dex and put it in a suit of plate, you'd be one of the best front-liners we've ever seen."  If you have the Str and Dex to run good light melee, you could instead be running awesome front line melee unless you have really crummy Con.  Now, I have a suspicion that with the shift in play we're starting to see, plate+shield fighters may be less optimal than they used to be, just due to speed constraints, and ranged will get better than it has been.  I refer, of course, to the shift from dungeoneering in tight hallways where the fighter-phalanx dominates to raiding wilderness lairs, where there are fewer chokepoints and more room to maneuver.  But, that's another post.

In any case, to return to the initial topic, I'm unsatisfied with the current status of ACKS' martial artists, so maybe I will roll my own.  Perhaps let them use Wisdom for AC instead of Dex; this would open up something to high-Wis characters other than Cleric, and would circumvent the plate+dex issue...  Also a split-class approach like the Barbarian and the Witch, because fantasy martial arts always have multiple schools.  Still won't be thematic for my setting, though, so it's low, low priority.

On the airplane, I also got to thinking about Snow Crash, cyberpunk, and how as a programmer, cyberpunk systems tend to be very hard to read because their rules for computers are just painfully wrong.  They usually fail to take into account the usefulness of good tooling / automation, the computational intensity of tasks, and just how long things tend to take in general.  So it might be a fun project to roll my own, maybe for Traveller, whose hacking rules in Scoundrel were some of the more reasonable ones I've seen...

I guess that brings the list of posts and things I need to write up to:
  • A whole pile of session reports
    • Including a post on emergent jokes, like Hao Dee, Urvin, and such
    • And one on the shift from dungeoneering to wilderness adventures
  • How Does Anyone Survive in ACKSLand, Anyways?
  • A New-School DM's Guide to Running an Old School Game
    • Resource Management
    • Risk Management
    • Actions Have Consequences
    • Player Cleverness / Fluff is Crunch
    • Exploratory Play 
    • Referee Impartiality
    • And two secondary stylistic points that I think reinforce the main elements, but which are not themselves core to the old school
      • Gygaxian Naturalism / Simulationism
      • Grim settings
  • More ACKS background / setting information
  • The Problem With Viking Campaigns
  • How Traveller is Supposed to Work (And Why It Hasn't For Us Previously)
  • Dark Travesty - A conversion of Dark Heresy to the MongTrav engine
  • Murlynd's Spoon and the Ring of Three Wishes - In Defense of Random Treasure 
  • The Way of ACKS-Fu
  • Cyberpunk++;
  • And probably some that I'm forgetting
The trouble, of course, is that with my humanities-heavy courseload this semester, I'm already spending all my time reading and writing :(  I think this may be one of the causes of decreased activity here, and I apologize.

Monday, October 15, 2012

VBAM Scenarios - The Succession Wars

I was thinking about VBAM scenarios in the shower, and came across a promising variant of the MoO Scenario that I mentioned previously.

Consider a future-feudal empire, whose emperor holds power over the Noble Houses through his extensive spy network, the strength of his Praetorian Guard, and his sole possession of weapons of mass destruction.  The Houses pay him tribute in taxes and troop levies for the suppression of rebellions, though they are constrained by imperial law to build only certain technically-inferior ships for the purposes of policing their territories.  Though they politick and plot against each other, the ambitions of the Houses are largely checked by imperial power, and peace is had in human space.  A dynasty of five hundred years rolls on in this fashion, with technology largely stagnant, until suddenly and unexpectedly the emperor and his heirs are assassinated and their genetic backups destroyed in an act of exceptionally coordinated sabotage.  Elements of the Praetorian Guard are implicated, and they fragment as an organization, though the Houses pay dearly to acquire their soldiers and advanced equipment for their own militaries.  With the check of imperial power gone, minor feuds over traditionally-contested territories erupt into open warfare among the Houses, often justified with accusations of involvement in the death of the emperor, and long-forgotten weapons development programs and military academies reopen their doors across human space.  Each House also seeks to legitimize its own claim to the throne, by means fair or foul; through backing from the Praetorian remnants, through popular support from the citizenry, or through simple ability to take and hold the Throneworld against all comers.

In short - Game of Thrones meets Legend of the Five Rings meets elements of the BattleTech and Traveller universes.  In spaaaace.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Dreams of Orion

It's not very often that I dream of video games (well, at least not now that I run linux...  and have kicked my Dwarf Fortress habit...).  But every now and then, I'll still wake up with a fading memory of Master of Orion.  Armadas in the blackness over Tau Eridani, the crackle of the lightning field generators, the shockwaves of hulls shattered by antimatter warheads...  But there was more to it than that, the Clausewitzian decisive battle upon which the fates of empires hinged.  The spying, assassinations of enemy leaders, sabotage of enemy factories, the gathering of allies through careful diplomacy, sending wolf packs of missile frigates across the border on scouting and raiding missions while trying to tech up to the Next Big Weapon that would let you crack enemy shields or better drives for more strategic maneuverability, and the colonization of dozens of worlds for the purposes of building the great fleets mattered too.  Two hundred turns (and days of realtime) might be spent building up first, even reaching the enemy across the vast distances of space.  And then when the battle became imminent, you looked and went, "Have I done enough?  Is victory assured?  I cannot know the full power of the enemy until it is met, but if I should hold back now, gather more intel, do more research, and perform upgrades on my ships, will the enemy attack before I am as ready as I should hope?  No, now is the time, and I must strike.  May my little virtual alien citizens forgive me if I am wrong and they must pay the price and die by the billions."

I guess what I felt was, in some sense, the allure of the Old School - attachment to what you have earned by means of extensive labor and luck, the virtue of preparation, the cunning application of every form of leverage available to achieve victory, and ultimately exposing your beloved creation to a real risk of utter destruction.  And overall, I feel like the ACKS group has done a decent job of showing the joys of these elements in RPG play to a bunch of 3.5ers.  But...  there is one thing that is lacking in my ACKS game, and that is scope, scale, a sense of the epic, the shattering of continents and the building of civilizations.  Certainly, the domain rules help, but ultimately, should any one PC die or fail, they expose no more than a tiny corner of the world to peril, and the world as a whole goes on, uncaring and harsh as it ever was (for that is the nature of my world).

I think that sense of scale is what I miss about MoO.  And I'd like to bring that back into my tabletop games, along with the other virtues of the Old School I mentioned above (aside - I've been thinking about writing a series on Pillars of Old School Play as I perceive them.  Kind of an Old School Primer For The Recovering New School GM.  Not sure I'm qualified, but it's on the to-do list anyways).

To return to the point, I feel compelled to try to run Victory By Any Means.  This is not to say that ACKS must end (though I do perceive that the second generation of PCs, Carcophan, Garwyn, and Corinth, have largely achieved their immediate adventuring objectives), but that perhaps I should run it for the rest of the semester and then look at wrapping things up and running VBAM in the spring.

Naturally, there are logistical complications (as with any operation so complex as VBAM).  Previously I've had trouble getting people to seriously considering playing VBAM, heavy a system as it (it's kind of funny, that people will chew through a couple hundred pages for an RPG, but won't read 88 for VBAM's core.  I attribute this to the fact that most of an RPG book is options for players, while most of VBAM is solidly in the Rules department).  This is especially funny when you consider the fact that among games of VBAM's sort, tabletop galactic 4X games, it's considered "pretty lightweight actually."  In any case, I think I would have a better shot at making this work if I cut out a bunch of things to make the game easier to run and easier to play, honing in the focus on things which the players consider interesting (read: building spaceships and conquering things) and ignoring or streamlining other facets.  Things I could definitely see cutting out:
  • Diplomacy.  If you have only player empires, it seems fairly viable to let PCs do as they will to each other (which should be fairly hilarious).  That's a good four pages of rules right there.  This way, you can end up with little brush wars without proper declarations of war, backstabbery, and other fun 'realistic' political things.
  • Raiding.  This is a huge pain in the butt that involves rolling d%s for lots of systems.  I'd be OK with adding Raiders to the random event table, but having them be a constant threat to every empire will pull focus away from the player-vs-player struggles.  I'd much rather see PC-backed border and shipping raiders.
  • Towing.  It's kind of a weird edge case and adds paragraphs for dubious amounts of utility.  Dunno.
What does this leave us with?  Income, construction, research, spying, supply, and space and ground combat.  Of these supply is the clear target, and fairly so, but I also think that there is a very good reason for keeping it in the game - without supply restrictions, it becomes relatively easy to blitzkrieg through enemy-held systems, circumventing well-fortified populated worlds and just making a mad dash to bombard or WMD the enemy homeworld.  Without supply, being cut off and surrounded in enemy territory is not nearly so problematic as it is in real life, because by surrounding, the enemy spreads himself thin, and given equality of forces the surrounded group should be able to punch its way out.  Supply helps counter these issues, because the surrounded unit will begin taking supply penalties and have its combat effectiveness reduced before it can break out.  Supply is enough of a pain that it could perhaps stand to be simplified, but cutting it out altogether I think would be a bad plan.

There are a few optional rules whose additions I think would enhance play.  Quick Colony Fleets, maybe Ballistics Packages, the Black Market (ideally as a place for empires to buy and sell old equipment anonymously), possibly Stealth / Concealed Movement from the core rules all seem workable and potentially beneficial.  I also know my players to be terrible gearheads and RPG players, so the prototyping, directed research, planetary facilities, and elite officers rules from the Companion also seem promising (also considering the option of permitting defeated governments to become Underworld Empires as Governments in Exile, but the jury's out on that one).  I'm loathe to set them loose on the Menagerie, but perhaps with a low point limit and a restriction on abilities affecting diplomacy (since those would be annulled).  Other than those, I guess I'm of the opinion that "If someone says 'I want to do X', and there's a rule for X in the Companion, maybe I'll make that rule available," but I don't want to bog things down initially with two dozen optional rules.

Then there are practical organizational considerations.  There are a couple of possible formats I see here:
  • Full PvP, no CM empires, either free-for-all or initially allied in one of several configurations (two large alliances against each other, one alliance against several small unallied powers, or so forth).  This has the advantage of allowing an absolutely impartial moderator, but the disadvantage of secrecy like we saw in the Starmada campaign - sitting around with laptops typing furtively is not a terribly compelling face-to-face experience.  Paired alliances could help with this; then there is less secret communication, and you really just need two rooms for plotting out loud.
  • The MoO approach - in MoO3 at least, you had a bunch of PC empires and one highly advanced, isolationist CM empire (the New Orions).  Whichever player can first conquer the CM homeworld and hold it for some period of time wins.  There's no risk of being steamrolled by the CM empire during buildup, because they're isolationist, but god help you if your first strike doesn't do the job.  This setup provides a clear victory condition, but also sets the players against each other.  They may ally initially, but those alliances will crumble in the endgame.
  • The RPG approach - Small PC empires against a large, CM empire, effectively using the Barbarians at the Gate scenario from the book.  The major concern here is lack of CM neutrality, which works fine in RPGs but is...  a little trickier in wargames.  Also puts a lot of 'load' on the server for management purposes.  It would, however, do the most to promote PC cooperation and open tabletop play.
The MoO approach does seem promising...

Friday, October 12, 2012

News in Opportunity

We're picking ACKS back up after a...  three week? hiatus this Sunday, and things in the world have not been idle.  Some of the headlines coming to the attention of my players recently include:
  • A number of peculiar and vague scribblings have been found on the back of the Zaharan Fort map.  After being deciphered from elvish, they seem to suggest that there is (or was) an oracle of some sort at the fort.  Likewise, one part of the message appears to be garbled, beyond merely its language...
  • The ankhegs which have been terrorizing the populace of Opportunity have been expanding their territory, since their primary competitors, a nest of giant scorpions, were eliminated last month by the Company.  Fortunately, they do not appear to have increased in number, but the length of their spawning cycle is anyone's guess...
  • The Orphans, who are closely allied with Garwyn's Perfectly Legitimate Government, report curious black-clad figures snooping around the Guild district, but they're not recognized as guildies...  They seem to be fairly skilled, and the Orphans have been unable to determine just how many of them there are, though estimates tend to fall in the five to seven range.
  • A bedraggled wizard arrives from the South and seeks an audience with Garwyn's court.  His demeanor suggests that he bears ill tidings.
  • Garwyn's spy in Deal reports that Crowfeed fled from justice, but the direction of his flight is uncertain.  Freeport seems the most likely destination, but Crowfeed is a wily opponent, as the PCs have learned the hard way once before...
  • Carcophan's tower of black basalt is erected deep in the swamps of the crocodile-men he now rules.  He takes his first apprentice, Garwyn's henchman Scrud, junior alchemist and survivor of opening the flask containing the Potion of Cloudkill.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Midnight ACKS

I stumbled upon a reddit thread about preferred campaign settings a while back, and it got me thinking about published settings that I have played or thought about running.  Upon some reflection, I think the only published setting I've run was Midnight, while I also played in Eberron and have dreamed of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.  Ultimately, Eberron is not to my taste stylistically, and I think the problem with the Wilderlands is that they're just too big.  I guess as a DM, I'm just not comfortable running a setting that I can't fit inside my head.  So I'm not sure I'll ever be able to do more than steal names and hex descriptions from it and do it homage.

Midnight, though.  Mmmm.  A grim and doomed world, defiant of tropes, where the Good Guys will almost certainly lose.  It's the sort of world where powerful magic is uncommon, and resource management (even of mundane resources like rations) is critical to survival.  Even town is dangerous, since villagers might turn you in for a reward, or regard you with fear, and public opinion is another resource to be carefully considered.  Thus Midnight seems, in some sense, the Old School-iest of published 3.x settings, at least in lethality and resource management.  I never really felt like 3.x or other modern d20 systems did Midnight justice.  This may have been because we included too many splatbooks; I may or may not have been guilty the first time, where I was playing and built Thagg the Giant-Blooded Feral Orc-Dwarf Berserker who, uh...  was perhaps ever so slightly overpowered.  Suffice to say that Thagg never really feared for his life, nor understood the concept of fear (especially when embiggened to Huge size via enlarge person).  That particular campaign kind of played out like a standard 3.5 campaign, except all of the encounters were wilderness encounters because we stayed away from town, and there was no treasure.

The second encounter I had with Midnight was using True20, which I briefly mentioned here.  Again, supplements really mucked with things, and I had a hard time generating the kind of fear and resource management that Midnight runs on.  Too many Conviction points and well-chosen synergistic abilities.

It's a pity I don't know of any systems where PCs actually fear for their lives and can be bothered to track mundane resources like torches and rations...

Oh wait, yes I do.  I kind of worry, though, that running ACKS Midnight would be, well...  too lethal.  There would be a few other systemic issues too, I think.  If town is dangerous, it suddenly becomes much harder to recruit henchmen, which means replacing casualties is more difficult.  Additionally, since there really isn't treasure per se in Midnight, levelling slows to a crawl because no XP from treasure.  I guess you could award XP/GP for captured enemy armament - "OK, you killed a 12-orc patrol and they were each wearing 50 GP of armor and carrying an 8-GP sword, so that comes out to 696 XP.  Also they had mules carrying food!"  The high-level domain game would also be kind of screwed-over by running the game in Midnight; no matter what you build, or where you build it, the orcs are coming to topple your towers and kill your peasants.  It would be a very defensive domain game.

Probably the best way of running ACKS in Midnight would be a 'Robin Hood'-style game.  The PCs are a band of rebels and merry woodsmen, free-riders, or pirates.  The wilderness of ACKS is somewhat more dangerous than that of Midnight, where you mostly need to worry about patrols and undead rather than great flocks of gryphons, which means that low-level wilderness play is much more viable here than it normally is in ACKS.  The wilderness evasion rules would get used pretty often here, I think, and man ACKS' naval rules would work great for a Corborn pirate instantiation of this...  In any case, the game would center around raiding enemy encampments, evading reprisals, and attempting to win the favor of the local populace to gain safe havens and recruiting sources in towns.  A very different game...  I think Thieves might actually be useful.  Hero Paths would be tricky; maybe just build extra sets of proficiencies, associate them with paths, and give them out at a uniform rate.  Magic changes could be handled fairly easily by merging the cleric list into the mage list, dropping healing, rejiggering the tables a bit, and maybe using Alex's proposed spell point rules.  The power nexus rules could be easily converted so that they provide a source of something much like Divine Power for item creation and research.  Charms are straightforward, and really much like the antivenom rules we've been using already, and covenant items would be pretty easy too.  Building new race/class combos would be annoying, but that's not insurmountable.

So I guess I'm adding Midnight to the queue of ACKS settings to run...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Much Wandering, Little Gaming

Still on the interview trail.  Have only spent about 8 of the last 14 days at home (I think?) and flying out again on Friday.  Have a couple gaming-relevant notes from yesterday's travels, though.

First - while bored and delayed in the Baltimore airport, I called my dad.  This was unusual in itself; his response on picking up was "Hello John.  You're calling (rather than emailing) so it must be important."  I was amused.  But in any case, we eventually got to discussing gaming.  He and my brother made it to DragonCon this year, and I hadn't heard his stories yet.  Apparently many seminars were attended, and he also got to play in a Savage Worlds game that was supposed to have a really interesting setting - archipelago in an infinite ocean, where historical humans from Earth's Age of Sail sometimes appear mysteriously, transported by their ships, and mingle with the native races.  As a result, character options included pirates of the Spanish Main, Chinese and Arab merchants, famous explorers, and similar, in addition to the aquatic native species.  Sadly the GM for that setting got sick and the backup didn't have his notes, so they ended up running an Urban Arcana-flavor game, but the system was still good.  I am intrigued with the notion of a setting where historical characters appear; kind of reminds me of Riverworld.  We've already had a little bit of historical planeshoppery in my ACKS game, since The Albanian was, well, a very confused medieval Albanian, but it would be fun to make it a policy rather than just a bit of weirdness.

In related 'blending the real world into my games' news, after the aforementioned delay terminated and we were in the air, I started ruminating the notion of running a game on a medieval post-apocalyptic fantasy version of North America.  Keep the place names, keep the geography, and D&D-ify everything else.  This may have been inspired by Shamus Young's comment on this strip, as well as pondering Chicago's nickname of "The Windy City."  Maybe wind wizards live there.  Pittsburgh, an Iron City of many dwarves, is clearly home to the order of knights known as the Steelers.  Charleston, the Holy City, is the center of some religion or another (or several).  New York, the Empire State, is not unlike the City State of the Invincible Overlord.  Vegas...  pretty much stays Vegas, except that the magic shows are a little more real.  And of course Seattle is home to the coastal wizards...  You get the idea.

It would be very, very silly, but it would let players use their out-of-game knowledge of geography (or lack thereof), and provides plenty of good hooks for character generation and background.  I am told that originally Greyhawk's Oerth was centered on Chicago and Gygax and Co. changed all the names, so perhaps this is not such a loony idea after all...