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.

Friday, November 9, 2012

One Last Starmada Post

Well, I happened by the Starmada forums recently just to see how things were doing with Nova.  It looks like the community has diminished somewhat, which I'm sad to see.  What's more, several of the threads I skimmed seemed to suggest that Nova has been having the same issues with weapon traits that Admiralty Edition did, namely people stacking all kinds of stuff on one gun and then destroying everything with it.  Further, much as we suspected when Nova first came out, fighters have been weakened to the point where they're no longer an effective counter.  And naturally, Expendable, Nova's one-shot replacement for Ammo, has been found to be broken as well.

I'm starting to see a pattern here.  When you let people build their own weapons, things start getting really ugly really fast.  It's like True Sorcery in D&D; you build all of your own offensive capabilitites, and if you know what you're doing, you can do ridiculous things.  Except that in D&D, there's not a direct contest between players, so you can kind of get away with it, and you have a DM to kill you if you get out of line.  In Starmada, where players are directly competing, arms races develop, global optimums are found, the design game is won, and the actual game is over.

But, the converse is that designing stuff is fun.  So, says I, what wargame do I have sitting around that has buildy options but doesn't permit users to design their own weapons?

BattleTech.  The 4th Edition Starter Box, to be specific, though missing mapsheets and minis :\

This mech has a cigar.  This cigar is a laser cannon.  Your objections are invalid.

Granted, if I were to run some BattleTech around here, I think I would try to avoid the mistakes I made the last time I tried it, as well as some of the mistakes we made when we first tried to play Starmada and Stargrunt.  First off, start people off with 2-3 light to medium mechs, rather than a single assault mech each (one thing Starmada and Stargrunt made apparent is that giving new players a single unit means that when that unit starts getting pounded, they get frustrated, then bored).  And second, use a wet-erasable hex-map so there can be terrain (because, as is often said, terrain is an essential part of wargaming...  though Matt has this mat, and is out of town ): .  Pre-copying a great pile of mech sheets for the classes available beforehand is probably advisable as well, as is making copies of the reference tables (the Stargrunt reference card was fantastic enough that this seems a good plan).  Then after a few games with 3025 stock mechs, open up the 3025 design rules with the same tonnage limits (for those unfamiliar, 3025 refers to a tech year in the BT universe, and is the lowest / simplest.  There's also 3035, 3050, 3075, and probably more with which I'm not familiar, which add variant weapons and equipment like extended-range lasers, artillery cannons, and giant mech shotguns).  And if that takes off, well then maybe we start picking up later tech years.

Am I actually going to get a chance to do this while running ACKS?  Not sure.  If a significant portion of players can't make it to ACKS one week and I have advanced notice, maybe.  Now that we're in to the domain game, having people just disappear on a drinking binge for a couple months of game-time is no longer really workable...

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Winter in the Shieldlands

Upon further consideration of the setting, I'm kind of thinking that it may be a bit more like northwestern Utah or southern Idaho than central Nevada.  I was also considering why the party took a full three months off during last game-year for winter.  So, upon some reflection, I've reached a conclusive notion of why travelling, adventuring, or conducting military operations in the northern part of the Shieldlands in the winter is a miserable idea.

First off, orography.  I'm bad at it, but the basic structure of the orography of the region that I'm considering is as follows.  Warm water from the southern end of the Inner Sea flows north up the eastern coastline of that sea, nourishing the Urdukhar and Sorosi before reaching the coastal mountains of Talas.  North of Soros and off the coast of Myrmidia, the waters cool.  Some flow into the Bay of Seals where they are greatly chilled, while the remainder of these cold waters flow back south along the coast of the Shieldlands.  As a result, the wind coming off the sea into the Shieldlands is cold and dry, carrying little water inland and explaining the relative scarcity of water in the region.

Since the humidity is low, there is rarely cloud cover, and during the summer these cooling breezes are a blessing to coastal areas.  During the winter, though, they howl across the land, whipping up frigid sandstorms which chill to the bone.  Worse still is when the temperature drops below freezing; mixed storms of sand and ice particles ensue, which are intensely unpleasant.  Snow is as rare in the Shieldlands as rain, but waking up to find that the dew has frozen to ice is not unusual in the winter.  Sometimes multiple layers of dew-ice form over the course of many days, creating a slippery crust over the sand and rocks which makes walking difficult at best and truly perilous in the highlands.  Further, keeping warm is exceptionally hard, since there is a dearth of long-burning natural fuels like wood; dead, dry scrub burns too quickly for a good fire, so dried animal manure (and where available in the lowland marshes, peat moss) are the fire sources of choice for Shieldlanders.  These are resources carefully gathered before winter sets in, because while it may smell bad, it beats freezing to death.

The final particular difficulty in winter in the Shieldlands is water.  Always hard to come by and fiercely protected, drinking water sources like oases and creeks often freeze during the winter.  This further exacerbates the problem of lack of fuel, since fire is necessary even to obtain drinkable water in many areas.  As a result, towns and other settlements are typically established where there is a non-freezing aquifer which can be tapped by wells, because otherwise it is difficult to sustain large populations through winter.  The more common solution in rural areas is to ferment excess foodcrops into moonshine, crude beer, and other rustic alcohols.  The addition of alcohol lowers the freezing point and permits the safe, long-term storage of water.  Alcohol can also serve as a food-substitute, though food is relatively easy to store safely compared to water.  The necessity to store feed for livestock is likewise inconvenient for herders, but does not require unusual amounts of care.  Food and animal feed are, however, particular problems for travellers during the winter, since most of the Shieldlands' already scrubby plant matter dies off during the winter.

So, winter in the Shieldlands - no food, no feed, scarce liquid water, no fuel for fire, a crust of ice on most surfaces, and cold, blowing wind carrying sand and ice with it.  It's bad enough that even the orcs retire to huddle in their caves, tell tales, drink, wrestle, and breed all winter.  In the early winter, they sometimes make last raids against farmers who have been storing up food, and in the late winter those clans which have run out again begin raiding to fill their bellies, but not even the orcs are foolhardy enough to raid in mid-winter.

This is becoming somewhat interesting to my PCs, because while it is currently mid-summer, they are gearing up for a military campaign against the witches who have of late taken residence in the Bleak Academy.  The Academy is in the upcountry, a region of mesas and box canyons which will be tricky to bring an army through even in good conditions, and I expect that it may take them a month or more to gather an army sufficient for the operation which they wish to undertake.  Then they have only fall to wage the campaign before winter sets in, and whether or not they will be able to achieve a decisive victory in those few months is uncertain.  Should they fail to dislodge the witches and crush their armies, then the question of fighting during the winter becomes a very relevant one.  While it is unlikely for either side to be able to continue conventional warfare through the winter, both sides do possess a few high-mobility units.  On the PC side, the wizard Carcophan used a scroll of permanence to grant himself permanent flight, and he can cover in a day a distance which would take an army five or six to march.  Thus, he is unencumbered by the same logistic constraints, and with his newly-acquired ability to lob fireballs, may be able to conduct aerial bombardment of beastman positions into the winter.  Likewise, the party is in possession of one broom of flying, stolen from the witches themselves.  While it is owned by Clovis the Clever, a thief henchman of Sir Jarol the Thothite, it can carry two riders and so could be used to deliver more fire from the sky throughout the winter.  The witches, however, have already exhibited their own arcane mobility, both in creating the broom of flying in the first place and in somehow locating, suborning, and arming the elephantmen of the marshes against Carcophan's crocodilefolk.

Thus, should the war continue into the winter, it will become something of a wizard-war, with the casters of both sides arrayed against more conventional defending units.  Employment in this capacity, however, denies the party's mages the usual benefit of winter, which is time to sit back, copy spells, perform research, craft items with the monster part backlog of the preceding nine months, and so forth without those thrice-damned fighters knocking on their doors for help blowing up some monster or retrieving a few shiny coins.  This, as well as the difficulty of holding conquered territory in harsh weather, are factors that the PCs may do well to take into account in their strategy.

Monday, November 5, 2012

On Difficulty

Raven Crowking had a wonderful post on Friday about difficulty.  For the lazy, I will restate the essential paragraph of his post (emphasis his):
Contrary to what years of WotC-D&D have told you, a “difficult fight” is not simply one where the characters’ resources are stretched or used up, it is one where the players cannot rely on their usual tactics and still win, regardless of how their characters end the scenario.  In other words, even if the characters are beaten, bruised, and bloody at the end of the scenario, if they win without the players having to stretch their imaginations to figure out some new tactic beyond what they conventionally use, the scenario is not really difficult.
Because the game is about the players’ experience; the characters act as a conduit to that experience.
 This seems, to my mind, a remarkably concise and remarkably useful definition of difficulty.  It takes the point of Bad Trap Syndrome (another classic post influential on my thought) and generalizes its conclusion.  A fight without this sort of difficulty is, much like Robbins' bad traps, just a resource tax; a mechanical transaction of HP and spells for XP and treasure with an exchange rate depending on luck, with little impact on the players themselves.

We had just such a series of difficult fights two sessions ago, with the ankhegs of Opportunity.  Initially the party considered engaging them directly, but decided that this would be suicidal and so spent a bit of time thinking.  Matt was eventually reminded that his character was capable of building traps "strong enough to catch a wyvern or an elephant", and so deadfall log traps were  designed.  The ankhegs did not sit idle while such traps were being built in front of their lairs, however, and Bhoskar the Dwarf was devoured while the first was being constructed.  Further thought was given to the matter, and it was concluded that perhaps flaming oil should be used to drive the creatures away from the trapping project.  This was tried with more success; Jarol the Cleric was nearly dragged away, but escaped the mandibles of doom and managed to light the oil, at which point the creature fled.  After further deliberation, the players finally had an Old School Epiphany - when in doubt, bring pack animals to reduce the likelihood that you will be the one getting eaten.  So they went and bought a herd of cows, which they used as bait while setting the traps.  No further casualties were had, and with this method the ankhegs were finally exterminated and the peasants liberated from their hungry jaws.

And I've finally got a player willing to do write-ups for bonus XP!  His (highly propagandized) accounts will be going up on the Obsidian Portal.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Folklore, Rumors, and Legends of the Shieldlands

These are (mostly) actually from play.  Some are false, some true, and some of questionable veracity.
  • It's widely believed that elves choose their gender upon reaching adulthood, and that some never choose at all.  When asked directly, elves generally change the subject.
  • The nomadic Yezidi horsemen are ancestor-worshippers, and believe that the deities of other groups are actually powerful evil spirits.  They believe that resurrection is a trick to bring demons into the mortal world in human guise, as no Yezidi soul would return from the paradise beyond, where there are more goats than a man can eat, endless seas of fresh water, and the worship of one's living relatives.
  • Rust monsters are unusually friendly beasts who bear no ill-will towards mankind, greeting people carrying food (metal) with a happy burbling noise and a companionable headbutt, much like one would expect from a cat looking to be fed.  Sadly, most humans don't perceive it quite the same way.  This problem is only exacerbated by the belief that the flesh of the rust monster is delicious; gourmands purport that it has the best qualities of both lobster and steak.
  • The rat-men worship a death god named Hao-Dee.  For a non-goblin to utter his name is a blasphemy most terrible, and warrants a holy war seeking their destruction.  Some linguistic scholars believe that the utterance of "Howdy!" in greeting among Shieldlanders originated as a means of signaling mutual enmity towards goblinkind.  Most Shieldlanders are quite unaware of both this hypothesis and the fact that saying "Howdy" to goblins will greatly provoke them.
  • A dwarf's beard is the source of his stonecunning, and if he shaves, he loses this ability until his beard grows back.  Thus, shaven beards are seen only among the nobility, for whom it is a symbol of not needing to know their depth beneath the earth.  That other races' women do not have beards leads to all kinds of confusion as a result, when uninformed dwarves mistake them for nobility.  Female dwarves do have beards, which in addition to imparting stonecunning are often woven into slings for hands-free carrying of their children.
  • Ghouls are either very stupid or rather cunning, depending on who you ask.  They can also climb, and sometimes lurk on ceilings.
  • It is widely believed that hollow, circular tubes which are open on both ends serve as conduits for dark forces.  This conveniently explains the complete lack of sewer systems in the Shieldlands.  The fact that most Shieldlander plumbers are slightly mad and promote an air of the occult doesn't help matters.
  • The elves call their progenitor sun goddess Amaterasu.  The Zaharans call it Ammon-Ra in its destructive male aspect.  The humans bastardized the Zaharan name to Ammonar.  The typical reaction of elves to this mispronunciation is one of gentle disappointment with the folly of the short-lived races, occasionally accompanied by mockery and derision.  If one persists in this after being repeatedly corrected, however, they will eventually become deadly serious, and may challenge the offender to a duel.
  • It is said that residing on holy ground delays or reverses the terrible aging caused by the touch of the restless dead.
  • The orcs of the Shieldlands have an aversion to the color red; ever since the utter destruction of the orcish Red Horde at the hands of Ancaglon the Black, to use the color in a tribal name is to invite defeat.  The same is true of painting a shield red, and the one way in which the orcs respect hygiene is that they are very careful to scour blood from their weapons and armor after battle.  They also prefer targets who wear red, believing them to be easily vanquished.
  • Every spring, the town of Opportunity celebrates All Thieves' Day.  Any thefts successfully committed on this day within city limits and without the victim's knowledge are not prosecutable.  If the victim discovers the theft before sunset, though, then he has until the end of the next week to recover his possessions before they become the rightful property of the thief.  Tradition holds that the celebration began one spring after a particularly harsh winter with the stealing of food stores.  Merchants, and most other wise folk, tend to avoid the town on this day, but a bustling market develops outside the gates.
  • Gnolls can't help but laugh.  Sadly, this means that they find laughter unpleasant (much like we do sneezing) and are somewhat touchy on the subject.  As they already have short fuses by nature, there is no surer way to end up fighting a gnoll than to tell a joke, and gnolls bear a remarkable hatred for bards and halflings.
  • The Judge of Deal has suffered injuries that would kill most mortal men, and none know his age; many believe that he is immortal so long as the town of Deal stands.  Sages scoff at this notion, and make a hobby of proposing alternate explanations.
  • Witch-hunts are traditional in the Shieldlands, occurring in the weeks preceding the two equinoxes and the two solstices.  During these periods, witches hunt for fresh components for the rituals they perform on those days of unusual power.  Many children partake in scavenger hunts during these weeks out of imitation, and some witches arrange such hunts as a means of finding promising children for either apprenticeship or sacrifice, depending on the disposition of the witch in question.  Adults, on the other hand, are unusually polite towards witches during these times, as the witches are often in a hurry and apt to turn obstacles into newts.
  • The elephantmen never forget.
  • A dwarven creation myth holds that in the beginning, Armok created the dwarves, but grew bored when they failed to war amongst themselves and instead spent their time mining and creating works of art.  Thus, Armok created dragons to go forth and devour the dwarves, and strengthen them in the crucible of dragonfire.  As a result, dragonhunting is regarded as a sacred act of worship among the dwarves.  To rear a dragon, however, is sacrilege, while to ride a vanquished dragon is an expression of utmost divine favor and right to rule.  Shieldlanders who know of this myth generally have a different take, blaming the dwarves for the dragons who eat their livestock.  When a dragon appears to menace a township, it is not the virgins but the dwarves who are first offered up to it by the fearful human populace.  Dragons, for their part, do seem to prefer humanoids with beards who smell of alcohol, but are not picky as to the actual species.  It is also believed that this origin is the reason that dragons love gold.
Anything I'm forgetting, gents?